When Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected President of the United States in 2016 by appealing to those workers and farmers who felt left behind by the system, liberal pundits said it was only a matter of time before these forgotten voters saw through Trump’s actual agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, breaks for big business and the undermining of Obamacare. There was only so far, they said, that Trump could get by through distracting his base with daily tweet-storms, talk about “building the wall,” attacks on immigrants and abortion, and the nomination of a couple of Supreme Court justices.
Yet for more than two years, Trump has defied political gravity, as his base paid little attention to mushrooming criminal investigations, rancid sex scandals, Russian interference in U.S. politics, a rash of cabinet burnouts, a chaotic administration, a neglect of climate change, an undermining of institutions such as the justice system, the FBI and the press and the dismantling of basic international arrangements with allies (like NATO), while cozying up to dictators. Trump’s base saw these either as irrelevant or even as justified “sticking it” to the status quo.
Assisted by the least qualified White House staff in history, Trump has continued to breach conventional wisdom and practice. Yet Liberal analysts have watched with dismay as polls have showed stable support from Trump’s base, no matter how outrageous the behavior. Surely, they said, the economic reality of what Trump is up to must eventually kick in.
Now a trifecta of bad economic news for his base raises the question whether that time has finally arrived:
- Tax Refunds Shrink Or Disappear
Millions of Americans are currently discovering that their tax refunds have shrunk or disappeared, as a result of the passage of a major overhaul to the tax code in December 2017, which included a new limit on property and local income tax deductions, and changes in withholding rules.
The average tax refund check is down 8% ($170) this year compared to last, the IRS reported Friday, and the number of people receiving a refund so far has dropped by almost a quarter. About 4.6 million fewer filers would receive refunds this tax filing season,” according to an IRS estimate. “Another 4.6 million filers were likely to owe money who had not had that experience in the past.
Although 80% of filers received a tax cut, few people noticed, The tax cuts showed up in weekly or biweekly pay stubs for most Americans, but the increases were often hidden by different levels of withholding.
The IRS attempted to set withholding levels so that more people would pay the correct taxes, meaning they neither owe anything to the IRS at the end of the year nor receive a refund. Eliminating tax refunds is technically a benefit for tax-payers because it removes what is in effect an interest-free loan to the government because of overpaying taxes.
But it doesn’t feel that way to taxpayers. Instead, it feels like the government has taken something away—a significant lump sum payment.
About 75% of filers received refunds in recent years,” the Post reported. “Many Americans appear to like getting a refund because they feel that if they received an extra $20 to $40 a week, they would spend it. But when they get a one-time refund of $1,000 to $2,000, they put it toward paying off credit card debt, paying down a mortgage or saving for retirement.
Thus the potential political victory of a tax cut has been turned into a political debacle. Even before the changes in refunds, the tax cut bill was polling poorly, in part due to the gargantuan handouts to the corporations and the wealthy. The “loss” of tax refunds will make the perception even worse.
- Farm Incomes Crater
Trump had benefited in the 2016 election campaign from the fact that low commodity prices have been grinding down American farmers for years. Farmers voted for Trump in the hope that he would make things better. Instead, the situation is worse. “Throughout much of the Midwest, U.S. farmers are filing for chapter 12 bankruptcy protection at levels not seen for at least a decade,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Bankruptcies in three regions covering major farm states last year rose to the highest level in at least 10 years.”
Farmers are also suffering collateral damage from Trump’s trade wars, as China and Mexico have retaliated against industrial tariffs imposed by the U.S. by imposing duties on U.S. agriculture products like oilseeds, pork and cheese. Low milk prices are also driving dairy farmers out of business.
U.S. farm debt is approaching the record highs set around the 1980s farm crisis, and delinquency rates have climbed. U.S. farm debt last year reached more than $400 billion, according to a USDA forecast—the largest in 40 years.
Nationwide, the volume of loans to fund current operating expenses in the fourth quarter hit a quarterly record of almost $60 billion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. The average size of these loans rose to the highest fourth-quarter level in history, the bank said.
More than half of U.S. farm households lost money farming in recent years, according to the USDA, which estimated that median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative.
The hope that Trump would improve the situation for farmers has not been fulfilled.
- Government Shutdown Inflicts Suffering
In January 2019, Trump championed the longest government shutdown in history, and discovered to his surprise that people didn’t like having their salaries withheld for no good reason. The shutdown left more than 800,000 government employees and many subcontractors without pay for over a month. Some were required to work without pay anyway.
The shutdown inflicted suffering in the lives of millions of citizens, including the mortgage industry, (which had enough political clout to get relief) and many of his base, like farmers (who sadly did not see respite). While Congress passed a bill that promised retroactive pay for government employees after the shutdown ended, actually getting that money took time and it was no consolation for the many contractors who were laid off, or for those parts of the private sector that are negatively affected. Not surprisingly, many government workers who were asked to work without pay called in sick. Shortfalls in key government functions and hardship stories kept coming to light. Having an air-traffic control system or a food safety system staffed by unpaid workers raised obvious risks.
The harsh backlash from the shutdown was aggravated by Trump’s seeming lack of interest in or empathy for the negative consequences of shutting down the government for an extended period. His staff didn’t help. White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett said furloughed federal workers were “better off” and equated the time off with a vacation. The Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, expressed his disappointment that workers didn’t take out bridge loans. Economic Adviser, Larry Kudlow praised his staff for “volunteering” to work without pay.
What made it particularly galling is that the shutdown had no apparent point. The shutdown cost at least $11 billion to the economy, with no gain in terms of its supposed object, namely, the inclusion of $5.7 billion in the budget for “a big beautiful wall along the Southern border.”
As the “White House in chaos” morphed into “a nation in chaos” and the national airline system appeared to be on the brink of grinding a halt, Trump finally threw in the towel and agreed to a three-week resumption of the government to permit a bi-partisan group of legislators to craft a budget compromise.
The bipartisan proposal unveiled Monday evening–four days before the deadline–promised $200 million less funding for Trump’s wall than the Senate proposal that Trump had rejected in December. Trump’s media cheerleaders initially signaled their disapproval. Sean Hannity on Fox News declared that the bipartisan agreement was “a garbage deal.” Mark Meadows, the leader of the Republican Freedom Caucus tweeted that the agreement was “hardly a serious attempt to secure the border or stop the flow of illegal migration. It kicks the can down the road yet again… Congress is not doing its job.” Ann Coulter called it “A Yellow New Deal” with Trump “too afraid to fight for a border wall.” But gradually even these zealots began to grasp the Trump had lost the battle for funding the wall.
By Wednesday, Trump had indicated that although he was unhappy with the deal, he was intent on avoiding another government shutdown. He seemed to be signaling that he would reluctantly go along with the deal, while seeking “other ways” to fund “the Wall.” What those “other ways” are remains to be revealed. A declaration of a national emergency would be legally questionable and has little support from either Republicans or Democrats. Equally, a cobbling together of substantial resources from other government budgets in order to fund the wall also seems open to legal and political challenge. Trump continues to assert that he is “going ahead with the wall anyway,” yet without explaining how.
Trump Is “Already Building The Wall”
On Monday night at his rally in El Paso, Texas, Trump had unveiled his new communication plan: “Trump is already building the Wall.” As a matter of fact, this is not true. No new construction of barriers has yet taken place in Trump’s administration.
Yet the Wall was never about facts. The fight to “Build the Wall” was always about Trump convincing his base that he was on their side and disguising the fact that his policies have exactly the opposite economic effect. In this sense, the Wall was always more than a physical barrier, in the same way that a nation’s flag is always more than a piece of cloth. Nor was the budget discussion about “building the Wall” ultimately about money.
To Trump’s base, “the Wall” has become a potent symbol of his hard-line position on immigration. For his followers, “the Wall” wasn’t just a physical thing: it was a beacon, even the Holy Grail of Trump’s presidency. Like the Holy Grail, its elusiveness was part of its attraction. For Trump himself, the Wall is also a rhetorical lever to activate his base. (Paradoxically if the Wall were ever to be funded and built, it could be a problem for Trump because it would become apparent that the Wall didn’t solve the problems Trump said it would solve.)
A Fictional Wall To Solve A Set of Fictional Problems
The fiction that “Trump is already building the wall” ties in with the fictional problems the Wall is supposed to solve.
The “big, beautiful, 2000-mile wall along the Southern border,” to be paid for by Mexico, was said by Trump to solve the problem of the hordes of illegal Mexicans swarming illegally through the unfenced Southern border—criminals, rapists, murderers and terrorists. These hordes were bringing with them drugs and crime and taking away jobs from honest hard-working Americans. Constructing a big concrete wall would solve these problems in one stroke and revive the economic prospects of America’s middle class, by restoring jobs to Americans, that had been lost to Mexicans. Better yet, the wall would cost nothing: endless chants at Trump’s rallies recited the claim that Mexico would pay for the wall— a claim that was made more than 200 times during the presidential campaign, and dozens of times since, as well as confirmed by Trump’s own website which explicitly stated that Mexico would pay $5-10 billion for the wall.
The problems that Trump says the Wall will solve are largely fictional:
- Arrests for illegal immigration are at a 46-year low;
- There is no significant evidence of terrorists or drugs entering illegally through the Southern border. Most of the illegal immigrants and drugs coming into the country come in through legal points of entry.
- It’s true that there is an increase in the number of families legally seeking legal asylum, which has led to a humanitarian crisis that is in part caused by the Trump administration’s own policies aimed at deterring legal immigration.
- The lack of good jobs and the lost economic prospects of America’s middle class are unrelated to immigration or the Southern border and are in part the consequence of the pro-big-business tax-cuts-for-the-rich economic policies that Trump himself continues to pursue.
Yet the new fiction that “Trump is already building the Wall” still has to be taught to his supporters. When the crowd began chanting “Build the wall,” at the rally in El Paso on Monday, Trump had to correct them and explain the right chant, as shown by prominent signs, was: “Finish The Wall.” This new fiction aims to distract attention from the fact that after two years as president, Trump had not secured funding or started building the Wall.
The Use Of Fiction in Politics
The use of fiction for political purposes is well-known in authoritarian propaganda—the practice of concocting fictions that explain why problems that trouble whole groups of people have a simple origin and an even simpler solution. The explanation of the problems is inevitably that some groups, in conspiracy with a corrupt elite, are responsible for them. The solution is even simpler—namely, follow the leader who will eliminate the elites and the offending groups. The constant repetition of the fictions is key to getting it accepted. Constant lying is a feature, not a bug.
In the fictitious world concocted by Trump, the repeated false claims—more than 8,000 since taking office–such as the security crisis at the border, illegal border crossings that are at an all-time high, the Democrats who are uninterested in border security, the press who are hiding the crisis and making up lies about the president, and now that Trump is already building the Wall—are immune to disproof by presentation of the actual facts.
The comfort offered by Trump’s fictions is too seductive to be undermined by facts. To Trump’s base, the beautiful myth of “the Wall” is, and remains, more attractive than the real world.
In this way, “the Wall” has become a code-name for the racist, anti-immigrant isolationist policies of Trump’s presidency and a symbol of multiple toxic policies,
Even if Trump eventually fails in the real world to secure funding for his wall, in the eyes of his base, he will have nobly fought on their behalf. In their eyes, the fight in itself is a win and propels them to go on supporting him. “The wall is very, very on its way,” Trump falsely asserted today. “It’s happening.”
The Intrusion Of Reality
There’s a catch with the use of fictions in politics. “The chief disability of propaganda,” wrote Hannah Arendt in her classic book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, “is that it cannot fulfill the longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.”
For a time, common sense can be held at bay and prevented from intruding into the cocoon of reassuring fiction. Yet the deliberate distortion of reality is also the cause of propaganda’s inevitable downfall. It is the inexorable collision with reality that eventually ruins the cocoon. It’s not a matter of whether. It’s only a question of when.
The trifecta of disappearing tax refunds, falling farm incomes, and an extended government shutdown, along with the failure to secure funding for the wall are the most powerful shocks to the cocoon so far. The shutdown alone made significant inroads into Trump’s support. As of today (Wednesday), only two days before the Friday deadline, Trump hasn’t ruled out the possibility of yet another shutdown, although most see that as “a sequel no one needs.” But who knows? As Bret Stephens points out in the New York Times, Trump is perfectly capable of “committing suicide twice.”
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