Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s Phony War

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Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan. Photo: Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images

There are two basic ways in which Donald Trump is not a normal Republican. First, he is crudely ethno-nationalist, which drives him to reject free trade and immigration reform, and rather than gesturing toward reconciliation with minorities, uses them as foils to gin up white racial paranoia. Second, he is personally ignorant and undisciplined in a manner that sets him apart not only from traditional Republicans but most human adults, and renders any position of his confusing and protean. Yet Trump is attracting a great deal of attention and criticism for a third dimension of allegedly idiosyncratic behavior that is in fact perfectly orthodox: his economic-policy agenda.

That Trump is mostly proposing classic Republican fiscal policy is not the sense you may have gotten from coverage of his forthcoming budget and quasi–State of the Union address. Trump, reports the New York Times, has set up “a battle for control of Republican Party ideology with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who for years has staked his policy-making reputation on the argument that taming the budget deficit without tax increases would require that Congress change, and cut, the programs that swallow the bulk of the government’s spending — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” Traditional conservative sources like Representative Tom Cole (“the numbers don’t add up”) and National Review (“Trump’s Unrealistic Budget”) have lambasted his fiscal incoherence.

What is the substance of the supposed schism between Trump and the regular GOP? The Times depicts the president and the House Speaker as split over whether to cut “Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” But, while Ryan has made it known that he would like to cut Social Security (a position that has won him immense inside-the-Beltway Establishment credibility), he has not persuaded his party to go along. The “Better Way” plan crafted by Ryan and endorsed by House Republicans makes no mention of Social Security at all. It does propose privatizing Medicare, but only for workers who are not retired or are near retirement — which means, despite its long-term significance, it has no impact on the budget over the next decade. And both Trump and Ryan are planning deep cuts to Medicaid.

The similarities continue. Both favor increases in defense spending and dramatically weaker enforcement of labor, environmental, and financial regulation. Both favor deep cuts to anti-poverty spending. Trump is more enthusiastic than the regular GOP about infrastructure spending, but he has decided to postpone that issue until next year and use it as an election messaging vehicle rather than a real legislative priority. Most important, both agree that large, upper-income tax cuts are the party’s highest priority. Trump has even endorsed Ryan’s legislative strategy of sequencing Obamacare repeal first in order to grease the skids for bigger tax cuts. (“Statutorily and for budget purposes, as you know, we have to do health care before we do the tax cut,” he said this week.)

It is true, as conservatives say, that Trump’s budget numbers do not really add up. But he is relying on the same voodoo economics assumptions that are de rigeur in his party. “The money is going to come from a revved-up economy,” Trump said on Fox & Friends. “I mean, you look at the kind of numbers we’re doing, we were probably GDP of a little more than 1 percent. And if I can get that up to 3, maybe more, we have a whole different ballgame.” Remember that ultra-Establishment Republican Jeb Bush promised tax cuts and deregulation would produce 4 percent growth, so Trump’s 3 percent growth promise is actually moderate and realistic by Republican fiscal standards.

The illusion that Trump has radically altered his party’s agenda is convenient for all sides. Trump ran a wildly unconventional race, and won several blue states in part by presenting himself as an economic populist. He is surrounded by a handful of advisers who fashion themselves strategic geniuses on a world-historic scale, not just hacks attached to the president who’s going to sign whatever Paul Ryan puts in front of him. They have every personal and institutional incentive to play up their ideological novelty. The infamous Steves Bannon and Miller have not really innovated Republican policy in any major field. They have taken sides with a long-standing minority right-wing faction in Congress that opposes free trade, viscerally hates immigration, and longs to use terrorism and crime as racial edge issues. The politicians who pioneered those Trump-y ideas in Congress, like Michele Bachmann and Jeff Sessions — Miller’s former bosses — also endorsed standard-issue Republicanomics. At CPAC, Steve Bannon grandly promised to set about “deconstructing the administrative state.” But this is just a pretentious way of saying he wants to cut regulation and bureaucracy, which is a goal of every Republican leader since Reagan. The only twist is that the guy saying it wears black shirts and no tie.

“Trumpism” is mainly a post hoc attempt to build an intellectual edifice around a race-baiting demagogue. Since it did not spring from any serious analysis, it has mostly grabbed onto ideas that were already lying around the conservative movement.

Traditional Republicans likewise see the value in playing up the president’s uniqueness. While Republicans in Congress stand with Trump because they want him to sign their bills, and they fear crossing their Trump-loving constituents, they are aware that the political formula he used is unstable and risky. If he collapses — hopefully, from their perspective, after signing as much of their agenda as possible — they want to rescue their ideas from the fallout. Just as conservatives fulsomely embraced George W. Bush during the first three-quarters of his presidency, and then swiftly disowned him after his collapse, they may need to blame any Trump failure on his un-conservative traits.

An axiom of conservative movement thought, coined by Rick Perlstein, holds that conservatism never fails, it is only failed. Republican domestic policy has collapsed time and again over the last quarter-century: under George H.W. Bush, Newt’s Republican revolution, and Dubya. Conservatives have gained control over the party, but never figured out a way to reconcile the gap between their preference for low taxes on the rich and low social-insurance spending and a public that demands the opposite. The tensions are evident again already: Obamacare repeal and tax cuts are both floundering because the party can’t agree on allocating the middle-class sacrifices (throwing people off their insurance, taxing employer-provided health-care plans, a border-adjustment fee) required to make the numbers add up. Trump’s very real indecisiveness and ignorance of the policy substance has made it much harder for Congress to unify. But the main reason these policies are floundering is their inherent unpopularity. Trump would almost surely sign whatever tax cuts and repeal legislation Congress sends him. They aren’t writing the laws because no version of these policies can be written without exposing Congress to high levels of blowback.

Parties are large herds of people and tend to change very slowly. A smart, strategic politician with a keen policy vision might be able to harness a populist campaign to take control of a party and steer it in a sharply new direction. That sort of transformative feat is well beyond the capabilities of a lazy, television-addled huckster like Trump.

Donald Trump and Paul Ryan’s Phony War