POLITICS
01/20/2018 08:00 am ET

Trump's Biggest Con May Be The One He Has Played On American Workers

He promised to defend "forgotten Americans." Then he forgot them.

The Donald Trump presidency is now one year old and in many respects ― the unhinged tweeting, the contempt for democratic norms, the potential collusion with a hostile foreign power ― it has been unlike any presidency in history.

But there is one respect in which Trump’s tenure in office has been rather ordinary: his administration’s year-long effort to push familiar Republican initiatives that shift money and power towards corporations and the rich, and away from everybody else.

No, this is not the kind of presidency that Trump promised. As a candidate, he portrayed himself as a different sort of Republican, one who would attack the financial industry, govern independently of wealthy special interests, and protect public programs on which poor and middle-class Americans depend.

On Inauguration Day, speaking from the steps of the Capitol building, Trump reaffirmed those allegiances and priorities: “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”

Of course, when Trump vowed to protect “the forgotten men and women of our country,” he likely had a specific subset of men and women in mind ― working-class Americans and, in particular, white working-class Americans. Stoking their racial resentment has been a theme of his presidency, just as it was a theme of his candidacy.

In public, Trump has assailed African-American football players for protesting during the national anthem. In private, he has said he wants to stop letting in immigrants from “shithole” (or, in some versions, “shithouse”) countries. In that sense, he has been exactly the kind of president he promised to be.

But the attacks on people of color, both abroad and home, look less and less like an effort to protect his supporters and more and more like a smokescreen for policies that will leave them ― along with most poor and middle-class Americans ― worse off than they were before. In a presidency that already has a reputation for dishonesty and graft, what Trump policies are doing to America’s workers may be the biggest con of all.

Giving Big Tax Breaks For The Wealthy

By far the clearest example of this is the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, which the Republican Congress passed and Trump signed in December. The legislation showers the vast majority of its benefits on businesses, investors and the wealthy ― by permanently reducing taxes for corporations, the owners of “pass-through” businesses, and holders of large estates. And although it also lowers some taxes for lower- and middle-income households, those cuts are smaller and temporary.

Ten years out, once the law takes full effect, more than half of all taxpayers will be paying more and most of the rest will see no change, according to analysis by the Tax Policy Center.

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Trump and his allies say those numbers don’t matter, because the tax cut will mean higher wages and more jobs ― both of which will benefit American workers. And lately Trump has been touting news of one-time bonuses that companies are offering, supposedly because of the tax cut, as vindication of the GOP argument.

But many of those same companies are laying off workers. And, in any event, the test of the tax cut’s impact will be what it mean over the long term. In a survey of 42 top economists by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, just one ― one! ― thought Republican tax cuts would significantly improve growth. 

Trying To Take Health Insurance From Millions

The tax cut is Trump’s only major legislative accomplishment, but it wasn’t supposed to be. He and his congressional partners spent more of the year focusing on health care, as they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The effort fell short, in no small part because GOP repeal proposals looked nothing like what Trump had promised.

Instead of providing better, cheaper health care to all Americans ― a vow Trump made repeatedly in his campaign, sometimes using it to distinguish himself from rival GOP candidates ― repeal would have meant millions of poor and middle-class Americans losing their coverage. Some younger and healthier people would have ended up saving money, but only because older, sicker people would have ended up spending more ― or going without insurance altogether. 

Stymied on the legislative front, Trump has carried on his war against “Obamacare” by using his executive authority. And here he has been more successful.

He cut funding for advertising for HealthCare.gov and for the groups that assist people with enrollment. He cut off a key set of payments to insurers, prompting some to raise rates and others to abandon markets altogether. And he’s given states a green light to change their Medicaid programs in ways that will make it harder for poor people, especially those with chronic physical and mental health problems, to get and keep coverage.

Undoing Rules To Protect Workers And Consumers

Trump’s tax cut and health care efforts have gotten a ton of attention. But they by no means capture the full extent of his governing agenda ― or the different ways his policies break his promise to American workers.

In March, Trump signed a Republican bill rescinding the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Act, an Obama-era law that required federal contractors to disclose and then address violations of labor law and worker safety regulations. In August, the Trump administration announced it was postponing implementation of the so-called fiduciary rule ― another Obama-era legacy ― that requires investment managers to act in the best interests of their clients. It’s widely understood that the administration is merely buying time for a more formal rewrite or outright repeal of the regulation.

They’re just pandering to big corporations, They don’t care about family farms. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) on a Trump administration regulatory change

In October, the Trump administration confirmed that it intended to rewrite Obama’s rewrite of overtime rules, which would have extended overtime pay to more than 12 million workers. The Trump administration intends to scale that back, although not completely. And just last week, the Trump administration announced it was putting the brakes on new regulations for payday lenders, designed to stop them from exploiting low-wage workers by loading them up with unpayable debts.

Another major thrust of Trump’s agenda is protecting businesses from lawsuits, even when they act in ways that exploit or harm consumers ― helping to foster what Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, has called a “Grifter Economy.”

An example of this was the reversal of yet another Obama-era rule that, for the first time, exposed banks and credit card companies to class action lawsuits by consumers who believed they were victims of fraud. The Trump administration and its allies claimed this was an effort to help consumers, because class action lawsuits merely enrich trial lawyers. But, as consumer advocates point out, fear of class action suits and their potentially big awards are precisely what it takes to keep large financial institutions in line.

Weakening Protections For Factory Workers And Farmers

In some ways, though, the most revealing policy changes of Trump’s first year are the ones that affect the very groups he always claims to champion.

Trump frequently talks about factory workers, and just this week he was in western Pennsylvania pledging to fight for them. But in the past year he has delayed implementation of rules designed to protect workers from inhaling toxic substances, including beryllium (a major hazard for steelworkers) and silica dust (a major hazard in construction). The plan, once again, is to scale back the rules in ways that expose many more workers to the hazards.

Yet another group that Trump loves to champion is farmers. But Trump this year overturned a regulation that made it easier for independent farmers to sue food companies and large agricultural conglomerates. And now the Environmental Protection Agency is talking about rescinding regulations that prohibit underage workers from handling toxic pesticides.

When defending the change in farmer lawsuits, Trump administration officials made the same basic argument they did for most of their regulatory changes: that they were merely reducing frivolous lawsuits and eliminating paperwork, so that businesses can create more jobs. 

The idea that regulation stifles the economy, ultimately hurting consumers or workers more than they help, is one that conservatives believe sincerely ― and that, in any given case, is a reasonable subject for debate. But on the rule change for farmers, even some of the president’s allies thought it was more about helping powerful friends. “They’re just pandering to big corporations,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “They don’t care about family farms.”

In public, Trump always suggests otherwise. Whether he’s talking about rules for farmers or bankers, or changes to taxes or health care, he always says what he did at the Capitol a year ago ― that he’s fighting powerful interests and protecting the “forgotten American.”

But in private, Trump has been known to present his accomplishments in a different light. In December, just hours after signing the tax cut, Trump was back in Florida at his exclusive Mar-o-Lago club, where initiation fees are $200,000. While dining with some friends and supporters, CBS News later reported, Trump told them what they probably knew already: “You all just got a lot richer.” 

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