During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia, her favorite, Grigory Potemkin, created a fake village to show her, to prove that her reforms had made life better for the peasants. The term “Potemkin village” derived from this has come to mean an elaborate facade built to hide the emptiness behind it. Donald Trump, the GOP’s current front-runner candidate, seems to have taken the story to heart in developing his website and platform. He is the GOP’s Potemkin candidate, with the barest veneer of policy, but hiding behind it a vast emptiness of thought or competence. He is running on a thin film of xenophobia and nostalgia for a “whites only” America that has not existed since the 1950s. This facade of policy is spelled out through five platform issues that together virtually ignore the entire range of issues vital to Americans today, and which also contain no logical consistency or even basic conservatism, beyond the xenophobic paint on the cover.
First on the list of Trump’s platform issues is US-China trade reform. On no other trade issue does Trump enunciate any ideas, so his trade strategy is hinged solely upon achieving greater success in China. Trump assigns our current trade imbalance with China to “Wall Street insiders that [sic] want to move US manufacturing and investment offshore,” thereby ignoring his own business model in doing exactly that. He claims his own administration will somehow employ “smart negotiators”; but he neglects to say what strengths or strategies he would have that are different from past negotiations. Trump blames Chinese tariffs and other barriers for protecting Chinese markets from American products; but he fails to explain how he would bring lost jobs back to the US, or how American-made products (which are more expensive than Chinese-made products) would penetrate the lower-income Chinese economy. He also elucidates no strategy or plan for solving (as he promises to do) the problem of Chinese intellectual property abuse.
Trump does advocate, however, certain points that he thinks would improve American negotiating strength. He wants first to lower the corporate tax rate in the US; but he ignores the main problem pushing jobs out of the US, which is that wages and overall production costs are substantially lower in China and other overseas markets than in the US. He claims that reducing overall American debts and deficits would reduce Chinese financial advantages (which they likely would); but of course he ignores the fact that most of his overall platform involves greater spending and lower taxes, a clear recipe for greater reliance on Chinese financial underwriting of his typically Republican “borrow and spend” approach to government. Finally, Trump imagines that a greater US military presence in the Pacific (especially in the East and South China Seas) would somehow push China into more cooperative behavior. He clearly ignores China’s historical gift for long-term geopolitical strategy, and China’s historical lack of response to momentary military demonstrations. Trump also fails to explain how the already overwhelming strength of US forces in the Pacific are insufficient; and the economic cost of greater deployments to the western Pacific also goes unmentioned. Trump’s China “strategy” (his only plan for enhancing American trade) therefore ignores basic political, strategic, financial, and economic realities; and also is based on an unexplained hope to somehow negotiate more successfully, without any ideas as to how that might be done.
Trump’s next platform issue is the inefficiency of the Veteran’s Administration. Trump offers to make the VA more competitive, by enabling vets to get care through any doctor or facility that accepts Medicare. He, again, fails to explain where Medicare is supposed to find the available funds. He also wants to spend more money to fund more research on veterans’ mental health issues (e.g. PTSD); and on job training and placement, veterans’ education, and business loans for vets. He wants to expand the VA dramatically by creating satellite clinics in rural and other areas. His main complaint about previous attempts to fix the VA is that they adopted a strategy of throwing money at the problem; and yet that is exactly what he proposes to do, by expanding both Medicare and VA funding. Trump also blames waste and corruption in the VA, and imagines that a simple house-cleaning should fix things. He offers no numbers indicating to what extent a house-cleaning would improve efficiency; and he offers no guidance as to how he would get an increasingly miserly GOP to pay for other people’s health care with the substantially greater funds he proposes to throw at the problem.
Tax reform is a greater and more central problem for Trump. He wants to lower not just taxes, but our debt and deficits. With greater spending on military and VA programs (the former already the nation’s single-greatest fiscal problem, and therefore the only real option for large-scale deficit reduction), Trump cannot adequately explain how he would reduce both taxes and the deficit. His tax reduction plan is typically childish. He wants poor people to send an “I win” form to the IRS, relieving them of paying taxes which they already do not generally have to pay. How they get to “win,” by still not paying taxes, is never explained, not to mention insulting considering the paltry services available for their support. He wants to simplify the tax code (from seven to four main income brackets), lower the corporate tax rate (to a maximum of 15%), and eliminate estate taxes. He claims that encouraging more domestic investment, and taxing off-shore income more consistently, will make up for the great losses elsewhere; but of course he has no actual numbers to back any of this up. Trump is blissfully free of difficult or enlightening details, and merely expects that his sheer Trumpness will somehow change the fiscal realities of American taxation and economics.
Trump also expends some of his very sparse language on promising to do nothing whatsoever about the problem of increasing gun violence. He refuses to accept bans on military-style weapons, and he calls for national right-to-carry legislation that would stomp all over states’ rights to defend their citizens from out-of-state gun carriers. Trump’s unabashedly federalist approach also includes expanding mandatory minimums for various classes of crimes, taking away power from the judicial branch of federal and state governments. He also falls upon the “mental health problem” of gun violence; and (of course) fails to identify how he would ensure that those without any diagnoses or clinically documented histories of mental illnesses (but who harbor the kind of anger that has been producing atrocities like mass shootings) would somehow be prevented from gaining access to weapons – or how doing so would not, contrarily, violate the very Second Amendment he promises to uphold.
Trump’s final platform issue is immigration reform. Trump continues his bigoted and unsubstantiated claim that aliens pose a violent crime hazard, and he still promises to get Mexico to pay for the construction of a massive border wall. Looked at more closely, this claim actually is intended to implement a large-scale increase on fees for legally documented immigrants coming to the US; making not the Mexican government but the legal immigrants themselves pay for the wall. Trump actually offers few measures for tackling illegal immigration, focusing almost entirely on reducing overall legal immigration (and he ignores the effect this would have of incentivizing illegal immigration). He also refers to the main pathway by which illegal immigrants gain residence, by arriving here legally but then overstaying temporary visas, as “… a threat to national security” (without explaining that insulting assertion). Finally, as with so many of Trump’s other proposals, he comes to the conclusion that we need to spend more money (this time by tripling the personnel of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE), as the billionaire seems uniquely suited to finding new ways to spend other people’s money.
As the reader may have noticed, this short list leaves out most of the vital issues up for debate between the parties for 2016. Some very few clues can be gleaned from statements elsewhere (speeches and interviews, etc.), but there is a vast silence on a number of vital questions. With national security and defense a suddenly predominant issue, Trump’s silence is appalling. He has denigrated veterans (such as Senator John McCain) and claimed his high-school education (at a pre-military prep school) gave him more military training than some of our professional soldiers get. But that “training” has not manifested in any other ideas of how to defend our nation, beyond banning Muslims (and/or marking them and putting them into concentration camps), and claiming that illegal immigration is a significant threat (without any substantiation). Trump’s xenophobia has alienated over half of the American voting public (not to mention some 72% of potential Democrats), erasing any possibility that he could be a consensus candidate or achieve strength among independent voters. And he has offered nothing at all about defense policy, deployments (other than expanding our Pacific forces in theory), strategy, etc.
Trump has also offered virtually nothing at all on the economy, only his few scattered and unrealistic notions on trade with China, and his skepticism on raising the minimum wage. With jobs and economic security a major issue for many voters, his silence is ominous. He also has little to say about health care, focusing his few thoughts upon throwing more money at the VA, and repealing ACA, without indicating any replacement. Previously, Trump had been more of a leftist on that issue, favoring universal socialized care along the lines of that used in Canada, but he claims now to have changed his mind (to conform with the expectations of his new-found alliance with the GOP). On the issue of climate change, Trump’s statements would almost be funny if they were not so pathetic. He admits that, “I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change…,” and otherwise denies the science as anything more than a “Chinese concept” for somehow gaining some industrial advantage.
Education, a major issue influencing American competitiveness in the twenty-first century, is another problem area. Trump tells us that he is “…not cutting services, but [is for] cutting spending” (again, without clarifying how to get the same services at lower costs). He wants to cut the Department of Education’s budget, eliminate Common Core, and delegate education administration almost entirely to the states, apparently relieving himself of the burden of forming his own thoughts about priorities or strengthening overall educational performance. In addition, Trump’s failed attempt to develop a for-profit “scamiversity” (Trump University, now the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative) presents an ill omen of support for other anti-education businesses posing as educational institutions, a sobering prospect for higher education and American competitiveness.
Finally, Trump’s cultural position shows a complete failure to appreciate historical trends and demographics. On women’s issues (beyond wanting more money for women vets), Trump has been absolutely silent. On minority issues, he has said too much; proposing to deport, or mark and concentrate, immigrants and refugees. He also openly encouraged his supporters’ violence against BLM protesters. He is eager to surrender to ISIS and similar groups their main immediate objective, that of making the US more afraid of Muslims and more anti-Islamic, to push them into the arms of extremist recruiters. Trump clearly wishes to restore a pre-1960s, “for white men only” America, which is exactly what making our superpower “great again” is intended to mean.
Trump’s platform is weak in both establishing objectives, and in offering actual proposals for meeting those objectives. Trump is virtually silent on a vast array of major issues (national security, health care, the economy, education, and climate change), and he has little more to say on the few superficial issues he has deigned to care about – immigration reduction, trade with China, VA reform, tax reform, and federalized gun-rights expansion. However, his few suggestions for policy all add up to one thing: increasing the size and cost of the federal government; while at the same time he offers to reduce taxes. That recipe has always meant borrowing from China, bizarrely another policy he claims to reverse. While working within the GOP, his platform is barely conservative, and is predominantly federalist and expansive, but in ways which will lose liberal and independent voters. His policy is like the old Potemkin village of Russia, designed to fool those looking only long enough to see the facade but no more. Trump intends to reach only the low-information voter who cares nothing about data or logic. For anyone else, Trump’s “ideas” (such as they are) can only mean one thing for the real City on a Hill behind the Potemkin village: complete and utter disaster.
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