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11 Populist Proposals for the Post-Trump GOP

The president's reign might have devolved into nihilism, but there are ideas waiting for those who would pick them up.

US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One before departing Harlingen, Texas on January 12, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Nearly four years ago, this writer noted in these pages that Donald Trump had been brought to power by three issues (in addition to resentments arising from judicial activism): 1) trade-induced unemployment, especially among the young; 2) unwise wars, and unfair distribution of the burdens of those wars; and 3) social dislocations in some cities and regions resulting from massive uncontrolled immigration.

Trump held the high cards in addressing all three of these issues. It was within his executive power to denounce and renegotiate trade agreements, to bring anti-dumping cases, and to use these powers as levers to secure legislation fostering employment of the young. It was within his power to withdraw from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, and to avoid throwing rocks into the world’s hornets’ nests. It was within his power, through rhetoric and enforcement against employers of the E-verify provisions of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, to produce outward flows of migrants and to negotiate with Congress terms on which many migrants may remain and programs to reduce migration at its source.

The Trump administration denounced or threatened trade agreements and “jaw-boned” particular manufacturers without tangible or lasting results for young workers. It continued drone warfare and bombing runs, exacerbating refugee problems. Its ham-handed actions relating to visa and green card holders with vested rights partially wasted its “trump card” on immigration. Its deregulatory and tax proposals had little appeal to its three new constituencies, and in its kindness to fund managers, it forgot Bernard De Jouvenel’s maxim that “the wealth of merchants is resented more than the pomp of rulers.”

There are still available, either to a Republican Party cleansed of Trump or to the Biden administration, my 11 proposals of a populist nature, none very expensive. Since the Trump administration was a milder version of what Hermann Rauschning in the 1930s called “A Revolution of Nihilism,” any effort to enlarge its constituency of malcontents was forsworn. Accordingly, these ideas are re-tendered:

1. Completely relieving workers under the age of 25 of payroll taxation, as in Germany and Holland. Over the long term, this would render them the most employed, rather than the most unemployed, age cohort. Because they make up at most 10 percent of the labor force, and typically enjoy barely half of average earnings, relieving them of 12.4 percent payroll taxes would require an increase in general payroll tax rates of, at most, 5 to 10 percent of one percent.

2. A revived Civilian Conservation Corps, a cause promoted only by Senator Bernie Sanders, with its focus on low-tech infrastructure projects and services, including such neglected fields of activity as soil conservation, reforestation, disaster relief, reclamation of abandoned mine sites, creation of new national parks in Appalachia, hydrology, desert agriculture, creation of footpaths and youth hostels, and training as practical nurses and nursing assistants.

3. Making the services of the United States Employment Service, a largely moribund adjunct of the unemployment system, available to all workers under the age of 25.

4. Tax credits, like those in Germany, Finland, and Japan, to encourage the installation of second kitchens in owner-occupied housing, thereby fostering the creation of low-cost housing in the form of accessory apartments, duplex houses, and mother-in-law flats. This is a far more economical method of generating new low-cost small units than subsidized housing, and restrictions to owner-occupied homes would eliminate the fears and controversies accompanying public housing proposals.

5. Limited incentives, in the form of handbooks and nominal tax credits, to foster the creation of cooperative old-age clubs on the Japanese pattern to assist the elderly in remaining in their own homes, removing pressures on Medicaid.

6. Promotion of model state and local legislation and tax incentives for the creation of land readjustment and land assembly districts on the postwar Japanese, Korean, and German pattern, to foster private redevelopment of blighted urban and inner-suburban areas.

7. Support for a revived TEAM Act providing for the organization of single-plant works councils, with the authority to negotiate local pay and productivity deals, work rules, and employee grievances. Legislation to this effect sponsored by the Dunlap Commission appointed by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and including several former Democratic secretaries of labor was vetoed by President Clinton at the behest of the United Auto Workers. Since private-sector union membership has declined by 60 percent since Clinton’s veto, even Democratic congressmen might now support it, to the great benefit of the low-income work force in non-union chain establishments.

8. An orderly de-criminalization of marijuana on the Canadian pattern, accompanied by an educational campaign stressing its de-motivating characteristics and enlisting schools and colleges in its discouragement through selective drug testing, as in the military and adult work force. This will eliminate nearly a million arrests a year and defund much of the underworld that is the youth employer of first resort in depressed areas.

9. An effort to revive depressed downtown areas in small towns and cities with incentives for the creation of Business Improvement Districts, together with enhanced enforcement of antitrust, predatory pricing, and bribery laws against offending large retailers.

10. Relief for credit unions and community banks from the more oppressive Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank regulations without holding them hostage to secure unjustified deregulation for larger banks.

11. Grant of work permits to undocumented workers without criminal records and with long records of American employment upon payment by them, their families, employers, or philanthropies of large ($5,000) application fees, the proceeds to be dedicated to a fund for law enforcement, housing, and nurse practitioner programs addressing migration in its Central American and other source countries. As with women’s suffrage prior to 1920, the question of enfranchisement should be left to the States, pursuant to Article I, Sections 2 and 4 of the Constitution.

It may be objected that measures to relieve the young are of limited political appeal, since they do not vote in large numbers. They do not, but their mothers do. And many of the other measures will provide citizens with a greater sense of control over their own lives.

While much of this agenda may not appeal to gradgrind Republicans who appreciate the price of everything and the value of nothing, nor to those whose idea of an infrastructure program is aid to a contracting class and its representatives on K Street, some might be led to follow a vagrant thought of former speaker Paul Ryan. It will be recalled that he uttered the only memorable words of the 2012 Republican Convention when he declared that “college graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at faded Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.”

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of various books on public policy and history, including Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality (Praeger, 1999), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2003).

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