For months we pundits have been puzzling over “America first.” The phrase has an ugly history, having once been the rallying cry of Nazi sympathizers. This time around, its meaning is more opaque, perhaps a vague allusion to isolationism and a reconfiguring of the postwar international order.
But now, as more information about the president’s budget proposal comes out, the motto’s meaning is becoming clearer.
“America first” really means “Americans last.”
On Monday, the Trump administration told reporters that the president’s budget will boost annual defense spending by 10 percent, or about $54 billion. This is part of his commitment to “a historic increase in defense spending to rebuild the depleted military of the United States of America at a time we most need it,” as he said at the National Governors Association meeting.
Trump is nominally a fiscal conservative (with the help of some fuzzy math). So he also promised that his increase in defense spending would be offset by equivalent cuts to non-defense spending.
And who suffers as a result? Regular Americans, including millions who voted for Trump.
That’s not how White House officials like to explain things, of course. They’ve provided little detail about the rest of the budget. But they have nonetheless emphasized that much of the offsets will come from “foreign aid,” with the implication that foreigners will mainly feel the pinch.
One might argue that foreign aid supports our moral and humanitarian values, as well as our own security interests. We allocate such assistance to help strengthen democracies, deter war and contain epidemics.
Perhaps more relevant for this budgeting exercise, though, is the fact that “foreign aid” represents less than 1 percent of the federal budget, or about $36.5 billion planned for fiscal 2017. It also seems unlikely that Trump would completely zero out this paltry spending, given that some categories (such as the $3 billion we’ve committed to Israel) would cause him major political headaches.
Even if Trump does decide to eliminate the rest of our foreign aid, that still leaves tens of billions of dollars of cuts that must be found elsewhere in the budget.
Where is that elsewhere, exactly?
Not from Social Security and Medicare, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. That’s despite the fact that entitlements are by far the biggest components of non-defense spending, and have been gobbling up an ever-larger share of federal budgets.
Other, smaller programs will face the fiscal guillotine instead.
Cuts are said to be coming for the usual Republican bogeymen, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But those grant-making agencies get peanuts in the grand scheme of things.
Total appropriations for the National Endowment for the Arts in fiscal 2016 were $148 million. Note that that’s with an “m” and not a “b,” the breed of “-illion” that the non-defense spending cuts are supposed to add up to.
What’s left? Reportedly the Trump team plans to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was appropriated just $8 billion last year. Making it easier to pollute hardly seems to be in most Americans’ best interest. And again, the EPA budget represents a tiny sliver of federal spending.
By process of elimination, then, the biggest target must be our already frayed social safety net.
That includes means-tested programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and lots of other programs relied on by tens of millions of Americans. In fact, the most recent census data found that about a fifth of Americans participate in at least one of the biggest federal means-tested poverty programs each month. Many of those beneficiaries also happen to be Republicans, believe it or not.
It’s difficult to argue that reducing Americans’ access to food, health care, housing and other necessities is putting their needs “first.”
Carving billions out of these programs to offset defense increases will be painful, and it’s just the beginning of the suffering to come.
After all, the defense spending spike isn’t the only cost for which Republicans will soon need offsets. Recall that an enormous tax cut is coming down the pike.
We don’t know yet exactly what that tax plan will look like. If it’s anything like Trump’s campaign promises, though, it will cost in the ballpark of $7 trillion over the next decade.
If Republicans plan to pay for any portion of those tax cuts — and these days, admittedly, that’s a big if — expect those cuts to be balanced on the backs of struggling families, too.