Trump and Entitlement Reform

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I’ve often called it the “dirty little secret of Republican politics:” the “entitlement reform” schemes embraced by most Republican politicians and supported with near-religious intensity by bipartisan business elites are not at all popular among rank-and-file Republican voters. Indeed, as Republican constituencies have grown older, they cling to “their” Social Security and Medicare benefits with considerable self-righteousness, viewing them as benefits they’ve already paid for and otherwise “earned.” It’s no mistake that the most successful Republican “message” on entitlements in recent years has been the attack on Obamacare for “raiding” Medicare money. And even though most of the media attention paid to Donald Trump has dwelled on his extremist positioning on immigration as the main source of his appeal, it’s worth noting that he’s repeatedly rejected “entitlement reform” as a policy goal and scorned other GOP politicians for supporting it.

Now comes Lee Drutman at Vox with today’s must-read, combing National Election Studies data to identify a very large and Republican constituency for Trump’s characteristic combination of support for immigration restrictions and opposition to any trimming of Social Security benefits. And indeed, he shows that the two groups who have largely dictated GOP positions on these two issues in the past–ideological conservatives and “Business Republicans”–are a very small part of the GOP in all dimensions other than money, dwarfed by the “Populists” who more or less share Trump’s views.

I’ve made a similar argument on a more intuitive level by suggesting that the GOP has absorbed and even made its “base” a large number of white non-college educated voters who don’t like government or cultural liberalism but have never shared elite Republican economic thinking, especially about entitlements and immigration. As Drutman says:

[I[f these two issues turn out to be salient for the months to come, the establishment Republicans — and the business Republican donors who support them — are in a very weak position.

Now much as I tend to share Lee’s analysis, I do wonder how many Trump supporters actually know about his position on entitlements, given the overwhelming media attention given to the proposition that Trump doesn’t stand for much of anything other than nativism and undifferentiated anger. But on the other hand, if they don’t know Trump is defending their Social Security benefits against the schemes of Christie and Bush and most of the rest of the GOP (other than Mike Huckabee, whose own “populist” pitch has been eclipsed by Trump’s), and they subsequently find out, maybe the real Trump “peak” which so many people hope to glimpse in the rear-view mirror is still on the horizon. Scary, eh?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.