While in almost every respect Democrat Hillary Clinton comes off as a safer pair of hands, last week’s U.S. presidential debate left a nagging feeling that Republican Donald Trump, by playing the anti-establishment radical, might yet talk his way to victory.
Trump succeeded in painting Clinton as the status quo candidate. A survey of his plans, from blowing up the central bank to cutting taxes for the rich, means a Trump win may prompt a far more radical transformation than he and his supporters have bargained for.
Financial markets and most credible polls are not taking the possibility of a Trump win seriously. On the other hand, Trump has repeatedly shown he is no pushover. Scandals and devastating headlines hardly weaken the appeal of his focused message.
As commentators have taken turns observing, voters in the United States are disenchanted with the way things are. Trump fans that disenchantment.
“Our country is in deep trouble,” he announced in the debate.
To the purely rational, Clinton’s response — that the U.S. economy is growing and has produced millions of jobs despite the financial collapse that undeniably unfolded during a Republican watch — made sense.
But Trump’s gloom suits the public mood. Rational or not, his comments prompt visceral anger that blames foreigners for “stealing our companies and jobs.”
And most powerful of all, Trump can play the outsider card.
“Hillary, I’d just ask you this. You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now?” asked Trump in the debate. “For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you’re just starting to think of solutions.”
Pointing a finger at failures by “Secretary Clinton and others, politicians,” Trump makes it clear he believes he is not just an alternative to Clinton’s team, but also outside the the entire political in-group.
Clinton has said she intends to raise taxes on the rich, but as the default candidate of the business elite, hands tied by a divided Congress, she may find it hard to do more than tinker. As Trump said, the Democrats have had eight years.
The outsider solutions being proposed by Trump and his team are undeniably radical, threatening major changes in the conventional way of doing things.
Blaming the Federal Reserve
Trump has promised a shakeup at the U.S. central bank. He has described a return to the gold standard as “hard” but “wonderful.” A Financial Times column by Trump economic adviser Judy Shelton hints at a major rethink.
The U.S. dollar is the anchor of global finance. Dramatic changes in the Fed will affect more than the United States.
Trump says he wants to cut taxes for corporations, break free-trade agreements, make NATO members pay more, stop China from debasing its currency, bring the jobs home.
To a disenchanted electorate, such radical solutions may sound good, and who knows, maybe, like disturbing the roots of lilac or wisteria as gardeners do to make them bloom, they will work.
But there is another potential outcome.
Canadian pollster and author Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research, recently showed me some data collected this year that might horrify many Canadians.
It showed that a growing trend toward inequality means a large majority, an astounding 57 per cent, fear that we are heading for a period of “class conflicts” if things don’t change.
“I take it with a grain of salt but I also think it’s a really important indicator of just how concerned and upset the public increasingly are,” said Graves in a phone interview.
In a book coming out next week, Graves says there are solutions, but the changes he proposes to create greater equality and “a shared prosperity” are not Trump’s. He says inequality, which is even worse in the U.S., needs something more like the New Deal that restarted the postwar North American economy.
“This was not a matter of tinkering,” says Graves. “This was a matter of dramatic, bold reform.”
While Trump’s own reforms purport to make America great again, the short-term effect, making the rich richer through tax cuts, pulling the rug out from under international trade, sending global currency markets into confusion, could exacerbate a growing sense of class conflict.
Despite calls for bold reform by people like Graves, history shows that making changes in wealth distribution has been difficult, usually requiring a major crisis.
By precipitating such a crisis with untried radical reforms, a victorious Trump could be the catalyst for even greater change.
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis
More analysis by Don Pittis