The fact that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president is strange for approximately 5,000 reasons. Some of these have received exhaustive attention throughout the campaign cycle — his pseudo-fascist affinity for political violence and stigmatizing minority groups, his professional-wrestling-style insults of political opponents, his Lilliputian hands. But in a Thursday morning interview, Trump drew attention to one of his candidacy’s least-appreciated oddities.
Appearing on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Trump reiterated his commitment to a massive increase in infrastructure spending. “Maybe my greatest strength is the economy, jobs, and building,” Trump said. “We do have to rebuild our infrastructure.”
“This is not something that’s front-and-center [for] a lot of far-right conservatives in terms of … ” right-leaning CNBC host Joe Kernen observed, before trailing off. “You’re not going to tack to the right to try to garner more support from that part of the party?”
“I don’t tack right or left. I tack what’s right,” Trump replied.
Since Reagan’s inauguration (if not the mid-1930s), the Republican Party’s animating purpose has been to roll back the “slow-motion socialism” of the New Deal. Now the party has nominated a presidential candidate whose central economic proposal is an infrastructure plan that he explicitly likens to FDR’s programs.
“If we do what we have to do correctly, we can create the biggest economic boom in this country since the New Deal when our vast infrastructure was first put into place,” Trump writes in his campaign book, Crippled America. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Trump hasn’t put together a specific proposal, but he has described it as a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan,” which would be “one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken.” He also suggests that it would create 13 million jobs — a figure that originates in the Senate Budget Committee’s estimate of how many workers it would take to fully modernize the nation’s infrastructure. Bernie Sanders uses that 13 million number in his infrastructure plan, which is priced at $1 trillion over five years. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has pledged to create roughly 3.6 million new jobs by spending $275 billion on new infrastructure over a five-year period.
Perhaps even more significant than the scale of Trump’s proposal is the rationale he uses to defend it.
“A few years ago, Moody’s, the financial investment agency, calculated that every $1 of federal money invested in improving the infrastructure for highways and public schools would generate $1.44 back to the economy,” Trump writes in his offensively titled campaign book. “On the federal level, this is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay for itself.”
Trump’s reasoning here would be seconded by the vast majority of economists. But it’s a remarkable point for a Republican nominee to make — increasing government spending is sometimes the fiscally responsible thing to do. This is an argument that liberals make all the time, on issues of social welfare and direct government aid to the poor. And it’s a line of reasoning that conservatives are supposed to mock with the same giddy fervor that liberals enjoy when railing against supply-side voodoo.
But on matters of economics, Trump frequently reasons like a Democrat. His trade policies are vague and idiosyncratic, but the basic premise of Trump’s protectionism is that promoting domestic employment should take precedence over facilitating free enterprise. If a company wants to increase its efficiency by relocating offshore, Trump has pledged to effectively bar them from the American market, by tagging their goods with a 35 percent tax.
To be sure, Trump has also established himself as his party’s foremost supply-sider, releasing a tax plan that would cut federal revenue by more than $10 trillion. And he’s vowed to pay for it by “getting rid of so many different things,” including the Environmental Protection Agency. But his fiscal commitments are transparently irreconcilable: You can’t cut taxes, maintain all existing entitlement benefits, increase military spending, fund a trillion-dollar rebuilding program, a deportation force, and — if Mexico fails to come through — a border wall, all while balancing the budget. The question, then, is what aspects of his agenda he’ll prioritize, both in government and on the campaign trail.
There’s good reason to think his more liberal ambitions will take precedence. Trump infamously argued that America’s minimum wage is actually too high at a GOP debate in November. On Wednesday night, Trump reversed himself, telling CNN that he would look into a minimum-wage increase. “I’m very different from most Republicans,” Trump assured the network.
Most GOP candidates discuss their government-shrinking schemes with relish. But spending cuts rarely figure into Trump’s stump speech. His belt-tightening proposals are often voiced defensively — improvisations he spouts when asked about how he’ll fund the things that really animate him, like building bridges and deporting immigrants. There’s little reason to think his proposed austerity measures are any dearer to his heart than his short-lived commitment to punish women who seek abortions. Paul Ryan, for one, doesn’t seem to be buying it. On Thursday, the House Speaker announced that he can’t support Trump as his party’s standard-bearer until the Donald proves that he "bears our standard" – fiscal restraint is surely on Ryan’s list of concerns.
Alas, Ryan’s disapproval is not on Trump’s list of concerns.
By his own account, Trump’s greatest expertise lies in overseeing the construction of big projects. Whenever he’s asked how he intends to appeal to a broader range of voters, his answer is always job creation. Thus, as the general-election campaign unfolds, there’s a good chance Trump will lean into those aspects of his economic agenda that are most heretical to GOP orthodoxy.
It’s impossible to predict the implications this will have for our politics. We could end up watching a general-election debate where the Democratic nominee hectors her Republican rival over how he intends to pay for his jobs program, or else where the standard-bearer of the “small-government” party pressures Hillary Clinton into a more ambitious infrastructure plan.
America is about to experience a six-month campaign in which both major presidential candidates support large-scale government intervention to promote domestic employment. This shift in the terms of our debate could outlive this cycle, as ambitious young Republicans seek to emulate Trump’s blend of ethno-nationalism and economic populism. Or a Clinton landslide could clear the way for movement conservatives to reclaim the means of candidate production.
Trump has taken us into uncharted waters. When we make landfall this November, we could find ourselves in the same port we sailed out from — or else in a new world. We may end up prisoners in Trump’s fabulous internment camp. Or maybe we’ll all just be Keynesians again.