Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

The Myth Of Trump's Economic Populism, As Proven By The Tax Bill

President Trump points out a supporter of Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama Republican Senate candidate, as he speaks at a campaign-style rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday.
Susan Walsh AP
President Trump points out a supporter of Roy Moore, the embattled Alabama Republican Senate candidate, as he speaks at a campaign-style rally in Pensacola, Fla., Friday.

Once upon a time, there was a group of conservative intellectuals who were agnostic about Donald Trump.

They were not "Never Trumpers," but they weren't Trump superfans either.

They thought Trumpism might offer something new for the GOP. Since Trump wasn't tied to the orthodoxies of either party he could, theoretically, offer a more populist path toward the future for Republicans.


Conservative writer Henry Olsen, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, looked to the tax plan to reflect this new vision, but it wasn't there.

For now, Olsen said, "Trumpian populism remains a tantalizing promise for people who are interested in it."

Olsen expected the tax plan to include some of Trump's populist campaign promises — that the rich would pay more, the forgotten working class would pay less, and special interest loopholes like the carried-interest provision for hedge-fund managers would be gone.

But the tax bill ended up instead being traditionally Republican in its focus on cutting taxes for the well-to-do but barely touching the working class and not helping the middle class to a significant degree.

"That's not what Trump promised," Olsen said. "And it's not what Trump's voters thought they were getting."


Whatever happened to Ivanka Trump's child-care tax credit?

One of the biggest disappointments for conservatives who believed that Trump could have offered a new, more reform-minded populist economics was the failure of the expanded, child-care tax credit offered by Republican Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio.

It was an actual populist idea, geared to the working class, because it was refundable against payroll taxes. But not only did the Republican leadership oppose it, they made sure it failed by requiring it to get 60 votes, unlike other amendments.

Not populist, but very conservative

The tax bill might not be the kind of populist piece of legislation Trump promised during the campaign, but it does have a lot in it to make conservatives happy. Obamacare is unraveled; there are more tax breaks for people who home-school their kids or send them to religious schools, and there are tax hikes for graduate students, university endowments and voters in high-tax states. In other words — Democrats.

Maybe economic policy isn't the point of Trumpism at all

Maybe the most important thing Trump offers his supporters isn't economic policy or any policy at all — it's his racially charged Twitter feed and the cultural grievances it directs at immigrants, Muslims and millionaire black athletes.

Sure, Trump's followers like the idea of having fewer tax brackets, said conservative Ben Domenech, publisher of, but, "What gets them riled up and active is the embrace of the culture-war issues — that Trump has shown himself perfectly happy to fight in a way that Republicans in a lot of other positions have been unwilling to traditionally."

There have always been two parts to the Republican party's message: conservative social issues for its white, blue-collar, evangelical base (think school prayer, abortion, gay marriage, immigration and crime) and a supply-side, trickle-down economic message for the rich and corporations. Trump has taken this two-pronged approach and put it on steroids.

His tax bill is much more tilted to the wealthy than the tax bills of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. And his white-identity politics is much more raw and more central to his persona.

It's as if the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street and the wealthy get the policy, while Trump's blue-collar base gets the Twitter feed.

What happens to this tension over time?

In the long run, Olsen doesn't think this Trumpist combination of trickle-down economics and white-identity policies offers a viable path for the GOP.

He's not even sure it's sustainable for Trump. And he disagrees that the basis of Trump's appeal was racial.

"There is a lingering discontent in the country that is much more than racial resentment," Olsen said. "The working-class voters who voted for Obama and then for Trump were not motivated only by race."

Olsen said voters generally give their presidential choice a long leash. But if the person doesn't deliver on what they really want in the end, voters will turn against him. And then, the culture wars on Twitter won't be enough.

But in the short term, this tax bill just might be the kind of win Trump and his party need.

To the extent it has any impact at all, in the first year or two, it will probably be a positive one for most people. Their taxes will go down, and they'll be able to keep more of their own money.

That's because the tax bill is front-loaded; the goodies come first. The regressive, non-populist part of the bill, where taxes for the middle class actually go up — kicks in later, well after the next election cycle.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit