President Trump really has revolutionized Republican economic policy. Instead of pretending that tax cuts for the rich and corporations are about helping single mothers who work as waitresses — that was President George W. Bush's line — now they pretend that tax cuts for the rich and corporations are about bringing jobs back from overseas.
See the difference?
That, at least, was what Trump said last week in his big speech outlining his principles for tax reform. (He has not, and apparently will not, come up with a detailed plan of his own).
Close your eyes, and you could almost imagine this was a President Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush leading a Reaganite revival. There was the same paean to simplifying the tax code (without, of course, specifying any loopholes they'd close). The same ode to the supposed magic of cutting corporate taxes (without, of course, admitting that this hasn't done much in the past). And the same lip service to helping the middle class (without, of course, mentioning that the top 1 percent would have gotten over half the tax cuts in Trump's earlier, and, in all likelihood, similar plan).
In other words, the same voodoo economics, but with a nationalist makeover.
That last part, you see, is Trump's main innovation. Rather than saying that tax cuts for businesses and big earners will boost growth so much that everybody will be better off, Trump says that they will take back so much growth from other countries that everybody here will be better off.
“We have totally surrendered our competitive edge to other countries,” Trump said, and we “must reduce the tax rate on American businesses so they keep jobs in America.” It's a zero-sum spin on what's previously been a positive-sum message. Trump understands that Republican voters don't want to hear about everybody winning. They want to hear about their enemies losing.
There's a reason they see things in zero-sum terms. That's because they have been. As much as the economy has grown in the last 17 years, it hasn't really changed for the bottom 99 percent. Indeed, adjusted for inflation, median incomes are still a bit below their 1999 peak. Good luck convincing people that a new tax cut for the rich will trickle down to them when they're still waiting for the one from 2001 to do so. Although this isn't just about dollars and cents. It's also about black and white. Republicans have made racial backlash the subtext of a lot of their policies for a long time now — cutting taxes means less of your money going to those people — but Trump has turned it into the actual text. Blacks are taking your tax dollars, Mexicans are taking your jobs, and the Chinese are taking your factories. It's Fox News coming to you live from the White House.
Trump doesn't seem to be as worried about making the economic pie bigger as he is about stopping nonwhite people from getting a bigger slice.
This rhetorical shift both does and doesn't matter. On the one hand, it is important if Republicans give up on even the pretense of reaching out to minorities. A mostly-white party that has no ambition of being anything else isn't exactly a healthy development in a multiracial society. But, on the other hand, it's not that big a deal if Republicans try to sell their tax cuts for the rich a little differently than they have in the past. They're still trying to pass the same tax cuts for the rich they always have. They're just trying to justify it by saying it will keep other countries from stealing our jobs instead of saying it will keep our Galtian overlords from leaving us to live out our days in squalor.
Republicans, then, are stuck in a kind of ideological halfway house: Their base wants Trump's border wall and Muslim ban, but their donors want Paul D. Ryan's safety-net-slashing agenda. The result has been populist talk married to decidedly un-populist action (or an attempt thereof).
Meet the new tax cuts, same as the old tax cuts.