Donald Trump’s proposed budget is deeply cruel, predicated on long-discredited economic ideas, and sold with an arithmetic error so brazen that it has to be an intentional fuck you. As others have noted, it’s also not, in any real sense, “Donald Trump’s budget.” It’s OMB Director Mick Mulvaney’s budget, and it exists solely due to the complete political incompetence of Donald Trump’s inner circle.
It should be obvious why it’s a mistake to attribute this budget to Trump. I don’t mean a mistake politically—it is probably good politics to refer to it as Trump’s budget, as often and as loudly as possible—but simply as a matter of assigning responsibility for its awful particulars. Trump neither understands policy nor cares to learn about it, outside of a few pet interests, like trade and occasionally taxes. Most importantly, he has never in his long life in the public eye signaled any concern for the conservative shibboleths that underlie this document. Indeed, he rejected many of them while running for president.
Trump has the political instincts of a welfare chauvinist. He intuitively grasped that the way to win as a nationalist was to promise not just to punish designated out-groups but also to provide for the in-group. His repeated flouting of Republican orthodoxy on economic issues was a key part of his appeal, and also why Republicans genuinely were terrified of him once they realized he could win; the authoritarianism, ignorance, and obvious mental and emotional unsuitability for any position of real power were never as disqualifying, for establishment Republicans, as his loud and repeated promises not to touch popular benefits programs.
There was a real fear that Trump actually would govern the way he promised he would in the campaign: As a Huey Long-style, “every man a king” populist. Now that Trump is actually in power, though, he is doing nothing to actually enact what could have been a (worryingly!) popular agenda of ruthless repression for some matched with guaranteed economic security for most.
Is this because Trump’s campaign rhetoric was a smokescreen for a much more austere conservative agenda? I don’t think so. This budget isn’t Trump pushing the policies he secretly intended to push the whole time—it looks much more like the result of a disengaged and ignorant executive getting taken advantage of by the highly ideological snakes he was dumb enough to fill his administration with.
Let’s be clear: Only a complete dumbass would hire someone like Mick Mulvaney and ask him to draft a budget. The result was always going to be politically toxic, because actual right-wing ideas, once transplanted from the realm of pure rhetoric to actual quantified numbers, are incredibly unpopular. There is a large constituency for blaming America’s problems on mooches and freeloaders. There isn’t much of one for slashing spending that helps actual humans, who, by and large, don’t consider themselves mooches and freeloaders.
It was political malpractice to allow Mulvaney into this administration, and it is definitive proof that Trump’s inner circle, from dipshit princeling Jared Kushner to supposed dark genius Steve Bannon, have absolutely no clue what they’re doing. Mulvaney’s allegiance is to his movement, not Trump, and he is engaged in active sabotage against this administration.
When speaking with friendly media outlets, he practically advertises that he sees his job as tricking the president into supporting unpopular conservative ideas. He explained his process—which relies on the obvious fact that the president believes almost anything anyone tells him, at least until he speaks to someone who tells him something else—on CNBC last March:
Yeah, and my guess is he probably didn’t know what the Appalachian Regional Commission did. I was able to convince him, “Mr. President, this is not an efficient use of the taxpayer dollars. This is not the best way to help the people in West Virginia.” He goes, “OK, that’s great. Is there a way to get those folks the money in a more efficient way?” And the answer is yes. And that’s what’s we’re going focus on doing.
Mulvaney went on to explain that he plans to apply the same process to Social Security, hoping he can Get the President to Yes by misrepresenting his actual intentions:
MULVANEY: We’re working on it right now. He went through the list and said, “No, that’s Social Security. That violates my promise. Take that off. That’s Medicare. That violates my promise. Take that off.”HARWOOD: Is Social Security Disability on that list?
MULVANEY: I don’t think we’ve settled yet. But I continue to look forward to talking to the president about ways to fix that program. Because that is one of the fastest growing programs that we have. It’s become effectively a long-term unemployment, permanent unemployment program.
Lo and behold: A few months later, SSDI and SSI are gutted in “Trump’s” budget.
Do you want to know some people who rely heavily on SSI and SSDI? Older white people. Whose political base is that, again?
If the people invested in the president’s political success actually understood what guys like Mulvaney are up to—which is easy to understand, because he brags about it on television!—they would be furious. Democrats dream of running against budgets like the one drawn up by Mulvaney. It neuters Trump’s single greatest political advantage, which is that a sizable number of whites in the Rust Belt convinced themselves that Trump was something other than a Mitt Romney-style plutocratic Republican.
So far, no one in Trump’s administration has caused more damage to his popularity than the president himself, but movement conservatives like Mulvaney—along with Paul Ryan and the majority of the Republican Congressional caucus—are primed to do way more damage than James Comey can even dream of.