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Jun 14, 2024, 11:55am EDT
politicsNorth America

Trump’s splashy campaign promises have an odd common thread

Brendan McDermid/REUTERS
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The Scene

Ending all taxes on tips. Declassifying all files on 9/11 and the JFK assassination. Freeing a darknet market mogul from prison. Protecting Bitcoin and TikTok from government meddlers.

In his four-year presidency, Donald Trump did none of that. In the last few weeks, he’s promised to do all of it — sometimes in front of crowds ready to cheer his new policies, sometimes with interviewers who don’t ask why he flipped. Democrats, already battling voter “Trumpnesia” and warmer feelings about the MAGA years, are now wrestling with out-of-nowhere promises that don’t match up with Trump’s record.

The latest promise, to make tipped wages tax-free, debuted at Trump’s Sunday rally in Las Vegas. “We’re going to do that right away, first thing in office,” said the Republican nominee. “It’s been a point of contention for years and years and years.”

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Trump had never endorsed this before, or mentioned it during 2017’s yearlong tax cut debate. The Biden campaign said that Trump’s “wild campaign promise” couldn’t be trusted, and that Democrats wanted to end the tipped minimum wage, a policy with more direct worker benefits, which Republicans opposed.

But on Monday night, Fox News praised Trump’s “tip tax cut” and explained how it could swing the election. On Wednesday, Trump-endorsed Nevada US Senate Sam Brown told NBC News that the “visionary” ex-president had “scooped” him on a proposal he was about to run on himself. By Thursday, Trump was rallying House Republicans for the tax cut, and Senate Republicans were praising a “brilliant idea” that no one had a plan to implement yet.

“I think we should put it on the table,” Sen. John Cornyn told Semafor. “We’re gonna consider everything else, so it might as well be part of it.”

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Know More

Trump’s breezy willingness to reverse himself was a problem for Democrats in 2016. Polls found that voters saw him as more moderate than Hillary Clinton; he could hit her from the right on abortion and immigration, from the left on trade and criminal justice reform, and from the center on gay rights.

That wasn’t the case in 2020, when Democrats ran against specific, unpopular Trump agenda items — an unsuccessful push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the passage of polarizing tax cuts.

This cycle has been more of a muddle, shaped by nostalgia for pre-COVID prices and interest rates, and blurred memories of what happened when. A poll conducted for Politico last month found 37% of voters crediting Trump with new infrastructure investments, compared to 40% who credited President Joe Biden, even though the investments famously didn’t happen under Trump.

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“Human memory is notoriously faulty,” said Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth University’s polling institute, whose numbers show voters retroactively warming to the Trump presidency. “The real question is whether this is written in stone or whether you can remind people of how they actually felt about the past.”

In that environment, Trump has gotten a hearing for policies and presidential actions that he spent four years not pursuing. Last month, he told the Libertarian National Convention that he would commute the sentence of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, though he’d ignored an appeal to do that from the third party in 2018.

“We should be cautiously optimistic,” Libertarian Party chair Angela McArdle told Semafor after Trump’s speech. “He seems to have been burned by a lot of his former administration, and I think there’s a good opportunity for him to pivot and not put the same swamp creatures around himself.”

Trump had already moved to meet Libertarians on cryptocurrency, which he criticized as late as 2021 (“I don’t want to have other currencies coming out and hurting or demeaning the dollar”) and now embraces; on Tuesday, after meeting with crypto executives, he posted on Truth Social that he “want[ed] all the remaining Bitcoin to be MADE IN THE USA!!!”

His flip on TikTok, from signing an executive order that would have potentially banned it to promising never to ban it, was widely reported as a sop to TikTok investor Jeff Yass; TikTok users and influencers have celebrated the switch regardless. When Fox News asked if he’d release the government’s files on 9/11, the JFK assassination, and Jeffrey Epstein, Trump said yes, never explaining why he opted not to in his first term — and never being pressed by the interviewers. (As Semafor’s Max Tani reported, the network also cut his Epstein answer to excise some caveats.)

“He could just write a new executive order and release everything,” said Jefferson Morley, the founder of the JFK Files substack, which covered Trump’s new promise skeptically. “He could have done that last time.All of his dealings with this are just totally transactional. If it’s in his interest to release them, he’ll release them; if he doesn’t think it’s in his interest, he won’t.”

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David’s view

There’s an old Clintonworld assessment of the 2016 election that’s stuck with me for eight years. I’ll paraphrase it: “We built an Italian sports car, and Trump made us take it off road.” There is a tried-and-true populist way that Democrats win national elections, epitomized by the 2012 campaign that portrayed Mitt Romney as a vulture capitalist who’d cut taxes on the rich. Trump’s unpredictability prevented Hillary Clinton from doing that.

Democrats are trying to do that again, with three binders of material — Trump’s record, his promises to rich donors that he’ll cut their taxes, and the Project 2025 portfolio of conservative policies being prepped for a second administration. But there’s a powerful monomyth about Trump, which the Libertarian Party’s chair summed up well. In the first term, he had the wrong advisors; the next President Trump would be unencumbered, and could do anything.

So in 2018, when Trump proposed a “10% middle class tax cut” right before the midterm election, Democrats easily convinced voters that this was a ruse; he’d just passed an enormous tax cut, and never talked about this. Trump’s now running as a liberated ex-president who can make old opponents bend the knee, and he has a more robust, more friendly conservative media infrastructure that hypes his new promises and doesn’t ask how much this will cost, or why it didn’t happen before.

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The View From Democrats

Democrats were completely dismissive of the tips policy. Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, declined to comment on it at all; members who did said that Trump was clearly pandering for votes.

“No one actually believes that the former president cares about tax policy,” said Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee. “Donald Trump has proven he will say or do anything to be elected president.”

Pat Dennis, the president of the Democratic oppo group American Bridge, said that “voters aren’t holding their breath that any of the many fake promises Donald Trump makes will come to fruition.” But they needed to be reminded. “We’re working to make sure voters remember Trump is a con artist, obsessed with gaining power, who will say anything to return to the White House.”

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Room for Disagreement

Politicians look for new policy ideas all the time, so the fact that Trump never brought up the idea of a tax cut for tips when he was in office doesn’t necessarily mean it’s insincere. One Republican working on the Trump re-election said that his new promises were credible because he’d be served by a very different team in 2025. The old party figures with long resumes and deep doubts had slowed Trump down in 2017 and 2018. They wouldn’t be there next time.

“I think the advantage he has in second term is that there is now a professional class of Trump Republicans in DC,” said the operative. “The nature of the staffing right at the jump will be different.”

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Notable

  • In The New Republic, Timothy Noah argues that Trump’s flashy promise won’t benefit workers as much as the Biden administration’s. “When Trump finally gets around to proposing a tax policy that might have some appeal for working-class voters, he does so not by requiring employers to pay workers a living wage but rather by requiring the federal government to take up the slack.”
  • In Puck, Peter Hamby looks at the “Trumpnesia” problem bedeviling Democrats with young voters, and allowing Trump to reinvent himself; “Many of them only started paying attention to politics a few years ago, maybe starting around the time of the Biden inauguration or the Covid pandemic.”
  • And previously in Semafor, Joseph Zebillos-Roig talked to House Republicans about the agenda Trump floated in his meetings on Thursday: “He also appeared to float replacing the personal income tax with tariffs, according to Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.”

Joseph Zebillos-Roig contributed reporting.

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