The Trump Tax Scam: Corruption Rules

Photo by Anirvan | CC BY 2.0

At long last, Donald Trump and his Republican co-dependents have a major piece of legislation they can use to show their “donors” and their diehard supporters that they are able to “govern.”  This, anyway, is the story corporate media tell.

“Donor” is the media’s euphemism for “capitalist paymaster.”  Both duopoly parties have them.  They are a “bipartisan” bunch, loyal to their class, and therefore generally of one mind — though, of course, their first loyalties are to themselves.  They pay the piper; they call the tune.

“Governing” comes down to enforcing intraparty discipline.  This means riding herd on doctrinaire libertarians and later-day Tea Partiers.  There are also still a few Republican Senators and House members who, on rare occasions, are capable of surprising everybody, including themselves, by summoning up a shred of moral decency and common sense.  They need to be kept in line as well.  This is especially crucial in the Senate, where the Republican majority is razor thin.

Fortunately, governing, so understood, has turned out to be a lot harder than sensible people a year ago feared.  Immobility has been our salvation.  The more that Trump and the GOP “govern,” the worse off we become.

Governing does not involve making nice to Democrats.  If the members of the other duopoly party were a tad more obdurate, the way Republicans are, it might be different, but, as matters now stand, Democrats are irrelevant.  When it suits them, Trump and the Republicans will mouth off about “bipartisanship”; in fact, though, they could care less.  What matters is getting and keeping Republicans on board.

To that end, Republican legislators find it useful to pander to Trump’s diehard supporters.  They hardly have to, however.  Anyone who is still standing by the Donald must neither know nor care how dangerous he is, and how little he cares about matters of concern to them.  The more Fox News time they log, and the more they immerse themselves in other rightwing propaganda, the less they know.

On the off chance that a ray of light somehow penetrates through the miasma that engulfs their minds, Fox and the others are there to set them straight.  Fox is especially good for riling up “the darker angels of their nature.”

Therefore, there was never much need for a legislative victory to keep the Trump base on board.  They are there for the duration.

Had the GOP tax scam gone the way of GOP efforts “to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Trump’s stalwart supporters would be standing by their man with much the same intensity and in roughly the same numbers as they were before they rammed their tax cuts through, and as they will be when the dreadful new tax regime takes hold.

The donors are another story.   They are a demanding lot, and they expect some bang for their bucks.

Stacking the federal judiciary with rightwing judges and neutering regulatory protections is not enough for them.  They want tax breaks too.  And, before long, it will become even plainer than it already is that they want to privatize everything that they can milk for profit.

In short, their appetite for plunder is limitless.  For them, there is no such thing as being too rich.  Neither do they have time for, much less sympathy with, challenges, no matter how tepid, to the untrammeled power of their class.

Their flunkies in the House and Senate understand this perfectly.  They understand too that, to keep the money flowing in, they need to demonstrate that their services are worth the cost.  Thus they needed a win or at least something they could pass off for one.

Trump wanted a big win too – not so much to impress his class brothers and sisters, the ones who are already on board, as to impress himself.  He wanted a victory because he is a pathetically vainglorious creature who cannot celebrate himself too much.

He is therefore always on the lookout for ways to toot his own horn, and always on the verge of decomposing when reality frustrates his efforts.

In his little bubble, surrounded by the most nauseatingly obsequious cabinet officers ever to disgrace the republic, and by a Vice President eager to take over but adept at feigning an adoring gaze that puts even Nancy Reagan’s to shame, he can get away with it.

However, at some level, surely even he must know better.  External validation helps with that.  In this case, though, he will soon be ruing the day he won.

Trump may know even less about what is in his tax scam than the average Republican legislator, but he nevertheless owns it.  From now on, the tax scam rammed through Congress last week will be known as “the Trump tax cut.”  When the economy starts heading south, as it soon will, that name will become toxic.

The polling data is clear: even now, the Trump tax cut is less popular than any tax increase in living memory.  It can only go downhill from there.  The morning after euphoria of the miscreants responsible for it will be short-lived.  Before long, that stubborn, non-alternative fact may even penetrate the thick skull of the Commander-in-Chief.

Indeed, one can only wonder in disbelief at the sheer irrationality of the idea that led Trump and the Republicans to think that their scam would benefit them in next year’s midterm elections.  There are times when something is not better than nothing, and any idiot could see that this was one of those times.

What the likes of Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan cobbled together, under the watchful eyes of their donors’ nefarious lobbyists, is a ridiculous concoction that will benefit those donors and the larger donor class, and harm nearly everyone else.

The donors will make out like the bandits they are.  But unless Democrats fumble even more spectacularly than they normally do, the bounty they will acquire will be a nail in the coffin of their favorite political party.

McConnell and Ryan and the others did see to it that a few crumbs would go to some “middle class” taxpayers, especially those living in “red” states with low taxes, and low property values.  They seem to have taken their cue from their friends in the predatory lending business: lure the suckers in with teaser rates, and then milk them for all they are worth (or more).

Did they really think that tax cuts big enough to finance a family dinner at a fast food restaurant would cause “average” people – not all of them by any means, but more than a few — not to care about deficits that put the remnants of New Deal–Great Society programs that everyone who is not filthy rich depend upon in jeopardy?

It is already obvious that Ryan and others of his ilk are salivating at the prospect of using those deficits as a pretext for doing precisely that.  Could they really expect even viewers dumbed down by Fox News not to figure out that the only reason for creating those deficits is to make themselves and their donors richer still?

By now, it should be dawning even on Trump’s most gullible supporters that not only are they being played, but that their intelligence is being insulted — more blatantly even than when Hillary Clinton called them and others like them “deplorable.”

With Democrats for opponents, anything could happen.  But unless the less odious of our two semi-established neoliberal parties flubs again, the tax scam Republicans rammed through can hardly fail to deliver a mortal wound to the GOP.

Surely, Republicans would want to prevent that.

Or maybe not.  After all, their mind-boggling irrationality does make a kind of sense in a political universe as corrupt as ours has become.

With sufficient ingenuity, one could make a case for the Trump tax cut on ideological – specifically, libertarian – grounds.  There is not much ingenuity in Republican ranks, but there probably are libertarians in the House and Senate Republican caucuses who think – reflexively — that anything that “starves the beast” is worthy of support.

There are also Republicans, many of them with libertarian leanings, who consider themselves policy wonks and who think that there actually are sound public policy justifications for the ludicrous concoction they have just pushed through.

Paul Ryan is a case in point; he seems to have been thinking along these lines since the days when, as an adolescent, he discovered that Atlas Shrugged could be useful for more than just a stroke book.

In the final analysis, though, the Trump tax cut is not about ideology or policy or anything else that democratic theorists would claim it is or ought to be.  It is about money.  In American elections nowadays, money makes the world go round.

However, in the Age of Trump, this is the least of it.

The authors of our Constitution supported or at least tolerated slavery, and they packed all sorts of non- and anti-democratic features into the basic institutions of the republic they founded.

However, they also envisioned a political sphere in which enlightened representatives, assembled together to debate and collectively determine the common good, decided collectively what is to be done.  In line with the most advanced political theorists of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, they sought to establish a modern version of the Roman Senate or the Athenian agora.

But, almost from Day One, their best laid plans went mightily astray.  In American democracy, there has seldom been more than a pretense of rational deliberation and debate, and talk of the common good is hypocritical nonsense.  The parties and factions whose malign effects the republic’s founders sought to guard against run the show; and self-interest is all.

We do have generally free and fair competitive elections, especially now that restrictions on the franchise have been relaxed enough to accord the right to vote to nearly all adult citizens, regardless of class, race or gender.  But our elections are emphatically not about electing wise, disinterested rulers.   They are about “special interests” selling biddable candidates to the voting public.

Or rather that was how it was before Trump’s election magnified the prevailing level of corruption many times over.

Getting reelected is now no longer all that it is cracked up to be.  There isn’t as much percentage in it as there was even just a year ago.

Like Trump himself, many House and Senate Republicans have better, quicker ways to feather their own nests.

Trump has botched up so much, undermined so many norms, and delegitimized so many venerable understandings that, outside the shrinking precincts of the hopelessly benighted troglodytes who latched onto him even before his campaign got underway, he has come to be so despised that even Republicans now expect a Democratic landslide in 2018.

It is no sure thing, of course; not even with Trump stirring up fear and loathing in roughly two thirds of the population.  Democrats have a knack for defeating themselves – Hillary Clinton style, though electoral incompetence, and because they too do yeoman service for the rich and heinous.

Nevertheless, they are on track for an overwhelming victory in 2018, notwithstanding the gerrymandering rampage that Republicans undertook after their electoral victories in 2010.

For many a Republican legislator, a “shellacking” (Obama’s word) equal or greater than the one that Democrats got in 2010 could actually be a blessing in disguise.  Instead of spending years in Congress pretending to care about the public good while prepping to cash in eventually in the lobbying racket, they may soon be able to jump right in.

This is all the more reason for them to do all they can to stay on the donors’ good side.  This holds as much for those who won’t themselves get a direct windfall from the scam as for those, like the turncoat Senator Tom Corker of Tennessee and many of his similarly shameless colleagues, who will.

Genuine fascists, or rather their twenty-first century successors and moral equivalents, expressly oppose democracy.  Trump has empowered people who come perilously close to that — Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller are the best-known examples.

But that is not, or not yet, his administration’s main thrust.  Its effect has been not so much to underwrite opposition to democracy as to cause its level of corruption to increase – to a degree that is unprecedented in American history.

In the absence of a bona fide resistance — an organized, well-resourced countervailing force that is not and cannot be marginalized — this could be almost as bad.




ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).