Watching the Republican tax plan race through Congress, one is reminded of a big apparent difference between President Trump's program and other populist movements in the Western world. In the United States, Trump is leading something that is best described as plutocratic populism, a mixture of traditional populist causes with extreme libertarian ones.
Congress's own think tanks — the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office — calculate that in 10 years, people making between $50,000 and $75,000 (around the median income in the United States) would effectively pay a whopping $4 billion more in taxes, while people making $1 million or more would pay $5.8 billion less under the Senate bill. And that doesn't take into account the massive cuts in services, health care and other benefits that would likely result. Martin Wolf, the sober and fact-based chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, concludes, "This is a determined effort to shift resources from the bottom, middle and even upper middle of the U.S. income distribution toward the very top, combined with big increases in economic insecurity for the great majority."
The puzzle, Wolf says, is why this is a politically successful strategy. The Republican Party is pursuing an economic agenda for the 0.1 percent, but it needs to win the votes of the majority. This is the issue that University of California at Berkeley political scientist Paul Pierson discusses in a recently published essay. Writing in the British Journal of Sociology, Pierson notes that Trump's program does have strong populist aspects, especially on trade and immigration. But, he points out, "On the big economic issues of taxes, spending and regulation — ones that have animated conservative elites for a generation — he has pursued, or supported, an agenda that is extremely friendly to large corporations, wealthy families, and well-positioned rent- seekers. His budgetary policies (and those pursued by his Republican allies in Congress) will, if enacted, be devastating to the same rural and moderate-income communities that helped him win office."
Pierson argues that Trump entered the White House with a set of inchoate ideas and no real organization. Thus, his administration was ripe for takeover by the most ardent, organized and well-funded elements of the Republican Party — its libertarian wing. Nurtured and built up over the years, this group of conservatives decided to ally with the Trump administration to enact its long-standing agenda. Pierson quotes Grover Norquist, the fiercely anti-statist GOP operative, explaining in 2012 his views on the selection of a Republican presidential nominee. "We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. . . . We just need a president to sign this stuff."
Is it that the Republican Party is cleverly and successfully hoodwinking its supporters, promising them populism and enacting plutocratic capitalism instead? This view has been a staple of liberal analysis for years, most prominently in Thomas Frank's book "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Frank argued that Republicans have been able to work this magic trick by dangling social issues in front of working-class voters, who fall for the bait and lose sight of the fact that they are voting against their own interests. Both Wolf and Pierson believe that this trickery will prove dangerous for Republicans. "The plutocrats are riding on a hungry tiger," writes Wolf.
But what if people are not being fooled at all? What if people are actually motivated far more deeply by issues surrounding religion, race and culture than they are by economics? There is increasing evidence that Trump's base supports him because they feel a deep emotional, cultural and class affinity for him. And while the tax bill is analyzed by economists, Trump picks fights with black athletes, retweets misleading anti-Muslim videos and promises not to yield on immigration. Perhaps he knows his base better than we do. In fact, Trump's populism might not be as unique as it's made out to be. Polling from Europe suggests that the core issues motivating people to support Brexit or the far-right parties in France and Germany, and even the populist parties of Eastern Europe, are cultural and social.
The most important revolution in economics in the past generation has been the rise of the behavioral scientists, trained in psychology, who are finding that people systematically make decisions that are against their own "interests." This might be the tip of the iceberg in understanding human motivation. The real story might be that people see their own interests in much more emotional and tribal ways than scholars understand. What if, in the eyes of a large group of Americans, these other issues are the ones for which they will stand up, protest, support politicians and even pay an economic price? What if, for many people, in America and around the world, these are their true interests?