Each in its own way, the Trump administration, the Republican Senate and the Republican House face ideological conflicts between fiscal conservatism, white identity politics and right-wing populism.
Their interests converge in a shared antipathy to immigration and to programs seen as disproportionately benefiting racial and ethnic minorities. It’s when their interests diverge that battles erupt.
Two cases in point: the Trump budget and the failed attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare.
The administration’s proposed spending plan for the 2018 fiscal year, “America First — A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” appeases those who have long been determined to cut means-tested programs.
But those same programs are crucial to keeping 6.2 million white working class voters out of poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The number of whites dependent on safety net programs is far larger than the number of African Americans, at 2.8 million, or Hispanics, at 2.4 million.
The second case in point: Trump’s support of the legislation endorsed by Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, to repeal and replace Obamacare.
On March 10, Nate Cohn reported in The Times that Trump voters “have the most to lose in the G.O.P. repeal bill.” The first major piece of legislation to be taken up after the election amounted to a kick in the teeth to Trump’s populist base. Cohn took notice:
The central problem for strategists who want to turn the Republican Party into a working class party, including Trump’s top political adviser, Steven K. Bannon, is that the target constituency — Republicans with low and moderate incomes — needs and wants a strong, interventionist government in many instances.
It’s hard to keep a winning coalition together. The voters who put Trump over the top in Rustbelt states not only adamantly oppose the efforts of conservatives to cut or privatize Social Security and Medicare, they also depend on a host of other discretionary federal programs.
In an April 2 Washington Post story (“Trump’s budget would hit rural towns especially hard — but they’re willing to trust him),” Jenna Johnson wrote from deep red Durant, Okla.:
The predicament facing white conservatives is that after the enactment of civil rights laws, they have found it difficult, if not impossible, to structure programs to benefit the white working class and poor without also benefiting disadvantaged African-Americans and Hispanics.
Until now, the Tea Party-era Republican response has been to press for across the board cuts in safety net programs.
The recent pressure within the Republican Party to respond with greater immediacy to the needs of the white working class has increased interest in programs that direct more of the benefits of the modern welfare state to white Republican loyalists — often described as “deserving” — and fewer benefits to the minority and immigrant population.
Such programs are described as “social policy by stealth” by Rainer-Olaf Schultze, Roland Sturm and Dagmar Eberle in their chapter in “Conservative Parties and Right-Wing Politics in North America: Reaping the Benefits of an Ideological Victory.”
“Rather than instituting new programs or terminating old ones, this strategy involved paring at the margins. Rules for access, eligibility and benefits were tightened up and ‘adjusted,’ ” they write, often through bureaucratic decisions kept “out of the political limelight.”
Conservatives, for example, often seek to achieve such ends by pushing for the replacement of federal programs with block grants to the states. The states are required to adopt race-blind rules, but at the state level it is far easier to approve work, drug testing or other restrictive requirements that frequently have the effect of eliminating more minority than white beneficiaries.
Paul Ryan has called for the consolidation of more than a dozen federal anti-poverty programs into a single “opportunity grant” to the states.
Policy design can be used as a powerful signal to key voting blocs. Politicians and bureaucrats construct these policies not only on the basis of strong or weak constituencies, but also in relation to “value-laden, emotional, and powerful positive and negative social constructions with which they are associated,” according to Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram of Arizona State University. Political leaders, they argue, “like to do ‘good’ things for ‘good’ people, and also like to be ‘tough’ on ‘bad’ people.”
As a rule, policies like these sell.
For example, in 1996 Bill Clinton — after running on a “rights and responsibilities” platform — signaled his courtship of the white working class by promising to “end welfare as we know it.” His legislation that year, as the Yale Law and a Policy Review succinctly puts it,
That law is a case study in the effort to take benefits away from the supposedly undeserving poor. With the passage of his Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Clinton became the first two-term elected Democrat to serve in the White House since Franklin Roosevelt.
Fiscal conservatism can use policy design to force retrenchment that favors white voters over minority voters. Changes like these are frequently masked in bureaucratic language.
Budgetary mechanisms are one way of “paring at the margins.” With his selection of Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina — a founding member of the Freedom Caucus — as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Trump demonstrated his willingness to wield the budget for political purposes.
Mulvaney won his congressional seat as part of the 2010 Tea Party sweep. The first bill he sponsored was the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011, a measure designed to force reductions in means-tested programs for the poor.
In the realm of social spending, Trump has positioned himself on the side of fiscal conservatives. On infrastructure, however, he and Bannon, who just lost his seat on the National Security Council, are on a different track. They are pledged to an immense public works agenda generating jobs that would be appealing and available to white and nonwhite working class voters — hard-core budget hawks be damned.
“I’m the king of debt. I love debt,” Trump proudly told CNN in May of last year.
“The conservatives are going to go crazy,” Bannon declared in a postelection interview in the Hollywood Reporter, in which he outlined his support for a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. “Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks.”
Bannon was not alone. Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to the Trump campaign and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, published “Welcome to the Party of Trump” in National Review in December:
Trump is taking an immense gamble in his approach to governing. He has set his sights on sharp reductions in downwardly redistributive spending. At the same time, he plans to lavish money on bricks and mortar and military expansion: “U.S. War Footprint Grows in Middle East, With No Endgame in Sight” read last week’s headline. The sums involved will test the nation’s tolerance for risk — risk-taking the president believes will “make America great again.”
Just as Trump in his business and personal life has demonstrated a dogged willingness to bet the house — without inhibition and with limited forethought — he is now embarking on one last enormous and divisive wager. In this case, however, the house he is betting is not just his. It belongs to all of us.