A lot of noise has been made in the last few weeks about President Trump’s budget and the radical cuts it proposes. Facebook feeds have been flooded with memes about Meals on Wheels, Sesame Street, and other “easy” targets for liberal ire.
And to be fair, the Trumps seem to eagerly invite such ire. Mr. Trump has a long history of flaunting the sort of “in your face elegance” once reserved for only the classiest of strip clubs.
Trump: Building looks good, Pawel. Your crew of Polish undocumented workers does great work. I feel like it’s missing something. Let’s put my name on the outside in 30 foot tall block lettering.
Pawel: Excellent idea, Mr. Trump. I will get right on it.
Trump: Oh, and one more thing. Cover every square inch in gold. I want people who see this thinking, “Man, that Trump guy must be a yuge success. Where does he get all of this money? From Russian oligarchs? Wow!” or something to that effect.
Pawel: Sir, that wasn’t in the original plans, we will have to spend several million dollars more than we expected.
Trump: That’s okay, Pawel, I wasn’t going to pay you anyway…errr…I mean, I’m a man of my word, just get started and we’ll figure out the details later.
Donald Trump is flashy. It’s his style, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that style. When combined with a budget of austerity, however, that “look how rich I am” style can quickly come across as tone deaf toward the people affected by those austere measures.
Imagine a CEO telling the board of directors, “We don’t have enough money to go around right now, we have to lay off 20% of the employees just to stay afloat,” while giving himself a $20 million bonus. The CEO might have saved the shareholders $100 million and be totally worthy of that bonus under his own employment agreement. Or he might just be a giant asshole. Either is possible.
It would be understandable for a shareholder or an employee to scrutinize that CEO’s decision. In fact, it would be unreasonable for a shareholder or employee to turn a blind eye to such a move.
With that perspective, it makes sense that a president who travels weekly to Florida to play golf at his own resort, with massive security and support staff in tow, is causing a few sideways glances. After all, according to the President himself, 42% of the population is unemployed! It’s hard for us dregs of society to applaud the President’s well-earned day off when we’re busy scrounging through trashcans, fending off raccoons while looking for half-eaten sandwiches.
What’s interesting to me, however, is the sheer number of people dining on trashcan surprise out there who defend Mr. Trump’s 90’s rap star lifestyle. Perhaps it’s aspirational, a la “someday, we will also be rich like our hero!”1 Or maybe it’s the kind of defense you do when you’re so far down the rabbit trail that to do anything else would be admitting defeat.
“Heroin is made from poppies, so it’s natural, and that means it’s good for me. Anyone who disagrees with me is probably taking kickbacks from Monsanto.” – Me, just now.
Whenever people try to simplify things into the most sensational details (“Son of a bitch! Drumpf’s gonna kill off Sesame Street!”), my “alarm” goes off. Whenever everyone tells me I’m supposed to be mad about something, the little “dig deeper” light starts flashing on my brain’s dashboard. Sometimes, I stick a little bit of electrical tape over it and ignore it, hoping it goes away. In this case, “electrical tape” is a euphemism for vodka.
Other times, I start researching. This is one of those other times.
Mr. Trump’s proposed budget includes cuts to all but three departments: the Department of Veterans Affairs (+6%), the Department of Homeland Security (+7%), and the Department of Defense (+9%).
The Department of State (-29%), the EPA (-31%), the Department of Agriculture (-21%), and the Department of Labor (-21%) are among the largest proposed cuts.
This helps to flesh out where the priorities seem to lie: shore up national defense, veterans’ services, and protection against illegal immigration, and decrease funding for literally everything else. There’s nothing objectively wrong with that. Every president has priorities, and these are his stated ones. I disagree with them, but no one voted for me in this past presidential election, so there’s that.
Within those cuts, though, there are 62 agencies and programs that would be eliminated via $0 funding through this budget. Again, nothing inherently wrong with eliminating an agency – if it has run its course or proven to provide duplicative services, why shouldn’t we save that money or put it into another program?
My dig continued into what types of programs would suffer or be eliminated, and more interestingly, who those cuts would affect.
I found more than a few programs that will disproportionately affect the rural, white and poor – a demographic group that helped Trump achieve victory in 2016…and incidentally, the description that pops into my head when I think of “Trump voters.”2
Why does any of this matter? As a person who grew up in Trump country (long, long before it was Trump country), it seems that the folks out there seem to think that “federal spending” is code for spending money on undeserving (Black) people. They see the “liberal” (long hair commie hippie) agenda as one that favors (Mexican) liars and (Muslim) cheaters in the inner city over hard working white, Christian people out in the country.
Offer to “cut federal spending,” and your average Trump Voter hears “cut giveaways to welfare cheats and unemployed-but-healthy people sitting at home, watching Judge Judy while I work my ass off in the hot sun to pay for them.” And to be fair, the sun is indeed hot, so they have at least one fact correct.
The funny (tragic) thing is, “federal spending” encompasses money that helps make life easier for plenty of areas that are historically underserved when we leave decisions up to market forces alone.
And where are many of the “historically underserved” areas in our country? Yep, you guessed it. Rural America. Trump Country.
Since it’s hard to convince Bubba how cutting our diplomatic budget or our research into alternative fuels affects him, his cousin/bride, or the price of Copenhagen, here are a couple of ways that Mr. Trump’s budget will make life out on the dirt farms a little harder.
Essential Air Service ($175 million)
The proposed budget eliminates the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Simply put, EAS is a federal program that subsidizes airlines to fly to places that would not otherwise be served by commercial air service. The idea is that, left to pure market forces (because this was created in response to airline deregulation back in the ’70s), there would never be a profitable reason for American Airlines to fly to Bumblefuck, South Dakota.
I actually have a deep appreciation for the “invisible hand” of market forces, and a part of me (my rectum, mostly) says, “hey Bumblefuckians, if you want to fly on big metal birds, drive to a big city and get on one. Your choice to live in Bumblefuck is not my problem.”
Fortunately, my brain and heart are more important than my rectum (don’t tell my rectum that, though…I don’t want it going on strike. But the fact that you’re talking to my rectum is kind of weird in and of itself. I feel violated.)
Who gets EAS subsidies? Airlines. But who benefits from EAS subsidies? Arguably, the beneficiaries are residents of towns to which airlines wouldn’t fly, but for the subsidies. Places like Greenbrier, West Virginia. Pierre, South Dakota. Tupelo, Mississippi.
Not surprisingly, those same “underserved” parts of the country overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016. In fact, eight of the top-10 recipient airports of EAS supplement money were in states that cast their electoral votes for Donald Trump…nine if you count Maine, that splits its electoral votes. And that Maine airport, by the way, is in a county that voted 55.5% for Trump.
North Central West Virginia (NCWV) Airport is a beneficiary of EAS money. The airport is in Harrison County, West Virginia, about 106 miles from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. NCWV has received EAS subsidized flights for years. That has helped keep the economy growing in that area, such that despite the poor economic health of West Virginia overall, the north-central region of the state has done fairly well in the last few years.
Locals fear that is about to change. “Loss of air service would be a serious step backward that would certainly slow our economic growth,” said John Miller, executive editor of the local Exponent Telegram newspaper.
“In an election that saw the president and much of Congress swept into power by rural voters, the move to hamper small airports is a slap in the face,” Miller continues.
Surely those proud West Virginians who were being assisted by the federal government in this way would vote for a candidate who understood the feds’ role in supplementing the economies of underserved communities.
Or, maybe they’d be swayed to ignore that and vote for the guy who tells them the inner cities are crime-ridden cesspools and the Muslims and Mexicans are coming to get them.
Not surprisingly, Harrison County voted 67.1% for Trump
“’I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.” – Adrian Bott
It wasn’t hard to find similar stories in North Dakota (63% for Trump), Ohio (52% for Trump), Michigan (47.6% for Trump vs. 47.3% for Clinton, with 7 of the 8 counties with EAS supported airports going for Trump), and other places. EAS is a program that supports rural America precisely because “the market” will skip right over it, and rural America voted loudly for Trump.
Living in rural America and getting excited about cuts to federal spending, in this case, is kind of like getting tricked by an evil genie. You wished for a million bucks and now there are a million male deer in your house. You asked for it, and boy did you get it.
Or to paraphrase the oft-repeated phrase: you took Trump seriously about the cuts, but you should have taken him literally as well. You asked for federal spending cuts, and the evil genie gave them to you. He just happened to start with the ones that benefited you.
Appalachian Regional Commission ($119 million)
Next up on the “up yours, country folks” block: the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC. The ARC was founded in 1965 as a federal-state partnership between the US government and 13 states that house the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding lands. The purpose – and this will sound familiar – was to create economic opportunities in Appalachia and to improve the quality of life for its historically underserved residents.
How does ARC do that? By granting money to local programs for vocational training, building infrastructure to help businesses grow, training teachers, improving healthcare access – you name it. If you can broadly attach it back to “creating economic opportunities” and “improving quality of life,” ARC is probably helping fund it in these 13 states.
There’s a vocational training program in Winston County, Alabama, funded in large part (almost $750k) by ARC. It teaches machining, tool and die, and welding to Alabamans who need job training.
How about the Dream Discovery Center in Inez, Kentucky, which received a $392,000 grant to help achieve its mission of improving opportunities in STEM careers for local youth, and becoming a beacon for youth/education tourism in the future?
Another great one: Tyler Holmes Memorial Hospital in Winona, Mississippi, which received $180k from ARC to purchase mammography equipment.
If you left it up to the market to decide where to invest, where to educate, where to spend, do you think Winston County, Inez, and Winona would make it onto the list? If your primary goal was to increase shareholder value and avoid losing money, would you invest one penny in these “underserved” places? Doubtful, and as such, the feds pump relatively small amounts of money into these communities to help the Americans that live there get a fighting chance to make their way out of poverty.
And as the populations have better educations, better health, better opportunities, businesses see these formerly off-the-radar cities and counties as “diamond in the rough” investment opportunities.
When Donald Trump vowed to cut federal spending, it’s doubtful that the good people of these localities (and the hundreds of other communities receiving ARC money) envisioned their own programs getting shuttered. They must not have thought that, because 10 of the 13 states who receive ARC grant money cast their electoral votes for Donald Trump – the candidate who promised to cut federal spending.
Going back to my earlier premise: white, rural voters imagine “cutting federal spending” to mean cutting some vague social services programs that are illegitimately doled out to Black, urban dwellers. They don’t envision themselves.
Winston County, Alabama’s white and poor residents didn’t think Trump meant cutting their vocational training program. Cutting federal spending means cutting handouts to Black folks, right? Winston County is 97.3% white, with about 24% of the population living below the poverty line. Winston County voted 90% for Donald Trump. No exaggeration. Nine out of ten voters in a poor, rural, almost 100% white county voted for the guy who promised to cut federal programs.
Inez, Kentucky’s white and poor population didn’t think Trump meant cutting funding to their STEM training center. That’s not what cutting federal spending means – they all understand the dog whistle, he means cutting the welfare cheaters off. They thought, good for him, it’s about damned time! Inez is in Martin County, which is 99.3% white, with 37% of the population living below the poverty line. Martin County voted 87% for Donald Trump. Yep.
Winona, Mississippi’s white and poor folks knew he wasn’t talking about them when he talked about cuts. How fortunate to have a chance early detection of breast cancer in this underserved part of America. And hooray for Donald Trump, who’s riding into town to drain the swamp and fix our country’s budget! Can’t wait to see him kick all these moochers off of the public’s dime, right?! Winona, Mississippi, is in Montgomery County, which is only 53% white (a veritable multicultural oasis!) with 24% of the population living below the poverty line. Interestingly, Montgomery County voted 56% for Donald Trump…with a white population of 53%.
So in the end, the evil genie reared his head again. He squeezed his rotund midsection out of the lamp and granted Appalachia a wish. They wished for this blustering, angry genie to reflect their own anger, and to cut the “freeloaders” off at the knees. Wish granted, Mountain People.
These are just a few examples of now-doomed programs that directly benefitted the very people who cheered Trump’s slash-and-burn campaign rhetoric. There are so many more examples – within these programs, and within other programs and agencies – of program cuts and wholesale eliminations that will harm Trump’s base, rural Americans.
I’ll make a prediction. It’s not novel, necessarily, but it’s what I see coming down the pike.
Mr. Trump’s 7th grade-level Twitter habits, his non-existent diplomacy skills, and the mounting suspicion that his campaign might have been complicit in the Russian hacking scandal, are all bubbling just under the surface. They are driving a falling approval rating (at 37% most recently), which is starting to get into the territory where members of his own party will hedge their obligatory loyalties to him out of a sense of self-preservation.
The entire House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senate are up for re-election in about 19 months, meaning they’ll start campaigning in earnest in about 7 months.
GOP Representatives from rural congressional districts and GOP Senators from red states are going to have a tough call to make: align with the guy who gutted his or her district or state’s economy, or come out “bravely” as an independent thinking Republican who puts his or her constituents’ needs first.
At the risk of sounding cynical, here’s another way to put it: poor, white, rural voters get tricked into voting for a billionaire who turns out to not have their interests at heart. The voters figure that out, and they’re pissed. Rich, multi-term legislators come home spitting fire about the billionaire, and they leverage voters’ anger to get themselves re-elected. And the full extent of “representin’” they do when they get back to Washington is to echo repeatedly that, “I had the courage to stand up to Donald Trump.”
An even more cynical way to put it: poor, white, rural voters are easily duped into voting against their self-interest. You just have to appeal to their racism and provincial attitudes, and they’ll vote for whatever the loudest guy in the room tells them to. It’s very easy. Just ask the evil genie they put at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
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1 Trust me, no you won’t.
2 In the diorama in my head, “Trump voters” are usually standing in line at Walmart, yelling at the cashier because “I am a got-damned American and it is against my God-given constitutional rights for you to charge me sales tax on this economy size jug of off-brand Hawaiian Punch and 50 pound bag of kitty litter. My husband is a vet’ran, he didn’t go fight Osama bin Laden so your ass could steal my money in my own country. I will sue you! I have rights! Are you even from this country? I want to speak to your manager! JUNIOR! Get your stupid ass down from that beach ball display!” Or something like that.