How Trump's budget weaponizes the worst GOP pathologies
This is your brain on Trump. Any questions?
President Trump's budget looks like a liberal blogger's caricature of what a Republican budget on steroids would be: yuge tax cuts skewed to the rich, a large increase in defense spending, and red ink as far as the eye can see. We're talking deep cuts to Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, social services for the poor and disabled, most federal agencies, farm subsidies, pension benefits, college loans, highway funds, medical research, and foreign aid.
Oh, and the budget also relies on fuzzy math.
Federal government budgets always make spending and revenue estimates for many years running. That's awfully tricky, and requires you to estimate things that are fundamentally unknowable, like the GDP growth rate five years from now. These estimates have become a popular tool for massaging the data. But Trump's budget takes that trick to new extremes.
For starters, Trump's budget assumes several continuous years of constant 3 percent GDP growth. That should elicit grim laughter from anyone who is aware of the state of the global economy for the past decade.
What's more, in another bit that looks like a caricature of actual Republican thinking, this growth is expected to be the product of the budget's massive tax cuts. That increased growth will then supposedly lead to $2 trillion more revenue which will pay for those tax cuts.
But as New York's Jonathan Chait pointed out, that $2 trillion is actually double-counted; it appears once in the budget to pay for the tax cuts, and elsewhere to balance the budget. Did the Office of Management and Budget make this childish arithmetic error — or did it lie? What difference, at this point, does it make?
Trump's budget is obviously wildly irresponsible. But there's a broader point to be made here. Plenty of people, particularly mainstream conservatives like myself, are at pains to distance Trump from the traditional values of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. And with good reason! Trump's mix of authoritarianism, protectionism, xenophobia, and isolationism are at odds with the values of, say, Ronald Reagan.
Yet at the same time, conservatives must recognize that Trump, like a cancer in a hospitable environment, grew out of the movement we built, and that while in some respects he is the opposite of what we stand for, in other respects he is merely an enlarged version of some of our pathologies.
This budget is a good example: Trump didn't invent tax cuts skewed to the rich, fantasies about tax cuts paying for themselves, drastic reductions to welfare programs and federal spending, cutting taxes now and leaving spending cuts up to someone else to figure out, or fuzzy math and overgenerous modeling assumptions. All of this has been a feature of establishment Republican talk on budgets for many years. Trump's difference is one of degree, not in kind. He turns the sort-of-defensible into the indefensible.
I'm not old enough to remember when the Republican Party was the party of sober competence and government, but I've read about it. Today that claim, which used to be a source of pride, is laughable.
After Trump's utterly chaotic and achievement-free first 100 days, I wrote that his presidency was giving us the worst of populism and the worst of establishmentarianism. Trump doesn't have the competence to implement the interesting and potentially fruitful parts of his agenda (an infrastructure push, or a renewed focus on upward mobility in government policy) but he does do ridiculous populist gestures and shows a populist's lack of governing skill. Meanwhile, he has staffed up his executive branch (when he has staffed it up) with establishmentarians and then given them no leash, leaving them free to indulge their worst impulses (tax cuts for the rich from here to the moon!).
In some ways, Trump and what he represents is deeply at odds with the Republican and conservative establishment as we've known it, and that's a problem everyone sees. But in other ways they just feed off each other's awfulness. This is the problem that's harder to see — and harder to fix.