The Republican candidates for the White House gathered last night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to fight over which of them best embodies the storied Reagan legacy of multiple tax increases, amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and illegal secret deals with Iran. And after what felt like 17 hours of grueling, exhausting, sweat-drenched debating, a consensus emerged from the pundits/theater critics who determine such things: Carly Fiorina “won,” and heretofore untouchable frontrunner Donald Trump finally, maybe, perhaps started his decline.
There are a number of theories as to why last night represented the beginnings of the Trump Slump. Fiorina finally succeeded in bringing the bully low with an effective retort to his insults about her looks. The looooooooooong format seemed to drain him of the vitality he so often boasts of, and it’s more and more difficult to ignore the fact that he’s completely out of his depth when it comes to national security and foreign policy. Of course, people have been predicting Trump’s for months now (myself included), so select whatever size grain of salt you feel is necessary.
One thing I did notice that might end up stinging Trump is the fact that he’s a little bit too honest when it comes to certain key issue areas. The Republican Party and the conservative movement have dogmas and mythologies that they take great care to insulate from the corrosive effects of real life, particularly when it comes to economics and national security. At last night’s debate, Trump did his part to tear them down.
About halfway into the festivities, CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Ben Carson about his Bible-inspired flat tax plan, which would have every taxpayer in America kick in ten percent of their income, regardless of what they make. Carson explained that his plan is an improvement upon our current system of progressive taxation, because the very idea of asking a wealthy person to pay a higher tax rate is “socialism,” and “that doesn’t work so well.”
Trump was given his opportunity to respond, and he correctly pointed out that progressive taxation isn’t “socialism,” but rather a matter of basic fairness: a multi-millionaire can shed ten percent of their income with little difficulty, but that’s not the case for someone living on a subsistence wage:
TRUMP: Well, I think the thing about the flat tax, I know it very well. What I don't like is that if you make $200 million a year, you pay ten percent, you're paying very little relatively to somebody that's making $50,000 a year, and has to hire H&R Block to do the -- because it's so complicated.
One thing I'll say to Ben is that we've had a graduated tax system for many years, so it's not a socialistic thing. What I'd like to do, and I'll be putting in the plan in about two weeks, and I think people are going to like it, it's a major reduction in taxes. It's a major reduction for the middle class. The hedge fund guys won't like me as much as they like me right now. I know them all, but they'll pay more.
I know people that are making a tremendous amount of money and paying virtually no tax, and I think it's unfair.
That answer was a direct challenge to many of the other candidates in the race, who have proposed plans that either completely flatten the tax code or skew it more in favor of the wealthy. So much of Republican and conservative economic policy is premised on the idea that the tax code is unfair to high earners, who need more money so that they can create jobs for normal people, and Trump said that way of thinking is indefensible.
On national security, Trump went even bigger, having the temerity to suggest that George W. Bush’s eight years of bumbling mishaps and misguided invasions are the root cause of all instability in the Middle East. “Your brother -- and your brother's administration gave us Barack Obama, because it was such a disaster, those last three months, that Abraham Lincoln couldn't have been elected,” Trump shot at Jeb. “You know what?” Jeb said in response. “As it relates to my brother, there's one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.” Trump fired back: “I don't know. You feel safe right now? I don't feel so safe.” At that point, Scott Walker joined the conversation to defend Jeb and his brother. “It's not because of George W. Bush; it's because of Barack Obama,” he said to applause from the audience.
The idea that George W. Bush’s foreign policy was ultimately a success is a fiction Republicans and conservatives tell themselves in order to keep faith in the “Bush Doctrine” or the “Freedom Agenda” or whatever the hell they’re calling the “invade and/or bomb everyone everywhere” strain of foreign policy thought. For the foreign policies of Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham to make even the slightest bit of sense, you have to start from the premise that The Surge in Iraq fixed all the problems in the country after years of bloody sectarian violence and political intransigence. Then you have to convince yourself that the rise of the Islamic state and the attendant destabilization of the region are the fault of Obama for not forcing the Iraqis to agree to a residual force of few thousand U.S. troops. Trump challenged those fictions, causing the establishment candidates to huff in disagreement.
Statements like these might end up hurting him because there has to be a limit on how un-Republican the Republican primary electorate will allow a candidate to be. GOP voters and conservatives like being told that all the undocumented immigrants will be kicked out and that we’ll stick it to the Chinese. They also like being told that tax hikes are socialism and that all the problems in the Middle East are Barack Obama’s fault for surrendering to the terrorists. The worst thing that could happen to Trump is if those voters get tired of his immigration act and start paying more attention to the other things he says.