Last week, Donald Trump appeared before a rally in Iowa, where he regaled a crowd of supporters with stories of the great wealth of his inner circle of advisers. “When you get the president — this is the president of Goldman Sachs — smart! — having him represent us, he went from massive paydays to peanuts!” he boasted. The crowd applauded, as people passionate enough about a politician to attend a rally are wont to do.
But the thing about Trump’s core supporters is that Trump doesn’t have enough of them. To win the election, he had to pry away some former Obama voters in the Midwest, and he did it by positioning himself to his opponent’s left on economics. “Hillary will never reform Wall Street. She is owned by Wall Street!” he warned. “I’m not going to let Wall Street get away with murder,” he promised. His closing ad quoted Trump insisting, “The Establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” while images of a stock ticker and the street sign for Wall Street appeared onscreen.
Trump lies and reverses himself about all kinds of things, but usually this behavior is a flailing attempt at self-preservation. The curious thing about these particular reversals is that this hypocrisy comes at large cost to himself. Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg recently interviewed white working-class Obama voters who’d turned to Trump and found that news of the president’s Wall Street advisers was the fact most likely to shake their faith in his administration. Trump’s approval ratings have sunk to 40 percent or lower. Why is he making so little effort to conceal his bait-and-switch? Why forfeit his most precious political asset? The best explanation for this grand act of self-sabotage (beyond his simply not understanding the policies he endorses) is that Trump, like much of the Republican Party, is an instinctive social Darwinist.
Social Darwinism is a philosophy that treats the market as a perfectly efficient and moral mechanism for allocating wealth. Just as natural selection favors those species best adapted for survival, the theory goes, capitalism rewards the smartest and most deserving among us. It is the intellectual scaffolding, constructed by writers like Ayn Rand and various Austrian economists, behind the vision of conservatives like Paul Ryan and David Koch. Trump may not have read up on the theory, but he understands it viscerally. His father, Fred, inculcated his son with the unshakable belief that his own greatness would lead to enormous wealth.
Trump’s boast in Iowa about the “great, brilliant business minds” in his administration communicates a great deal about his innermost beliefs. “I love all people, rich or poor,” he explained, “but, in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person, does that make sense?” The richest people in the country are, by definition, the most brilliant and well qualified. Trump rejects the notion that circumstance, luck, or social advantage might play a role. In a 1990 interview, a more candid time, Trump expressed his belief that being born into poverty would not have arrested his rise. “The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” he told an interviewer. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it’ … You’re either born with it or you’re not.”
Conservative intellectuals make a sharp distinction, at least in theory, between good wealth amassed through pure capitalism and bad wealth obtained by government favoritism. Trump has never observed any boundary between the two. (On the contrary: During the campaign, he presented his experience buying government influence as a qualification for office.) And in practice, few Republicans bother themselves too much over how a person got rich, either. The Bush administration was a boom time for grifters — Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham were among the party eminences who used Republican control of government to fatten their wallets.
After the Bush presidency collapsed, conservatives made a show of remorse and vowed not to succumb again to the temptations of corruption. Abramoff, the crooked conservative activist and lobbyist, refashioned himself after returning from prison as a chastened reformer. In 2012, he appeared at a Public Citizen event, denouncing the evils of the system.
But now the lessons have been discarded, and the stench of self-dealing is everywhere. The only low-income-housing program spared by Trump’s budget is one his business profits from, and he picked a comically underqualified family loyalist, an event planner by trade, to oversee federal housing in New York, where his business has its largest interest. Trump has handed control of every major regulatory agency to the industries they oversee — a Wall Street lawyer runs the Securities and Exchange Commission, fossil-fuel surrogates run the Environmental Protection Agency, the CEO of a for-profit lender will oversee the student-loan system, and on and on. Lobbyists are already shuffling between the White House and K Street. Even Abramoff has been lured out of retirement—registering as a foreign lobbyist, in which capacity he prevailed upon one member of Congress to write a letter requesting a presidential meeting with a client of Abramoff’s, a foreign dictator.
Congress has indulged Trump’s flagrant profiteering in part because he is letting them dip their beaks too. That Trump is holding his inaugural reelection fund-raiser in the Trump International Hotel, where party elites will join in an event that lines the president’s pockets, is one of the perfectly symbolic moments of the young administration. Any theoretical distinction between the Trumpian ethos of self-entitlement and the conservative doctrine of rewarding “job creators” has long since washed away.
Social Darwinism is the tissue connecting this shady conduct with the Republican Party’s highest policy priorities. Conservatives believe programs that tax the rich and benefit the poor illegitimately meddle with the natural and correct distribution of wealth produced by the marketplace. The Republican health-care bill — both what passed in the House and what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has brought to the Senate — confers a nearly trillion-dollar tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. That appears to be its sponsors’ primary consideration. Secondarily, it strips away an equal amount in Medicaid and middle-class insurance tax credits.
Conservatives have little difficulty applying the logic of social Darwinism to justify punishing the sick. Vice-President Mike Pence explains that the administration’s health-care plan supports the promotion of “personal responsibility.” Kellyanne Conway implies that only an unwillingness to work would cause an able-bodied adult to have trouble affording health care: “If they are able-bodied and they want to work, then they’ll have employer-sponsored benefits like you and I do.” The Republican plan, explained Alabama congressman Mo Brooks, will reduce “the cost to those people who lead good lives. They’re healthy, they’ve done the things to keep their bodies healthy.” Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, allowed that while people who “get cancer” should have a “safety net,” “that doesn’t mean we should take care of the person who sits at home, eats poorly, and gets diabetes.”
After passing a health-care bill built around a regressive tax cut, Republicans plan to proceed quickly to a second tax cut, which is expected to also benefit the rich disproportionately. The two bills, which are the entire focus of the party’s current legislative ambitions, would constitute the most sweeping upward redistribution of resources in American history.
Washington in the summer of Trump’s first year is an atmosphere of organized looting. The precariousness of Trump’s position, given his anemic polling, a riled-up opposition, and Robert Mueller lurking in the background, has only heightened the urgency to get while the getting is good.
*A version of this article appears in the June 26, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.