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Donald Trump, the economic chameleon

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US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally at the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center in Lynden, Washington on May 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Jason Redmond

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses a campaign rally at the Northwest Washington Fair and Event Center in Lynden, Washington on May 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Jason Redmond

A pinch of conservatism and a generous dose of populism spiced with a good handful of U-turns: Donald Trump’s economic policy escapes classification as much as it fluctuates with the tides of public opinion.

But the pronouncements so far of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate have already stirred up concerns in Washington and on Wall Street, where people are anxious for more clarity on his thinking.

“Trump’s doctrine is very hard to define as he treats concrete policy proposals as a kind of weakness that can be used by his opponents,” said Alan Cole, an expert at the non-partisan Tax Foundation think tank.

Trump’s fickleness on economic policy — flexibility, his supporters say — was apparent this week when he turned to the heated subject of raising the minimum wage across the country.

Last year the New York real estate tycoon brushed off the idea, insisting that the official federal government standard at $7.25 an hour was already “too high” to compete in the international economy.

But in a sharp reversal, this week Trump said he was for “an increase of some magnitude,” though he wants individual states to make their own decisions.

“I don’t know how people make it on $7.25 an hour,” he said.

– Backpedaling –
“His approach of economics is mercantilist in many ways. His plan changes depending on what he thinks people want to hear,” Stan Veuger of the conservative think-tank the American Enterprise Institute told AFP.

On taxes, the candidate has defended a deep cut for the huge US middle class, which would mean that over 50 percent of households would not pay any income tax.

But amid concern about the rise in income inequality in the country, he said at the weekend he may have to raise taxes on the wealthiest people — also a longtime no-no for Republicans. “For the wealthy, I think frankly, it’s going to go up.”

The next day Trump sought to clarify in a call with US media that he was not considering raising rates on the wealthy compared to current levels — only in relation to his original tax plan.

Trump has also raised fears that he would permit the country to default on its bonds when he suggested last week that under a President Trump, the United States might consider “renegotiating” its debt in a future economic crisis.

Days later, he backpedaled: “People said I want to go and buy debt, and default on debt, and I mean, these people are crazy.”

Trump defends himself against critics of his apparent shifts.

“I put up a plan, it’s a simplification,” he said. “But I have no illusions, I don’t think it’s going to be the final plan.”

– Against the current –
Even on issues where he has shown consistency, “The Donald” remains hard to figure.

He often takes the opposite tack of the traditional line of the Republican party which he expects to represent in the November 8 election.

While Republicans are traditionally steadfast defenders of free trade, Trump wants to erect barriers to imports from China. And he has aligned with much of the Democratic Party in condemning the huge transatlantic and transpacific trade agreements negotiated by President Barack Obama’s administration.

“If you are a TV show host, the only way to gain audience is to steal one of your rivals’ audience, and that’s how he thinks of international trade,” said Veuger.

Most significantly, Trump has declared himself in support of social security and the Medicare government health care program for retirees. Both are expensive programs that his Republican Party has vowed to cut back as part of efforts to cut spending and shrink government.

“What Trump has been doing is putting a minus sign in front of every major tenet of conservative economics,” said William Galston, a former advisor to president Bill Clinton.

The only thing Trump, who spent a life in the real estate business, seems to agree on with the Republicans is the idea of slashing corporate taxes from 35 percent to 15 percent.

In keeping so many of his positions vague, Trump leaves himself open to attack. But he also deprives his expected Democratic rival in the race — former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — of an angle of attack.

“If you say what you’re going to do, then your opponent can start targeting a message to the people who would lose out to these proposals,” said Cole.

How can the Democrats fight against a chameleon like Trump? According to Galston, fighting over substance with someone like Trump is useless.

“If someone’s words don’t mean very much, all you can do is allow the American people to reach a judgment as to whether this kind of instability is what they want in their next president.”


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