In a mere 125 days, President Trump is pulling off the greatest bait-and-switch in modern political history. The gap between the populism he ran on and what his administration is trying to legislate is the widest I’ve seen in a lifetime of observing and participating in political economy.
True, his platform included standard-issue Republican tax cuts and market deregulation, but fundamentally, Trump ran an anti-establishment, populist campaign, tapping, along with racism, sexism and xenophobia, into a deep frustration shared by those left behind by globalization and technology. And with his unique and masterful acumen as a salesman/huckster, he did so quite brilliantly, consistently intuiting both what his audiences wanted to hear and what his mainstream primary opponents were failing to tell them.
This is no great, new insight, but the gap between Trump’s promises and policies are on particularly clear display this week. His first budget proposes to transfer trillions from programs to help the vulnerable to tax cuts to help the rich, and the health-care reform package he’s pushing fully unwinds the coverage gains of the Affordable Care Act while driving up health costs for the sick, the elderly and the poor.
While much ink has been used analyzing Trump’s pivot, I don’t think it’s at all mysterious. As effective a campaigner as he was, he has no skill or even apparent interest in governance, which is far more a grind than spewing before adoring crowds. So he’s outsourced that role largely to the Republican House, particularly the far-right faction. Whacking Medicaid and food stamps, replacing the ACA with a much less comprehensive plan, all while cutting education, research and job training, and turning over the savings to the wealthy in a tax cut is precisely the agenda embodied in years of Paul Ryan’s budgets.
Thus far, less radical Senate Republicans are keeping the House’s agenda from moving forward. But the radicalism of the Trump/Ryan agenda keeps pushing the center to the right. Even were Senate “moderates” to sanction half of what’s on offer from the far right, that would be disastrous for those who need government support and for the future of an economy that depends on a functional government to make ample investments.
So yes, we are in the middle of a dark and existentially frightening moment, where facts are on the run, budget gimmickry is unprecedented, the gains we’ve made in helping poor and uninsured people are under severe threat, and historically high market-driven inequalities are likely to be exacerbated by regressive tax policy.
Which makes this an optimal time to build and elevate an alternative agenda. No question, aggressive defense must be played, but as Ben Spielberg and I wrote last month in American Prospect, we “ . . . must articulate what we’re for, not just what we’re against. The American people deserve better than what’s currently on offer from team Trump, but for many, the status quo also falls short.” Clearly, too many people have been left out or underserved by the market economy. They mistakenly threw the dice on Trump, and it’s quickly become clear that they rolled snake eyes. Now, they, along with many others who just sat out the election, need to see what a real progressive plan looks like.
That’s going to involve higher minimum wages, more labor protections (especially increasing the number of people eligible for overtime pay), a big expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (which the Trump budget proposes to cut), direct job creation in places where even at full employment there are not enough jobs, child allowances for families raising kids (an idea that’s gaining traction beyond progressive circles), a gradual phase-in of Medicare for All by gradually lowering the eligibility age, deep investments in human capital starting with preschool and going through college, and progressive tax changes to help finance the agenda.
This may seem like an odd time to be crafting an agenda that’s wholly at odds with the political moment, but I’m operating from the premise that the pendulum swings. It swings not just because of physics but because at some point, the Trump/Ryan gap - the massive distance between their rhetoric about helping vulnerable people and their actions that undermine those people to give tax cuts to the already rich - becomes clear to people. Those people will then be looking for ideas that might actually help them.
We’d better be ready.
Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Biden, is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.