The Next Step in the Radical Trump-G.O.P. Agenda: Gut the Welfare State

This article originally appeared on this site.

Much of journalism is dedicated to the proposition that the truth is often hidden. Sometimes, though, it is right there before our noses. Despite the chaos, the insinuations, and the scandals surrounding Donald Trump, he and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill are making progress toward enacting the radical conservative agenda that the G.O.P. has been developing over the past two decades.

In a radio interview on Wednesday, Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, talked about the budget-busting, reward-the-rich G.O.P. tax bill—he didn’t describe it that way, of course—and what will happen after Trump signs it into law, assuming the House-Senate conference can agree on a final text. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said. Programs like Medicare and Medicaid “are the big drivers of debt,” he went on, “so we spend more time on the health-care entitlements, because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”

Even by the standards of today’s Republican Party, Ryan’s comments were pretty brazen. No such worry about deficits came up when the G.O.P. proposed slashing taxes for the wealthy. This about-face wasn’t anything new, however. For the G.O.P., tax reform was always part of a larger agenda: dismantling the welfare state, rolling back the regulatory state, and crippling the Democratic Party. Other prominent Republican politicians have made similar comments to Ryan’s, including Senator Marco Rubio and Trump himself. In a speech last week, the President talked about moving onto “welfare reform”—seemingly oblivious to the fact that Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress dismantled the primary welfare programs back in the late nineteen-nineties. About the only big federal means-tested programs left are Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Evidently, these will be on the Republican hit list, even though the primary populations they serve are the sick, the elderly, and children.

But the Republican leaders won’t stop there. For years, privatizing Social Security and Medicare, the great liberal creations of the New Deal and the Great Society, and radically downsizing Medicaid, another Great Society innovation, have been their primary goals. In Ryan’s “Roadmap for America,” the legislative blueprint that he first put forward in 2008, these proposals were the central element, while tax cuts were secondary. During last year’s election campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to protect these popular programs from cuts—but he still called for the abolition of Obamacare, which would have involved drastic cuts to the Medicaid budget. Now, Trump’s attitude toward Social Security and Medicare appears to be changing, too. Ryan, in his radio interview, said that he had been speaking privately with Trump about the approach they should take to entitlement programs, and he added, “I think the President is understanding choice and competition works everywhere, especially in Medicare.”

Ryan’s remarks illustrate why he and other Republican leaders have refused to break with Trump despite his frequent outrages, which, most recently, have included endorsing a U.S. Senate candidate, Roy Moore, who stands accused of repeatedly molesting teen-age girls. The alliance between Trump and congressional Republicans is sometimes an uneasy one, but it’s based on mutual self-interest. With his approval rating in the mid-thirties and Robert Mueller’s investigators circling, Trump needs to maintain the support of Republican leaders, who could theoretically impeach him. The Republicans, meanwhile, need Trump—and the fervent supporters who follow him—to maintain even the barest populist pretense to their reactionary endeavors. Senior Republicans know full well that they have made a Faustian pact. With passage of a tax bill seemingly within sight, they think it is finally paying off. And from their perspective, they are right.

Earlier this week, the conservative economist and Trump supporter Stephen Moore pointed out that the Republican tax bills don’t just include the Party’s long-standing aims to slash tax rates on corporations, eliminate (or drastically curtail) the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and abolish the individual mandate to purchase health insurance. By getting rid of the personal tax deductions for state and local income taxes, the bills also target high-spending Democratic states and municipalities, such as New York and California. As this provision bites, these Democratic strongholds will come under increasing pressure to cut their budgets. That, in turn, will hurt the public sector unions that are a key pillar of the modern Democratic Party.

In addition to undercutting the base of the Democratic Party, the tax bill would boost key Republican constituencies—and not just the corporate and plutocratic ones. In a last-minute move as it was hashing out its version of the tax bill, the Senate approved an amendment from Ted Cruz that would greatly expand the scope of 529 college-savings plans. If Cruz’s proposal makes it into the final bill, as seems likely, parents will be able to use money from 529 plans to help pay the tuition fees for private K-12 schools. That would give a big lift to charter and religious schools, many of which are staffed by teachers who aren’t union members. Appearing on Sean Hannity’s radio show on Thursday, Cruz said that the G.O.P. tax bill was now the “biggest schools-choice bill ever.”

To sum up, the Republicans are using Trump as a blunt instrument—a term that Steve Bannon once used—to help them enact the legislative and administrative counter-revolution that they have long been plotting with their mega-donors and corporate-funded think tanks. And Trump, despite his efforts to portray himself as a defender of the working people, is eager to go along with this plutocratic agenda, which, of course, benefits him and his family.

It is tempting to think that Trump’s hard-pressed supporters will eventually see through him. But that moment of revelation could be a good while coming. Like many right-wing populists, he uses divisive and diversionary tactics to disguise the true nature of his regime. And when it doesn’t come into conflict with Republican dogma or his own interests, he tries to repay the groups that supported him. (This week’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, widely presented as a big foreign-policy initiative, was also a sop to Evangelical Christians, who for theological reasons have taken up the Zionist cause.)

A new Quinnipiac University poll indicates that just twenty-nine per cent of Americans support the Republican tax plan, and sixty-four per cent (rightly) believe that it will benefit the wealthy most. And yet eighty-two per cent of Republicans still approve of the job that Trump is doing as President. That, of course, is another reason why G.O.P. leaders won’t break with him.