Two months ago, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, reassured nervous party elites that the candidate would start to behave more like a traditional Republican presidential candidate and less like a Visigoth chieftain. “He gets it,” Manafort told members of the Republican National Committee. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting.” As a public performer, Trump is the same raving, authoritarian bigot as before. Below the surface, however, an important evolution has taken place. Trump’s policy agenda, which once careened off wildly into populist directions, has slowly conformed to the traditional platform. The means by which Trump practices politics remain extraordinary, but their extraordinary character has obscured the increasingly ordinary ends to which they are applied.
Trump’s evolution has occurred largely out of the public eye, obscured by his high-profile antics. In the wake of securing his party’s nomination, he has made the rounds with important Republican stakeholders. On May 18, he gave an interview to Reuters where he pledged to repeal Dodd-Frank and also praised Janet Yellen. These stances placed Trump in the perfect sweet spot for Wall Street — he would free the financial industry from hated regulations, but he would not turn over monetary policy to cranks who might trigger a recession. That same day, he released a list of candidates he would appoint to a high-level judicial vacancy, every one of them a reliable devotee of conservative legal doctrine. Two days later, he met with the National Rifle Association, binding himself to its absolutist defense of weapons proliferation (eschewing his old moderate stance) and securing its endorsement.
Meanwhile, and not altogether coincidentally, Trump let on that his loud, repeated promises to fund his own campaign were no longer operative. He would instead rely on the party’s financial apparatus, even the parts of it he had once singled out by name as insidious string-pullers. “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet,” Trump tweeted in October. “I agree!” By early May, Adelson had endorsed Trump, and by the end of the month he was promising to spend millions of dollars to get him elected. In February, Trump had ridiculed Jeb Bush as a helpless pawn of his donor Woody Johnson, the pharmaceutical mogul. Less than ten weeks later, he had enlisted Johnson as one of his top fundraisers. Trump staffed his campaign up and down with lobbyists, many of them recruited by Manafort, who is also a lobbyist.
And last week, Trump met with party moneymen and their appointed pseudo-economist representatives. “Lobbyists and business leaders, including oil billionaire and Trump ally Harold Hamm, gathered June 9 at the presumptive Republican nominee’s New York headquarters to present their policy wish lists,” Lynnley Browning reports. On hand was the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore, stalwart advocate of supply-side economics and noted crank. The problem before the group was the size of Trump’s tax plan. Irresponsibly gargantuan, regressive tax cuts are standard-issue policy for the Republican Party. The concern is that Trump’s plan would hemorrhage so many trillions of dollars of revenue it could trigger a fiscal crisis and could not be passed by Congress.
Moore, along with fellow supply-side zealots Lawrence Kudlow and Arthur Laffer, has proposed revisions. Their idea is to save revenue by cutting out the parts of Trump’s tax cut that benefit middle-class earners, and focus the money on where they believe it’s most needed: on the top tax rates. These changes would be in keeping with the conviction among orthodox Republicans that the tax rate on the richest earners is the key determinate of economic growth. That the events of each of the last three presidencies have utterly confounded this theory has not diminished its appeal to the faithful, who regard the Laffer curve as a kind of theological revelation. It does not hurt that the theology has the side effect of making very influential people very rich.
One of the fervent disciples of supply-side economics is Paul Ryan, who was raised on its tenets and has never questioned its core principles. Ryan is an advocate of the conventional Republican donor-class agenda, which distrusts Trump’s political style and his nationalistic policy lurches. But when Ryan and Trump met, they found common ground on the major priorities Ryan cares about, especially cutting taxes for the rich.
It is true that Trump has promised to protect Medicare and Social Security from any cuts, while Ryan would like to privatize both programs, cut them, or both. This difference is widely seen as an unbridgeable chasm between the two men. The difference is far smaller than widely assumed. Ryan isn’t exactly running as an open enemy of retirement programs. He soft-pedals his tightwad instincts to both wildly popular programs. And Ryan has shown, during the Bush administration and at other times, that he is very happy to support debt-financed tax cuts without any spending reductions to go along with them. During the Bush administration, Ryan was advocating for larger deficit spending — on tax cuts and private Social Security accounts — than even the Bush administration could stomach. The ideal Ryan plan would both slash taxes for the rich and social spending for the poor. But in the absence of the latter, he will gladly take just the former, which has always been his first love.
This is why Ryan could declare Trump a suitable legislative partner. “[T]he House policy agenda has been the main focus of our dialogue,” he wrote. “I feel confident he would help us turn the ideas in this agenda into laws to help improve people’s lives.” And this is why, for all of Trump’s erratic and authoritarian impulses, and for all of the long-term brand damage he threatens, Republican insiders have made their peace with the prospect of handing him the nuclear codes. A President Trump may degrade or destroy the health of American democracy, but they feel confident he would give them the things they care about most.