The old idiom, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” has important implications for democracy. It speaks to the incalculable value of political learning for holding political leadership accountable. If citizens cannot learn from their mistakes, especially in cases when they are manipulated by official propaganda, then there’s little hope for a meaningful democracy in which citizens play an informed, direct role in shaping the political process.
Thankfully, much has changed from 2001 to 2017 in terms of growing public willingness to challenge official misinformation. This is especially the case regarding tax reform. In the early 2000s, much of the public was susceptible to the Bush administration’s manipulation as related to tax cuts. Both waves of tax cuts passed by Republicans in 2001 and 2003 were popular among the mass public, with most Americans failing to recognize just how much they favored the wealthy. But this is no longer the case, with a mass mutiny against Trump’s tax plan emerging over the last month.
Make no mistake about it, the Trump tax cuts are the most extreme example of class warfare in modern times to have a chance of Congressional approval. These are the Bush tax cuts on steroids. The Economic Policy Institute estimates the top 1 percent of income earners took home 38 percent of all the Bush tax cuts, while two-thirds of all the Bush cuts went to the top 20 percent of income earners. In contrast, 53 percent of the Trump tax cuts would go to the top 1 percent of earners in 2018, and that number would grow radically by 2027, with 80 percent of the cuts going to the top 1 percent. One estimate suggests the Trump tax cuts could add more than $2 trillion to the national debt, with the benefit to working Americans in after-tax gains being negligible. And as the Tax Policy Center reports, the top .01 percent of income earners would see their incomes grow after taxes by 10 percent a year from 2018 to 2027, while the top 1 percent would see a growth of 8 percent a year. But the rest of the top 10 percent of would see just 2 percent growth, and all other income groups would see just 1 percent growth a year.
Trillions in lost revenues is a high price to pay for a country with $20 trillion in national debt. And the cost is even harder to bare considering the meager gains of the Trump tax cuts for most Americans. This tax plan doesn’t even provide significant benefits for the top 10 or 20 percent of income earners, as the Bush cuts did. Trump’s plan privileges the wealthy-within-the-wealthy – the decadent rich. It’s a straight raiding of the public coffers, a swindling of the mass public, which will enrich the super-wealthy at the expense of the masses. It’s part of a larger right-wing agenda designed to bankrupt the federal government – a “starve the beast” approach that seeks to force massive cuts to social welfare programs by eviscerating the taxpayer revenues needed to sustain government spending.
What makes the Trump tax cuts unusual, however, is the dramatic difference in the public’s reaction to the proposal compared to its reaction to the Bush tax cuts. Various polls from early-to-mid 2001 found that between 55 percent to 61 percent of Americans supported Bush’s proposed tax plan for cutting income, estate, and other national taxes, while 51 percent supported Bush’s 2003 tax plan for cuts in capital gains and dividends, compared to 38 percent who were opposed. Many Americans embraced the cuts, because the administration promised the mass public would benefit significantly, and because tax law is notoriously complicated, making it difficult to understand the details of tax cut proposals.
My previous research on the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts finds that, not only was media coverage of these cuts heavily biased in favor of Republican officials and their claims, but media attention to reporting also produced growing support for the cuts. Corporate media outlets played an active role in promoting upper-class and business interests seeking tax cuts for their own benefit, and at the expense of the bottom 80 percent of income-earners. But we appear to be in a rapidly changing political environment in the era of Trump, with fewer Americans falling into pro-business propaganda in defense of tax cuts for the uber-rich.
On the one hand, news coverage of tax cuts hasn’t changed all that much in the last 20 years. In 2001 and 2003 coverage heavily favored sourcing Republican leaders, including the President and Congressional Republican leadership. And this has continued recently. A search of the Lexis-Nexis database finds that the number of stories on tax cuts from September 26th – when the New York Times reported that Trump was preparing to propose a tax reform plan, through late October (Oct. 24th) – heavily favored Republicans. The paper included 91 stories during that time referencing tax reform and Republican leaders or the Republican Party. In comparison, the paper printed just 51 stories mentioning tax reform and the Democratic Party or its leaders. This means 40 more stories, or 78 percent greater coverage for Republicans over Democrats.
On the other hand, despite the privileging of Republican sources, Americans are rejecting the long-standing conservative claim that tax cuts for the wealthy and businesses produce a rising economic tide that lifts all boats. An October 2017 CNN poll reveals that just 34 percent of Americans favor Trump’s tax cuts, compared to 52 percent who oppose them, and 14 percent who are unsure. Only 24 percent agree the cuts will make families “better off if they are passed and signed into law.” And just 31 percent believe the cuts will improve the national economy. A second October CBS poll finds that 58 percent of Americans believe the Trump tax reform favors the wealthy, with just 19 percent believing it “treats everyone equally” and only 18 percent saying “it favors the middle-class.”
These findings are encouraging because they suggest that, despite past public gullibility in supporting tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are learning to think more critically. Mass distrust of the Trump presidency is likely a strong factor in motivating public opposition, with 60 percent of Americans disapproving of Trump as of late-October. Trump is so crassly bigoted, and his politics so blatantly biased in favor of the ultra-rich, that he is struggling to sell any policy reform. A tax reform bill rewritten by Republicans to less blatantly favor the rich might have better luck winning more support from the mass public, at least if it is done so that middle and upper-middle income individuals have a chance of receiving a more substantive benefit.
But subtle manipulation has never been Trump’s strong suite. While the Bush administration was committed to representing the upper-middle class and upper-class, Trump is devoted almost exclusively to enriching the top .01 to 1 percent. So there is little reason for Americans to support these tax cuts considering the negative impact they will have on the country.
We should ask why there is such urgency for yet another round of tax cuts. The U.S. taxes its citizens the least of all wealthy countries, when measuring taxation as a percentage of GDP, so claims that Americans are being soaked in taxes are simply wrong. Furthermore, recent tax cuts for the wealthy have failed to provide much of a benefit to the public or the people. The Bush tax cuts were associated with the weakest economic recovery from a recession in the post-World War II historical period from the 1940s through the 2000s. They also produced a large growth in inequality, since incomes among the top 20 percent of income earners went up at a time (1999-2011) when the median U.S. income declined by nearly 10 percent. Most Americans recognize that the Trump tax cuts, like the Bush tax cuts, are unlikely to help them in any meaningful way. But it is unclear whether public opposition will be strong enough to prevent Republicans from passing a tax bill. One thing’s for certain, however: mass public opposition to policies favoring the rich is a good place to start in the fight to rollback plutocratic control of American politics.