The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Targeting the arts is the laziest, stupidest way to pretend to cut the budget

Copies of President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2017 sit on a table in the Senate Budget Committee room in Washington. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News)

I suppose I ought to take any sign that the Trump administration will operate by the normal rules of politics, rather than the spontaneous outbursts that defined his campaign and transition, as a good thing. But sometimes the regular beats of politics are stupid, and the early word on Trump’s first budget suggests that he’s going to use one of the dumber Republican fig leaves: pretending that eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities and privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are serious parts of a serious effort to cut the federal budget.

First, there’s the matter of the numbers. The National Endowment for the Arts requested a budget of $149.849 million for fiscal year 2017, while the National Endowment for the Humanities asked for $149.848 million. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s funding for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 is $445 million annually.

The total of $744.7 million is a tiny fraction of President Obama’s $4.15 trillion budget request. It’s less than half of what Jared Kushner paid for 666 Fifth Avenue in 2006. It’s only slightly more money than the $713 million in loans Trump reported that he holds in his public financial disclosures. It’s less than four times the $200 million in donations Trump’s nominee to be education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and her family have contributed to the Republican Party. Anyone who pretends that this is a particularly meaningful amount of money and that getting rid of it would be a serious step toward shrinking the federal government is trying very, very hard to delude the public.

And targeting the arts is a particularly contemptuous, deceptive gesture because the Republicans who periodically propose it often suggest that the only people who care about the arts are elitist coastal liberals who can pay for culture themselves if they care so darn much about it.

But one of the things the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting do is bring the arts and humanities to areas that don’t have big museums or lots of wealthy patrons for symphonies, ballets and theater, in addition to preserving and supporting local folk art traditions. And 219 of the 577 television stations that get grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting broadcast to rural communities; those stations rely on those grants for a larger percentage of their revenue, and they receive less support from donors than stations in denser areas.

In other words, if the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting go away, those of us who live in big metropolitan areas on the coasts will probably be fine. There may be cuts, and big donors may dig deeper, but our arts institutions and public broadcasting stations will be less vulnerable. The people who would really be hurt by shuttering or privatizing these organizations would be voters who live outside of the coasts or college towns, which often have more vibrant arts communities thanks to the universities.

And you know what? Maybe Republican officials are fine with that. Maybe they don’t care about the arts personally, or the tourism revenue that can flow from a museum that has federal support, or the opportunity for kids in their district to get a glimpse of something that allows them to see the world in a new way. Maybe it’s just too much fun to tweak liberals or too painful to target corporate subsidies in a way that might make big donors cranky.

But if we’re going to have this idiotic conversation every time Congress takes a crack a passing a budget, I wish we could just admit that cutting federal support for the arts and humanities is a way to fight the culture war, not to tackle the federal debt. Anyone who suggests otherwise has marked themselves as lazy and cowardly.

Read more on Trump’s 2018 budget plan:

Trump federal budget 2018: Massive cuts to the arts, science and the poor

Trump wants to cut the NEA and NEH. This is the worst-case scenario for arts groups

Trump’s budget calls for seismic disruption in medical and science research