President Donald Trump’s first year in office confirmed what many of us long suspected: his “populist economic nationalism” was largely a scam. Trump mostly abandoned the “economic” side of Trumpism, hewing to plutocratic and regressive GOP orthodoxy on taxes and the safety net, while translating xenophobic ethno-nationalist appeals into policy and ramping up white-identity politics wherever humanly (or perhaps subhumanly?) possible.
Starting this week - with the introduction of a new infrastructure plan and the kickoff of the Senate debate on immigration - we will begin to see what Year Two of this sort of politics will look like. Here are the big developments:
Infrastructure: Trump will announce what the White House bills as a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But as The Post reports, it will actually only contain $200 billion in additional spending, with the rest to come from state and private sources. Spending on infrastructure is to be offset by cuts elsewhere. This could result in cuts to safety-net programs or even to other types of infrastructure spending, undermining the plan’s own goals.
In the original telling of Trumpism’s most devoted evangelist, Stephen Bannon, Trump’s infrastructure plan would call for a massive expenditure that would help shatter the two-party alignment, alienating fiscal conservatives and winning over minorities. (Trump had similarly vowed to convert the GOP into a “workers’ party.”) The actual plan will look nothing like that. While it does promise some targeted spending, and White House advisers have vowed flexibility, it will likely end up being a cronyist privatization scheme with insufficient spending directed to the sort of struggling working-class areas targeted by Trump’s “Make America Great Again” appeals.
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Immigration: Trump’s conservative allies will today introduce a Senate bill in keeping with Trump’s vision, one that legalizes the “dreamers” in exchange for much of the Stephen Miller/nativist wish list. It is possible that a more reasonable bipartisan Senate compromise could emerge that protects dreamers in exchange for border-security expenditures and more limited concessions on legal immigration, putting pressure on Trump and House Republicans to accept it.
But it’s easy to envision an endgame in which the dreamers are driven underground - or only get a short-term reprieve - because Trump rejects anything that does not include huge border wall expenditures, more money for deportations and deep cuts to legal immigration, in keeping with a picture of his base’s xenophobia and nativism that is probably largely exaggerated. Whatever the fate of the dreamers, that push will continue: Trump’s budget will call for increased spending to expand detention and deportation capabilities. And a new Post report details how, under Trump, immigration enforcement has been “unshackled” to juice up arrests and deportations of the lowest-level offenders, which will also continue.
Republican deficit boosting: The White House budget calls for deep cuts to some non-defense domestic spending, including deep cuts to the safety net. But in practice, Trump and the GOP are embracing policies that will still explode the deficit. Congressional Republicans just helped pass a budget deal that busts spending caps, and the Trump/GOP tax plan balloons the deficit by delivering a huge permanent corporate tax cut that will mostly benefit the wealthiest while giving the middle class a much more negligible set of temporary benefits.
While that budget deal does fund some progressive priorities (the price for Dem support to pass it), over time the GOP’s combined deficit-busting approach could mean more pressure to cut the safety net later. (The cuts to the safety net in Trump’s budget can be seen as a preview of this.) That and the tax plan’s regressiveness could end up exacerbating inequality.
More culture wars: Axios reports today that Trump’s real game plan for the 2018 elections is to juice up the GOP base by finding new and unexpected “cultural flashpoints,” similar to Trump’s attacks on kneeling football players. One source claims Trump “is going to be looking for opportunities to stir up the base.”
And right on cue, Trump expressed sympathy for former top staffer Rob Porter, who is accused of domestic abuse, and seemed to align himself against the entire (hash)MeToo movement. Indeed, the New York Times reports that Republicans are worried that Trump will continue to stoke polarization and anger wherever possible, making the midterms more about him and further energizing Dem voter groups.
To sum up: Here’s what all of this amounts to. The vow of big spending on infrastructure - which was central to the economic side of Trump’s populist nationalism - is likely to prove a scam. Trump will keep embracing the GOP’s plutocratic and regressive fiscal priorities, threatening to worsen inequality over time. The implementation of Trump’s xenophobic and nativist blueprint will continue in all its cruelty wherever possible. And Trump will keep up the bread-and-circuses racial and gender-oriented provocation to drive GOP base voters to the polls, even at the risk - or perhaps with the deliberate end - of further enraging the nonwhite voters, women and college-educated whites who are already alienated by a year of the same.
In other words, the Real Trumpism, Year Two.