Donald Trump, who sits atop polls of likely Republican presidential hopefuls and appears to be moving closer to a decision to run, has attracted voters and stirred controversy by using the issue of President Barack Obama’s birthplace to promote his potential candidacy.
But the focus on Trump’s adoption of this issue has done more for him than garner publicity: It has obscured the emptiness of his political agenda.
Trump’s solutions for the country’s problems range from incoherent to fallacious — and cause far more concern than his relentless birther hype. His attempt to exploit the visceral emotion surrounding Obama’s origins is just the leading edge of a sweepingly demagogic platform.
Trump seems either completely unprepared, or is basing his potential candidacy on crowd-pleasing platitudes, xenophobia and fantastic claims – which, frighteningly, he sounds like he believes - that he can solve problems through the force of his personality.
He has no serious plan to reduce the deficit. It’s all a matter, he says, of putting foreigners in their place.
“What I really would be strongly in favor of is having countries that are ripping us off contribute hundreds of billions of dollars back into this economy,” Trump said in a March interview with the conservative newspaper Human Events, “and you wouldn’t have to worry so much about cutting too much out of the budget.”
The centerpiece of his deficit reduction program appears to be a 25 percent tax on all Chinese imports. He has little to say about whether Americans would end up paying the tax themselves in higher prices or whether this would start a trade war with China — our third largest export market.
Trump said, in an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie this week, that, once we enforce this, China will have no choice but to fall into line.
But the Chinese leadership is famously obdurate and opaque, and its response can have consequences that are impossible to foresee. The trade relationship with China is a complicated, carefully played game that has ramifications far beyond exports and imports.
Chinese cooperation is often crucial to U.S. foreign policy in the U.N. Security Council. It can help us or hurt us with respect to North Korea and nuclear arms proliferation. It considers a sovereign U.S. ally, Taiwan, to be part of “One China.”
A president must take an integrated approach to international policy, not just brandish threats.
Trump also sees no need to reform entitlements, which will magically attain solvency on their own.
“When this country becomes profitable again, we can take care of our sick; we can take care of our needy,” he told Human Events. “We don’t have to cut Social Security; we don’t have to cut Medicare and Medicaid. We can take care of people that need to be taken care of. And I’ll be able to do that.”
And he says we won’t need to raise taxes either.
Trump is suggesting that, as our economy improves, it will expand to cover trillions of dollars in future deficits, an assumption held by no one else that I’m aware of. And he his specific plan to spur the needed growth in the first place seems to be haranguing foreigners.
He’ll make the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries decrease oil prices through the force of his personality. “It’s the messenger,” he told CNN’s Candy Crowley last Sunday. “We need one thing: brainpower.”
But it’s not at all clear why Trump, who has been far from uniformly successful in the business world, can uniquely make this happen in the political world.
Even Somali pirates, Trump says, will bow swiftly to hisTrump’s will: “Give me one good admiral and a few ships and I will wipe them out so fast.”
Asked by Guthrie how he could prove to people he is presidential, the brainpower qualification was back.
“I have a very high aptitude, and I think I was at the best schools and I always did good,” he said, “I was a good student.”
The recent evolution of Trump’s politics smacks of a thirst for presidential power recently discovered. While he now speaks like a conservative Republican, his money has talked a different language.
Half the 96 candidates for federal office whom Trump has supported since 1990 were Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the most recent election cycle, 2010, Trump gave $22,500 — $16,200 of that went to Democrats.
Trump, who in 1999 said he was “totally pro-choice,” is now totally pro-life.
He does not appear to have done the slightest thinking about abortion policy, beyond knowing that conservatives are against it.
“I’m very strong there,” he told Guthrie.
But he sounded unaware that the legal basis for abortion lies in the Supreme Court finding of a “right to privacy.”
Asked by Guthrie if there is a right to privacy in the Constitution, Trump mused.
“I guess there is,” he reflected, “I guess there is,”
Asked how this squares with his opposition to abortion, Trump didn’t see the link.
“Well, that’s a pretty strange way of getting to pro-life,” he said. “I mean, it’s a very unique way of asking about pro-life. What does that have to do with privacy? How are you equating pro-life with privacy?”
Trump has succeeded wildly in a variety of fields, turning himself into an extremely rich man, a TV star and a best-selling author. He is indeed intelligent, more self-aware and sensitive than he lets on – as is apparent from his books - and has a refreshingly straightforward way of expressing himself.
He might have made an attractive candidate for Republicans and even some Democrats and independents. But he has shown himself to be someone who – however much brainpower he has – doesn’t do his homework and who thinks his very magnificence will solve intractable problems.
Americans should pray hard that he does not succeed in politics too.
Keith Koffler, who covered the White House as a reporter for CongressDaily and Roll Call, is editor of the blog White House Dossier.