The Tax-Cut Con

The advocates of tax cuts are relentless, even fanatical. An indication of the movement’s fervor — and of its political power — came during the Iraq war. War is expensive and is almost always accompanied by tax increases. But not in 2003. ”Nothing is more important in the face of a war,” declared Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, ”than cutting taxes.” And sure enough, taxes were cut, not just in a time of war but also in the face of record budget deficits. Nor will it be easy to reverse those tax cuts: the tax-cut movement has convinced many Americans — like Tinsley — that everybody still pays far too much in taxes.

.. A result of the tax-cut crusade is that there is now a fundamental mismatch between the benefits Americans expect to receive from the government and the revenues government collect. This mismatch is already having profound effects at the state and local levels: teachers and policemen are being laid off and children are being denied health insurance. The federal government can mask its problems for a while, by running huge budget deficits, but it, too, will eventually have to decide whether to cut services or raise taxes. And we are not talking about minor policy adjustments. If taxes stay as low as they are now, government as we know it cannot be maintained. In particular, Social Security will have to become far less generous; Medicare will no longer be able to guarantee comprehensive medical care to older Americans; Medicaid will no longer provide basic medical care to the poor.

.. The reason Tinsley’s comic strip about the angry taxpayer caught my eye was, of course, that the numbers were all wrong. Very few Americans pay as much as 50 percent of their income in taxes; on average, families near the middle of the income distribution pay only about half that percentage in federal, state and local taxes combined.

.. In fact, though most Americans feel that they pay too much in taxes, they get off quite lightly compared with the citizens of other advanced countries. Furthermore, for most Americans tax rates probably haven’t risen for a generation. And a few Americans — namely those with high incomes — face much lower taxes than they did a generation ago.

.. In the United States, all taxes — federal, state and local — reached a peak of 29.6 percent of G.D.P. in 2000. That number was, however, swollen by taxes on capital gains during the stock-market bubble.

By 2002, the tax take was down to 26.3 percent of G.D.P., and all indications are that it will be lower still this year and next.

This is a low number compared with almost every other advanced country. In 1999, Canada collected 38.2 percent of G.D.P. in taxes, France collected 45.8 percent and Sweden, 52.2 percent.

.. Meanwhile, wealthy Americans have seen a sharp drop in their tax burden. The top tax rate — the income-tax rate on the highest bracket — is now 35 percent, half what it was in the 1970’s. With the exception of a brief period between 1988 and 1993, that’s the lowest rate since 1932. Other taxes that, directly or indirectly, bear mainly on the very affluent have also been cut sharply. The effective tax rate on corporate profits has been cut in half since the 1960’s. The 2001 tax cut phases out the inheritance tax, which is overwhelmingly a tax on the very wealthy: in 1999, only 2 percent of estates paid any tax, and half the tax was paid by only 3,300 estates worth more than $5 million. The 2003 tax act sharply cuts taxes on dividend income, another boon to the very well off. By the time the Bush tax cuts have taken full effect, people with really high incomes will face their lowest average tax rate since the Hoover administration.

.. Yet a significant number of Americans rage against taxes, and the party that controls all three branches of the federal government has made tax cuts its supreme priority. Why?

3. Supply-Siders, Starve-the-Beasters and Lucky Duckies

It is often hard to pin down what antitax crusaders are trying to achieve. The reason is not, or not only, that they are disingenuous about their motives — though as we will see, disingenuity has become a hallmark of the movement in recent years. Rather, the fuzziness comes from the fact that today’s antitax movement moves back and forth between two doctrines. Both doctrines favor the same thing: big tax cuts for people with high incomes. But they favor it for different reasons.

One of those doctrines has become famous under the name ”supply-side economics.” It’s the view that the government can cut taxes without severe cuts in public spending. The other doctrine is often referred to as ”starving the beast,” a phrase coined by David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director. It’s the view that taxes should be cut precisely in order to force severe cuts in public spending. Supply-side economics is the friendly, attractive face of the tax-cut movement. But starve-the-beast is where the power lies.

.. So the standard view of economists is that if you want to reduce the burden of taxes, you must explain what government programs you want to cut as part of the deal. There’s no free lunch.

What the supply-siders argued, however, was that there was a free lunch. Cutting marginal rates, they insisted, would lead to such a large increase in gross domestic product that it wouldn’t be necessary to come up with offsetting spending cuts.

.. The other camp in the tax-cut crusade actually welcomes the revenue losses from tax cuts. Its most visible spokesman today is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who once told National Public Radio: ”I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” And the way to get it down to that size is to starve it of revenue. ”The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood,” Norquist told U.S. News & World Report.

.. Edwin Feulner, the foundation’s president, uses ”New Deal” and ”Great Society” as terms of abuse, implying that he and his organization want to do away with the institutions Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson created. That means Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — most of what gives citizens of the United States a safety net against economic misfortune.

.. The starve-the-beast doctrine is now firmly within the conservative mainstream. George W. Bush himself seemed to endorse the doctrine as the budget surplus evaporated: in August 2001 he called the disappearing surplus ”incredibly positive news” because it would put Congress in a ”fiscal straitjacket.”

.. to starve the beast, you must not only deny funds to the government; you must make voters hate the government. There’s a danger that working-class families might see government as their friend: because their incomes are low, they don’t pay much in taxes, while they benefit from public spending. So in starving the beast, you must take care not to cut taxes on these ”lucky duckies.” (Yes, that’s what The Wall Street Journal called them in a famous editorial.) In fact, if possible, you must raise taxes on working-class Americans in order, as The Journal said, to get their ”blood boiling with tax rage.”

.. The supply-side movement likes to present itself as a school of economic thought like Keynesianism or monetarism — that is, as a set of scholarly ideas that made their way, as such ideas do, into political discussion. But the reality is quite different. Supply-side economics was a political doctrine from Day 1; it emerged in the pages of political magazines, not professional economics journals.

.. That is not to deny that many professional economists favor tax cuts. But they almost always turn out to be starve-the-beasters, not supply-siders.

.. And they often secretly — or sometimes not so secretly — hold supply-siders in contempt. N. Gregory Mankiw, now chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, is definitely a friend to tax cuts; but in the first edition of his economic-principles textbook, he described Ronald Reagan’s supply-side advisers as ”charlatans and cranks.”

..Douglas Holtz-Eakin  .. his conclusion was that unless the revenue losses from the proposed tax cuts were offset by spending cuts, the resulting deficits would be a drag on growth, quite likely to outweigh any supply-side effects.

.. since the 1970’s almost all of the prominent supply-siders have been aides to conservative politicians, writers at conservative publications like National Review, fellows at conservative policy centers like Heritage or economists at private companies with strong Republican connections. Loosely speaking, that is, supply-siders work for the vast right-wing conspiracy.

.. What gives supply-side economics influence is its connection with a powerful network of institutions that want to shrink the government and see tax cuts as a way to achieve that goal. Supply-side economics is a feel-good cover story for a political movement with a much harder-nosed agenda.

.. Irving Kristol, in his role as co-editor of The Public Interest, was arguably the single most important proponent of supply-side economics. But years later, he suggested that he himself wasn’t all that persuaded by the doctrine: ”I was not certain of its economic merits but quickly saw its political possibilities.” Writing in 1995, he explained that his real aim was to shrink the government and that tax cuts were a means to that end: ”The task, as I saw it, was to create a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority — so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

.. In effect, what Kristol said in 1995 was that he and his associates set out to deceive the American public. They sold tax cuts on the pretense that they would be painless, when they themselves believed that it would be necessary to slash public spending in order to make room for those cuts.

.. But one supposes that the response would be that the end justified the means — that the tax cuts did benefit all Americans because they led to faster economic growth. Did they?

.. skeptics say that rapid growth after 1982 proves nothing: a severe recession is usually followed by a period of fast growth, as unemployed workers and factories are brought back on line. The test of tax cuts as a spur to economic growth is whether they produced more than an ordinary business cycle recovery. Once the economy was back to full employment, was it bigger than you would otherwise have expected? And there Reagan fails the test: between 1979, when the big slump began, and 1989, when the economy finally achieved more or less full employment again, the growth rate was 3 percent, the same as the growth rate between the two previous business cycle peaks in 1973 and 1979. Or to put it another way, by the late 1980’s the U.S. economy was about where you would have expected it to be, given the trend in the 1970’s. Nothing in the data suggests a supply-side revolution.

.. Does this mean that the Reagan tax cuts had no effect? Of course not. Those tax cuts, combined with increased military spending, provided a good old-fashioned Keynesian boost to demand.

.. While the Reagan tax cuts didn’t produce any visible supply-side gains, they did lead to large budget deficits. From the point of view of most economists, this was a bad thing. But for starve-the-beast tax-cutters, deficits are potentially a good thing, because they force the government to shrink. So did Reagan’s deficits shrink the beast?

..  In response to these deficits, George Bush the elder went back on his ”read my lips” pledge and raised taxes. Bill Clinton raised them further. And thereby hangs a tale.

.. Clinton did exactly the opposite of what supply-side economics said you should do: he raised the marginal rate on high-income taxpayers. In 1989, the top 1 percent of families paid, on average, only 28.9 percent of their income in federal taxes; by 1995, that share was up to 36.1 percent.

Conservatives confidently awaited a disaster — but it failed to materialize. In fact, the economy grew at a reasonable pace through Clinton’s first term, while the deficit and the unemployment rate went steadily down. And then the news got even better: unemployment fell to its lowest level in decades without causing inflation, while productivity growth accelerated to rates not seen since the 1960’s. And the budget deficit turned into an impressive surplus.

Tax-cut advocates had claimed the Reagan years as proof of their doctrine’s correctness; as we have seen, those claims wilt under close examination. But the Clinton years posed a much greater challenge: here was a president who sharply raised the marginal tax rate on high-income taxpayers, the very rate that the tax-cut movement cares most about. And instead of presiding over an economic disaster, he presided over an economic miracle.

.. the Clinton-era surge probably reflected the maturing of information technology: businesses finally figured out how to make effective use of computers, and the resulting surge in productivity drove the economy forward. But the fact that America’s best growth in a generation took place after the government did exactly the opposite of what tax-cutters advocate was a body blow to their doctrine.

.. They tried to make the best of the situation. The good economy of the late 1990’s, ardent tax-cutters insisted, was caused by the 1981 tax cut. Early in 2000, Lawrence Kudlow and Stephen Moore, prominent supply-siders, published an article titled ”It’s the Reagan Economy, Stupid.”

.. But anyone who thought about the lags involved found this implausible — indeed, hilarious. If the tax-cut movement attributed the booming economy of 1999 to a tax cut Reagan pushed through 18 years earlier, why didn’t they attribute the economic boom of 1983 and 1984 — Reagan’s ”morning in America” — to whatever Lyndon Johnson was doing in 1965 and 1966?

.. By the end of the 1990’s, in other words, supply-side economics had become something of a laughingstock

..  the most striking example of what skillful marketing can accomplish is the campaign for repeal of the estate tax.

.. the estate tax is a tax on the very, very well off. Yet advocates of repeal began portraying it as a terrible burden on the little guy. They renamed it the ”death tax” and put out reports decrying its impact on struggling farmers and businessmen — reports that never provided real-world examples because actual cases of family farms or small businesses broken up to pay estate taxes are almost impossible to find. This campaign succeeded in creating a public perception that the estate tax falls broadly on the population. Earlier this year, a poll found that 49 percent of Americans believed that most families had to pay the estate tax, while only 33 percent gave the right answer that only a few families had to pay.

.. the public rationale for tax cuts has shifted repeatedly over the past three years.

.. During the 2000 campaign and the initial selling of the 2001 tax cut, the Bush team insisted that the federal government was running an excessive budget surplus, which should be returned to taxpayers. By the summer of 2001, as it became clear that the projected budget surpluses would not materialize, the administration shifted to touting the tax cuts as a form of demand-side economic stimulus: by putting more money in consumers’ pockets, the tax cuts would stimulate spending and help pull the economy out of recession. By 2003, the rationale had changed again: the administration argued that reducing taxes on dividend income, the core of its plan, would improve incentives and hence long-run growth — that is, it had turned to a supply-side argument.

.. So what were the Bush tax cuts really about? The best answer seems to be that they were about securing a key part of the Republican base. Wealthy campaign contributors have a lot to gain from lower taxes, and since they aren’t very likely to depend on Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid, they won’t suffer if the beast gets starved. Equally important was the support of the party’s intelligentsia, nurtured by policy centers like Heritage and professionally committed to the tax-cut crusade. The original Bush tax-cut proposal was devised in late 1999 not to win votes in the national election but to fend off a primary challenge from the supply-sider Steve Forbes, the presumptive favorite of that part of the base.

..  the selling of the tax cuts has depended heavily on chicanery. The administration has used accounting trickery to hide the true budget impact of its proposals, and it has used misleading presentations to conceal the extent to which its tax cuts are tilted toward families with very high income.

.. The most important tool of accounting trickery, though not the only one, is the use of ”sunset clauses” to understate the long-term budget impact of tax cuts.

.. But, of course, nobody expects the sunset to occur: when 2011 rolls around, Congress will be under immense pressure to extend the tax cuts.

.. the administration has carried out a very successful campaign to portray these tax cuts as mainly aimed at middle-class families. This campaign is similar in spirit to the selling of estate-tax repeal as a populist measure, but considerably more sophisticated.

.. the 2001 tax cut, once fully phased in, will deliver 42 percent of its benefits to the top 1 percent of the income distribution.

.. It might seem impossible to put a populist gloss on tax cuts this skewed toward the rich, but the administration has been remarkably successful in doing just that.

.. One technique involves exploiting the public’s lack of statistical sophistication. In the selling of the 2003 tax cut, the catch phrase used by administration spokesmen was ”92 million Americans will receive an average tax cut of $1,083.’‘ That sounded, and was intended to sound, as if every American family would get $1,083. Needless to say, that wasn’t true.

.. About half of American families received a tax cut of less than $100; the great majority, a tax cut of less than $500.

.. David Stockman famously admitted that Reagan’s middle-class tax cuts were a ”Trojan horse” that allowed him to smuggle in what he really wanted, a cut in the top marginal rate.

.. If a couple had multiple children, if the children were all still under 18 and if the couple’s income was just high enough to allow it to take full advantage of the child credit, it could get a tax cut of as much as 4 percent of pretax income. Hence the couple with two children and an income of $40,000, receiving a tax cut of $1,600

.. But while most couples have children, at any given time only a small minority of families contains two or more children under 18 — and many of these families have income too low to take full advantage of the child tax credit. So that ”typical” family wasn’t typical at all. Last year, the actual tax break for families in the middle of the income distribution averaged $469, not $1,600.

.. through a combination of hardball politics, deceptive budget arithmetic and systematic misrepresentation of who benefits, Bush’s team has achieved a major reduction of taxes, especially for people with very high incomes.

.. Alan Auerbach, William Gale and Peter Orszag, fiscal experts at the Brookings Institution, have estimated the size of the ”fiscal gap” — the increase in revenues or reduction in spending that would be needed to make the nation’s finances sustainable in the long run. If you define the long run as 75 years, this gap turns out to be 4.5 percent of G.D.P. Or to put it another way, the gap is equal to 30 percent of what the federal government spends on all domestic programs. Of that gap, about 60 percent is the result of the Bush tax cuts. We would have faced a serious fiscal problem even if those tax cuts had never happened. But we face a much nastier problem now that they are in place. And more broadly, the tax-cut crusade will make it very hard for any future politicians to raise taxes.

So how will this gap be closed? The crucial point is that it cannot be closed without either fundamentally redefining the role of government or sharply raising taxes.

.. Politicians will, of course, promise to eliminate wasteful spending. But take out Social Security, Medicare, defense, Medicaid, government pensions, homeland security, interest on the public debt and veterans’ benefits — none of them what people who complain about waste usually have in mind — and you are left with spending equal to about 3 percent of gross domestic product. And most of that goes for courts, highways, education and other useful things. Any savings from elimination of waste and fraud will amount to little more than a rounding-off error.

.. Let’s assume that interest on the public debt will be paid, that spending on defense and homeland security will not be compromised and that the regular operations of government will continue to be financed. What we are left with, then, are the New Deal and Great Society programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. And to close the fiscal gap, spending on these programs would have to be cut by around 40 percent.

.. It goes almost without saying that the age at which Americans become eligible for retirement benefits would rise, that Social Security payments would fall sharply compared with average incomes, that Medicare patients would be forced to pay much more of their expenses out of pocket — or do without. And that would be only a start.

.. All this sounds politically impossible. In fact, politicians of both parties have been scrambling to expand, not reduce, Medicare benefits by adding prescription drug coverage

.. I think within a decade, though not everyone agrees — the bond market will tell us that we have to make a choice.

In short, everything is going according to plan.

.. Some supporters of President Bush may have really believed that his tax cuts were consistent with his promises to protect Social Security and expand Medicare; some people may still believe that the wondrous supply-side effects of tax cuts will make the budget deficit disappear. But for starve-the-beast tax-cutters, the coming crunch is exactly what they had in mind.

.. In Norquist’s vision, America a couple of decades from now will be a place in which

  • elderly people make up a disproportionate share of the poor, as they did before Social Security. It will also be a country in which
  • even middle-class elderly Americans are, in many cases, unable to afford expensive medical procedures or prescription drugs and in which
  • poor Americans generally go without even basic health care. And it may well be a place in which only
  • those who can afford expensive private schools can give their children a decent education.

Kennedy Retires — It’s On!

Whoever accepts President Trump’s call for the nomination will be one of the bravest men or women in public life, because he or she is going to be attacked with unrelenting fury from the Left.

.. For a lot of white evangelicals, this moment was worth every migrant child forever traumatized, every refugee family denied safety, every sexual assault victim betrayed, every white nationalist emboldened, every lie told. These are the ends that justified the means.

.. Bears repeating: Had Clinton won, she’d likely have replaced Scalia, Kennedy, and eventually Ginsburg (85) and Breyer (79). -That’d make six relatively young liberal justices and a lasting majority. -Now, it’ll be five conservatives, all 70 and under.

.. (Chuck Schumer quite understandably called on McConnell to follow the same policy he did to deny Merrick Garland a hearing in an election year. McConnell, a hardballer if ever there was one, quite understandably didn’t take this seriously.)

.. If Trump is re-elected in 2020, and he still has a Republican Senate, there is a decent chance that he could leave office with a 7-2 conservative majority.

.. First, the hearings could well be a catalyst for real violence

..  Let’s revisit this January piece from National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty:

I’ve started to think that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy may be the one man preventing the United States from political breakdown.

.. both sides have reason to pity themselves as the losers of the [political] system. Partisan Democrats, with some justification, feel that the constitutional system favors dirt (geography), so it rewards Republicans with too many senators and even electoral votes than they would otherwise win. Many partisan Republicans also feel that their votes go for naught, and that elites in the media, donor class, and social scene of Washington, D.C., constantly make Republicans under-deliver on their promises.

.. Kennedy deals out victories and defeats to each side — giving slightly more defeats to social conservatives. In effect, he constrains what each side can do to the other. His mercurial jurisprudence replicates and even gives the savor of legitimacy to a closely divided country.

.. So I’ve started to worry that if the Court soon consolidates to the left or the right, partisans on the losing end of that bargain will swiftly lose faith in democracy itself. A non-swinging Supreme Court would give the impression of super-charging the ability of one party to act, and restraining its competitor. A consolidated Supreme Court could open up whole new fields of legislation for one side to act against the other. At that point, what would happen?

.. Overturning Roe would only mean that regulating abortion returns to the states. If you live in a socially liberal state now, you don’t have anything to worry about. That’s not going to make you happy, but it’s not Armageddon. And there is no realistic chance that Obergefell will be overturned. But even if it were, again, that only means that the gay marriage question devolves to the states. Gay marriage is overwhelmingly popular. There might be a handful of Southern states (plus Utah) that might vote against it, in a popular referendum. But even they would fall eventually. Same-sex marriage isn’t an issue for younger voters, who support it by a wide margin.

.. Kennedy retiring is where the Roy Moore own goal really, really hurts. We now only have 51 votes, but two of those are Murkowski and Susan Collins, who will likely be reluctant to support a 5th pro-life justice. Mitch will have to put the screws on to get to 50.

.. However, had Hillary Clinton won, conservatives would be in the same miserable position today as liberals are.

It is not at all healthy for the republic that the Supreme Court matters so much. But we are where we are.

President Trump, Deal Maker? Not So Fast

His 17 months in office have in fact been an exercise in futility for the art-of-the-deal president.

  1. No deal on immigration.
  2. No deal on health care.
  3. No deal on gun control.
  4. No deal on spending cuts.
  5. No deal on Nafta.
  6. No deal on China trade.
  7. No deal on steel and aluminum imports.
  8. No deal on Middle East peace.
  9. No deal on the Qatar blockade.
  10. No deal on Syria.
  11. No deal on Russia.
  12. No deal on Iran.
  13. No deal on climate change.
  14. No deal on Pacific trade.

.. Even routine deals sometimes elude Mr. Trump, or he chooses to blow them up.

.. “Trump is an anarchist,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, who became a sharp critic. “It was his approach in business, it is his approach as president. It does not take good negotiating skills to cause chaos. Will this ever lead to concessions? Maybe, but concessions to what? Not anything that resembles a deal. I just do not see him getting much done.”

.. I don’t think it’s that counterintuitive to say that playing hardball will lead to better trade deals eventually,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former aide to Mr. Trump.

.. We’ll see what the final outcome is, but it’s already a success just to get them to the table.”

.. the major tax-cutting package that passed late last year. But even that was negotiated mainly by Republican lawmakers, who said Mr. Trump did not seem engaged in the details.

.. And as legislative challenges go, handing out tax cuts without paying for them is not exactly the hardest thing that politicians do.

.. In effect, the agreement with Mr. Kim is like a deal to sell parts of Trump Tower without settling on a price, date, inspection or financing. It is not nearly as advanced as agreements that President Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush made with North Korea, both of which ultimately collapsed.

.. But no modern president has sold himself on the promise of negotiating skills more than Mr. Trump has. He regularly boasts that deals will be “easy” and “quick” and the best ever.

.. He has pulled out of Mr. Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, Paris climate accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, but promises to negotiate better versions of those deal have gone nowhere.

.. Mr. Trump set his sights on what he called “the ultimate deal,” meaning peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. He said it was “frankly maybe not as difficult as people have thought.” A year later, his team is only now preparing to release a plan.

.. “What the president seemingly fails to understand is that in foreign policy and in trade policy — unlike in real estate transactions — the parties are all repeat players,” 

.. “The country you insult or seek undue advantage over today you will have to work with again tomorrow.”

.. Mr. Trump’s approach so far has been to make expansive demands and apply as much pressure as he can. He argues that crushing sanctions he imposed on North Korea forced Mr. Kim to meet. He now hopes to extract concessions from China, Canada and Europe after slapping punishing tariffs on them.

.. “Trump is a bilateral player, in part because that’s what he is used to from his building days, but also because he keeps himself the king, the decider, the strongman,” said Wendy Sherman, who was Mr. Obama’s lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal. “In the case of North Korea, however, he wouldn’t have gotten this far — which isn’t all that far — without the South Koreans or the Chinese.”

..  When he gave up on immigration on Friday, he blamed it on Senate Democrats, even though the immediate impasse was among House Republicans who do not need the other party to pass a bill.

.. “Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,”

.. It was in effect an acknowledgment by Mr. Trump that he cannot reach across the aisle and can only govern with Republicans.

.. the challenge on immigration is that the president has to grapple not just with Democrats but also with Republicans who do not share his philosophy on the issue.

.. Mr. O’Donnell, the former casino president, said Mr. Trump has always oversold his deal-making skills. The casino he managed, Mr. O’Donnell noted, brought in $100 million a year yet still went bankrupt.

.. “The fact is, Trump casinos should have been one of the greatest success stories in the history of casino gambling, but bad deal making caused him to lose all three properties,” he said.

One Thing Donald Trump Would Like Is Freedom From the Press

More than any president in living memory, Donald Trump has conducted a dogged, remorseless assault on the press. He portrays the news media not only as a dedicated adversary of his administration but of the entire body politic. These attacks have forced the media where it does not want to be, at the center of the political debate.

Trump’s purpose is clear. He seeks to weaken an institution that serves to constrain the abusive exercise of executive authority.

.. He has described news organizations as “the enemy of the American people.” He has routinely called reporters“scum,” “slime,” “dishonest” and “disgusting.”

.. Rosen observed that the history of right-wing attacks on the media

extends back through Agnew’s speeches for Nixon to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 and winds forward through William Rushertalk radio, and of course Fox News, which founded a business model on liberal bias.

Trump is not just attacking the press but the conditions that make it possible for news reports to serve as any kind of check on power.

.. From undue influence (Agnew’s claim) to something closer to treason (enemy of the people.) Instead of criticizing ‘the media’ for unfair treatment, he whips up hatred for it.

.. Trump has some built-in advantages in his war on the media. Confidence in the media was in decline long before Trump entered politics

..  in September 2017 that 37 percent of the public had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the mass media, down from 53 percent in 1997.

.. The Trump administration, with a rhetoric that began during the campaign and burgeoned in the earliest days of Donald Trump’s presidency, has engaged in enemy construction of the press, and the risks that accompany that categorization are grave.

.. Insofar as Trump succeeds in “undercutting the watchdog, educator, and proxy functions of the press,” they write, it

leaves the administration more capable of delegitimizing other institutions and constructing other enemies — including

  • the judiciary,
  • the intelligence community,
  • immigrants, and
  • members of certain races or religions.

.. Trump is signaling — through his terminology, through his delegitimizing actions, and through his anticipatory undercutting — that the press is literally the enemy, to be distrusted, ignored, and excluded.

.. motivate it to want to call out the changing norms that it sees around it, and to defend the role of important democratic institutions when they are attacked. But when the press is itself one of those institutions, it finds itself a part of the story in ways that it is unaccustomed to being, and it has to weigh the potential loss of credibility that might come with an aggressive self-defense.

.. “The best way for the press to react to Trump’s undemocratic behavior is to continue trying to do their jobs the best they can,”

.. Ladd specifically warned against “reacting to Trump by becoming more crusadingly anti-Trump.”

Trump has successfully “put the mainstream media in a difficult position,” according to Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago:

If the media directly address the accusations of fake news, they ironically run the risk of dignifying the accusations. But if they ignore the accusations, they miss the opportunity to prove their professionalism to those who have grown skeptical.

.. Trump’s disdain for the First Amendment is an integral part of a much longer series of developments in which both parties have demonstrated a willingness to defy democratic norms, although the Republican Party has been in the forefront.

For a quarter of a century, Republican officials have been more willing than Democratic officials to play constitutional hardball — not only or primarily on judicial nominations but across a range of spheres. Democrats have also availed themselves of hardball throughout this period, but not with the same frequency or intensity.

.. Fishkin and Pozen cite the work of Mark Tushnet, a professor at Harvard Law School, to define constitutional hardball as “political claims and practices”

that are without much question within the bounds of existing constitutional doctrine and practice but that are nonetheless in some tension with existing pre-constitutional understandings. Constitutional hardball tactics are viewed by the other side as provocative and unfair because they flout the ‘goes without saying’ assumptions that underpin working systems of constitutional government. Such tactics do not generally flout binding legal norms. But that only heightens the sense of foul play insofar as it insulates acts of hardball from judicial review.

Republicans on the far right, in particular, Fishkin and Pozen write, have been willing to engage in constitutional hardball because they are drawn to “narratives of debasement and restoration,” which suggest

that something has gone fundamentally awry in the republic, on the order of an existential crisis, and that unpatriotic liberals have allowed or caused it to happen.

The severity of the liberal threat, in the eyes of these conservatives, justifies extreme steps to restore what they see as a besieged moral order.

.. As with so many things about President Trump, it strikes me that he didn’t start the fire. He got into office because it was already burning and now he’s pouring on gasoline.

.. Accusations that the press has a political agenda can, perversely, help create an agenda which is then said to corroborate the accusations.

.. Pozen described Trump’s denunciation of the press as “the culmination of several decades of comparable attacks by media pundits, such as Rush Limbaugh” and he argues that Trump’s calls

to lock up one’s general election opponent, encouraging online hate mobs, lying constantly, attacking the press constantly, contradicting oneself constantly, undermining the very idea of truth are individually and in common potentially profound threats to the integrity and quality of our system of free expression.