President Trump was going to be a different kind of Republican.
He was supposed to refashion the GOP into a party for the forgotten Americans. To that end, Republicans' long-standing commitments to slash the welfare state were going out the window: "I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Every other Republican is going to cut," he said during the campaign. "There will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid," he reiterated on Twitter.
"There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for [insurance], you don’t get it," he added in January, just to send the point home. "That’s not going to happen with us."
So much for that idea.
The president seems to be sticking by his promise to protect the entitlement programs for retirees. But as for Medicaid — the program that provides health coverage for low-income Americans — Trump has reversed course so hard and fast it's remarkable he hasn't altered the rotation of the Earth.
House Republicans intend to cut Medicaid by a staggering $880 billion over 10 years. Of the 70 million Americans — young, old, disabled, and poor — who get their coverage through the program, 14 million would be kicked off by 2026, according to estimates. Far from standing in the way of this plan, Trump is endorsing it: The new, more detailed budget plan the president will release later today includes all of the House GOP's Medicaid cuts, and may even add to them.
Nor does it end there. Over 10 years, Trump's new budget would cut $193 billion out of food stamps — a 25 percent reduction in a program that helps 43 million people afford to eat. It will slice another $40 billion out of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Traditional welfare would be reduced by $21 billion. No small portion of those cuts would come from letting states impose new work requirements across programs like Medicaid and housing assistance. The White House is reportedly distributing talking points that the budget "strives to replace dependency with the dignity of work through welfare reform efforts" — a standard GOP line since forever.
A few months ago, Trump released a less detailed budget sketch that suggested something like this was coming. In particular, that sketch included $54 billion in cuts — just in 2018 — to a whole slew of programs that invest in jobs, housing, energy, public transit, and local investment in struggling communities around the country. It even slashed Meals on Wheels. To make its math work, the more detailed budget Trump releases today will almost certainly have to extend those reductions through the entire decade. All told, Trump would slice a whopping $1.7 trillion out of public investment and programs that support poor and working-class Americans over the next decade.
That the budget plan also includes $200 billion for Trump's infrastructure proposal (which won't work), $25 billion for his (totally inadequate) childcare proposal, and about $4.2 billion for a border wall and additional security, will go nowhere close to plugging this hole.
So we knew this was probably coming. And it's only a proposal; the White House can't pass it without Congress. But it's still breathtaking to hold these hard numbers up next to Trump's for-the-little-guy-and-against-the-elites rhetoric and examine both side by side in the cold light of day.
These cuts would fall hardest on vulnerable and less well-off Americans, all to make room in the budget for tax cuts showered on the very top — an average annual benefit of $250,000 per household to the top 1 percent. "The indications are strong this budget will feature Robin-Hood-in-reverse policies on an unprecedented scale," observed Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a recent press call.
There's no way you can make this sort of plan fit into the populist, anti-elite vision Trump pitched his campaign on. It's basically a wishlist for the Koch brothers wing of the Republican Party. Trump's supposed readiness to challenge the establishment collapses the second it comes in contact with the GOP donor base's orthodoxy.
Now, the fact that America's safety net is already appallingly stingy as it is may help make sense of this. A lot of Trump's working-class supporters certainly aren't doing well, but they could be doing just well enough that they don't qualify for Medicaid, food stamps, etc. That in turn creates resentment against "those people" who do qualify. The populist resentments coursing through Trumpism are thus directed downward towards the poor — especially poor people who aren't white — as well as upward at elites and Wall Street financiers. And that gives Trump and the GOP room to cut those programs without suffering much political blowback.
But separating the in-group of "hard-working" Americans from the oft-racialized out-group of "the dependent poor" is a lot easier to say than to do. Forty percent of food stamp beneficiaries are white, as are 42 percent of Medicaid recipients. As inequality, low wages, rising costs of living, and the effects in a stagnant finance-driven, post-industrial economy, the population of struggling Americans has only gotten bigger and more diverse.
That's why Trump felt the pressure to promise to protect Medicaid to begin with.
So why did he renege? Maybe he thought he could get away with it. More likely, Trump simply doesn't understand policy, especially the kind of budgetary plan needed to actually turn his promises into reality.
But the simplest explanation is that he never cared about those promises to begin with. Trump is a snake-oil salesman, plain and simple. He spotted a growing tectonic rift among American voters that was about to split both parties and upend the dynamics of U.S. politics. And he exploited it ruthlessly, with no intent of ever addressing the problem.
The only bright spot here is that Trump isn't the only one feeling the effects of those political shifts. The rest of the GOP is too. And the party's moderates — especially in the Senate — will probably balk at passing this monstrosity.