Trump’s Economic Agenda Speech: The Good, the Bad and the Misguided Nostalgia

By Jordan Ballor Published on August 10, 2016

Earlier this week Donald Trump outlined his economic agenda in a speech to the Detroit Economic Club. It was an iconic choice. Detroit has become synonymous with American decline. This once-great city, the story goes, has suffered under mismanagement, corruption, social and racial inequality, and adverse trade conditions, leaving Detroit a shadow of its former self. If Trump wants to “Make America Great Again,” he might start with making cities like Detroit great again.

For all of the negativity in this presidential campaign, there was a great deal of hopeful talk in Trump’s speech. While casting his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton as “the candidate of the past,” the GOP nominee describes his as “the campaign of the future.”

Trump made some big promises: “Detroit — the Motor City — will come roaring back. We will offer a new future, not the same old failed policies of the past. Our party has chosen to make new history by selecting a nominee from outside the rigged and corrupt system.”

Isolated Elites, Trump’s Concern

One of the reasons many elites have failed to understand Trump’s popularity is that they are increasingly isolated from the everyday experiences of poor and working-class Americans. They also underestimate the extent to which today’s political system seems designed to favor the wealthy and the well-connected.

For all his extravagance and wealth, Trump keeps an appeal to those who feel disenfranchised at the forefront of his campaign. His rhetoric and his developing economic policy have been tailored to address the concerns of these marginalized groups. His Detroit speech opened with a focus on “those who have the very least.”

But will Trump’s economic program actually help them? This Detroit speech is a first step in moving his campaign to appeal to a broader coalition of voters and adding substance to the general contours of his agenda. In some ways the speech does so effectively. The best parts are those where he outlines proposals that have the potential to unleash dynamism and innovation.

In addressing regulation, for instance, Trump rightly pointed out that regulation tends to crowd out entrepreneurial start-ups and hamper economic growth. His hope is that reforming excessive and redundant regulation “will give our American companies the certainty they need to reinvest in our community, get cash off of the sidelines, start hiring for new jobs, and expanding businesses.” Likewise, in briefly addressing education reform, Trump emphasized parental choice, and there are some good proposals to increase competition and improve outcomes for elementary and secondary schools. Many of these are already active in places like Detroit and need to be expanded and solidified.

Past Results, Future Success

Other than general references to “expanding businesses,” however, most of Trump’s rhetorical focus in his economic talk has been on larger, traditional manufacturing industries. “Detroit was once the economic envy of the world,” said Trump. “The people of Detroit helped power America to its position of global dominance in the 20th century.”

The challenge here is to connect the image of 1950s era manufacturing with the realities of today’s diverse economic landscape. Politicians have long wedded their proposals for economic development with helping big business, whether it is revitalizing the auto industry or the furniture industry, or using government subsidies to catalyze “green” energy or biomedical enterprises.

That’s not the best way to help “the very least” in today’s modern economy. Trump must acknowledge how the economy has developed and recognize that the way to create economic development is for government policy to catalyze the potential dynamism of entrepreneurs.

Rather than making promises about bringing auto jobs back to Detroit or steel jobs back to Pittsburgh, Trump should be embracing an entrepreneurial agenda, which by definition cannot be controlled or directed by politicians. He should be calling for a more open, dynamic economic playing field that would create the conditions for new businesses and enterprises to be created. Perhaps some of those jobs would be in traditional manufacturing sectors.

In such a dynamic environment, however, no one can predict what kinds of jobs will be created, which businesses will succeed and fail, and what advantages a particular city or state will have. Grand Rapids, on the other side of the state from Detroit, was once America’s “Furniture City”. Today it is, among other things,“Beer City, USA”. Who knows what it might be tomorrow if its entrepreneurs are free to experiment and create?

The trouble for Trump’s promised future lies in the impossibility of reclaiming a bygone era. If Trump is going to “offer a new future, not the same old failed policies of the past,” he must cast a vision for economic development in places like Detroit that is truly open to the future and to the world, and not simply of an excavation project of a past golden age.


Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

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