Donald Trump's theory of love

How Donald Trump is trying to put a compassionate face on authoritarian populism

Donald Trump holds a young boy up during a rally.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Layne Murdoch Jr.)

In her intriguing new book The Nordic Theory of Everything, Finnish journalist Anu Partanen, a transplant to Brooklyn, pities her new American friends (and herself) who must juggle work and family life in a country lacking an all-encompassing, Scandinavian-style welfare state. Surviving modern capitalism without such a Nordic social insurance system, Partanen writes, is to experience "an extraordinarily harsh form of travel backward in time." Even worse, she adds, Americans do not seem "fully aware of how much better things could be."

Not Ivanka Trump! She's fully woke to the problem and possible solutions. And thanks to her daughterly urging, daddy Donald is proposing a raft of family-oriented policies that resemble a bizarro copy of the expansive agenda laid out by his presidential opponent Hillary Clinton.

In a speech Tuesday, the Republican nominee outlined several Ivanka-inspired ideas, including six weeks of paid maternity leave and allowing working parents — individuals earning up to $250,000, or $500,000 for a married couple — to take an income tax deduction for childcare (apparently in addition to the existing childcare and child tax credits).

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Surely this would be the final straw for America's small government party, one economic heresy too many. House Speaker Paul Ryan last year rightly dismissed the idea of national paid leave policy as unwise government interference with the employer-employee relationship. He doubted whether "people asked me to be speaker so I can take more money from hard-working taxpayers, so I can create some new federal entitlement." Ryan may still feel that way, but many other Republicans apparently feel just fine with Trump's sharp break from conservative orthodoxy. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said she was "thrilled" with Trump's ideas, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted that it was a "major achievement."

Team Clinton was less impressed, quickly issuing an exhaustive critique of Trump's plan. The Democrats noted, for instance, that providing paid leave to new moms but not dads can actually undercut women in the workplace and promote discrimination against them. Moreover, Trump's childcare plan looks to be a big tax break for upper-middle class Americans, while doing far less for working-class and lower-income families who have little or no income-tax liability. As my AEI colleague Angela Rachidi explains, "One problem with the Trump childcare plan is that it seems to disproportionately benefit higher-income families."

Of course, economic plans can be tweaked this way or that. More enduring are the assumptions and priorities that undergird them. Offering an echo of a left-wing, progressive approach to social insurance means you are embracing Democrats' underlying advocacy of how the world ought to work.

Ideas should matter to the self-described "party of ideas."

And whether it's Hillarynomics or Ivankanomics, the core belief at work here is that social insurance must everywhere and always be a government-supplied or mandated benefit. Dig deeper and you'll find a cosmology less concerned with the mediating institutions of civil society that stand between the individual and the state. Or what Partanen calls the Nordic "theory of love." It's the idea that true love and friendship "are only possible between individuals who are independent and equal." Thus no person should be financially dependent on anyone else — spouses, parents, adult children, charities — only on the state (and millions of anonymous taxpayers).

Is this social democratic vision really where the GOP wants to go? Does the GOP, with its reflexive affirmation of its nominee's novel policy positions, even grasp that is where Trumpism may inadvertently take it? This is a party, after all, whose more thoughtful members — including Ryan — consistently warn how ever-larger government crowds out civil society and weakens local institutions. Trump is throwing all that under the bus even as GOPers continue to stream on board.

It's not like there aren't actual conservative ideas for helping families manage work-life balance in a dynamic, competitive, churning economy. An alternate center-right approach might assume people — certainly the upper-middle class and wealthy — should be saving their own money to finance parental leave or childcare expenses. Now, Trump would create a new childcare savings account. Yet one can imagine more expansive "personal care accounts" where workers of more modest means could save money tax-free for a broader range of expenses, with government supplementing balances for lower-income workers. A version devised by economist Martin Feldstein to deal with unemployment spells would allow government to lend to such accounts if they were exhausted or still tiny when needed. Positive balances would be converted into retirement income, while negative account balances would be forgiven at retirement.

To what extent, if any, did Team Trump consider centering his plan around such an alternate approach, one more in keeping with the long-held principles of the party he now represents? Probably not much, given the reactive nature of a campaign where policies seem quickly cooked up in response to polling swings or the news cycle.

This is yet another example of how the Trump candidacy may not only be a missed GOP opportunity to win the presidency, but also to advance a modern, center-right agenda that does more than poorly mimic what Democrats are doing. Then again, if all you really want to do is put a compassionate human face on Trump's authoritarian populism, deep policy principles and devilish details are ultimately irrelevant. That may be all there is to Donald and Ivanka's theory of love.

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