Trump’s Populism Is a Fiction

Don’t be fooled by inaugural pomp: The Trump administration is plotting a return to plutocracy.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The theme of President Donald Trump’s inaugural address was the return of power to “the people”—the forgotten Americans, the victims of “American carnage.” It harkened back to his campaign, when Trump presented himself as a populist who eschewed traditional conservative-liberal orthodoxies.

But despite the speech’s theme of transferring power from the cosmopolitan rich to the everyman, his administration’s emerging economic policy would be an unambiguous transfer of income and power in the opposite direction: from the public to the rich.

In the last few weeks, Trump has laid the groundwork for a domestic policy agenda that is so traditionally conservative that it sometimes feels like a replay of Bushonomics. First, he has proposed one of the largest tax cuts in history, with two-thirds of the benefits going to the richest 20 percent. This would be accomplished primarily by cutting individual income taxes, rescinding the Affordable Care Act’s hikes on investment income, and making it easier for closely held businesses to avoid paying corporate taxes. This plan alone, combined with a repeal the ACA, would be a decidedly un-populist deal for America: trillions of dollars for America’s 1 percent in exchange for 20 million fewer people with health care.

Second, while President George W. Bush presided over an expansion of government, Trump’s economic advisors are in the early stages of planning $10 trillion in cuts to federal spending over the next decade, based on a blueprint by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

How do you cut $1 trillion per year, or almost 30 percent of federal spending? Trump has repeatedly promised to preserve Social Security and Medicare while possibly growing defense and infrastructure. If he sticks to that commitment, it takes about half of government spending out of consideration. He also can’t really choose to cut spending on interest on the debt, which is another six percent of the budget.

As a result, Trump would have no choice but to gut the remainder of the government’s programs, including Medicaid, subsidies for food and housing, and veterans’ benefits. Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse sounds like a nice idea, but the fact is that, beyond military spending, the federal government is essentially a transfer of money from people with above-average incomes to the sick, old, and poor.

It’s quite possible that these cuts won’t materialize. Managing a trillion dollars of cuts to annual spending could be a political nightmare, and it’s not clear how much Trump wants to spend his political capital overseeing the miniaturization of federal power. In that case, the combination of massive tax cuts and few government cuts would simply increase the deficit. But the mere fact that Trump’s team is using the Heritage Foundation’s ideas as a blueprint for governance is strongly at odds with a purportedly populist agenda.

Third, Trump’s attitude toward regulations is consistent with long-standing Republican orthodoxy. Several members of his team have repeatedly promised to rescind the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law, despite a broad consensus that financial deregulation contributed to the financial downturn that destroyed more jobs than any economic crisis since the 1930s. While Trump is much more likely to criticize NAFTA, the Great Recession did far more than any trade deal to devastate the wealth of the middle class.

Finally, Trump’s inauguration speech reaffirmed his support for economic nationalism on trade. Should supporters expect him to rewriting trade deals and impose tariffs on Chinese and Mexican products? This seems like the clearest way he would break from past Republican presidents. Yet he has stocked his administration with billionaires, multi-millionaires and Goldman Sachs alumni, whose views on trade are at best inconsistent.

Two weeks after the election in November, I wrote that Trump has twisted the old adage of “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” into a new axiom: Campaign in populism, govern in plutocracy. But what I didn’t specifically predict was that Trump’s devotion to the pageantry of the presidency might make for a never-ending campaign, one in which Trump would use various media channels, including his inaugural address, to promise to empower forgotten Americans, again and again … even as his administration and party considered laws to cut support for their public health care, housing, education, environmental protection, and income security. This is not what returning power to the people looks like.