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Forgotten Americans

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker | CC BY 2.0

Clarity about the the value of government comes through its budget allocations. If there is more money provided for poverty alleviation, for instance, it indicates that the government is compassionate. If there are severe cuts to farm aid, it suggests that the government cares little for the trials of farmers. The government of Donald Trump—in close association with the Republican leadership in the United States Congress—has now provided its template for the budget. A reading of the document—merely 62 pages long—shows that the Trump administration seems to care little for those who suffer and much more for the military and the moneyed. Trump’s rhetoric about helping the “forgotten Americans” seems largely forgotten. Wall Street, the defence industry and the military contractors will benefit greatly from this budget. Those without jobs and who live in poverty will see little relief.

Trump ran for office making the pledge that he would turn his attention to those who had been abandoned by policymaking in Washington, D.C. The language he spoke was drawn from the doctrine of economic sovereignty—that the government should tend to the economic problems of its people before it worries about global problems. Nation-building at home, Trump said to rapturous applause, was more important than nation-building in Afghanistan or Iraq. There is little in this budget that reflects his nation-building-at-home promise. Has Trump abandoned the “forgotten Americans”? In introductory economics classes, students are taught the problems of resource allocation through the metaphor of “guns vs butter”. Governments have scarce resources and they must allocate these resources with care for the priorities of the people. It is necessary to spend some money on the military and the police, but if too much goes in that direction, it will undermine other requirements of society, such as education, health care and programmes for the elderly. A government’s decisions over how much to spend on “guns” impacts on how much remains to be spent on “butter”.

The Trump budget calls for an increase in U.S. military spending by $54 billion. This would lift the total U.S. military spending to $641 billion, edging up to 3.5 per cent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). The U.S. far outspends the rest of the world’s states in terms of military spending. China, the next on the list, spends a mere $215 billion, under 2 per cent of its GDP. Added up, the total military spending of the next nine countries after the U.S.—China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, France, Japan, Germany and South Korea—approaches the U.S. total. In other words, U.S. military spending was already far above that of other countries, while it is now in another stratosphere entirely. It is important to point out that Russia’s government, in this period, has cut its military budget by 25 per cent, down to roughly $60 billion. This means that Trump’s addition to the U.S. military budget amounts to 80 per cent of the total Russian military budget.

Trump will divert money to the military at the same time as he offers major tax concessions to the wealthy, deregulates business enterprises and cuts sharply on social programmes. The economic team in the administration is entirely staffed by former executives of the major financial behemoth Goldman Sachs—people such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and head of Trump’s National Economic Council Gary Cohn. These men are driving economic policy, much of it to benefit their own circle of billionaires and financiers. Money to help the American poor with heating costs and with affordable housing will be sliced, just as funding for education, the arts and the humanities will be cut. Regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency will lose their ability to do their jobs. This is what Trump’s adviser called the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Rural Americans, many of whom drove miles to vote for Trump, will find themselves unable to avail themselves of rural airports and to listen to public radio on rural stations. Money for these initiatives will dry up. More money is spent on the military’s advertising budget than on the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Large numbers of government employees will lose their jobs. “Shrink the federal workforce,” says the draft budget. “You can’t drain the swamp and leave all the people in it,” said Mick Mulvaney, Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Senator Bernie Sanders, confronted with this draconian budget, called Trump a “fraud”. “I think he is going to sell out the middle class and the working class of this country,” said Sanders, who had run his primary campaign on the issue of rising social inequality in the U.S.

Cultural sovereignty

Despite an avalanche of negative publicity, Trump’s approval ratings, as reported by the Gallup poll, remain at 42 per cent. This has remained steady despite the chaos in the White House, the report that showed that 24 million Americans would lose their health care with Trump’s new plan, the ridiculous tweets about Barack Obama wiretapping Trump last year, and the catastrophic diplomatic fumbles with Germany and the U.K. None of this has impacted Trump’s followers, who are loyal to the core. What Trump’s team understands is that his supporters need economic support but that they also believe that their fortunes have been undermined by specific groups of people and policies. These include “Mexican illegal workers”, “Indian H-1B workers”, “the Chinese government’s fiscal policy”, and “radical Islamic extremism”. Trump justifies his budget choices not on the basis of rational calculations but on the prejudices of his followers. The main impulse that anchors his budget is “America First”.

In Trump’s preface to the budget document, he writes: “A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority—because without safety, there can be no prosperity.” In other words, the population of “forgotten Americans” must forgo their personal ambitions for that of the nation. It turns out, of course, that the “forgotten Americans” are the largest contributors to personnel in the U.S. armed forces. They have one or more family members in the military and have a personal connection to the idea of a strong military. Whether this helps their family in direct economic terms or not is beside the point. The idea that national strength translates to personal strength is a powerful emotion that cannot be set aside.

Trump’s preface points not only to the increase in defence spending but also to the building of the wall on the Mexican-U.S. border, to the increase of funds for Homeland Security, and to the increase of funds for the police. If economic sovereignty cannot easily be produced, then cultural sovereignty can be afforded to the population. Attacks on those who “do not belong”—illegal immigrants, terrorists, job stealers—become central to the message of the Trump administration. The id to Trump’s ego is Iowa Representative Steve King, who went on television news programmes to tout an unreconstructed racist message. “You cannot rebuild your civilisation with somebody else’s babies,” he said, referring to immigration. “You’ve got to keep your birth rate up and you need to teach your children your values.” No other civilisation, King said, had contributed anything worth studying. “Western civilisation” alone is to be championed. It is sufficient. Such messages of cultural superiority tickle the fancy of a population that will once more be forgotten when it comes to economic policy.

There is an element of raw truth in Trump’s draft budget. He writes that it is “a message to the world—a message of American strength, security and resolve”. A strong military, such a view suggests, would allow the U.S. to threaten its trade partners to resolve trade disputes, such as those over intellectual property rights or currency manipulation, to its benefit. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s threats to North Korea—“all options are on the table”—send a strong message to China. Trump’s comments about a 30-foot-high border wall send a message to Mexico City and Ottawa regarding the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Trump’s comments that NATO members “must pay what they owe” and his refusal to shake German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hand during a photo opportunity, after she asked him specifically if he would like to shake hands, signify the kind of America First message that Trump wishes to send. In an earlier language, this attitude would have been characterised as “imperialism”. Nowadays, that term is rarely used. Which is largely why there is such confusion over how to understand the Trump agenda.

This article originally appeared in Frontline (India).

More articles by:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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