The Republican Hydra

Why Donald Trump’s marketing and Paul Ryan’s ideas are such a toxic combination.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The rise of Donald Trump and the shock of Brexit has sent a message to many professional commentators that globalization requires more economic protection at home. The Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria called such an approach "open and armed." Today, the Republican writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam call their similar philosophy "unifying nationalism." Earlier this week, I called it "smart protectionism."

These approaches are not the same. But they all start with the proposition that free trade and a willingness to accept some immigrants ought to be coupled with policies that protect Americans who are hurt by globalization and technology.

But as the Republican convention in Cleveland approaches, there is impending danger that the party’s near future will combine nationalism and protectionism in a way that is perfectly opposite and altogether terrible.

On the one hand, there is Donald Trump’s noxious brand of white nostalgia, along with his promises to isolate the United States economically by tearing up free-trade agreements and starting a trade war with China. On the other hand, there is the astringent economic vision of Paul Ryan, whose new manifesto, "A Better Way," offers a blueprint to, among other things, cut both taxes for the rich and federal benefits for the poor. The proposals received plaudits from many House Republicans.

This is not “open and armed”—supporting a global marketplace abroad with stronger support for the vulnerable at home. It is a GOP that talks the Trump talk and walks the Ryan walk; a demagogue drawing support from angry, white, working class voters whose party is beholden to the very policies that have fed those voters’ frustration.

Consider the ways that Trump’s haphazard heterodoxies have already merged with GOP religion, as Matt Yglesias has recounted. He has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would cause millions of low-income people to lose health insurance. His tax proposal would give the 1 percent an average tax cut of $275,000. It would also increase the deficit by almost $10 trillion, forcing cuts that would almost certainly be borne by the poor (when not accounting for Trump’s sacred cows of defense, Medicare, and Social Security, government spending is pretty progressive).

Meanwhile Paul Ryan’s budget is not a weapon against the multinational companies that Trump excoriates on the stump. In contrast, A Better Way stands firmly behind the economic principle that multinational corporations should keep more money. The most significant disagreement between his tax plan and Trump’s is that Ryan “would exempt foreign income of U.S. multinationals from tax,” as the Tax Policy Center’s Howard Gleckman explained. A Better Way has many fuzzy promises about elevating evidence-based policy to help the poor. But apparently no randomized controlled trials are required to reach the conclusion that millionaires get tax cuts.

I do not think that Paul Ryan wants people to be poor. But his welfare reform philosophy amounts to telling low-income families to try harder—which is, at best, insufficient and, at worst, cruel. His most specific policy recommendations include strengthening the work requirements for welfare and food stamps and reducing unemployment-insurance spending by nudging people back to work, adopting the philosophy of 1996’s welfare reform.

The legacy of President Bill Clinton’s reform is complicated. But most experts agree that welfare reform failed the most vulnerable by obliterating the safety net for the poorest single parents. The male participation rate has fallen more since 1996 than it fell in the 20 years before 1996. That’s astonishing, given that one goal of welfare reform was to get people to work.

There is something wrong with the U.S. economy that work requirements alone cannot fix. Two of the major reasons for the strange and terrible decline in working prime-age men is the rise in prison incarceration (and the difficulty of former felons to find work) and the structural decline of manufacturing and construction work. But A Better Way pledges to solve the problem without grappling with the root causes.

There are straightforward ways to help displaced workers and families in poverty. But many of these ideas involve the politically toxic notion that a fabulously rich country should send more money to vulnerable workers and children in poverty. As a share of GDP, the United States spends one-eighth of what Germany devotes to retraining workers and and one-third of what France spends on early education. With relatively low redistribution spending, the U.S. has the highest after-tax inequality in the OECD.

And so this is the central danger of a Trump-Ryan hydra eating the Republican Party. It is an advertisement for division, economic woe, and unrealistic promises slapped onto a policy product that will further divide rich from poor, deepen the economic woe of the poorest Americans, and widen the gap between the Republican promise and the American reality. The emerging Republican Party is a self-sustaining machine of perpetual rage, suppressing the prospects of working-class men while being powered by their growing frustration.