Four seemingly disconnected actions by President Trump this summer are actually deeply intertwined, shining a spotlight on a strand of conservatism that has come to dominate the Republican Party in 2019.
Trump agreed to a budget deal that will dramatically boost government spending. This came on the heels of telling attendees at a reelection rally in Orlando: “We will defend Medicare and Social Security for our great seniors. We will defend it like nobody else.” Trump also made racist comments about four Democratic congresswomen and described the urban district of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), an African American member of Congress, as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Trump blamed Cummings for conditions in Baltimore, even though as president he theoretically represents the area, too.
While expanding government spending and protecting the social safety net might seem antithetical to conservatism and disconnected from the president’s comments, in reality, they are parts of the same practice. This combination of ideas — denigrating nonwhite opponents and disclaiming his representation of a poor, urban district, while simultaneously pledging to protect entitlements for his supporters and boosting spending — illustrates a long-existent strain of right-wing thought: entitlement conservatism. In this vision, only wealthy elites are entitled to run the government, only white people are entitled to unequivocally claim the rights of citizenship, and only conservatives are entitled to reap the benefits of state power. At its core, this philosophy aims to protect conservative entitlements at the expense of everyone else, and in Trump’s America, it dominates the Republican Party.
Despite claiming to be in favor of free markets and small government, conservatives — today almost entirely found in the Republican Party — have long embraced “welfare chauvinism,” promoting the idea that government benefits ought to be reserved for the “more deserving” members of one’s own race or group, rather than applying their program-cutting fervor to all populations equally.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt championed a liberal revolution that would have aided marginalized, struggling people during the Great Depression, conservative Southern Democrats saw New Deal programs as a threat to the South’s racial and economic hierarchy. Southern congressmen maintained white supremacy and a low-wage economy by withholding relief from agricultural laborers during seasonal harvests and pressuring New Dealers into excluding farm laborers from many programs, including Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act. “The New Deal did indeed stem some of the tides of adversity,” wrote scholar Ira Katznelson, “but at the cost of accommodation with racial oppression.”
But the right didn’t simply worry about who benefited from government — it worried about who controlled government, as well. Conservatives fretted that the New Deal might diminish or, even worse, redistribute the power afforded by wealth. The American Liberty League, a group of wealthy right-wing industrialists, hated Roosevelt’s support of labor unions and characterized the New Deal as a “vicious combination of fascism, socialism and communism.” Why? Because they saw the government as having no business regulating the economy. Business executives formed organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers to fight this ascendant liberalism.
Roosevelt steamrolled these forces, but that did not stop them from waging a decades-long frontal assault on his programs. To pick but one example, conservatives argued that the government should sell off the federally run Tennessee Valley Authority, which would have shifted public money to already well-lined private pockets.
Yet, the sort of full-scale rollback of the liberal state dreamed of by these conservatives proved to be consistently unpopular, leaving them marginalized in both parties in the 1950s and forcing the adoption of new tactics.
The most effective approach was appealing to angry whites who were convinced that minorities were unfairly seizing the benefits of the welfare state that they felt they had earned. Segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina defined the 1964 Civil Rights Act as “discrimination against the white man” and the “beginning of a dictatorship.” Thurmond embodied the anger of Southern whites and portended a coming sea change in American politics when he switched to the Republican Party that year over the Democratic Party’s support of civil rights.
In 1968, Alabama Democrat George Wallace ran a demagogic third-party campaign for the presidency, promising a return to “law and order” in the face of civil rights “agitators” and their hippie-beatnik-commie allies. Wallace was not, however, a “small government” conservative. Even as he inveighed against “briefcase-toting bureaucrats,” he supported generous welfare programs as governor of Alabama — so long as the recipients of state benefits were white. He framed nonwhites, however, as parasites feeding off the system.
The strategy of channeling white resentment played a key role in the ascent of Ronald Reagan. During the 1976 GOP presidential primary, Reagan infamously invoked the specter of “welfare queens,” a racist stereotype asserting that people of color were gaming the system, to inflame the rage of whites. Many Wallace supporters became Reagan Republicans.
Reagan’s rhetoric on government and economic issues often sounded more like pure small-government conservatism than Wallace’s philosophy. After all, in perhaps his most famous line, the president proclaimed, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” But in reality, after the Reagan Revolution in 1980, conservatives governed more like Wallace than this rhetoric let on.
Rather than slashing state power across the board, Reagan embraced entitlement conservatism: True to strategist Lee Atwater’s words, his administration used the rhetoric of austerity and anti-statism to gut anti-poverty welfare programs, actions that disproportionately affected minority families. Simultaneously, his supply-side economic program increased inheritance tax exemptions, lowered estate taxes and instituted tremendous tax cuts, all of which exacerbated the wealth gap, particularly within the black community.
Rather than getting government off the backs of Americans, this combination was more selective government, the core of entitlement conservatism.
Since Reagan, the GOP has embraced various philosophies, from Newt Gingrich’s budget-balancing fervor to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” And yet, much of the GOP agenda simply boiled down to entitlement conservatism. Bush slashed taxes for the wealthy, added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and tried, unsuccessfully, to partly privatize Social Security. After the Affordable Care Act tried to patch the leaky health-care system, with an emphasis on helping less-well-off Americans afford health care, Republicans tried to repeal it at the first opportunity. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reminisced that he’d been “dreaming” about gutting Medicaid since his drinking days in college.
While Republicans sold their agenda with rhetoric about economic growth or giving Americans choices, the result was increasingly skewing government benefits away from the neediest, and often nonwhite, Americans.
What makes Trump’s presidency different is that he has stripped the rhetorical varnish off this conservative philosophy. To Trump’s mind, the government should benefit either his constituency or his class. Even as he has proposed cutting back programs, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that benefit poor Americans, especially those of color, his administration recently enacted agricultural subsidies that disproportionately aid affluent white farmers. Poor whites might also suffer from cuts and efforts to gut Obamacare, for example, but Trump mollifies them with a steady stream of vitriolic white grievance keeping them at least rhetorically from the bottom rung of the country’s hierarchy.
Despite his Wallace-esque promises to working-class whites, however, Trump’s policies overwhelmingly serve wealthy whites. Corporate executives line his Cabinet, embodying the belief that the wealthy should rule in the United States and positioning them to enact scores of policies advancing the cause of the biggest, most powerful corporations at the expense of average citizens. In Trump’s eyes, their wealth qualifies them to rule. To many of his supporters, their whiteness does.
Perhaps the most brazen example of conservative entitlement is Trump’s attempt to place a citizenship question on the census questionnaire to depress the participation of foreign-born people and their families. Such a question would lead to the census misrepresenting the nation’s demographics, and it would increasingly tilt congressional power in favor of rural Republican voters, which was the goal of the strategy from the start.
This attempt to cement Republicans in power might seem like pure partisanship. But it’s also reflective of a belief that white conservatives alone are entitled to the reins and benefits of governance. At a recent conference of “national conservatives,” there were calls for the aggressive use of federal power to benefit, as author J.D. Vance put it, “our people.”
In practice, this would mean a racially exclusionary welfare state, with benefits flowing primarily to wealthy corporate interests and secondarily to white Americans in rural areas, a vision not far removed from that of conservative Southern Democrats in the 1930s. After years of demonizing the Democrats as the party of big government, the Republicans now epitomize the party of entitlement conservatism.