President Obama repeatedly has said there’s no way Americans would elect Donald Trump as president. But Democrats don’t have to think back very far to dismaying GOP victories where they were left asking, ‘What happened?” There was George W. Bush in Ohio in 2004, in Florida in 2000 and Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Trump’s continuing path toward the 2016 GOP nomination has already confounded the pundits, political junkies and oft-quoted scholars. Before this last week where he won big in Florida, Illinois and North Carolina, The Nation’s William Greider wrote, “The Democratic Party could find itself obliterated by this election" and offered "a sequence of events I find plausible.” He started with Trump getting the nomination, Bernie Sanders retiring “gracefully so he will not be labeled a spoiler,” and then Trump doing something not seen in a long time: taking hard-right and hard-left positions.
“Then, in the fall campaign, Trump changes his style and launches a ferocious and substantive assault on [Hillary] Clinton, with devastating effect. He does this essentially by taking over Sanders economic agenda. He denounces HRC as a tool of wealthy plutocrats and speaks for working-class discontents, much as he has done in the primary season,” wrote Grieder. “Imagine a campaign that merges Bernie’s straight-talk values with traditional Republican values.”
Trump is already doing this. As he said after winning the Florida primary, his campaign started with two issues—trade and borders. The first, bad trade deals, is near and dear to progressives and labor activists—even if his statements aredated or incorrect; the second plays to the least tolerant right-wingers, xenophobes and white supremacists. But the larger point is there are many issues where Trump can posture and run to the left of Clinton or neutralize her—and Clinton, the likely nominee, is running a traditional campaign and can be blindsided.
To be sure, it’s not clear what Trump would do if elected, because so many of his “positions” are little more than sound bites. Still, here are six issues where he is mixing progressive or liberal Republican stances amid his authoritarian outbursts. That strange brew means that for the first time in decades Americans could be facing two candidates with progressive planks on many issues.
1. The Anti-Free Trader. On no other issue is Trump as closely paralleling Sanders as he is when slamming trade deals, and bragging that he, the great negotiator, would push American CEOs into keeping jobs here or bring them back. Last week, he singled out Carrier Air Conditioning, Ford and Eaton Corp. for moving manufacturing abroad. A week before, he boasted, “I’m going to get Apple to start making their computers and their iPhones on our land, not in China. How does it help us when they make it in China?” Suffice it to say that Trump is to the left of Clinton on trade deals, at least when it comes to sound bites.
2. Cutting America’s Military Budget. That sounds out of synch coming from Trump, who repeatedly has said that he wants to rebuild the military and never misses a chance to threaten ISIS. But according to reporters who have trailed him since last year, he has repeatedly called for cutting military spending by closing America’s overseas military bases. “Donald Trump could be the only presidential candidate talking sense about for the American military’s budget. That should scare everyone,” wrote Matthew Gault in a detailed piece for Reuters. “As Trump has pointed out many times, Washington can build and maintain an amazing military arsenal for a fraction of what it’s paying now. He’s also right about one of the causes of the bloated budget: expensive prestige weapons systems.”
It’s hard to imagine that Trump will be the “peace candidate” in the campaign, as a liberal strategist told The Nation’s Greider. But closing overseas bases would be a hard break from both Republican and Democratic Party orthodoxy, including under Obama, where the Pentagon budget keeps rising and temporary cuts—like sequestration—are seen as creating unnecessary crises. Here, too, Trump’s positioning could track to the left of Clinton.
And unlike Sanders, whose state has a F-35 fighter plane base, Trump has explicitly said that plane was a waste of money. “Like so many Trump plans, the specifics are hazy. But on this issue, he’s got the right idea,” wrote Gault for Reuters.
3. Rejecting Big Money Political Corruption. You can expect Trump will go after Clinton as a corrupt insider cashing in on her connections—no matter how many millions he, as the nominee, would end up raising for Republicans for the fall, or take from party’s coffers because presidential campaigns cost upwards of $1 billion. Trump has the higher moral ground, compared to Clinton—who hasn’t even had the guts to release the texts of speeches to Wall St. banks or return the speaking fees—because, as Trump touts, he’s been on the check-writing side of America's corrupt but legal system of financing candidates for decades.
Trump’s stance here echoes Sanders. It barely matters that Clinton has said she would want to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn decisions like Citizens United, which created giant new legal loopholes for wealthy interests and individuals. Being the rich outsider forced to play along, not the political insider taking the checks, is in his favor—pushing Trump to the left of Clinton.
4. Preserving Social Security and Medicare. As most progressives know, millions of baby boomers approaching their senior years are going to be relying on Social Security for most of their income and for Medicare as their health plan. Progressives also know that Social Security benefits could be cut by a fifth after 2030 because of that demographic bump, and have proposed raising payroll taxes to preserve benefits and increase them. Trump, unlike the other GOP candidates, wants to leave Social Security alone—saying a booming economy will fix the shortfall. While we have heard that before—Reagan’s fake rising tide lifting all boats—Trump's status quo stance is completely at odds with the modern GOP, which wants to up the age when one can start taking Social Security benefits, create new payment formulas, means-test recipients or flat-out privatize it.
Clinton said she wants to preserve Social Security and raise payments to people who need it most—such as widowers, who see cuts after a spouse dies, women and poor people who have historically been underpaid compared to white men. Sanders, in contrast, said benefits must be raised for everyone. Trump’s stance on this issue is far from ideal, but it’s outside the GOP’s mainstream. It’s neither constructive nor destructive, but that tends to neutralize the issue in a fall campaign with Clinton.
5. Lowering Seniors’ Prescription Drug Costs. Here’s another issue where Trump is saying he wants to do what Democrats like Obama, Clinton and Sanders have long called for, but which has been blocked by congressional Republicans. Trump wants the feds to negotiate buying in bulk from pharmaceutical companies, which has been explicitly prohibited by the GOP in past legislation. “We don’t do it. Why? Because of the drug companies,” Trump said in January before the New Hampshire primary. This is another issue where he is blurring the lines with Clinton and the Democrats.
6. Breaking Health Insurance Monopolies. Trump has also railed against the health insurance industry for preserving their state-by-state monopolies under Obamacare, saying neither Democrats nor Republicans made an effort to repeal a 1945 law that prevents Americans from buying cheaper policies in another state. “The insurance companies,” Trump said, “they’d rather have monopolies in each state than hundreds of companies going all over the place bidding… It’s so hard for me to make deals… I can’t get bids.”
We know that Trump has pledged to get rid of Obamacare and he hasn’t said much about its replacement other than it would involve consumers crossing state lines. But this is another area where Trump’s sound bites can superficially push him to the left of Clinton, who has made defending Obamacare part of her campaign and agenda if elected president.
An Authoritarian Strongman and Liberal Republican?
Democratic presidential candidates haven’t faced such a bizarre mix of left, right and center stances from a demagogue opponent in decades. Of course, it is impossible to know where Trump will land on many issues, should he be elected, because his posturing is all over the map. But that doesn’t mean that the angry and frustrated Americans propelling his candidacy—including many independents and people who haven’t voted before—won’t look at him, ignore his excesses and say, “He’s different. Why not give him a chance?”
As Grieder writes, “Lies, lies, lies. Yes, Donald Trump tells lot of lies himself, but they seem modest alongside the monstrous deceptions that Democrats and Republicans used to mislead the country… Year after year, political leaders and presidents of both parties essentially lied to the people about fundamental matters—war and peace, lost prosperity, and the bruising generation of lost jobs and declining wages.”
Many Democrats, and the Clinton campaign in particular, have pounced on Trump’s hateful rhetoric and dismissed 2016’s rebellious public—which is also propelling the Sanders’ campaign. But that's perilous, because 2016 is not a year where calibrated campaigns, like Clinton’s effort, are generating the most excitement and are likely to spark high voter turnout in the fall.
If Trump runs to the left of Clinton on some issues or nullifies her on others, that’s not just unprecedented. It is provocative, dangerous and could be successful. It is bound to attract some unknown number of people who will vote for the first time or break with traditional party lines—swayed by his forceful personality, select liberal leanings and overlooking his massive contradictions.
One wants to think that Trump’s irrepressible dark impulses are too far out of bounds for most Americans. One would also like to think the Democrats’ probable nominee, Clinton, understands this challenge—including being outflanked on the left and neutralized in the center—and has a strategy to counter it. But in 2016, those bets are off.