Why? The answer given most often is that Trump has delivered on the Republican agenda — that when you look past the circus and the histrionics, the president has been a reliable and staunch conservative. And while this is undeniably true in some areas, it’s mostly in the realm of social and cultural policy — appointing judges, tightening rules related to abortion, immigration and asylum, etc. In what Republicans used to call the core of their agenda — limited government — Trump has been profoundly unconservative.
Take the issue that produced the tea party: the United States’ runaway debt. It was the prospect of mortgage relief for homeowners that began the movement, but the broader issue was always the dangers of deficit spending. According to FiveThirtyEight, in 2011, there were more than 8,000 mentions of the deficit during congressional proceedings. “In this generation, a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time,” said future House speaker Paul D. Ryan in 2012.
In his first year in office, Trump, with the eager assistance of a Republican House and Senate, blew up the U.S. budget with a tax cut that ballooned the deficit this year to about $1 trillion and will add nearly $2 trillion to the national debt over 10 years. The hypocrisy of Republicans about deficits — which they care about only when Democrats are in power — has been often noted. But what is more striking is that this abandonment of limited government and fiscal conservatism is part of a larger remake of conservatism itself.
Trump has now added more than $88 billion in taxes in the form of tariffs, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. (Despite what the president says, tariffs are taxes on foreign goods paid by U.S. consumers.) This has had the effect of reducing gross domestic product and denting the wages of Americans. Even the administration acknowledges the pain caused by its trade wars, responding to one bad policy with another — massive subsidies to favored victims. Farmers have been hit hard, but Trump recently explained that they can’t be too angry with him because “I gave them $12 billion [in 2018], and I gave them $16 billion this year.” That dwarfs the $12 billion the 2009 auto bailout cost the federal government.
Remember that free-market ideology was born in opposition to tariffs, protectionism and mercantilism, which were the central focus of writers such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. For decades, conservatives including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan preached to the world the virtues of free trade. But perhaps even more, they believed in the idea that governments should not pick winners and losers in the economy — an idea so fundamental to Republicanism that Trump tweeted it out in 2015 soon after announcing his candidacy.
Yet the Trump administration has behaved like a Central Planning Agency, granting exemptions on tariffs to favored companies and industries, while refusing them to others. Salmon, cod, Bibles and fracking chemicals are among the products that have escaped being taxed, for now. Waivers are temporary, so companies have had to reapply. In true Soviet style, lobbyists, lawyers and corporate executives now line up to petition government officials for these treasured waivers, which are granted in an opaque process — apparently sometimes by Trump himself. He initially tweeted that Apple would not get one, but after chief executive Tim Cook met with him, it did.
All this favoritism fits very well with Trump’s desire to engage in industrial policy, and one shaped to fulfill his own personal agenda, not some national economic one. He consistently helps companies and workers in key battleground states he hopes to win in 2020. He urged the Tennessee Valley Authority to reconsider shutting down a power plant that buys coal from a major Trump donor. When he decides that he doesn’t like a company or its chief executive, such as Jeff Bezos, he attacks them by name. Amazon claims it was unfairly rejected for a Defense Department contract worth up to $10 billion for this reason. (Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, owns The Post.)
On the core issue that used to define the GOP — economics — the party’s agenda today is state planning and crony capitalism. And this is what so-called conservatives are doubling down to defend.