Today Donald Trump delivered a major speech on the economy in Pennsylvania, titled “Declaring America’s Economic Independence.” You can read the speech, as prepared for delivery, here. These are my thoughts on it:
1) The fact that it is a prepared speech at all is good. Trump’s speeches during the primary season were generally stream of consciousness riffs, and he often has gotten into trouble while ad libbing. He needs the discipline of a prepared text to keep him on message and avoid foolish distractions.
2) The speech previews themes which I think will be highly effective. Those themes aren’t new, of course, but Trump is now honing them and bringing them to a wider audience. Speeches like the one he delivered today will drive the Democrats crazy. They will denounce Trump as a demagogue and xenophobe, which means they are afraid voters will find him persuasive. Trump’s speech tells a story–a personal, populist story, with Hillary Clinton as one of the villains:
We are thirty miles from Steel City. Pittsburgh played a central role in building our nation.
The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape.
But our workers’ loyalty was repaid with betrayal.
Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization – moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.
Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.
3) The speech was mostly about trade. Trump sounds very much like Dick Gephardt, circa 1988. He links the decline in American manufacturing jobs to currency devaluations and cheating by our trade partners, under the benign eye of the globalist financial elite represented by Hillary Clinton. I think Trump’s diagnosis is mostly wrong. The number of manufacturing jobs has declined due to constantly improving productivity, even as the value of goods manufactured in the U.S. is at an all-time high. Trump talks about dealing with “cheating” by trade partners and denounces specific deals (NAFTA and TPP) as bad for the U.S., but to the extent that manufacturing has grown more rapidly in some other countries, like China and Mexico, it is because of cheaper labor and less costly regulation. Trump implies, but doesn’t quite say, that he wants to impose high tariffs on manufactured goods. This would be a highly destructive policy, I think.
4) Still, Trump’s narrative contains a considerable kernel of truth. There is a globalist elite that doesn’t much care about the United States, and Hillary Clinton is its foremost representative in American politics (or will be when Barack Obama steps down). I think it is true that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is a bad deal for America, and, in general, that we would be better served by tough negotiators who care about American interests. Most voters sense this, which is why Trump’s approach could be political dynamite:
[I]f we’re going to deliver real change, we’re going to have to reject the campaign of fear and intimidation being pushed by powerful corporations, media elites, and political dynasties.
The people who rigged the system for their benefit will do anything – and say anything – to keep things exactly as they are.
The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing will ever change.
The inner cities will remain poor.
The factories will remain closed.
The borders will remain open.
The special interests will remain firmly in control.
Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small – and they want to scare the American people out of voting for a better future.
My campaign has the opposite message.
I want you to imagine how much better your life can be if we start believing in America again.
At times, Trump is downright Reaganesque.
5) Once he gets away from trade, pretty much everything Trump says is sound, if vague:
We will make America the best place in the world to start a business, hire workers, and open a factory.
This includes massive tax reform to lift the crushing burdens on American workers and businesses.
We will also get rid of wasteful rules and regulations which are destroying our job creation capacity. Many people think that these regulations are an even greater impediment than the fact that we are one of the highest taxed nations in the world.
We are also going to fully capture America’s tremendous energy capacity. This will create vast profits for our workers and begin reducing our deficit. Hillary Clinton wants to shut down energy production and shut down the mines.
Altogether, it is a powerful message. I would like to see less emphasis on trade and more on regulation, but from a political standpoint, Trump’s formula will be effective.