Donald Trump’s Trick To Pose as a Populist

Bill Scher

Donald Trump has a trick he likes to use when he wants to communicate two different messages to two different constituencies: incoherence.

It doesn’t take much to expose incoherence, yet it seems to flummox media headline writers who are itchy to summarize only one message.

For example, here’s Trump on NBC’s “Meet The Press” last Sunday, talking about the minimum wage [emphasis added].

CHUCK TODD: Minimum wage. At a debate, you know. You remember what you said. You thought you didn’t want to touch it. Now you’re open to it. What changed?

DONALD TRUMP: Let me just tell you, I’ve been traveling the country for many months … I have seen what’s going on. And I don’t know how people make it on $7.25 an hour.

Now, with that being said, I would like to see an increase of some magnitude. But I’d rather leave it to the states. Let the states decide. Because don’t forget, the states have to compete with each other. So you may have a governor –

CHUCK TODD: Right … but should the federal government set a floor, and then you let the states–

DONALD TRUMP: No, I’d rather have the states go out and do what they have to do. And the states compete with each other, not only other countries, but they compete with each other, Chuck. So I like the idea of let the states decide.

But I think people should get more. I think they’re out there. They’re working. It is a very low number. You know, with what’s happened to the economy, with what’s happened to the cost. I mean, it’s just– I don’t know how you live on $7.25 an hour. But I would say let the states decide.

When this exchange was summed up by The Washington Post, the headline read: “Trump, who once opposed minimum-wage hike, says he would ‘like to see an increase.’” Technically true, but highly misleading.

What Trump actually did was say he would “like to see an increase” then took a position against using presidential power to mandate an increase – and, arguably, against having any federal minimum wage at all! – in deference to the states. It’s lovely that his wish is for those states to propose increases, but refusal to promote federal legislation makes him no different from every other Republican who opposes a federal minimum wage increase.

Trump also is trying to throw sand in our eyes about his tax policy. On ABC’s “This Week,” he initially sounded like he was taking his tax proposal – which slashes the top tax rate from 39.6 to 25 percent and eliminates the estate tax – and throwing it out the window.

Asked about his tax plan he begins by saying, Bush-style, “It gives a massive tax cut to everybody,” before indicating that he expects changes after negotiating with Congress:

[GEORGE] STEPHANOPOULOS: But bottom line, do you want taxes on the wealthy to go up or down?

TRUMP: They will go up a little bit. And they may go up, you know …

STEPHANOPOULOS: But they’re going down in your plan.

TRUMP: No, no, in my plan they’re going down, but by the time it’s negotiated, they’ll go up …

… what I really want is lower on business, because business – we’re the highest taxed nation in the world [Fact-check: Nope]. And I want lower in the middle class. The middle class in this country is getting decimated … [But] TRUMP: I don’t mind paying more tax, I’ll be honest with you. I don’t mind paying more tax. I’ve done very well over the last 40 years.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But under your plan, you pay less taxes.

TRUMP: But under my plan, it’s going to be negotiated … if I want to get lower taxes, which is very important for me, I’m not going to put in high taxes and I’m not even going to put in what I necessarily want. I’m going to put in lower than I want and we’re going to negotiate.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But in the end, will someone like me or Donald Trump pay more under your tax plan?

TRUMP: I have a feeling we may pay some more …

Sure sounds like he would raise the top tax rate, right? But Trump made an important distinction on “Meet The Press”: [emphasis added]

TRUMP: … the middle class has to be protected. The rich is probably going to end up paying more. And business might have to pay a little bit more. But we’re giving a massive business tax cut …

CHUCK TODD: Wait a minute. Let me stop you there. You just said, “Businesses might pay a little bit more.” You just said, “Business might pay a little bit more, but we’re going to get ’em a massive tax cut.” You just said it within ten words.

DONALD TRUMP: No, no. I didn’t say it. Excuse me. I said they might have to pay a little bit more than my proposal, Chuck. I said they might have–

CHUCK TODD: Oh, your proposal. Okay. I just wanted to get that clear.

DONALD TRUMP: yeah, than my proposal … I’m not talking about more than they’re paying now.

In case you think that Trump is only clarifying that he won’t increase the current tax rate on business, but still could for the wealthiest income taxpayers, he clarified further for the wealthy conservatives who watch Fox Business Network on Monday morning: [emphasis added]

I’m really going to fight hard for the middle class, I’m not raising it. And I’m not raising it on business. But I could see that the wealthy getting raised. But I’m not talking about raised from where they are now, I’m talking about raised from my low proposal … So the media, of course, picks it up that “Trump wants a tax increase.” It’s just unbelievable.

Trump is absolutely correct about how the media picks it up. The Reuters headline from Sunday was: “Trump changes tune on tax hikes for wealthy Americans.”

But it’s doubtful Trump is upset about the media coverage. He wants different constituencies to believe what they want to believe. His deliberate incoherence creates misleading media headlines and aids his cause.

We live in a world where many people don’t read past the headlines. That’s not going to work with Trump.

Get updates in your inbox