Ever since it became clear that a Donald Trump presidential campaign was going to be a real thing that was actually happening, the leaders of the Republican Party have tried to embrace the celebrity billionaire while, simultaneously, keeping him at arm’s length. And because Trump has been eager to maintain his credibility as an outsider, he’s played along. For the GOP and Trump, in other words, being “frenemies” has come with unique advantages — advantages that both would be reasonably loath to give up.
Yet by unveiling his tax reform ideas on Monday, Trump may have brought the “frenemy” phase of his relationship with the GOP to an end. True, arguing that Trump’s ideology and the Republican Party’s orthodoxy were different enough to be distinct was always a stretch. But back when Trump seemed to the GOP’s right on immigration and its left on taxation, it was at least superficially defensible. Now that he’s aligned himself with a tax plan that is not only plutocratic but generically Republican, it simply can’t be done.
If you haven’t been following the campaign yet and don’t understand why you’re supposed to be surprised by Donald Trump’s wanting to lower the 1 percent’s taxes, then good for you. Why? Because that means you’ve been using your time more wisely than I have by doing anything — really, anything — other than listening to “the Donald.” For the rest of us, though, the rehash of Romney 2012 supply-side voodoo is somewhat unexpected. Largely because, “suckers” that we are, we actually listened to Trump.
“I’m going to lower taxes,” he said this summer, “but these hedge fund guys are making a lot of money. I mean, I tell you, I have friends that laugh about how little they pay.” Comments from Trump like this one and others like it led many to expect his tax plan would raise taxes on hedge fund managers and other financiers. In reality, he wants to cut them instead. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews put it, Trump’s proposal is “an orthodox supply-side conservative tax plan in a middle-class tax cut's clothing.”
Anyone remotely familiar with Trump won’t be shocked to hear he’s engaged in a bait-and-switch. But even though Trump’s plutocratic tax plan doesn’t necessarily tell us much about him, it does tell us something important about the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Namely, it tells us that the two are not fellow travelers; they’re one and the same. Without making a clear break from the GOP’s plutocracy, Trumpism is shown to be nothing more than Republicanism with the volume turned up.
Quite likely, Trump has adopted a tax plan that barely differs from Sen. Marco Rubio’s or Jeb Bush’s on purpose. The second big debate was tougher on him than the first; and while he’s still leading the important polls, the media has clearly anointed Carly Fiorina's campaign as the new rider of “the momentum.” Perhaps he understands that he’s already won the intra-GOP debate on illegal immigration, and he sees no need to weigh his primary campaign down with defending yet another ideological heresy.
Regardless of the exact reason, by not tying his pro-deportation nativism to a more egalitarian economic platform, Trump is implicitly (and unintentionally) weakening his claim to being different. Instead of his nativism being a consequence of a truly pro-worker vision — which would take on “illegal” and “fat cats,” both — it becomes a mere affectation. Seen in the new light, Trump begins to look more like another Tom Tancredo and less like the next George Wallace, Father Coughlin or Huey Long.
And as bad as that could be for Trump, the news for the Republican Party is arguably worse. Yes, the party’s efforts to maintain some distance have often benefited Trump. But that was never the intention. On the contrary, the establishment has been wary of “the Donald” because it knows that while it cannot afford to alienate Trump voters, it cannot be seen as their vehicle and champion, either. The fewer are the divergences between Trump and the GOP, the harder it gets for party leaders to split the difference.
None of which is to say, of course, that the half-in/half-out relationship between Trump and the Republican Party hasn’t served its purpose. In fact, one could make the argument that it’s been brilliant for both. Yet despite the huge TV ratings and media attention, the fact is that what Trump brings to the table for the GOP pales in comparison to what he takes off. And when this is all over, he can go back to reality TV or his casinos. The GOP, meanwhile, will have to win a campaign as the party of Trump.