The president’s agenda is so bad, Republican leaders have to create carve-outs so their voters don’t suffer.
There are a lot of problems with living near an offshore oil rig. The smell can be nasty. The rigs produce something known as tarballs — little globs of petroleum that wash up on land. Even modest oil spills, which happen pretty frequently, can disrupt life. A major spill can devastate a community.
No wonder, then, that people living along both the East and West coasts objected when the Trump administration announced a big expansion of drilling last month. But only one area has managed to win a promised exemption to the drilling: Florida.
Why? Well, Florida’s governor is Rick Scott, a Republican whom President Donald Trump is trying to persuade to run for the Senate this year. If Scott does run, he doesn’t want to be forced to defend an unpopular new drilling plan.
So Trump’s larger agenda will move ahead, with a special exception to that very same agenda for the president’s closest allies. It’s Trumpism-for-thee-but-not-for-me, and it is becoming a pattern.
Here’s how it works: First, the Trump administration, often with congressional Republicans, enacts a policy that harms a large number of Americans. Then local or state allies of the administration raise objections. Ultimately, the administration and Congress create a carve-out that protects a small number of favored constituents while leaving most of the damaging policy in place.
It is splendidly hypocritical, of course: If Trump’s agenda is as wonderful as he says, his loyal supporters should surely get to benefit from it as well. But I think it also contains an important lesson for anyone trying to stop Trump’s agenda: Keep calling attention to the substance of that agenda, because it is deeply unpopular — and even Trump’s allies know it’s unpopular.
The pattern first appeared during the attempts to repeal Obamacare last year. The repeal bills would have sharply cut federal spending on health insurance. Yet not every part of the country would have experienced a cut. Most blue states would have suffered large reductions (Trumpism for thee …), while many red states would actually have received more federal subsidies (… but not for me).
Then came the tax law passed in December. Not only does it shift billions of federal dollars from blue states to red, it does so partly through duplicity.
The clearest example is a new tax on colleges with an endowment of at least $500,000 per full-time student. It was aimed at bastions of liberalism, like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Amherst College. But members of Congress eventually realized that the endowment tax would also apply to Berea College, a small institution in Kentucky with a nice-sized endowment.
Kentucky, as you are probably aware, is the home state of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. So McConnell “insisted” (his word) that last week’s budget deal create a carve-out to spare Berea from the tax.
I want to emphasize that Berea is an extremely impressive place. It enrolls only lower-income students, most of them from Appalachia, and doesn’t charge tuition. But the idea that congressional Republicans are just trying to protect low-income students — their rationalization for the carve-out — is ridiculous.
For one thing, those same members of Congress have repeatedly taken steps to make college more expensive for both low- and middle-income families. So have state-level Republicans, which helps explain why nationwide per-student funding for higher education has dropped 16 percent since 2008. Trump and House leaders both recently proposed further cuts.
For another thing, Berea, admirable as it is, happens to be tiny. It graduated about 315 lower-income students last year. By comparison, New York University graduated more than 1,000 lower-income students. Arizona State University — located in the state suffering from the deepest college funding cuts — graduated 7,500 such students. McConnell hasn’t done any “insisting” on their behalf.
All of this hypocrisy is certainly maddening. But as the old saying goes: Don’t get mad, get even. The Trumpism-for-thee phenomenon helps point the way to fighting back against Trumpism.
In other countries, the most effective way to stop recent demagogues has been to treat them as normal politicians who are failing to deliver on their promises, as Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago has noted. Don’t focus mostly on the outrages, the insults and the scandals. Most voters have become inured to them. Focus instead on the demagogue’s policies and job performance.
Most Americans don’t want college to become more expensive. They don’t want medical care to become less accessible. They don’t want to live among tarballs or breathe dirtier air. They don’t want the top priorities of the federal government to be maximizing corporate profits and reducing taxes on the wealthy, at everyone else’s expense.
Often, Trump simply lies about what his policies would do. But his aides and the leaders of Congress know they can’t always get away with lying. Instead, they create carve-outs. In doing so, they are admitting the truth about the Trump agenda: It’s so bad that they don’t want their own voters to live with it.