We talk a lot about Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and democratic norms. As in: Our democratic norms—free and fair elections, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and so on—are going down the toilet under this presidency, and the Republican Party is cheering him on every step of the way, because he’s owning the libs so hard.
We don’t talk a lot about Trump, the Republican Party, and economic norms. But The New York Times’ publication of that astonishing expose on Trump family wealth provides the perfect occasion to start talking.
Because just as Trump was the logical culmination of all the moves Republicans have made in the last 25 years or so to degrade the norms of our democracy, he is also the logical culmination of everything they’ve done to turn the economy from one that helped the broad middle class to one that serves only those at the top. Put more succinctly: Of course they elected a plutocrat tax cheat. They spent 30 years making the world safe for plutocrat tax cheats!
Quick economic history: From 1945 to 1975, the economy worked in this country for most people. Wages were high and matched productivity gains. Rates of unionism were high, and corporations (mostly) accepted their existence. Tax rates, especially on the rich, were high. And, yes, there was tons of innovation in that America. Higher taxes didn’t stifle anything, except corporate greed.
There was also lots of public investment. The federal government advanced money toward all kinds of ends and to all kinds of people. One such end was the building of housing developments for that rapidly growing middle class. I hope it was not lost on you as you read the Times article that two major recipients of low-interest government loans in the postwar era were…Fred and Donald Trump. Fred got several such loans early on. And in 1972, the duo built a high-rise for senior citizens in East Orange thanks to a “nearly interest-free” government loan that covered 90 percent of building costs. Self-made men.
Fade in, fade out. Shortly thereafter came the developments that left the Keynesian system—the set of norms, that is to say, that supported our postwar economic order—vulnerable to attack. The great inflation, the wage-productivity delinking, the OPEC crisis, the Rust Belt crisis. In barged the Chicago School with its shiny new theory: Investing public money in things is ass-backwards. We need to give the money back to rich people and let them invest. Then came Ronald Reagan to sell this to the American public as supply-side economics.
You know that famous quote from the American philosopher Eric Hoffer? This one: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” Well, once upon a time, you might have been able to argue that the Chicago crowd was leading a movement. When the economy boomed in the 1980s, it seemed that supply-side worked, and the movement was triumphant.
But it wasn’t long before it became a business. That happened, too, in the 1980s, when Reagan and the Republicans slashed taxes on the wealthy, both income taxes and capital gains, and the rich people took big chunks of these windfalls and began to plow them back into the cause of electing and reelecting Republicans who would cut their taxes even more.
Beyond that, they promoted a world view, an ethos. Masters of the universe lit their Macanudos with $100 bills. Greed was good. Taxes were for chumps. Poverty was a moral failing. Is it an accident that the culture that celebrated excess and dismissed concerns about inequality as quaint—and as being of no concern to “real” economists; yes, this was a thing—is the same one that decided that a man such as Donald Trump was to be limned and lionized?
Then, finally, came the racketeers. Newt Gingrich, who led the revolt against George H.W. Bush in 1990 after Bush did the responsible thing in the wake of the savings & loan crisis, and the politically no-longer-acceptable thing, of compromising with Democrats on a modest tax increase. Republicans in Congress haven’t supported a single tax increase since—in 28 years—even as they’ve cut millionaires’ taxes many times.
Take Mitch McConnell, who cares about nothing policy-wise except trying to get rid of all limits on campaign contributions and spending, so that this corrupt system may perpetuate itself eternally. And more recently Paul Ryan, who vowed last December that “minds are going to change” on the GOP’s class-warfare tax bill (they have—it’s gotten even more unpopular than it was at passage).
But come on, you might say. The thing the Times piece exposed about Trump was his incessant tax cheating. The Republicans may have supported bad tax policy, but they didn’t encourage that.
No, not openly. But what message do you think Fred and Donald Trump got as they watched Republican politicians spend 30 years denouncing the evil of taxation, slashing their taxes over and over again? Cutting the IRS’ budget so that it became a toothless agency with far less capacity to audit people exactly like the Trumps?
I’ll tell you what message they got. Green light, baby!
Republican voters got the message, too. So that by the time their party nominated a man who wouldn’t release his taxes (and was obviously lying about why), and who’d driven numerous businesses to ruin, they didn’t bat an eye. It’s not that it was inevitable that the Republicans would nominate a monumental tax cheat. It was, however, inevitable that once they did, they wouldn’t care.
And they won’t care now to learn that Trump cheated the government out of many millions of dollars, belittled his own father, and then tried to screw the man who’d given him $413 million by rewriting the old man’s will and trying to force him to sign it.
They won’t care partly because it’s the “liberal media” saying all this. But they also won’t care because Trump is just playing by the rules the Republicans have driven into their brains for three decades. He’s the logical culmination of decades of racial dog-whistling and xenophobia, but he’s the logical culmination of their doctrine of selfishness, too.