“Jack, I can’t believe you’re hooking up with Reagan.”
The year was 1980. The speaker was David Stockman, a Ronald Reagan skeptic who became his beleaguered budget director. The listener was Representative Jack Kemp, a Republican from New York, famous for his insistence that tax cuts were the perfect remedy to cure the stagnation of the 1970s.
Stockman saw Reagan as a cartoon character, the American fringe’s wacko-in-chief. “I considered him a cranky obscurantist whose political base was barnacled with every kook and fringe group that inhabited the vasty deep of American politics,” he wrote. He was afraid that Kemp, who wanted to train Reagan in the art and theory of tax cuts, was flirting with an “antediluvian.”
But Stockman was wrong: Kemp whipped Reagan in line. He introduced the California governor to supply-side economists, like Art Laffer. He determined that Reagan had a “feel for the Laffer curve,” the famous simple graph that attempted to show how cutting taxes would raise government revenue by growing the economy.
In the end, Kemp found the perfect vessel for supply-side economics. Reagan’s tax cuts provided the blueprint for the next 35 years of GOP policy.
History is rhyming. Paul Ryan is playing the role of his mentor and idol Jack Kemp, the sunny supply-side soldier wrangling an entertainment celebrity whose candidacy draws on the fringes of the Republican Party. Perhaps Ryan, whose budgets and image are fashioned after Kemp, justifies his embrace of Donald Trump by looking to his mentor’s success with Reagan. Perhaps he thinks an old story might arrive at a familiar conclusion: The tax wonk domesticates the charismatic celebrity-outsider and thus writes a policy blueprint for the party’s next generation.
There’s just one problem with this picture: History might be rhyming, but it is not repeating.
The Donald is not The Gipper, neither in temperament nor ideology, and not by a long shot. If Trump is the second coming of Reagan, the affable actor has been reincarnated as something far more than a “kook”—a proudly ignorant, race-baiting clown who draws on the worst tendencies of American cultural insecurities. While Reagan was fiercely critical of his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, he did not stoop to accusing his opponent of being in cahoots with the enemy, as Trump ludicrously did on Monday. While Trump selects and discards policies like swatches, Reagan was actually devoted to shrinking government for the sake of smaller government. Long before Reagan set his eyes on Laffer’s curve, “he had long preached the virtues of smaller government and lower tax rates, not simply for individual liberty, but also for economic growth,” his biographer H. W. Brands wrote.
The circumstances swirling around the candidates have also changed. The United States is struggling with low inflation and weak wage growth, not the high inflation and high unemployment of the 1970s. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent has grown more than 10 times faster than income for the bottom 80 percent. In this new economic environment, Republican voters have a clear preference to raise taxes on the rich, borne out in poll after poll. For example:
- 51 percent of Republican 2016 primary voters said they strongly or somewhat favor raising taxes on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year, according to a survey from RAND, a think tank.
- 53 percent of Republicans said they supported a special new tax bracket of 50 percent for individuals earning more than $1 million, according to GBA Strategies, a survey company.
- Republicans are twice as likely to say that upper-class Americans pay too little than too much in a recent Gallup poll, and three times more likely to say that corporations should pay more in taxes than less, according to a Washington Post/ABC Poll.
Republican voters seem to be in quiet rebellion against the Kemp-Reagan-Bush-Ryan lineage that preaches lower taxes for the rich. One might expect these views to trickle up to the national level.
But among the Republican elite, the year is always 1981. GOP leaders still live in Kemp World, where all tax policy begins with “trickle down.” Here’s how several prominent GOP politicians would cut taxes for the 1 percent and 0.01 percent:
- Jeb Bush’s plan: $167,000 cut for the top 1 percent; $808,000 cut for the top 0.1 percent.
- Marco Rubio’s plan: $162,000 for the top 1 percent; $932,000 for the top 0.1 percent.
- Ted Cruz’s plan: $407,708 for the top 1 percent; $1,994,104 for the top 0.1 percent.
- Mitt Romney’s 2012 plan: $150,000 cut for the top 1 percent, $725,000 cut for the top 0.1 percent.
- Paul Ryan’s 2014 plan: $227,000 cut for the top 1 percent, $1.2 million cut for the top 0.1 percent.
In this group, the vanguard of the Republican Party, the average tax proposal would offer a $231,000 windfall for the top 1 percent—an amount greater than the household income of 98 percent of American households—and an additional $1,160,000 gift for the 0.1 percent.
Donald Trump’s tax plan, meanwhile, is like a quantum particle, flickering in and out of existence. He proposed a major tax cut for the rich, walked it back on television, and later walked back the walk back, without any evident impact on his poll numbers.
Voters don’t seem to care about Trump’s tax plan. Instead, they thrill to his negative comments about minorities, like Muslims and Mexicans, and his promises to bring back the 1950s manufacturing economy through brute will and international trade wars. The feeling that America’s whites are losing predicts support for Trump two- to three-times more than feelings of economic anxiety (although these feelings are certainly intertwined).
The Republican Party’s new center of gravity is a white middle-class demographic that doesn’t care about Laffer’s napkins or Ryan’s budgets. The White American Middle, the pillar of GOP support, is an anxious mess throwing its lot behind a charismatic demagogue promising to solve all their problems with walls, deportations, trade wars, and religious bans.
Is it so surprising that history would repeat for a party so keen on replaying the past? Trump wants to return the United States to the 1950s, a closed economy, with a nativist twist. But Ryan, too, is decades behind, using a 1981 playbook to solve the 21st century’s problems.
Ryan is now so desperate to pass his budget, along with the massive tax cut that his own voters now repeatedly say they don’t want, that he is willing to support an inexhaustible fount of bilious bigotry to do so. If he thinks it will work this time because something similar worked for Kemp, he’s wrong. Republicans are stuck with Trump, and Ryan is stuck in history.