Here in the Fake News Media, we spend a lot of time documenting all the ways in which Donald Trump’s “populism” is a lie. (The president isn’t a self-made titan of business so much as a trust-fund kid turned con artist; his administration isn’t pro-worker, only pro-boss; far from “draining the swamp,” he’s flooding it with raw sewage.)
But there is one sense in which Trump is genuinely a man of the people — or, more precisely, of a certain subsegment of said people: Like millions of ordinary Americans, Donald Trump watches a lot of Fox News, but isn’t really interested in politics.
No occupant of the Oval Office has ever shared the average person’s disinterest in policy, parliamentary procedure, and the rudiments of American civics to the extent that Trump does. He is America’s first “low-information voter” president.
This was surely one source of his appeal on the campaign trail. The candidate spoke about politics like a regular Joe. Which is to say, like someone who doesn’t know much about politics but heard (or misheard) an outrageous thing about “Obummer” on Hannity last night. Jeb Bush read white papers, gave speeches at D.C. think tanks. Donald Trump watched Fox & Friends and shouted at his television. The billionaire might live in material conditions more opulent than his supporters could ever imagine. But unlike every other candidate in the GOP primary, in one small — but real and visceral — sense, Trump and the Republican base lived in the same world.
But if blithe ignorance about politics and mindless faith in the claims of right-wing pundits worked for Trump as a candidate, they’ve proven less effective for him as a president.
Specifically, the fact that Trump is too lazy and disinterested to craft (or even read) his own policy proposals has led him to outsource his agenda to congressional Republicans. And the fact that he gets most of his news from the GOP’s propaganda network has led him to assume that the party’s talking points bear some resemblance to political reality.
So, when Paul Ryan wanted Trump to start his presidency with Obamacare repeal, he said yes. After all, Obamacare was a disaster. It was collapsing. Everyone hated it! And the Republicans in Congress had been waiting seven years to replace it with something really terrific, and patient-centered, and freedom-enhancing. It would take a few days — weeks, tops — and the people would love it.
“I thought that when I won I would go to the Oval Office, sit down at my desk, and there would be a health-care bill on my desk — to be honest,” Trump said in September. “It hasn’t worked out that way.”
Instead, Trump spent his entire “honeymoon” period (such as it was) shouting from the sidelines as Ryan and Mitch McConnell tried and failed to pass the most unpopular pieces of legislation in modern American history — bills that would break every substantive promise Trump had made to his voters on health care — over and over again.
Eventually, condemnation of Trumpcare became so widespread and pervasive, even low-information voters began to understand what it actually did — and, thus, so did the president. In a meeting with Senate Republicans, Trump expressed his displeasure at how “mean” the House health-care bill was.
Now, weeks after introducing “his” tax-cut plan, Trump is starting to learn what it actually does — and he’s not happy. In Fox News’ telling, Trump’s plan would cut taxes on the middle class, do little for the rich, close special-interest loopholes, and then pay for itself by generating higher economic growth.
In reality, the plan is a giant giveaway to the wealthy, financed by deficit spending and closing loopholes that are used by a little special interest group called “the upper-middle class.”
That last fact is finally starting to reach people who don’t pay much attention to politics. Or so this report from Bloomberg suggests:
Months after the White House proposed ending a tax break for people in high-tax states, President Donald Trump grew angry when he learned that the change would hurt some middle-income taxpayers, according to two people familiar with his thinking.
Trump’s concerns led him to say this week that “we’ll be adjusting” the tax-overhaul framework, the people said — but it’s not clear how he and congressional leaders would make up for the revenue that would be lost without ballooning the deficit or torpedoing support for the plan.
Meanwhile, the president’s (understandable) assumption that there must be some empirical basis for the GOP’s belief that tax cuts pay for themselves led him to make a fool of himself in an interview with Forbes’s Randall Lane:
Lane: So it’s a massive tax cut, but then that runs against your pledge to not increase the deficit because you can’t, you know.
Trump: No, because, no, because a tax cut will spur growth.
Lane: Yes, that is true, and there is dynamic scoring.
Trump: The growth, the growth will be so much that it’ll be —
Lane: Yes, but history has shown that you can’t just cut. It does spur growth, but it won’t pay for itself. History has shown that.
Trump: Well, history has also shown the opposite. I mean, you’ve had it both ways. It has shown both ways.
Lane: Which time have you been able to cut and out of growth cut —
Trump: Well, during Reagan, during Reagan, during his cuts, he — tremendous growth.
Lane: It spurred growth, but it also ballooned the deficit.
To be sure, it’s possible that Trump isn’t as naïve as he appears. The mogul has spent most of his life pursuing schemes to enrich himself at the expense of people he’d duped into admiring him. It wouldn’t be at all surprising were he to consciously use his influence over tax policy to perform the same trick.
Further, Trump is perfectly capable of pursuing politically toxic policies at his own volition. Congressional Republicans didn’t force Trump to cancel the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing reductions (even if they did give him the power to), he took that initiative himself — ostensibly, out of the delusional belief that doing so would force Democrats to negotiate over Obamacare repeal.
And yet, if Trump got his policy advice from health-care economists — instead of Fox & Friends — he would know that canceling these subsidies is unlikely to “implode” Obamacare, even if that were a politically wise thing to do.
Further, it seems doubtful that Trump would have agreed to begin his presidency by pushing trillion-dollar Medicaid cuts — instead of, say, a popular infrastructure bill that would have affirmed his status as a builder and deal-maker — if he’d followed politics closely enough to understand the substance of Paul Ryan’s health-care vision.
Similarly, if the president understood all the intricacies of tax policy, he’d almost certainly prefer a giant, temporary, deficit-financed tax cut to a less popular — but more permanent — plan to raise taxes on middle-class families for the sake of cutting them on corporations. Donald Trump doesn’t care about incentives for investment, or what tax policy will look like in ten years. He wants to make himself richer, while juicing short-term economic growth to make himself more popular.