Analysis: With a Tight Smile, Trump Details Economic Plan in Detroit
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his running-mate, Indiana governor Mike Pence, were the featured speakers at a Detroit Economic Club luncheon today. Trump has spent most of the summer lurching from one controversy to another, but in Detroit, he appeared to be well-coached and almost singularly focused on outlining his newly announced economic policies—in contrast to many of his other campaign appearances.
The crowd was overwhelmingly white and predominantly male, and, if I had to guess, far wealthier than the usual Trump campaign event—a sea of navy-blue blazers, khaki pants, and American flag pins. (I saw exactly one bright red “Make America Great” baseball hat.) There were fewer protestors amassed outside the building than I expected, and the uniformed police presence inside seemed subtle to the point of barely there.
The Detroit Economic Club was formed in 1934 by civic leader Allen Crow as an optimistic response to the Great Depression. The informal luncheons the group held to debate the day’s hot issues eventually grew into a formal non-partisan, nonprofit organization. Today, the group’s meetings are considered a required stop on the Rust Belt campaign circuit for politicians and dignitaries of all kinds, offering a platform to unpack major policy initiatives. Past speakers include Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon, George H.W. and George W. Bush, Coretta Scott King,, and Bill Clinton.
Following last week’s controversy over his attacks on a gold star family, Trump apparently has taken to heart the widespread discontent expressed by members of his own party and political opponents, as he presented a much more restrained version of himself in Detroit. He stayed rigidly on message, even as young women camouflaged in business-casual attire stood up to protest at the rate of roughly one every 10 minutes. (His tight smile, which gave him the appearance of someone in the presence of a disagreeable odor rather than someone experiencing joy, remained in place even as the women were roughly escorted out of the venue.)
The audience response to Trump’s speech was most enthusiastic—booing, cheering, whistling—when protestors were being steered toward the exits or when he was discussing what he characterized as the failed economic policies of President Obama, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and the city of Detroit.
“The city of Detroit is a living, breathing example of my opponent’s failed agenda,” he told the crowd. “She supports high taxes, radical regulation, and immigration policies that have weakened our economy.”
A little later, he came back to that message, saying, “She wants to tax and regulate our jobs out of existence. Her policies punish you for working and doing business in the U.S., and she tries to distract us with her tired political rhetoric that pulls us apart.”
Aside from the layers of irony in that statement—one might argue that Trump has turned divisive political rhetoric into an art form this summer—which regulations, specifically, does the candidate find to be radical? He mentioned a War on Coal and a War on American Workers, but he didn’t explain much beyond that, other than saying his website would offer more details soon. One of the first things he’ll do if elected, he said, is “lift regulations on all energy sources,” a no doubt nerve-wracking proposition for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence introduced Trump to the crowd in a brief warm-up speech that tried to paint the real estate mogul as someone who could appreciate the little guy, working right alongside them as he built his fabled skyscrapers. Cautious applause rang out after Pence said, “Donald Trump will empower working families to hire, invest, build, grow, and produce here in America again.”
Both Trump and Pence called for deep tax cuts while also promising to initiate massive infrastructure projects to fix the country’s roads and bridges—repairs that are traditionally paid for with tax revenues—offering a major boost to the economy.
More tepid applause was heard when, in a line that sounded as if it could have been ripped from a set of Bernie Sanders talking points, Trump said he would launch the country’s economic renewal “for everyone, especially those who have the least.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the fact he was speaking in the heart of America’s manufacturing economy, Trump said Clinton offered only “restrictions on production.” Overregulation, he said, is costing the country $2 trillion per year. He also painted these regulations—often the kind that are meant to protect the citizenry from industry’s more rapacious instincts—as a “hidden tax on consumers” and said he’d immediately issue a temporary moratorium on new regulations once elected. He also made sure to tie the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to Clinton via her husband, who was president when the legislation was enacted.
Trump said Clinton has supported “trade deals stripping cities like Detroit of their wealth,” and he criticized China for unfair labor practices as well as “rampant theft” of American intellectual property. Clinton, he added, has had a disastrous effect on the country’s trade-negotiating power.
“It’s been a disaster for our country,” he insisted. “If I don’t get a better deal, we’ll walk away.”
Trump said he’d also significantly reform the country’s tax structure, lowering the number of income brackets from seven to three and reducing the amount of taxes any corporation would owe to 15 percent. “It’ll be the biggest tax revolution since the Regan tax reforms, which unleashed years of growth,” he promised.
Perhaps because he knows how important the issue is to conservative Michigan donors like Betsy DeVos, Trump also hammered away at education policies that deny students “freedom of choice.” (Read: non-charter public schools.) He also said he and his daughter, Ivanka, were hard at work on a plan to “increase choice and reduce the cost” of child care. When he pointed to Ivanka from the stage, the audience erupted into enthusiastic applause.
There were other bits of red meat tossed to the calmly receptive crowd—repealing Obamacare, giving police “the money they need to bring law and order to this country,” immigration reform, and fixing the Veterans Administration—but Trump showed discipline in keeping the speech mostly about the economy. (NPR went through the trouble of fact-checking the feasibility of his economic plans here, and our own Wade Roush analyzed the candidate’s support of innovation here.) The kinds of changes he has in mind, he said, will make cities like Detroit come roaring back.
At one point, Trump seemed to credit himself with New York City’s transformation in the 1990s from a city on the brink of economic and political chaos to the safe and prosperous metropolis it is today.
“We all remember what a disaster New York City was. We made it great again, and that’s what I want to do for this country,” Trump said, before pausing and lowering his voice to a near whisper for dramatic effect. “And it won’t even be that hard.”