Opinion writer


This morning brings two major developments. The first is that Republicans are pressing forward with their tax reform plan, and they are on the political defensive, because the plan would cut taxes deeply on the wealthy — including President Trump himself — without giving any obvious benefits to the working and middle classes. The second is that Republicans are increasingly resigned to the threat of primary challengers to GOP incumbents — and these challengers, we are told, will run as the true bearers of the Trumpist banner.

The confluence of these two narratives does not make it any easier to make sense of what is going on inside the GOP right now. We were told for many months that the ferment in the Republican Party that gave rise to Trump was in part caused by hatred of economic elites. Yet this has suddenly vanished from the discussion at precisely the moment when you’d think more scrutiny should fall upon it.

The New York Times offers new reporting on the movement toward more primary challenges to GOP incumbents, in the wake of the Alabama victory of religious-right extremist Roy Moore. These challenges will be promoted by former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon and billionaire hedge-funder Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, and this is what is driving them:

Mr. Bannon and the Mercers [are] pugilistic in their tactics and ideology, bonding less over a shared cohesive political ideology than over a desire to disrupt the political establishment — the Republican establishment in particular.

That has led them in the past to support candidates as varied as Mr. Moore, a hard-line Christian conservative who has said “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” and Mr. Trump, who rarely attends church and has been married three times.

To the extent that there is any ideological overlap among candidates the new coalition will support, it will probably be that they favor limiting immigration, making trade policies more advantageous to American manufacturers and disentangling the United States from sweeping international agreements — and destroying the establishment.

Bannon told the Times that the model for these candidates will be the “populist, nationalist Trump.” These challengers, then, will be Trumpist in the sense that they will run on a harder line on immigration; more protectionism; more America First isolationism; and probably most important, “destroying the establishment.” At the same time, other prominent Trump supporters have been railing against that GOP establishment for failing to do enough to realize Trump’s agenda. As Jonathan Chait noted, Trump supporter Sean Hannity recently tortured poor Paul Ryan in a televised interview by accusing GOP establishment figures of secret disloyalty to Trump, forcing Ryan to submit to an abject on-air display of total fealty to the president.

Yet this entire narrative is a lie — and the proof of it can be found in none other than the big debate over tax reform. Trump’s agenda and the GOP’s agenda have been mostly in sync on many important matters. Trump went all in on Ryan’s and Mitch McConnell’s plan to gut Medicaid to fund a large tax cut for the rich. On immigration, Republicans mostly agree with his efforts to expand the deportation dragnet and the thinly veiled Muslim ban. There might have been some disagreements on trade and infrastructure, but they don’t appear to be meaningful, since Trump’s agenda on both has failed to materialize.

And on tax reform, there is broad agreement between Trump and Republican establishment leaders on cutting taxes for the rich and corporations, with whatever disagreements may exist mostly lying in the details.

Indeed, the Times’ new reporting above only underscores the point: It confirms that Bannon’s challengers are running on an extremely vague set of policies that only seem organized around a general sense that the establishment has failed Trump in some way, and needs to be destroyed. Note that there is no discernible disagreement between the Bannon wing of the party and the GOP establishment over Trump’s tax reform plan.

The Times also has a new analysis confirming that Trump himself would probably save at least $1 billion if his tax changes go through. Meanwhile, White House advisers are struggling mightily to make the case that the tax plan won’t actually shower huge benefits on the rich and will actually help the middle class. We all know that both of those are lies. In fact, some conservatives, such as Ross Douthat, have politely suggested that Republicans faced with all this ferment in their ranks should consider a slightly less regressive agenda, such as pairing massive tax cuts for the rich with genuine tax relief for the middle class and some spending to create blue-collar jobs.

But do you think we’ll hear a peep from Bannon’s challengers along those lines? I doubt it. They will run mostly on the fabrication that the establishment has let Trump down. Until we hear otherwise, we should assume that both wings are in perfect agreement that one thing America really needs right now is for people like Trump to get a huge tax cut.

* TREASURY NIXED PAPER UNDERCUTTING TAX CASE: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Treasury Department took down a 2012 government paper that undercut Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s argument that workers would win from a corporate tax cut:

The 2012 paper from the Office of Tax Analysis found that workers pay 18% of the corporate tax while owners of capital pay 82%. … But Mr. Mnuchin has been arguing the opposite, citing other papers that attribute more of the burden to labor. The point is central to Mr. Mnuchin’s argument that workers would benefit from the corporate tax cut the administration is proposing.

Recall: Two leaked Department of Homeland Security analyses that undercut Trump’s thinly veiled Muslim ban were ignored, and a Department of Health and Human Services analysis that weakened the case for lowering refugee counts was rejected.

* LEFTY GROUPS TO FIGHT GOP TAX PLAN: The New York Times reports that progressive groups are gearing up to battle the massive tax cuts for the rich in Trump’s tax plan:

“Our No. 1 concern is that this delivers massive, massive tax cuts to millionaires and corporations,” said Michael Linden, an adviser to the progressive Not One Penny campaign, which is fighting to make sure the tax overhaul is not a boon for the rich. The group, which includes liberal organizations such as MoveOn, Tax March and the Working Families Party … expects to become more active.

One interesting question will be whether Democrats will give on their current hard line, which is the same: Not one penny of tax cuts must go to the top one percent.

* THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S TAX LIES, DEBUNKED: Glenn Kessler exhaustively takes apart two of the Trump administration’s defenses of its tax cuts: the idea that the rich won’t see a cut; and the notion that the plan will pay for itself and slash the deficit:

Of course the wealthy will do well under the tax cut, even if certain deductions are eliminated, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. And it’s a fantasy to claim that the tax cut will pay for itself – and even reduce the deficit – especially in an economy that already has low unemployment and a booming stock market.

We’ve heard these lies for decades, and at this point, the public is on to the scam. Of course, now they will have the force of Trump’s formidable Twitter feed behind them, so there’s no way they’ll fail.

* RUSSIANS WERE BEHIND FAKE ‘BLACKTIVIST’ ACCOUNTS: CNN scoops that the Russian government employed fake “blacktivist” accounts on Facebook and Twitter to boost racial tensions during the 2016 campaign:

Both Blacktivist accounts, each of which used the handle Blacktivists, regularly shared content intended to stoke outrage. … The Blacktivist accounts provide further evidence that Russian-linked social media accounts saw racial tensions as something to be exploited in order to achieve the broader Russian goal of dividing Americans and creating chaos in U.S. politics during a campaign in which race repeatedly became an issue.

Your regular reminder: Even as the rest of us are trying to determine what Russians did to sabotage our democracy, the president continues to dismiss it all as a hoax.

* DISAPPROVAL OF BOTH TRUMP AND FOOTBALL PLAYERS: A new CBS News poll finds that Americans disapprove of football players kneeling during the national anthem by 52-38. But they also disapprove of Trump’s comments about the players by 48-38. So, a bit of a wash.

One notable finding: 73 percent say the football players were trying to call attention to racism, while only 40 percent (in a separate question) say they were trying to disrespect the flag and the anthem itself. That last number is too high, but at least large majorities understood the real driver of it.

* THE RACES TO WATCH IN 2017: Dave Wasserman has a good explainer on why the real races to watch for clues about 2018 are the 100 state delegate elections in Virginia that are set for this November:

If Democrats managed to pick off 10 or more GOP-held seats, it would send a signal that voters are in the mood to punish President Trump and Republicans. … Virginia’s House of Delegates races are a … proxy of what’s to come in 2018. … there are plenty of vulnerable GOP Virginia delegates sitting in districts where Clinton outperformed Obama … Their races will test voters’ inclination to send a message to Trump regardless of whether they know and like the local GOP candidates.

As Wasserman also notes, the cumulative turnout in these races — because of the Virginia gubernatorial contest, which is of course statewide — will provide an indicator of what turnout might look like in the 2018 midterms.


Why are the Trumpists doing this? Is it a cynical calculation — make the A.C.A. fail, then claim that it was already doomed? I doubt it. For one thing, we’re not talking about people known for deep strategic calculations. For another, the A.C.A. won’t actually collapse; it will just become a program more focused on sicker, poorer Americans — and the political opposition to repeal won’t go away. Finally, when the bad news comes in, everyone will know whom to blame.

I would also add that this sabotage will hurt a lot of Trump voters, and that it reveals just how deep his and his advisers’ contempt for those voters really runs.