Surviving the Age of Trump
from Dean Baker
I will claim no special insight into the politics that led to Trump’s election last Tuesday. I was as surprised as anyone else when not just Florida and North Carolina, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin started to turn red. But that’s history now. We have to live with the fact of President Trump and we have to figure out how to protect as much as possible of what we value in this country from his presidency.
This won’t be easy when the Republicans control both houses of Congress and will soon be able to appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court to again give them a right-wing majority. But there are still points of pressure.
Most importantly, the people in Congress want to get re-elected. Pushing unpopular policies like privatizing Social Security or Medicare, or taking away insurance by ending Obamacare, will be horrible albatrosses hanging over their heads the next time they face voters. This reality has to constantly be put in their faces. It is easy for politicians to push nonsense stories about eliminating trillions of dollars of waste, fraud, and abuse. It is much harder to get away with taking away your parents’ Social Security check or the health care insurance that pays for your kid’s insulin.
The other point of pressure is that we know (even if the folks who report the news don’t) that Trump got elected by making many promises that he will not be able to keep. Rebuilding an economy in which the benefits of growth are broadly shared is a great idea, but Donald Trump is not going to bring back the coal mining jobs lost in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and elsewhere. These jobs were not lost because of environmentalists concerned about the future of the planet; they were lost because of productivity growth in the industry (think of strip mining replacing underground mining). We should make sure that people regularly are informed about President Trump’s progress in bringing back coal mining jobs to Appalachia.
Before getting into some specific issues, it is worth noting that not everything Trump says he wants to do is bad. He says that he wants a big infrastructure program. This is badly needed both to modernize our infrastructure and also to create jobs. Trump’s proposed tax cuts will provide a boost to demand that will generate jobs as well. It’s horribly targeted in giving most of the benefits to the rich, but it will still lead to more consumption and therefore more demand and jobs. This may finally give the economy enough stimulus to restore the labor market to its pre-recession strength. That will be good, especially since the beneficiaries of the job growth and the stronger labor market will be disproportionately African American and Hispanic and less-educated workers. Now, I will get to some specifics.
During the campaign Trump distinguished himself from other Republicans by saying there was no reason to cut benefits or to raise the retirement age. (The age for full benefits is already being raised to 67 by 2022.) In spite of this commitment, many Republicans, most importantly House Speaker Paul Ryan, have long wanted to cut and privatize Social Security. They are likely to try to enlist Trump into this effort.
There are two points here. First, the retirees and near retirees who are most dependent on Social Security are core Republican voters. If the Republicans want to cut their benefits, this fact has to be in their face in every way we can possibly bring it home. Undoubtedly, the proposal will be phased in so that current retirees and those near retirement will be largely protected. Fortunately, the history here is that people identify with the program. In part, they probably dosn’t believe that they really will be shielded from cut, but they also see Social Security as a good program which they want their children and grandchildren to benefit from as well.
The other point is that if Trump goes along with plans to cut or privatize Social Security, this is a huge breach of faith with voters. Many of Trump’s supporters said they liked him because he spoke his mind, unlike a typical politician. Making a commitment to protect the country’s most important social program, and then turning around and reversing it once you get into the White House, is just about the most sleazy politician’s flip flop imaginable. This should be a career ending move for Trump and any of his accomplices.
The basic story is the same as with Social Security, it is also a hugely popular and tremendously effective program. There is one notable difference. Since the nature of the benefit is more complicated (coverage of most of seniors’ health care costs), it is possible to make major cuts without calling them cuts. This is the trick behind Paul Ryan’s plan for privatizing Medicare which he characterizes as “modernizing” the program.
In this area it will be important to highlight what privatization would actually mean. It will require seniors to deal with insurance companies who will profit by denying them care. It would also end Medicare as we know it. It is bad enough that younger healthier people have to struggle with insurers to pay bills. Subjecting our elderly parents and grandparents to this treatment is a cruel trick. We have to do our best to make everyone know that this is the Republican agenda.
One of Trump and the Republican’s central pledges has been to get rid of Obamacare. This is a vote winning pledge primarily because no one knows what Obamacare is. The Republicans have been allowed to paint it as death panels denying care for old people and a mandate requiring people to buy insurance they don’t want. Very few people, including many of the people directly benefitting, know that Obamacare is the program that has allowed 20 million people to get health care insurance.
It is also the program that has made it possible for people with serious health conditions to be able to get insurance at relatively affordable prices. This is a great thing by itself, but it has also allowed millions of workers to leave jobs they dislike without worrying about getting health insurance for themselves and their families. This is seen most clearly in the sharp increase in the number of voluntary part-time workers. These are workers who say that they prefer working less than full-time jobs; jobs that generally don’t provide health care insurance.
There has been an unprecedented rise in the number of people voluntarily working part-time since the exchanges went into operation in January of 2014. The number of people who have chosen to work part-time is up by almost 1.9 million since Obamacare went into effect. The number involuntarily working part-time has fallen by almost the same amount. Disproportionately the people benefitting have been young parents who are presumably choosing to have more time with their kids. Most people would probably think this is a good thing.
Anyhow, no one knows the positives of Obamacare largely because the political consultants tell Democratic politicians not to talk about it. But when President Trump looks to dismantle the program, it will be very important that people understand that this is taking away health care insurance from their family members, friends, and neighbors.
There were problems in implementing Obamacare, there will undoubtedly be many more problems in undoing it, especially since the end result will leave most people in a much worse situation. It is important that everyone know that real people are being hurt by the repeal. This mean highlight stories like parents of kids with diabetes being unable to afford insulin and comparable horror stories. Older people with heart conditions and cancer survivors will no longer be able to get affordable insurance. This is the Republican replacement for Obamacare and everyone must know it.
Donald Trump has told the public that the undocumented workers in this country are rapists and drug dealers. In reality, they are the people who work their asses off cleaning toilets in hotel rooms and in wealthier people’s homes. They are people doing the dishes in restaurant kitchens and picking vegetables in the hot sun. Many of the people who Donald Trump has pledged to deport have been here ten or twenty years. Many have kids who are U.S. citizens. Some have started businesses and are employing other people.
This is the reality of the undocumented population. We have to do everything we can to drive these facts home. We have an ally in the business community. They don’t want to see millions of their workers randomly grabbed up and thrown out of the country. This is why there has been so much Republican support for immigration reform. While we are not likely to see immigration reform under President Trump, it is certainly possible that a Republican Congress would act to put a brake on the worst attacks on immigrants.
Trump has pledged to reverse regulations in a wide range of area, including regulations on the financial industry and environmental regulation. In some cases, there may be legal remedies for efforts to undo regulation through executive action, but the courts will be uncertain allies at best and a Republican Congress will be happy to grant full legal authority in many cases.
The best hope here is to educate the country about the consequences. While some regulations are undoubtedly overly burdensome, they exist for a purpose. Most of us are old enough to remember the sleazy practices and outright fraud involving mortgage loans and mortgage backed securities that helped to inflate the housing bubble. Dodd-Frank provided some checks on such practices but hardly put an end to abuses in the financial sector, as folks familiar with John Stumpf and Wells Fargo know. The Wall Street gang is sufficiently greedy that they will quickly take advantage of deregulation to further stuff their pockets at the public’s expense. We have to make sure to get our flashlights out.
There is a similar story on environmental regulation. Most of these measures have been well worth their cost. This is another case where it is easy to hate regulation in the abstract, but to actually value the specific regulations that protect the environment and people’s health. Even Donald Trump’s supporters are appalled that the kids in Flint have lead in their drinking water. Donald Trump’s agenda here is about putting a lot more lead in folks’ drinking water. Most people would not think this is good, at least if they understood that what was at issue.
On global warming we will have to do everything we can at the state and local level and use private initiatives to promote conservation and clean energy. Maybe someone can put a huge thermometer showing global average temperatures on a building in view of the White House. This is a huge problem and we have to find some way to get the U.S. on board with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Anyhow, those are some cheap thoughts on how we can best get through a Trump presidency. Hopefully, they are helpful. I will also toss in a word about how we got here. There has been to my mind a very silly debate about whether Trump supporters are driven by racism, xenophobia, and misogyny or whether they are driven by economic factors.
I consider this debate silly since both are obviously important in my view. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are deeply rooted in society and few of us can claim to be completely devoid of these sentiments. The question is how these hatreds can come to be the defining feature of political life for large numbers of people and here I think the economic policies of the last four decades have played a crucial role.
I would argue that we have pursued policies that have been deliberately designed to shift income upward over this period. (Yes, this is the topic of my book Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer, which I don’t mind plugging, since it’s free.) It is understandable that the losers from these policies would be looking to lash out at the winners. Voting for Trump was a way these people could spit in the face of the people who they see as wrecking their lives.
It’s not pretty, but the best way to respond is to give them real ways to improve their lives and stop having all the benefits from growth go to those at the top. Trump is not going to help the people who have been left behind, and we have to make this fact as clear as possible. But we should also be showing them policies that will have substantial and direct effects in improving their lives.