After the 2016 election left Republicans in full control of government, Democrats grappled with one of the messaging challenges Hillary Clinton had faced during it: How to define Donald Trump versus his party? Clinton had opted to present Trump as worse than a normal Republican, a unique personal aberration. (“This is not conservatism as we have known it. This is not Republicanism as we have known it,” she said.) Many Democrats initially opted for the reverse strategy: Embrace Trump as a populist, and use him as a wedge against the plutocratic Republican Congress. “Rebuking Hillary Clinton’s election message and echoing Trump’s populist rhetoric is the way to revive the party,” one party member suggested in the wake of Clinton’s defeat.
Instead, Trump and the congressional Republicans have solved Democrats’ dilemma for them. They have essentially merged into a politically coterminous entity. Trump has absorbed all the liabilities of the congressional party, while his distinctive grossness largely extends to them. Nothing has brought together the union quite so vividly as the tax cuts, Trump’s singular legislative achievement, and one the entire party has greeted almost ecstatically.
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). But that merely offers a superficial glimpse into the difficulty the GOP faces with the public. Delving more deeply actually reveals the situation to be even worse. 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 confluence of all these beliefs is quite powerful. Americans see the Republican Party as enriching its donor class, and the president personally, at the expense of the broader public.
Republicans have addressed these liabilities by simply lying about them. They have claimed the bill gives its largest benefits to the middle class, a boast no serious calculation sustains. They’ve described it as “simplification” that would “close loopholes,” when in fact the bill eliminates virtually no tax expenditures whatsoever while adding massive new sources of complexity, gaming, and potential tax evasion. Even the carried-interest loophole, a giveaway to the rich so notorious that Trump promised to end it during the campaign and again this year, was not touched.
Amazingly, the White House continues to support President Trump’s claim that the cuts will increase his personal tax liabilities.
No tax lawyer considers this remotely plausible. And Trump refuses to release his tax returns to substantiate his absurd position.
Here, again, the culpability of the Republican Congress is underestimated. It is not only Trump’s secrecy that has kept his returns hidden. A simple vote by the House of Representatives would compel their disclosure. But Republicans have defeated multiple efforts by the Democratic minority to carry this off. Paul Ryan and the House leadership made the decision to quash these measures in committees, and the vast bulk of the party rank and file supported that decision by refusing to sign a discharge petition to bring the tax-return bill to the floor.
The Republican Party has decided as a whole to enable President Trump to conceal his tax returns, and further decided to pass a tax cut that rewards him personally. They have likewise formed a protective shield against the Russia probe, which is investigating Trump’s opaque ties to the Russian regime and criminal underworld.
The regular Republican Party of tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of polluters and the financial industry once seemed to be set apart from its clownish demagogue presidential candidate. In rapid order, the strands have merged together into a party disdainful of transparency and united in self-enrichment.