“Exit, Stage Left” was the memorably apt cover line on the January 2009 issue of Reason magazine, over a picture of George W. Bush, whose party had just been defeated by Barack Obama and the Democrats after Bush turned an economic downturn into a crisis by seizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and AIG. The Republican Party’s 2008 nominee, Senator John McCain, had mounted a losing run for the presidency denouncing “self-interest,” and promising to “put an end to the greed that has driven our markets into chaos,” prompting a New York Sun editorial observing, “If not even our leading Republican politicians are going to speak up for markets at this juncture, allow us the opportunity.”
More than a decade later, Republicans are in danger of repeating the same mistake. It’s natural for politicians to make some moves toward the center in a general election campaign to try to capture swing voters. But President Donald Trump, like George W. Bush and John McCain in 2008, risks moving so far left himself that he undercuts one of his strongest arguments against the Biden Democrats, which is that they are a bunch of big-government socialists.
Warning signs of Trump’s move in this direction were already starting to appear last month, with the president’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. In that speech, Trump boasted that he “took on Big Pharma,” over drug pricing, sounding like Senator Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In the same speech, Trump said, “we will impose tariffs on any company that leaves America to produce jobs overseas.” This, too, is reminiscent of a Warren-Sanders-style Reichsfluchtsteuer. Trump would be better off creating tax structures and other conditions, like rule of law, that attract companies here from other places, rather than trying to trap companies here against their will by imposing punitive taxes on those who leave.
In a series of moves in the weeks following the convention, Trump has doubled down on what some are describing as a switch to “left wing populist.” On Tuesday, September 8, visiting Florida, Trump announced, “In a few moments, I will sign a presidential order extending the moratorium on offshore drilling on Florida’s Gulf Coast and expanding it to Florida’s Atlantic Coast, as well as the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.” What’s the point of electing Republicans if you don’t get offshore oil drilling? If Trump thinks anyone whose main issue is preventing petroleum extraction is going to vote Republican, he is delusional. James Murdoch’s vote is not going to decide the election; if it does, no late-stage Trump embrace of environmentalism, no matter how enthusiastic, will be sufficiently convincing to change the outcome.
Then there’s Trump’s antitrust attack on Alphabet, the parent of YouTube and Google. The New York Times reported Justice Department lawyers said Attorney General William Barr “wanted to announce the case in September to take credit for action against a powerful tech company under the Trump administration.” Alphabet stock is down about 10% since that news broke, a destruction of roughly $100 billion in value for shareholders of the company, which has a market capitalization of about $1 trillion. The Times news article observed that “The Google case could also give Mr. Trump and Mr. Barr an election-season achievement on an issue that both Democrats and Republicans see as a major problem: the influence of the biggest tech companies over consumers and the possibility that their business practices have stifled new competitors and hobbled legacy industries like telecom and media.” The Times is correct that “both Democrats and Republicans” want government action against Google, but only in the New York Times newsroom can destroying $100 billion in stock market value by government action aimed at rescuing a legacy industry like “media” count as “an election-season achievement.”
Having targeted offshore oil drillers, “Big Pharma,” and Google, Trump is also turning against one sector of the economy that had been unscathed — military contractors. On Monday, September 7, Trump said, “I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” In a shrewd Bloomberg column headlined “Trump Channels Noam Chomsky,” Eli Lake observed, “Trump was making a radical argument: that the U.S. military is not a force for peace but is addicted to war. It is the profit motive of defense corporations — not a desire to deter aggressors, protect allies or uphold international law — that has driven decisions to use military force.” Whatever happened to Trump’s idea of a military parade?
There is still plenty of residual contrast between Trump and Biden — on judicial appointments, on the Iran nuclear deal (though Trump has been calling for new negotiations with Iran), on taxes, on school choice, on “cancel culture.” But if Trump isn’t careful to present voters with, as Phyllis Schlafly put it, “A choice not an echo,” come January 2021 some clever headline writer will hang the “Exit Stage Left” line over a photo of a one-term President Trump.
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