Don't Laugh: Why Donald Trump Matters

Why Donald Trump Matters
Real estate mogul and TV personality Donald Trump formally announces his campaign for president. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Now that Donald Trump is in the race, it's time to stop thinking of him as a joke. Well, mostly.

He continues to amuse. The hair. The tossed-off braggadocio, like this line from Tuesday's announcement: "I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. I tell you that." Or the "huh?" lines: "We have to repeal Obamacare, and it can be—and—and it can be replaced with something much better for everybody." And then there's the stuff about Barack Obama's citizenship.

Trump matters now and not for the reasons that have already been cited: his net worth, a self-reported $8.5 billion, or his capacity to edge a Rick Perry or John Kasich out of the 10 slots open for the first presidential debate.

Trump matters because promoting two ideas that are in sync with today's GOP—being tough on trade and opposing cuts in entitlements—gives him (or a more palatable messenger) some real potential.

As white working-class voters have migrated to the Republican Party, they've brought their tough-on-trade views with them. (Noncollege white voters went for Republicans 64-34 in the 2014 midterms.) A Pew study last month found Republicans to be more skeptical of trade agreements than Democrats are and more likely to believe they have cost jobs.

But the presidential candidates have free trade records—reflecting the legacy of their party, not its new blue-collar migrants. Trump more or less has the tough-on-trade field to himself. Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker favor fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump denounces it.

Mike Huckabee has been a notable exception—his line from 2008 about how China "Shanghaied" our economy is Trumpesque—but trade is not one of his leading issues, whereas Trump made it the centerpiece of his announcement, hurling barbs at Beijing and fellow Republicans within the first moments of his announcement speech. "I hear their speeches. They don't talk jobs. When was the last time you heard them talk about China?" Trump said. "You don't hear it from anyone else."

Likewise, when it comes to cutting entitlements, while candidates like Chris Christie and Rubio have talked about entitlement reforms, Trump has consistently said that they shouldn't be cut, and he repeated that claim in his announcement speech. Polls show that Republicans are adamantly opposed to entitlement cuts, albeit at somewhat lower levels than Democrats.

The demographic shifts in support of the Republican Party show up in the Democratic base as well. Ron Brownstein notes in National Journal that the top 25 cities that benefit from trade are solidly Democratic. His term "coalition of the ascendant" (minorities, the young, single women, affluent suburbanites) describes the key constituents of today's Democratic Party, while its old base—blue-collar whites—has migrated to the GOP. What this means is that the Republican primaries are more fertile for Trump, or someone with a tough-on-trade message, and Democratic voters may be more receptive to a free-trade message even if union leaders aren't.

Trump's vulnerabilities are obvious, but one that was overlooked in his announcement is that he threatened to raise taxes repeatedly—not income tax rates but tariffs on products from countries that he believes aren't playing fairly with the U.S.

In one example he said that if Ford built a big automotive plant in Mexico rather than the U.S., he would slap a 35 percent tax on cars from that facility entering the U.S. He said the threat would make Ford squirm. The auto behemoth would try to get "President Trump" to change his mind, but it wouldn't work, he predicted.

That's not the same thing as promising to raise taxes, but it's pretty close. If there's anything that unites the diverse strains of the GOP coalition, it's opposition to higher taxes, even if they're import duties. Trump may have opened a door to real electoral opportunity in his announcement by calling for tougher trade policies, but he may have undermined it as well by using the T-word.