A lot of people are scared by the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. But the reality of a Trump White House, as envisioned by House speaker Paul Ryan, could be even more frightening than we realize.
Though the Republican representative was once a Trump holdout, Ryan is now getting ready to hit the campaign trail with the GOP nominee. To shore up support for Trump among business conservatives, Ryan is pitching the Donald as the key to unified government in Washington—the last piece of the puzzle to unencumbered conservative lawmaking.
“I’m tired of divided government. It doesn’t work very well,” Ryan said recently at a Washington forum. “We’ve gotten some good things done. But the big things—poverty, the debt crisis, the economy, health care—these things are stuck in divided government, and that’s why we think a unified Republican government’s the way to go.” Ryan isn’t going to let congressional Democrats stand in his way, either: he plans to rely on the powerful budgetary tool of reconciliation, allowing much of his agenda to override Democratic opposition with a simple majority vote. With the GOP already in control of Congress, all Ryan needs is a President Trump to shred America’s social safety net.
Ryan, of course, was the author of budget manifestos marking out the right’s governing vision during the Obama age. Among other things, Ryan hoped to voucherize Medicare and send seniors into the private insurance market. He wanted to liquidate Medicaid and cut the poor a tax credit instead. He’d shower the wealthy with some $6 trillion in tax cuts over the next decade, paid for with deep cuts to programs for the poor like food stamps and Pell Grants. At one time, he intended to partially privatize Social Security—a conservative dream deferred for the time being.
These ideas stood no chance of becoming law under President Obama. But they defined the conservative vision of a revamped social contract: personal responsibility (and personal risk) instead of a robust safety net, and freedom for wealthy “job creators” from trillions of dollars in stifling taxes.
With control over Congress, conservatives knew they only needed to elect a Republican president to turn Ryan’s vision into law. “All we have to do is replace Obama,” conservative activist Grover Norquist explained at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2012. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff.”
And then the GOP went and nominated Donald Trump. For a time, it looked as if Trump would throw a monkey wrench into these grand conservative plans. Trump’s nationalist campaign espoused a kind of welfare chauvinism, vowing to defend Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid from reformers’ cuts. And he was briefly wishy-washy on supply-side tax cuts.
But Trump has revealed himself to be a mostly anodyne force when it comes to conservative priorities. He released a revised budget-busting, coddle-the-rich, run-of-the-mill conservative tax plan. And the fact that he allegedly offered to delegate all foreign and domestic policy decision-making to John Kasich when he was considering him as running mate suggests that Trump may be ambivalent about policy outside of his core issues, like trade and immigration.
Trump’s ultimate vice-president pick, Indiana governor and former congressman Mike Pence, is fully on board with the Ryan agenda. While in Congress, Pence supported Ryan’s budget, and championed privatizing both Medicare and Social Security.
As the presidential campaign rolls on, Ryan and the House GOP have quietly laid the groundwork for legislating in 2017. In a series of policy papers called “A Better Way,” the lawmakers trotted out a litany of recycled conservative ideas. They would repeal Obamacare and replace it by simply providing less insurance. They would reform the tax code by giving 99.6% of their tax cut handouts to the wealthiest 1%. And they would tackle poverty by block-granting most current safety net spending to the states (and, for some reason, repealing the Obama administration’s rule requiring investment advisors to act in their clients’ best interest).
Ryan has his legislation teed up for 2017, and he’s ready to fast-track it through reconciliation. So if Republicans keep control of Congress, the Ryan blueprint could well sail to the president’s desk.
It all hinges on Trump. Now Ryan has pitched the volatile GOP front man and his own legislative program as a package deal. The Republican Party is on the precipice of enacting its entire agenda, so Ryan wants those conservatives who are made queasy by Trump to recognize that if they hold their noses and go out to vote for him, they’ll get Ryan’s vision, too.
Other voters need to recognize this as well. The dangerous and buffoonish nightmare of a Trump presidency would be compounded by a torrent of legislation destroying the social safety net and exacerbating inequality. A vote that helps Trump—be it for Trump himself, for a minor party, or not voting at all—also makes it that much likelier that Ryan’s Randian vision for the country becomes a reality.
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