Will Trump's Voters Embrace an Establishment-Style Tax Cut?

The president’s first legislative victory embodies the approach to Republican governance that he defeated.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

In 2016, Republican voters rejected Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, John Kasich, and Chris Christie, among others. Repelled by the GOP establishment, they chose Donald Trump as their champion as he pledged—amid insults against various ethnic and religious minority groups—to rebuild America, fight for the working class, and drain the swamp.

This week, President Trump will sign the GOP establishment’s $1.4 trillion tax cut, just the sort of bill Paul Ryan would have passed under Presidents Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, John Kasich, or Chris Christie.

Its provisions are not as uniformly bad as some Democrats insist.

As Peter Suderman explains, its cut to corporate tax rates will bring the United States in line with the European approach, making the country a more competitive place to do business and likely fueling business investment and job creation.

At the same time, the bill’s rate cuts for individuals will return a lot of money to the very richest Americans at a time when they are already earning an increasing share of the national pie, in part through rent-seeking. It is extremely likely to increase the federal deficit, a transfer from the young to the old. And the tax bill doesn’t simplify the system to ease burdens on filers and prevent the rich from gaming the system. It introduces new loopholes that will benefit narrow monied interests. In other words, it is as “swampy” a bill as you’ll find.

The Republican donor class will do quite nicely, while the most economically disadvantaged members of Trump’s base would be better off if the money that will flow to people who check the stock market each day was instead spent on an effective infrastructure program and a successful effort to reduce opiate addiction and death (making good on two major campaign promises). I don’t believe Trump is capable of tackling either of those projects effectively, but then, I didn’t vote for the man or believe him when he promised to end American carnage.

Those who did ought to feel as betrayed today as they did when Barack Obama pledged to Americans that he was going to bring change to Washington (and let them keep their own doctor) only to pass a very establishment health-care bill that reneged on that promise. The point isn’t that Obamacare was good or bad, or that a Club for Growth-style tax cut is good or bad, but rather that it is bad to promise disillusioned voters that you’re going to govern by upending the status quo in Washington, only to go all-in on entrenching that approach.

Remember the GOP complaints about the process of passing Obamacare, which was so long, complicated, and sloppily written as to require numerous “fixes”? That looks like good government, with its hearings and long time horizon, compared to today. “The open contempt for democracy displayed in the Senate’s slapdash rush to pass the tax bill ought to trouble us as much as, if not more than, what’s in it,” Will Wilkinson writes. “In its great haste, the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body’ held no hearings or debate on tax reform. The Senate’s Republicans made sloppy math mistakes, crossed out and rewrote whole sections of the bill by hand at the 11th hour and forced a vote on it before anyone could conceivably read it.”

All those attributes help to explain survey data that ought to have Republicans worried. Here’s Jonathan Chait describing what CNN found in a recent public-opinion poll:

A CNN poll provides a map to the themes that have been made available for Democrats to exploit. Of course, it registers deep disapproval both for Trump’s overall job performance (35–59) and for the tax cut (33–55) … A mere 21 percent of respondents say the tax cut will make them personally better off; 63 percent say Trump and his family will be made personally better off; 66 percent say it will primarily benefit the wealthy, as opposed to just 27 percent saying it will primarily help the middle class.

The tax cut’s effect on the Trump family may prove an especially potent cudgel for Democrats, insofar as the president’s ongoing refusal to release his tax returns will keep looking suspicious—and insofar as a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats could compel Trump to release his tax returns with a single vote.

Then again, perhaps the tax bill’s popularity will improve as people who aren’t expecting a cut see their money; or maybe Trump’s base won’t hold an establishment tax cut against him so long as he continues to insult or demean Mexicans, Muslims, black NFL players, and CNN in ways that Jeb Bush et. al. never would.

What’s certain is that Trump will sign his trillion-dollar tax bill as many in Puerto Rico remain without power, as California’s wildfires leave whole neighborhoods in ruin, as the families of Washington Amtrak passengers mourn their dead, and as the Atlanta airport recovers from an extended power outage. Addressing problems of that sort while draining the swamp is what he promised; tax cuts while filling the swamp even higher is what he has delivered. Will it be enough?