The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s two-track strategy: The rich get richer, and the poor get distracted

President Trump speaks while reviewing border wall prototypes on March 13 in San Diego. (Evan Vucci/AP)

After signing legislation slashing taxes last December, President Trump headed to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays. In the dining room at his exclusive club, he turned to club members at a nearby table.

“You all just got a lot richer,” Trump told them, no doubt to an enthusiastic reaction. Affording Mar-a-Lago’s six-figure initiation fee and $14,000-a-year membership just got a bit easier.

That casual aside from Trump was the flip side to his excoriation of Charles and David Koch on Tuesday. After the Kochs announced that they wouldn’t support Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-N.D.) challenger for the time being, Trump lashed out through his primary spokesman, @realDonaldTrump.

“The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade. I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas. They love my Tax & Regulation Cuts, Judicial picks & more,” Trump wrote.

“I made them richer,” he continued. “Their network is highly overrated, I have beaten them at every turn. They want to protect their companies outside the U.S. from being taxed, I’m for America First & the American Worker — a puppet for no one. Two nice guys with bad ideas. Make America Great Again!”

There’s a lot going on there, as there often is. But Trump’s pitch is twofold: I have conservative judicial picks, and I cut their taxes and made them richer. How on earth could the Kochs take issue with Trump when he made them richer? It defies understanding.

President Trump said on May 22 that he wants to pass "additional tax cuts," before the midterm elections in November. (Video: Reuters)

Thanks to a combination of hyperpartisanship, Trump’s willingness to say things that others wouldn’t and a stronger economy, Trump’s tenure as president has been an explicit manifestation of what once was a tricky balance. For years, many Republicans have worked to effect sweeping cuts and benefits for the wealthiest Americans while maintaining a non-wealthy voting base by engaging in robust cultural fights.

Trump has nearly perfected it.

He will argue, of course, that his economic policies have been an unalloyed good for the American worker. He did so in that tweet disparaging the Koch brothers. But his track record doesn’t quite match that rhetoric.

The tax cuts were pitched as “rocket fuel” for the economy, spiking job creation and wage growth. Neither has happened. Real earnings — wage increases relative to inflation — are flat over the past year. Job growth is squarely in line with where it had been for months. Trump’s frequent assertions that people would have scoffed during the campaign had he announced that we’d hit the number of jobs that have been added under his presidency is false. We’re right where the existing trend suggested we’d be. The tax cuts haven’t had any noticeable effect on two keys elements of their sales pitch.

Where the cuts have been effective is where critics suggested they would be. Corporate executives are getting massive payouts from companies that are flush with cash that once would have gone to pay taxes. Half a trillion dollars has been spent by companies to buy back stocks, passing those tax cuts back to shareholders. Those shareholders are heavily concentrated among the richest Americans.

At the same time, Trump’s other economic moves are introducing other uncertainties for lower-wage Americans. The tariffs imposed by his administration have had the desired effect of destabilizing international trade agreements, but the effect for a lot of U.S. companies is increased costs and, in some cases, layoffs. Unemployment’s steady drop since the recession continues, and, for the first time since the number began being tracked two decades ago, there are more job openings than unemployed Americans. People are finding jobs — just not necessarily great jobs.

When other countries imposed retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural products (prompting a GDP-boosting surge in some exports), Trump announced a plan to bail out farmers with a $12 billion injection of funding.

Farmers “will be the biggest beneficiary” of his policies, he insisted, an assertion similar to ones he’s offered to other struggling industries, such as coal miners.

“Just be a little patient,” he added. Meanwhile, the administration is reportedly considering a unilateral adjustment of capital gains taxes that would cut the taxes of the wealthiest Americans by tens of billions of dollars over the next decade.

Trump’s base has been more than willing to be patient. His support among Republicans generally continues to best any prior Republican president except George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11. (Any modern president: Despite Trump’s recent assertions, there was no polling in Abraham Lincoln’s era against which Trump’s popularity can be measured.)

The president’s core policy priorities are centered on the sort of fearmongering that past Republicans often considered only more obliquely. Illegal immigration, criminal gangs, crime in general: These are the core problems Trump points to in his appeals to voters. Crime is at near-historic lows nationally, a fact that Trump has sidestepped since the campaign. The racial undertones of Trump’s focal points are barely submerged and occasionally peek through into the light, as when Trump disparaged “s—hole” countries such as Haiti and African nations. Is kneeling at NFL games something worth the president’s attention? No, but Trump recognizes that combining racial tension with disingenuous arguments about patriotism — and even sprinkling some class warfare on top — can be a winner.

Past politicians tiptoed around using race for political purposes. Trump doesn’t, and hasn’t paid any price with his supporters.

Why? Because Trump is willing to not only engage in cultural wars, but to embrace and embody them. Trump has made needling the left a central part of his administration, to his base’s delight. This whole theme of “owning the libs”? Might as well be Trump’s reelection slogan.

A poll conducted last August found that Trump supporters cited his approach and personality as the reason for their support four times as often as they pointed to his policies and values. Polling finds that Republicans largely see Democratic policies as harmful to the country and that more than 4 in 10 Republicans view the Democratic Party very unfavorably. The same is true in reverse; Democrats also view Republicans negatively. But the president has made widening that gap a central political strategy. Democrats, he tweeted Monday, think that “large scale Crime” is good for them.

Everything becomes a play for the base, keeping it energized to stand with him and, therefore, to keep meeker Republicans in line as they worry about November elections. Meanwhile, with the economy holding steady, even if it’s not improving, the administration can continue to alleviate whatever burdens remain for the richest Americans, among whom are Trump, his friends at Mar-a-Lago and his putative nemeses in the Koch family.

When the tax cuts were proposed, Trump repeatedly insisted the bill would hurt his bottom line. There’s almost no evidence that the cuts hurt him; the evidence suggests the contrary.

But this is part of Trump’s political gambit. He’s a blue-collar guy who lives in a gold-plated penthouse. He is the embodiment of the political pitch he makes: obsessed with cultural issues as the policies he passes benefit his enormous wealth. Neither his wealthy nor his poor supporters seem to care about the inherent tension in that duality — any more than Trump does.