The big conundrum is supposed to be why Donald Trump does so well among white working-class people, particularly men, who do not have a college education. Is it just his coded messages about the iniquities of blacks and foreign nationalities that are taking over the land or his promise that he alone can open the gates of prosperity for them and yank the ladder from the economic elites who have run the Republican Party? Or neither?
Trump polls spectacularly better among white blue-collar men in the old slave states, the rust belt and the barren Western plains than any Republican in modern times, even though his opponent is not a sophisticated black man with a foreign name, which was the advantage that John McCain and Mitt Romney couldn't capitalize upon, but a white woman with a working-class rearing. So, as he often boasts, it must be his populist economic message, which he now asks Bernie Sanders followers to embrace.
Monday, he kicked off his post-convention campaign with an economic speech aimed right at his strength, the angry, beleaguered sons of toil, and delivered in depressed Detroit.
But the speech only deepened the riddle. The slogans were still there, but the long-promised details of his economic plan can give no succor to the people who think they've been trod upon by the 1 percent, government, political leaders and the financial class. Though he called it a plan for the downtrodden, Trump backtracked on some of the big promises like fewer loopholes and higher taxes on the very rich and tougher penalties for big banks that run amok like 2008.
Besides appealing to working stiffs, the speech was intended to make peace with Republican politicos like House Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he finally endorsed over the weekend to please panicky party elders. He may have succeeded better with that group.
But what does the Trump plan do for working folks and the 1 percent?
Trump promised displaced workers that he would repeal the "death tax," the name that polling showed Republicans should assign to the estate tax to make it hated. But surviving spouses don't pay estate taxes, and only very few rich heirs — like presumably the Trump children some day — ever owe a dime. The estate tax exempts from taxation the first $5.45 million of inheritance for individuals and $10.9 million for married couples. Only about 5,000 very rich Americans a year pay anything. Hillary Clinton's tax overhaul would slightly raise the estate tax, which was enacted in 1916 to prevent the America of Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts from becoming a European aristocracy.
A year ago, Trump shocked the Republican leadership by advocating much higher income taxes on the super rich. Polls showed that even most Republicans thought the rich and corporations did not pay their share of taxes. But when his campaign posted his tax-reform plan last winter it gave the super rich the biggest tax cut in history. His own marginal rate would fall from 39.6 to 25 percent.
Monday, he shifted gears. His plan cuts the top corporate rate from 35 to 15 percent, though few corporations pay it. His proposal comes after a decade in which after-tax corporate profits have risen sharply as a share of national income while the share of income for workers has fallen.
He abandoned his own previous personal income-tax plans and adopted the official Republican plan, drafted by Paul Ryan. It lowers income taxes slightly for most people but dramatically for the super rich. Their top rate would fall from 39.6 percent to 33 percent.
So how does the coal miner's family benefit from any of that? The conservative Tax Foundation said the Ryan-Trump plan would increase after-tax income for middle-income families by two-tenths of 1 percent but raise it for the wealthiest Americans by 5.3 percent. Federal deficits would rise by $2.4 trillion over the next decade.
Daughter Ivanka Trump's highly praised speech at the GOP convention touted tax breaks for childcare. Trump said he and Ivanka had worked out a plan to deduct the average cost of childcare. But it would primarily help the well-to-do. Low-income families who owe little or no federal income taxes would get no benefit. The Trump campaign sent an email statement that he might allow a childcare deduction against Social Security and Medicare taxes for the poor.
But, Trump said, he's going to make other countries revise NAFTA, the trade deal negotiated by Reagan and Bush I, to get more protections for U.S. workers and cut financial, environmental and safety rules that are tying up the financial houses and manufacturers so they will hire more workers.
To get back to our riddle, none of that could be very reassuring to disenchanted working folks. But voters are moved by slogans and rhetoric. Who care about plans?