Donald Trump has released what may be the last budget proposal of his presidency, and the contents are predictably unsettling. The spending cuts he has proposed are plentiful, and they are steep; they would knife what’s left of the American welfare state to the bone. Trump wants to cut $2.8 billion in homelessness-assistance grants, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday, and $292 billion overall from Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known to most as food stamps. By changing eligibility standards for certain disability benefits, the White House hopes to save the government another $70 billion.
Trump does not universally apply this penchant for austerity. The tax cuts he imposed in 2017, which almost exclusively benefited the nation’s richest households, would become permanent. He would increase the budgets of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security, and he wants another $2 billion for his border wall, a perennial object of fixation. Democrats in Congress probably won’t help him chase that particular white whale. Many of his cuts, in fact, are unlikely to pass Congress, and for this, low-income voters can give some thanks.
But there are ways for Trump to shrink the welfare state by going around Congress. The USDA’s proposed changes to eligibility standards for food stamps, which would cut over 3 million people total from the program, are proof. His budget only clarifies the stakes of the general election. If Trump were ever to impose a fraction of the cuts he has repeatedly proposed, the most vulnerable people in the country would have to absorb losses they are ill equipped to endure. Even if Trump loses reelection, his budgets would retain a certain power. Examined for what they are — dispatches from the fantasy life of a Republican president — they are meaningful.
Trump’s budget priorities do occasionally alienate his fellow Republicans. In past years, he put forward proposals to cancel funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which exists to support economic development in the Appalachian region. Republicans were not amused. “It’s true that the president won his election in rural country. I would really like to see him climb aboard the ARC vehicle as a way to help us help ourselves,” Congressman Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents coal counties in eastern Kentucky, told Reuters at the time. No Republican, no matter how loyal he may be to Trump, wants to go home to his constituents and explain why their grant money vanished. In most respects, though, Trump’s fiscal sense is fully in line with that of his party. They share a hostility toward welfare spending and to the people who rely on it to survive. Trump’s demeanor may be unusual for a president, but Ronald Reagan would recognize the beliefs behind the 45th president’s budgets.
Each Trump budget presents the same moral calculus. The president seems to imagine himself as a kind of Robin Hood taking money away from people who don’t deserve it and giving it to people who do. Nobody needs to wonder which demographics belong to which category. In the age of Trump’s great blue-collar boom, as he termed it during his latest State of the Union address, people are poor because they lack motivation. Trump easily dismisses their needs as unnecessary, with welfare spending itself a luxury. Cuts, Trump said on Monday, would reduce “fraud” and “waste.” Instead, the president would rather prioritize his elect, the living proof of America’s greatness. Trump likes troops. He likes the ones who go overseas and the ones who stay at home, like the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He also likes the rich, though he doesn’t say so in public, and this is not at all discordant with his general troops worship. The rich braved the dangers of capitalism to propel the American economy forward to new, ever more unequal heights, and Trump intends to reward them, and by extension himself, for their efforts.
Trump’s budgets reveal both the fraudulence of his populist rhetoric and the truth of his motivations. His nationalism is pure, untainted by any complicating ideology; he has no commitment to lifting the standard of living for the poorest Americans. His ideal America is prosperous but exclusive, a gated community, a country club, Mar-a-Lago itself. It is not open to most people, and that is by design. The budget is a blueprint for a padlock on the door.