Trump is in the early stages of deploying a powerful and popular protectionist platform. He does not use the word “protectionism,” preferring to call it free trade managed by people who know how to negotiate deals. But his voice takes a vengeful tone when he describes his trade policy. He has promised to enlist some of the toughest negotiators in New York to lay down the law. (“I know people who are so nasty, so mean, so horrible,” he says, “nobody in Iowa would want to have dinner with them.”) About the parent company of Nabisco, which is closing a plant in Chicago and moving production to Mexico, he says, “I’m never eating Oreos again—ever!” It sounds like an implicit threat to mobilize voters around boycotts and other forms of economic pressure, a tactic that has been limited in recent years to progressives’ agitating on gay marriage and other social issues.
Paradoxically, his own braggadocio puts him in a good position to attack the information-age plutocracy. Talking about how filthy rich the filthy rich are is one of Trump’s favorite subjects, much as beautiful women like to deplore the role beauty plays in human relations. At a press availability before the speech in Dubuque, Trump made a shocking allusion (in ways that few but the initiated will have understood) to the carried-interest deduction that enables rich investors to limit their tax liability. “I know a lot about hedge funds,” he said. “I know a lot about how they’re taxed.”
This economic critique fits into a sophisticated attack on the present state of presidential campaign finance. It is not a call for reform. It is a boast of his own unbuyability in a world where all politicians can be bought. A Washington Post article about the consternation of top Republicans took the boast at face value: “Donors feel powerless. Republican officials have little leverage. Candidates are skittish. Super-PAC operatives say attack ads against him could backfire.” Most voters will read of such big-donor consternation and think: What’s not to like? On the trail, Trump has of late been telling the story of a lobbyist who came to him offering the campaign $5 million, only to be sent away. Otherwise, Trump says, “he’ll be coming in two years, representing some foreign government.” Trump alleges that Jeb Bush has secretly raised either $114 million or $135 million this way. Whether this lobbyist is an actual person or a composite, the story is plausible, and Trump uses it for a beautiful piece of oratorical pedagogy. He talks about how even the noblest politicians with the best intentions will give in to lobbyists once they get behind closed doors: