Politics

Donald Trump Is Liberating the GOP From Its Most Deeply Held Beliefs

He’s against the Iraq war. He’s for big government spending. He’s anti–Wall Street.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds two thumbs up during a campaign event at Briar Woods High School August 2, 2016 in Ashburn, Virginia.
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event on Tuesday in Ashburn, Virginia.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a lunatic, and it is looking ever more likely that he will lose in November. Though Republican Senate candidates in competitive races are running well ahead of Trump for now, it is easy to see how his erratic behavior might start dragging them down. In the weeks since Trump formally secured the Republican presidential nomination, he has drawn almost as much attention for taking potshots at Republicans who’ve reluctantly endorsed him in the name of party unity as he has for attacking the woman he’s dubbed “Crooked Hillary.” It is hardly surprising that senior Republicans are panicking.

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Here’s what’s most interesting to me about Trump’s shambolic campaign: By saying whatever pops into his head, regardless of what previous Republican candidates have been saying for years, Trump is greasing the wheels for other Republicans to abandon positions that are not terribly popular. This is not something Trump is doing intentionally, as far as I can tell. He appears to be largely indifferent to the fate of other Republican candidates. It just so happens that Trump’s lack of discipline is giving other Republicans the opportunity to discard baggage that’s been weighing them down for years.

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Earlier this week, for example, Trump declared that he favored an infrastructure program “at least double” the size of the one Hillary Clinton has proposed. Why double? Why not triple? What about a program a bajillion times larger? Trump’s infrastructure musings were not the product of careful consideration. He has not closely analyzed America’s infrastructure needs and developed a comprehensive and sustainable strategy for meeting them. What he has done is demonstrate to Republican politicians that deficit spending is acceptable, provided it’s used for something that sounds appealing, such as bridges and roads. There are all kinds of reasons why just choosing a number at random and deciding we’re going to spend it on infrastructure is a terrible idea. My own view is that public infrastructure spending in the U.S. tends to be extremely wasteful and that we ought to implement serious reforms before we even consider making new investments. But that’s beside the point. For better or for worse, Trump is undermining the Republican taboo against deficit spending. Never do you hear him call for a balanced budget amendment, a not-very-good idea that conservatives have been talking up for decades.

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Does this mean that Republicans who’ve embraced Trump’s infrastructure ramblings were hypocrites for attacking President Obama’s fiscal stimulus? Absolutely, if you believe opposition to the stimulus was primarily about deficit spending. But opposition to the stimulus also had a lot to do with who benefited from that outlay. If you’ll recall, the stimulus did a number of things, from helping state and local governments meet their payrolls to financing infrastructure projects to increasing transfers to low-income households and the unemployed. It’s easy to imagine favoring some kinds of deficit spending and opposing others. To be blunt, Trump could be telegraphing that he has no problem with deficit spending on roads and bridges, because it will mean jobs for the kind of people he happens to like, but he does have a problem with deficit spending on, say, SNAP benefits for poor immigrant-headed households, because he doesn’t like them. Who the hell knows? All we can safely say is that Trump has moved Republicans away from the fairly rigid anti-deficit stance they’ve maintained for most of the Obama years. Chances are Republicans would have abandoned this stance regardless once there was another Republican in the White House, but Trump seems to have sped up the process just a little bit.

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Something similar can be said of Trump’s repudiation of the Iraq war. At the beginning of this year’s presidential race, most of the Republican candidates couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge that the invasion was a catastrophic strategic blunder. As a general rule, they wanted to move on to other, more congenial questions, such as whether the Obama administration had been wise in its handling of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq. Part of this reluctance to condemn the invasion no doubt flowed from the fact that most Republicans supported it and that it would be more than a little awkward to declare that they’d all been mistaken. Trump had no such compunctions. As the nominee, he’s condemned Clinton for supporting the Iraq war, a bizarre role reversal that few other Republicans could have pulled off. Does Trump have a credible case that his judgment on Iraq was superior to Clinton’s? Not even close. But his position on Iraq has allowed other Republicans to free themselves of George W. Bush’s Iraq legacy.

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More broadly, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is undermining the GOP’s status as the party of the rich. The Clinton campaign has successfully wooed a number of wealthy Republican donors to the Democratic side, including Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, and Seth Klarman, billionaire founder of the Baupost Group. Many other wealthy conservatives are choosing to sit this election out rather than support Trump. Drawing on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, John Carney and Anupreeta Das of the Wall Street Journal recently reported that people working in the financial services industry have donated $41.4 million to Clinton and pro-Clinton groups and $109,004 to Trump and to pro-Trump groups. One assumes that Trump’s haul from hedge funders and private equity investors will increase in the months to come, as his campaign has only started soliciting contributions in the past few weeks. In July alone, Trump and the Republican National Committee managed to raise $82 million, at least some of which surely came from Wall Street. But unlike Mitt Romney in 2012, it looks increasingly likely that Trump will raise more from small donations than from large ones.

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What does this all mean? For one thing, it means Trump is under no obligation to defend Wall Street’s interests over the coming months. Whether Trump wins or loses in November, he will have demonstrated that there is a path to the winning the GOP presidential nomination that owes nothing to the wealthiest members of the party’s donor base. Trump will probably lose, but if he loses by a more or less respectable margin, ambitious Republicans will surely be tempted to recreate his coalition, working under the assumption that a candidate who was less of a lunatic might have secured a victory.

If I were a senior Republican, I’d be panicking too. Donald Trump isn’t just making their lives more difficult. He is actively destroying the Wall Street–friendly GOP they know and love.

Read more of Slate’s election coverage.

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