How did the presidential candidate who promised to help the “forgotten man and woman,” who railed against a rigged system, who decried politicians as crooks (stupid crooks, actually) and who promised to stand up to American adversaries become the dream president for Big Business, Big Pharma, China, Russia — and rich people just like him? He certainly has managed to turn the presidency into a trough for himself and his Cabinet. In fact, Trump never had a well-thought-out, or even a not-so-well-thought-out, populist economic agenda: His anti-trade agenda was based on a lifelong xenophobic attitude toward foreign business; his ignorance about the ultimate payer of tariffs (consumers), and the downside for domestic workers and farmers, remains; his immigration notions were rooted in white grievance, far more than about jobs; and his fabulous health-care idea was nonexistent.
Trump has always been for Trump, and now is no different. In every policy arena, from the tax plan to his latest stunning concession to China to his fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ordinary Americans he played to during the campaign might feel more than a little short-changed. Trump has actually doubled down on policies that promote income inequality and vastly increased the amount of corruption in government. Along the way, he has benefited an interesting array of foreign governments.
As my colleague James Hohmann reported, “In the deeply interconnected global economy, the devil is always in the details and the implementation of some policies may do more to hurt than help the people who put their faith in him to fix their problems.” That includes worker shortages that pinch small business, trade wars that hurt agriculture and consumers, rising gas prices (thanks to his pullout from the Iran nuclear deal). His restrictionist immigration policies have been a boon to the economy — of Canada, which gladly welcomes tech workers.
His tax plan hugely favored the rich and corporations. The promised benefit to workers (thousands of dollars in increased wages!) has yet to appear. CNBC reported earlier this month, “Through the end of April, S&P 500 companies are on track to give back a record $1 trillion to investors through dividend increases and stock buybacks, according to data compiled by Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices.” That dwarfs any one-time bonuses given out by corporations, in the interest of good PR, after the bill was passed. Meanwhile, Trump’s other domestic “achievements” are shrinking government payrolls (i.e., eliminating jobs) and cutting back on regulations. Not much there for the non-college-educated voter in the upper Midwest. Moreover, the massive debt increases and potential for inflation spawned by the tax cuts are beginning to be felt in the form of rising interest rates.
Meanwhile, evidence grows daily that Trump’s dealings with foreign countries may be influenced, at least in part, by his personal finances and those of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. CNBC reports, “Republicans and Democrats alike slammed Trump’s sudden declaration that stiff U.S. sanctions for Shenzhen-based ZTE meant ‘too many jobs in China lost.’ Not only had ZTE defied strictures against commerce with Iran and North Korea, U.S. intelligence officials warned that its devices could be instruments of Chinese espionage.” More than 30 Democrats on Tuesday sent a letter to the president arguing:
If acted upon, your instruction would reverse a law enforcement decision by Secretary Ross to impose a seven-year denial of export privileges on ZTE, setting aside that decision made in the interests of U.S. national security to cushion the employment impact on the Chinese company. ZTE not only violated US sanctions law but then repeatedly lied about steps it would take to remedy the problems. As Secretary Ross noted when he imposed the order, “ZTE made false statements to the U.S. Government when they were originally caught and put on the Entity List, made false statements during the reprieve it was given, and made false statements again during its probation. ZTE misled the Department of Commerce. Instead of reprimanding ZTE staff and senior management, ZTE rewarded them. This egregious behavior cannot be ignored.” . . .
Your order comes as your administration is in the midst of discussions with China to address China’s market-distorting policies and other tactics to undermine key American industries. Beyond appearing to risk American national security, the statement suggests that the administration is not serious about addressing the many economic challenges China presents.
Lo and behold, we learn Trump has business interests that will benefit from China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects. Trump’s financial connections to Russia — ranging from a desired Trump Tower in Moscow to sale of properties to Russian oligarchs, to Russian investors in major hotel properties — color his dealings and weirdly solicitous interactions with Putin.
Whether it is angling for the Panamanian government to help in a dispute with a hotel partner, or enriching himself via bookings and self-promotion of his hotels and golf properties, Trump is using his public office for personal gain. Oddly, he never seems to be adversely affected by his presidential decisions — though, without a shred of evidence to back him up, he claims he’ll pay more under the new tax bill. (Highly unlikely.) Meanwhile his Cabinet appointees rack up huge expenses and buddy up to lobbyists.
In sum, Trump’s populist-sounding promises were flawed, phony or counterproductive for his voters. His actual policies favor foreign countries, his rich friends and himself. He is the poster boy for insiders who game the system at the expense of average Americans who lack connections. If Democrats cannot make hay out of that in 2018 or 2020, they might need to close up shop. The entire Trump presidency has begun to resemble the corrupt and heartless caricature that populists — on the left and right — have railed about for years.