David R. Henderson  

What If Donald Trump Isn't All That Different?

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I woke up Wednesday morning feeling a little bleak that our two main choices are two really awful candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Many of my libertarian and conservative friends have denounced Trump continuously, both on his policy views and on his disgusting behavior. But, as readers of my posts know, I often look for the glass half full, or, in this case, 10 percent full.

So consider what follows on Trump's style a speculative quest. Scott Alexander, over at slatestarcodex.com, often puts probabilities on things. That's what I'm doing here. So the probability I'll put on my reasoning about his style compared to that of others being correct is only about 0.5.

First, Trump's policy views. This is the most disorganized, random set of views I've ever seen in a presidential election, and I have been following them since 1968, and very closely since 1972. Trump is clearly a nationalist who, I think very sincerely, does not understand trade. How can he say we're not "winning" in trade? Every trade is a win--for both sides. (See my Fourth Pillar of Economic Wisdom.) My Hoover colleague Tim Kane has dealt nicely with Trump's views on trade.

But, because Trump's views are random, they're like the weather in New England as seen by Mark Twain (although Twain probably didn't say that, as this site shows): If you don't like them, wait a minute.

Specifically, mixed in his foreign policy views is one of the nicest and most-succinct takedowns of the interventionist foreign policy practiced for many years by two Bushes, a Clinton, and, less so, Obama. How's this for a nice statement:

We tore up what institutions they had and then were surprised at what we unleashed. Civil war, religious fanaticism; thousands of American lives, and many trillions of dollars, were lost as a result. The vacuum was created that ISIS would fill. Iran, too, would rush in and fill the void, much to their unjust enrichment.

Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster.


Within the same speech, though, one can find statements, especially on ISIS, that are just as bad as this is good.

And that distinguishes him from--who exactly? John Kasich who threatened to start World War 3 by punching the Russians in the nose? Hillary Clinton who wants to confront Putin over Ukraine?

I could go on and on about Trump's bad domestic policy views: his flirting with an increase in the minimum wage, his past statements in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthy, etc.

But now to the main point of this post, the one that is speculative. That is about Trump's style. The man is a lout. He has made fun of a disabled reporter and he made a disgusting statement about Megyn Kelly.

But here's what I wonder: is he that different from other politicians? The obvious answer is yes. What other major politician on a national stage have we seen act in a disgusting manner so often. I can't think of anyone.

So why the difference? It could be that he grew up as a spoiled rich kid who didn't get reined in by those around him and found that in his world, where he didn't depend on votes, he didn't have to restrain himself. The other politicians he competed against, by contrast, learned early that they did have to worry about voters' reactions to them. But underneath, some of them might be just as bad. The way you would know is by seeing them in unguarded moments when they think the microphone is off. And we don't see them that way very often.

But while we're on the issue of disgusting behavior, would anyone care to claim that Donald Trump's making fun of a disabled reporter was worse than Ted Kennedy's leaving Mary Jo Kopechne in his car and not telling the authorities about it for hours but not after, first, talking to a lawyer. Here's an excerpt from Kennedy's speech about the incident:

In the morning, with my mind somewhat more lucid, I made an effort to call a family legal advisor, Burke Marshall, from a public telephone on the Chappaquiddick side of the ferry and then belatedly reported the accident to the Martha['s] Vineyard police.

Today, as I mentioned, I felt morally obligated to plead guilty to the charge of leaving the scene of an accident. No words on my part can possibly express the terrible pain and suffering I feel over this tragic incident. This last week has been an agonizing one for me and for the members of my family. And the grief we feel over the loss of a wonderful friend will remain with us the rest of our lives.


Do you notice which family Ted Kennedy left out, a family that might have had a wee bit more agonizing to do?

There is one other way to tell how disgusting they are: that is to see how they talk about foreigners who are on the outs. So Hillary Clinton gave us a little window into her soul, when announcing Muammar Gadaffi's fate, she said, with a laugh, "We came, we saw, he died."


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Lawrence D'Anna writes:

I totally agree.

Trump is awful, but 99% of the Trump denunciations I read seem to have the unfortunate connotation that "normal" politicians aren't awful, or are at least in a whole lower league of awfulness.

Trump's rudeness and tawdriness are matters of style, and don't really matter. What matters is how he would govern.

Trump's ignorance and incoherence certainly increase the variance, but we won't know if they're good qualities or bad unless he's elected.

Trump's extreme nationalism is really his only *exceptionally* bad feature.

Jeff writes:

With all due respect, "Every trade is a win--for both sides" is only a half truth.

As I hope you would agree (at least generally--let's leave out the actual governments), the USA does not trade with Mexico. Rather, individuals within the USA trade with individuals within Mexico, all of whom trade with others and so on.

The entire issue with trade is about whether there are externalities. The two sides of the trade may be better off, but that does not mean that other people are not affected. Sure, in a Pareto improving/optimal world they could be made whole or better off, but are they in actuality? As I understood the recent paper by Autor et al., no. Some pockets of the USA are not necessarily made better off.

(Note, I'm not arguing that trade should be restricted because of this, just that people can be made worse off by other people's actions.)

Mark Bahner writes:
Trump's extreme nationalism is really his only *exceptionally* bad feature.

I think his careless ignorance and unapologetic dishonesty are equally bad.

Here's a guy who proposes to ban all Muslims from coming into the country, and he apparently didn't bother to check with anyone whether that was in any way compatible with U.S. law. And he's campaigning to be to be the president. You'd think someone campaigning to be president would bother to at least read a book or talk to someone who knows something about U.S. law before saying something like that.

And he also said that he "watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering" as the WTC was coming down. He's never, to my knowledge, attempted to correct that statement.

Richard writes:

Regarding foreign policy, Trump seems to be interested in militarily confronting ISIS and Iran. Compare that to the bipartisan elites, who want to confront ISIS, Iran, Assad, China, and Russia.

Lawrence D'Anna writes:

Mark:

Yes, his ignorance and dishonesty are bad, but they're unexceptional.

They are tragically typical.

Mark Bahner writes:
Yes, his ignorance and dishonesty are bad, but they're unexceptional.

I don't think any presidential candidate has ever said anything like that judges sign bills.

As for dishonesty...well, I wouldn't trust Hillary Clinton any farther than I could throw her. But can anyone think of anything she's said that has been soooo blatantly false, as Trump's claim that he saw "thousands and thousands" of people cheering in Jersey City, New Jersey, as the WTC towers came down? And then, as far as I know, he's never backed away one bit from that blatantly false statement.

Of course, the good news is that Donald Trump almost certainly is not going to be elected. (But of course, the bad news is that Hillary Clinton almost certainly will be.)

MikeP writes:

Save for very rare exceptions, politicians already assert boldly and proudly that they are willing to violate the individual rights of millions of people in their jurisdiction and billions of people outside of it, and then when placed in power they do exactly that.

So they are already disgusting to a vast and great degree. Then they pile onto those characteristics the unmitigated hubris to believe that their decisions and actions over those millions and billions of lives are doing more good than harm.

Donald Trump takes this to another level for two reasons. First, he is beyond unprincipled in his uninformed and thoughtless notions on what he wants to do once in power over those millions and billions of lives. But, perhaps even worse, he has demonstrated beyond all prediction that his supporters want exactly that. That is unnerving.

Mark Barbieri writes:

Jeff: I don't think that anyone claims that everyone benefits from all trades. You will always have a mix of winners and losers.

This is no different than internal markets. KMart lost when people started shopping at Walmart. Best Buy lost when people started buying their electronics and media online. We are better off as a country because of these changes, but some individuals are worse off.

If you missed it, there was a good post recently that likened the effects of trade over time to a poker game in which the house kept putting more money into the pot on each hand. The players at the table will still have winning and losing hands, but over time, they'll virtually all be better off because of the value added to the pot. Improvements in technology and trade do the same for all of us that buy and sell things.

Andrew_FL writes:

I'm a little disappointed you haven't mentioned-or haven't noticed?-that Trump's nomination by the GOP has presented the greatest opportunity for the Libertarian Party to, if not influence the outcome of the election, at least grow itself into something more than total irrelevance. Disaffected Republicans seem to be flocking to them in droves.

I'd watch the Libertarian Party convention very closely. Who they nominate will show how serious they are about seizing this opportunity.

My interpretation of Trump's "... blood coming out of her eyes ... blood coming out of her, wherever ...", was:

out of her eyes ... (nose, mouth?).
Trump was speaking extemporaneously, like skating fast over thin ice, a feat which it seems he has a gift honed for decades.

Commonly, one of us humans says something that can be taken — by others motivated to discredit that one of us — to be disgusting. (This round started, unless I am mistaken, with Kelly attributing disgusting motives to something Trump had said earlier.) In such cases, I propose, the source of the disgusting image may be sought in the viewpoint of the interpreter of those particular words, rather than in the viewpoint of the speaker of those particular words.

JK Brown writes:

Well, there are some tapes that show Nixon was a bit nasty personally. As well as Johnson's racism and alleged flashing.

And there a plenty of sexist and racist quote for FDR, Wilson, etc. Perhaps they were just men of their times?

And let's not forget the recent revelations on Hastert. Perhaps after molesting young boys, he turned into a nice guy as he gained political power?

As for Trump, a lot seems his abrasive accent. Check out this verbatim dub of Trump's words in a posh British voice. His attack on Hillary doesn't actually seem that vulgar with an approved accent.

Matt Skene writes:

The man just said we should rack up as much debt as we can and then not pay our creditors back in full. Out loud. In an interview. No, his incompetence and sociopathic vileness are not run of the mill.

Tim Worstall writes:

"But here's what I wonder: is he that different from other politicians? The obvious answer is yes."

Yes, Trump is different. He's a very much better salesman.

This is how I view Trump in his entirety in fact. He's a salesman and an extremely good one. Politics (no, not statecraft, politics) is about selling people on the idea of voting for you. Trump's seen that there's that revolt of the petit bourgeois out there. Similar, in many ways, to Poujadism. And he's going hell for leather telling those people what they want to hear.

The contradictions, the lousy policies, they just don't make a difference. He's selling people on the idea that he's different, he listens to them, and they'll get what they want.

He might even, just, do it. Get elected that is.

David R. Henderson writes:

@JK Brown,
As for Trump, a lot seems his abrasive accent. Check out this verbatim dub of Trump's words in a posh British voice. His attack on Hillary doesn't actually seem that vulgar with an approved accent.
That’s hilarious. Thanks for sharing.

MikeP writes:

Check out this verbatim dub of Trump's words in a posh British voice. His attack on Hillary doesn't actually seem that vulgar with an approved accent.

Ah, but what happens when you dub Trump over Darth Vader?

Ron H. writes:

Why all the focus and angst over Trump? Do you really expect decent behavior and well developed policy from what is essentially a reality T.V. star? And no, I don't think he represents the personal behavior of many politicians.

Let's stay positive. With the extreme negative ratings of the general electorate of Trump and Clinton this is a real opportunity for a third party candidate and the Libertarian Party is the only third Party on the ballot in all 50 states.

If Gary Johnson gets the nod as the candidate for the Libertarian Party he has a real chance at the Presidency. If not, at least the American people will hear the voice of a two term Governor who is focused on individual rights, small government, liberal social policy and a curtailed military intervention. It will be the first real debate in a long time.

Andrew_FL writes:

"If Gary Johnson gets the nod as the candidate for the Libertarian Party"

LOL, no. This is exactly what I meant about who they nominate showing whether they want to seize this opportunity. Nominating Gary Johnson is exactly how not to do that.

gda writes:

I think Richard O Hammer and Tim Worstall have nailed it here.

As for Kelly, she treated Trump as a joke, reported some scurrilous rape story about his ex-wife, then was surprised when he fought back. She then compounded her error and tarnished her credentials by placing herself into the middle of the story for her own benefit. I note she has since been compelled to visit Trump on his own turf to beg his forgiveness.

If you are concerned about Trump's true nature, try paying attention to some of the people who have known him for years. Based on their opinions of the man you should have no trouble swallowing your doubts.

Mark Bahner writes:
LOL, no. This is exactly what I meant about who they nominate showing whether they want to seize this opportunity. Nominating Gary Johnson is exactly how not to do that.

And who (who is actually in the running for nomination by the Libertarian Party) is better than Gary Johnson?

Benjamin Cole writes:

A very thoughtful post.

Sheesh, how about Nixon bombing Cambodia and lying about it. Or, as some contend (with sound historical research--tapes), Nixon extending the Vietnam War past the 1972 election, although knowing it was lost?

For that matter, FDR sent a large ship full of genocide refugees back to Europe.

George Bush jr. got the US into not one but two unwinnable and fantastically expensive wars. Obama has prosecuted the war in Afghanistan for his entire presidency, though that nation beheads apostates, and is a narco-state, considered one of the most corrupt anywhere. Hillary is onboard.

Trump looks like a cupcake next to his predecessors. Says he wants a smaller US footprint. Maybe he even means it.

Andrew_FL writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Mike Rulle writes:

JK

Great find on upper class British Trump. The bizarre thing about it is that you are correct!

Garrett M writes:

Mark Bahner:

Of course, the good news is that Donald Trump almost certainly is not going to be elected. (But of course, the bad news is that Hillary Clinton almost certainly will be.)

What makes you say that? If you look at betting markets today Clinton is at 70% chance and Trump is at 25%. I wouldn't call that almost certainty.

Floccina writes:
Specifically, mixed in his foreign policy views is one of the nicest and most-succinct takedowns of the interventionist foreign policy practiced for many years by two Bushes, a Clinton, and, less so, Obama.


One of my business partners insists that Obama was worse than Bush on foreign policy because Obama supported the rebellions in Libya, Egypt and Syria even after seeing what a mess Bush's invasion of Iraq loosed. He supports Trump because he is anti-war and thinks HRC is neocon.

Mark Bahner writes:

Garrett M:

What makes you say that? If you look at betting markets today Clinton is at 70% chance and Trump is at 25%. I wouldn't call that almost certainty.

What makes me say that (in no particular order):

1) My view of the math is that Hillary gets 80% of Hispanics, 70% of blacks, and 65% of women. So how can it not be a lock for her (unless a lot of white males are voting 2-3 times)?

2) I think she'll clobber him in debates. All she has to do is repeatedly come back to the blatantly false and/or outrageous things he's said, plus repeatedly point out no president in history has lacked credentials as he does.

3) I didn't know the betting markets were at 70/25.

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