Anything at All Can Happen in the Age of Trump

There has never before been a U.S. president whose stated goals were as simultaneously vague, preposterous, and contradictory.

Photo Illustration: Martin Woodtli for The Intercept / Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

Welcome to the Age of Trump, where no one has any idea what the policies of the President of the United States are, including the President of the United States.

There has never before been a U.S. president whose stated goals were as simultaneously vague, preposterous, and contradictory.

Nor has there ever been a president who has intermittently taken strong stances that were so directly at odds with his own party’s most fervent dogma and his own appointees.

Nor has there been a president who was as completely uninterested in the basics of politics. It’s as though America is playing in the World Series with a manager who truly doesn’t care about baseball.

What this adds up to is that there’s not a single person who knows exactly what the Trump administration is going to try to do. No one could be surprised if Trump suddenly announced that he wants NASA to send a team to colonize Neptune; that he’s going to lead the team; and that he’s signed a deal with China to personally make $3 billion for the reality show syndication rights.

But while nothing is certain, some alarming things are more likely than others. The path the new administration hopes to take may be discernible in a 2016 report by the conservative Heritage Foundation. According to The Hill on Thursday, Trump transition staffers – including a vice president at Heritage’s grassroots arm Action for America – are using the Heritage document as the basis for Trump’s first proposed budget.

The Trump transition staff did not respond to questions about whether they are in fact doing this, and understandably so — the Heritage plan treats social spending like Lizzie Borden treated her parents, axing $10.5 trillion, or 20 percent, from the $51.4 trillion that the Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government would otherwise spend over the next ten years.

“Unprecedented” is simultaneously accurate and insufficient to describe the Heritage cuts. As Joel Friedman, vice president for federal fiscal policy at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, puts it: “No administration up to this point has ever bought into proposals this far-reaching. Even the George W. Bush administration was never proposing cuts of anywhere near this magnitude.”

Ten-year cumulative federal spending and revenues (billions of dollars)

CBO projections Heritage proposal Difference
Social Security 12,580 11,883 -697
Medicare 8,016 6,353 -1,663
Medicaid & Other Mandatory 12,057 7,621 -4,436
Defense Discretionary 6,481 6,684 203
Non-Defense Discretionary 6,494 3,970 -2,524
Net Interest 5,759 4,413 -1,346
Total spending 51,388 40,924 -10,464
Total revenues 42,010 40,710 -1,300

Source: CBO: The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2016 to 2026; Heritage Foundation: A Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017
Compiled by: Ernie Tedeschi

As seen above, $6.8 trillion in cuts – or 65 pecent of the total — would be extracted from Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other non-discretionary spending, including all of the Affordable Care Act.

In addition to sharply reducing Social Security and Medicare benefits for most people, the Heritage plan would raise the programs’ eligibility ages and then index them to longevity – thereby enshrining in law the concept that no matter how wealthy the U.S. becomes, regular people will never be permitted to work fewer years at the end of their lives.

Heritage does not provide details about how exactly Medicaid and other mandatory spending would be whacked, but the cuts would be even heavier. While most Americans don’t know this until they need it, 65 percent of the elderly in nursing homes depend on Medicaid to pay their bills, and the program covers 45 percent of the country’s spending on nursing home care overall. Non-Medicaid mandatory spending includes income security for veterans, food stamps, and unemployment benefits.

Non-defense discretionary spending would also be eviscerated. Heritage would slice expenditures on clean energy, environmental programs, and veterans’ health, as well as funding for the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, Justice, and State. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would be totally eliminated.

While all this is happening, one part of the government would see its budget protected and even increased: the Pentagon.

But wait, there’s more: The Heritage plan gets more draconian as time goes by, so these numbers actually understate the size of spending cuts in the long term. The graph below shows by percentage how much each area of government would be reduced in Heritage’s 2026 budget in comparison to the CBO’s current projection for 2026. For instance, spending on non-defense discretionary spending would be cut almost in half.

Potential Trump spending cuts for 2026 budget, compared to 2026 CBO projections

If Mike Pence were president, we’d know that he’d be committed to passing as much of this agenda as possible. But with Trump, there’s simply no way to know what will happen.

Trump has chosen many Republicans for key positions, especially Rep. Tom Price for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Rep. Mick Mulvaney for director of the Office of Management and Budget, who’ve spent their careers trying to dismantle Social Security and Medicare.

And we know that Republicans are generally on board with the Heritage vision. In fact, today’s Republican Party is more ideologically extreme than it has been in the memory of almost all living Americans. Most importantly, it now rejects the post-World War II bipartisan consensus that the New Deal was a good thing. The Republicans’ long term plan is to roll it back as far as possible, ideally returning the U.S. to a time without Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, or much regulation of business. The fact that this kind of brutal capitalism in the past was accompanied by the rise of communism and fascism and two cataclysmic wars doesn’t seem to worry them.

Still, one of the main things that distinguished Trump during his campaign is that he vociferously and repeatedly committed to protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid:

But then again, Trump could declare this commitment inoperative at any moment, just as he has with many other campaign promises. (In fact, he largely did this already before the election regarding Medicaid.) It’s also possible he has no idea that his staff is working on this plan, and will distractedly sign a bill gutting entitlements in between disparaging tweets about Rachel Maddow’s ratings.

Moreover, there is no constituency opposed to these draconian cuts among elected Republicans and their media penumbra. Since the election, talk radio, Fox and conservative print media have been noticeably silent about or supportive of a frontal assault on social spending by the congressional GOP. Even Breitbart, which back in June was extremely enthusiastic about Trump’s vows to preserve the safety net, is now calling for “productive negotiation between the White House and Congress” on “entitlement reform.” It’s easy to imagine much of the Heritage plan could pass before Trump voters even know it’s on the table.

Then there’s the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans plan to grudgingly replace with something worse at an indefinite time in the future. But Trump carpet-bombed the GOP position in an interview with the Washington Post last week, claiming that he has a replacement plan almost ready that includes “insurance for everybody” and “lower numbers, much lower deductibles.”

Trump also told the Post that pharmaceutical companies are no longer “politically protected” and that he’ll be able to force them to lower drug prices.

In term of Trump’s purported goals, there are just two ways to make them happen: Single payer health insurance, or an amped up, more expensive version of Obamacare with higher subsidies and the option to buy some kind of government-provided coverage. Then to beat the prescription drug industry, he’d have to confront congressional Republicans who, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, have received more than $31 million in campaign donations from the pharmaceutical and health products industries in the four years since the 2012 election.

So the most likely explanation for Trump’s effusion is that his plan doesn’t exist anywhere except inside his head. As National Review contributor Yuval Levin recently explained, “the conservative health-care universe, including some people on Trump’s own team, quickly concluded that the separate administration plan he described was entirely a figment of Trump’s imagination.”

Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union and until recently a top aide to now-retired Senate Democratic minority leader Harry Reid, believes that congressional Democrats view it the same way, and are not strategizing about how they could help Trump pass his splendid improvement on Obamacare.

Moreover, even if Trump were sincere, it’s extremely unlikely he has the power or personal characteristics needed to make much happen over Republican opposition. The sole support in conservative media for such a plan comes from Breitbart, which says that Trump’s antagonism toward big pharma “is yet another example of where Trump’s populist nationalism — he’s a president for the working class, and wants to stand up for American workers against world financial, cultural, and political elites — is rubbing up against [Speaker of the House] Ryan’s globalist elitism.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s voter base is enthusiastic but unorganized, and Trump himself has clearly demonstrated that he’s far too lazy and easily distracted to push a huge political project through to completion.

Shakir, who spent years witnessing the legislative process up close on Capitol Hill, says that experience taught him “how much time and patience is required to pass big bills, and how fundamentally boring and tedious it can be. I cannot imagine Trump giving a damn” to the degree necessary.

On taxes, Trump and Congress will likely find a lot of common ground, though not on every issue.

Even the conservative, corporate-funded Tax Foundation believes that over the next ten years Trump’s campaign plan would reduce tax revenues by trillions. The richest 1 percent would see by far the biggest tax cuts.

The best measurement of this is the ratio of the government’s accumulated debt to the gross domestic product. Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts and crazy Pentagon spending spree increased this ratio by about 14 points. George W. Bush’s tax cuts and wars increased it almost 6 percentage points. By 2026 the tax cuts Trump wants would by themselves likely drive it up by almost the same amount as Reagan did.

However, thanks to the Great Recession, the U.S. would be starting from a far weaker financial position than under Reagan or Bush. We are extraordinarily rich and powerful, and since we borrow in our own currency we can print money to pay any debts. But even America has limits. It’s not impossible to imagine Trump combining his gargantuan tax cuts with a new money-pit war and a Bush-style Wall Street catastrophe. This could create a situation in which we could not escape either galloping inflation or interest rates so high they crush the economy, or both.

Trump and the GOP do differ on a Republican approach to changing the corporate tax code called “border adjustment.” Surprisingly enough, this might raise taxes at the top a bit and make the overall tax code slightly more progressive. In addition, says Dean Baker, an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “the current corporate tax system is a cesspool. It has made for a massive tax avoidance industry which is the source of some of the worst inequality in the economy” – and done right, a move to a border adjustment system “eliminates the vast majority of the opportunities for gaming [and would be] a huge step forward.”

Where does Trump come down on this idea? He opposes it. It would be, he says, “too complicated” – apparently unlike all the simple ways to tax multinational corporations.

Then there are executive orders, which Trump can issue without the involvement of Congress and where he does have something approaching a coherent plan to fulfill parts of his campaign rhetoric.

On his first day in office, Trump signed an executive order instructing government agencies to “take all actions consistent with law to minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens” of the Affordable Care Act. Trump and his aides have said that he will soon sign others that will direct money for the building of some kind of wall along some part of the U.S.-Mexico border, and rescind the Obama executive order that allowed hundreds of thousands of people brought into the U.S. as children to stay on a two-year authorization to go to college or work.

Trump has also claimed he will cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities. He will suspend the current Syrian refugee program as well as, as he said in October, “immigration from terror-prone regions where vetting cannot safely occur.” And he will “announce our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” although of course it’s never actually been voted on.

Finally there’s Trump’s foreign policy, the murkiest and least predictable part of his presidency of all — since Trump doesn’t seem to have discussed it with some of his key appointees or even taken their views into account when choosing them.

Rex Tillerson, Trump’s potential secretary of state, disagreed repeatedly during his confirmation hearings with Trump’s stated policies. Trump has said the world might be “better off” if Japan or South Korea obtained their own nuclear weapons, something Tillerson flatly opposed. He put distance between himself and Trump on Muslim immigrants. Perhaps most surprisingly, Tillerson claimed that if he’d been secretary of state when Russia annexed Crimea, he would have advocated that the U.S. provide Ukraine, which is not part of NATO, with arms, intelligence and air surveillance.

While Trump has claimed that “torture works,” both Mike Pompeo, his pick for head of the CIA, and Defense Secretary James Mattis have opposed Trump’s advocacy for waterboarding and “a hell of lot worse than waterboarding.” During Mattis’s hearings he also supported NATO; was strongly negative about Russia; and said “we have to live up to” the nuclear accord with Iran, which Trump has said he wants to “dismantle.”

So here we are, wandering in the post-truth, post-fact, post-everything Trump fog. We can just make out a few hazy, ominous shapes coming towards us, and no one knows what else is out there beyond our sight. But most frightening of all is that the President of the United States is somewhere around here too, and he’s just as lost as we are.

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