Trump’s Plan: Gut Social Security, Bankrupt the States

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Trump’s economic policy is simple: gut social security and bankrupt the states. He made this clear when he announced his executive orders on August 8. By suspending the payroll tax, he chokes off funding for social security and Medicare; he says he’ll ditch that tax completely if reelected. That means in about 10 years the two programs will go bust. Promises that at that time Treasury will fund social security and Medicare are cheap and easily broken.

Trump did not save the $600 weekly benefit for the unemployed. He reduced it to $400, a quarter of which he had the nerve to say states must pay (though he backed off from this). But the states are broke. Covid-19 killed their economies and dried up their tax revenue. Governors requested federal aid, but the GOP stuck its head in the sand and said no. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has observed, wait until a few big states go bankrupt – then the stock market will really crash.

There’s a reason social security is called the third rail of American politics: because politicians who suggest cutting it doom themselves to oblivion. Seniors vote. And there are lots of seniors. They do not like the idea that their old age insurance, which they have paid into since they started working, could be snatched away by some political opportunist. Well, now a political opportunist has done just that. His name is Donald Trump.

If Trump wants to commit political suicide, that’s his business. But if his way of doing so is gutting social security and Medicare, then it’s everybody’s business. Ironically, candidate Trump in 2016 promised never to cut them. He was, he said, a different kind of Republican. Well, voters suckered by that claim, won’t fall for it twice. He’s not a different kind of Republican. He’s worse than a Republican. He’s Trump the Tea Partier, who tells seniors to expose themselves to Covid-19 and drop dead to boost the economy and oh, by the way, sacrifice the income they’d counted on to prevent poverty in their sunset years. As Jack Rasmus wrote recently in CounterPunch, without social security, 50 million households immediately plunge into poverty, consumption evaporates and we go into a full-blown depression.

Trump and the GOP lie and play politics about giving money to the states. Led apparently by Jared Kushner’s grudge against blue states that don’t support Trump, they bray why should we fund poorly run Democratic cities and states? The truth is quite otherwise. The states that pay the most to the federal government are…Democratic states, like Illinois, California and New Jersey. Those that take the most from the federal government are Republican states. By Trump’s logic the blue states should stop remitting funds to the federal government. Let the Democratic states that fork over billions of dollars to Washington keep that money to fund their own needs and see how long Trump waits before sending in his storm troopers to collect those monies.

With his August 8 executive orders, Trump once again trashed the constitution. Granted, when it comes to shredding that document, he has plenty of recent presidential company, namely Barack “assassinate Americans suspected of terrorism” Obama and George “torture is just fine” Bush. But with these orders, Trump did something newly illegal. He usurped congress’ power to tax, by claiming he could defer payroll taxes. Craven Mitch McConnell just went right along with it. But plenty of other senators and representatives voiced outrage. This situation, however, calls for more than outrage – it demands action in the face of an autocrat attempting to rule without a legislature. Trump’s payroll tax suspension wouldn’t last two minutes in front of a judge. Now the question is getting it there.

Aside from the outrages of Trump’s executive actions, they get nothing done and mix everything up with lots of humbug about protecting people from evictions and keeping them solvent, while doing nothing of the sort. As the Washington Post reported: “The steps were criticized by state officials, businesses, economists and Democrats as confusing, unworkable, inadequate and potentially unconstitutional.” Nothing potential about it. The constitution says congress is in charge of the money. That means taxation. That means Trump cannot legally suspend a tax – any tax, unless he’s signing a bill congress passed.

Who in addition to Trump is to blame for this latest frontal assault on the constitution? The money is on Mr. Tea Party Mark Meadows. His political roots indicate deep antipathy to social security and Medicare, as well as callous unconcern for the tens of millions of unemployed and outright hostility to state programs like rental assistance. White house chief of staff Meadows’ involvement in the stimulus negotiations was a giveaway. Nothing would get done, no money would be spent to help desperate Americans, because as far as the Tea Party is concerned, the only good government program is a dysfunctional one, even if you have to crumple the constitution to destroy it. If Americans are hungry and homeless, the Tea Party says, that’s not government’s problem; one gets the impression these right-wingers would be fine with just opening a few workhouses. In keeping with this ethos, Trump’s action on stopping evictions stops nothing. It just suggests that the responsible parties not evict people.

So we have a president who trashes the constitution by sending federal agents into cities to act like storm troopers, who usurps congressional taxation powers, who floats the illegal idea of suspending the election, and who commits mass negligent homicide by deliberately not formulating a national plan to cope with a lethal pandemic, which has killed over 160,000 Americans so far and will kill many more. And that’s only in recent months.

Those who consider it alarmist to say that this dangerous demagogue aspires to be a fascist autocrat may have to revise their opinion. Trump’s latest moves stomp on law and democracy. They are of a piece with his earlier moves. And they put the final touches on a very ugly picture: a dangerous, dying empire, in which most citizens are dirt poor, while a few pampered plutocrats flatter the needy ego of a failed con man, who treats the last vestige of the republic, its constitution, like garbage.


Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.