When President Trump is paying attention, he thinks we’re all Keynesians now.
“We’re also going to prime the pump,” he recently told the New York Times’s Robert Draper, by which he means that the government is going to “spend money to make a lot more money in the future.” That, he explained, is what will get the economy “going, and going big league, and having the jobs coming in and the taxes that will be cut very substantially and the regulations that’ll be going.”
Now, it’s hard to say what exactly Trump has in mind here, as it’s not clear he himself does. What he seems to be saying, though, is that the government needs to spend more for the economy to grow more, which, given what we know about the kinds of things he supports, would probably mean investing a lot more in defense and infrastructure. But at the same time, he couldn’t take too much out of everything else, because the whole idea is that the government would be spending more in total. Not that he seems to understand this, as we’ll get to in a minute, when his budget would cut enough old spending to balance out all the new spending he’s proposing.
But this is getting a little ahead of ourselves. As is the case whenever Trump talks about policy, the relevant questions are whether he actually means it, and whether Republicans in Congress would go along if he did.
Let’s take those in reverse order. Members of Congress are the only ones who can follow through on Trump’s kind-of, sort-of promise to “spend more money to make a lot more money,” but that might be too hypocritical even for them. Now, on the one hand, Republicans have always had a double standard when it comes to the deficit. They treat it like an existential threat to the republic when they don’t control the White House, but an afterthought when they do — especially if it’s the result of one of their big, beautiful tax cuts. Indeed, even Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), the leader of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, has said that, as a “fiscal conservative,” he’d be okay with tax cuts that aren’t “fully offset” by spending cuts or other revenue increases. Never mind that those words don’t mean what he thinks they mean. The point is that the GOP won’t have any problem with half of Trump’s deficit-increasing agenda.
But, on the other hand, so many Republicans have convinced themselves that the road to hell is paved with too much spending that they wouldn’t green-light any more of it even if Ronald Reagan’s ghost came back to tell them to build that border wall. It’s not just that the Grover Norquist wing of the party wants to shrink the government below bathtub size. It’s that their activists have tried to come up with some story they can tell themselves about what went wrong during the George W. Bush years that doesn’t involve the words “Iraq” or “Wall Street,” and spending is the one they’ve settled on. Back then, Republicans in Congress rubber-stamped Bush’s unfunded expansion of the welfare state (Medicare Part D) and the security state (the Department of Homeland Security). It was this betrayal of principles, they believe, that made Bush so unpopular, and it’s something that at least the most ideological of them don’t want to repeat. That’s why the House Freedom Caucus prevented House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) from passing any of what they deemed insufficiently austere budgets last year, and why they would like to see further cuts than the ones Trump has proposed, particularly to entitlements.
And that brings us to what has been the defining feature of the Trump presidency. For all his populist talk, Trump doesn’t know, care, or follow policy well enough to make any of it actually happen. He might say that he supports Keynesian stimulus, but his budget wouldn’t increase spending, and, in fact, would impose deeply unrealistic cuts to everything but the Defense Department. He might say that he wants “insurance for everybody,” but his health-care plan would have taken it away from 24 million people, including a lot of the older and poorer folks who propelled him to the presidency. And he might say that he’ll rip up our trade agreements and replace them with great, great deals, but he has just made minor tweaks to them instead.
So although it may not be hard to imagine Trump getting into the budgetary equivalent of trench warfare with House Republicans, that would depend on him first realizing that his own plan doesn’t increase spending, then insisting that his new one actually do so, and finally following through with a more detailed legislative strategy than just sending a few mean tweets to try to get Congress to pass it. In other words, an alternative fact. In the real world we live in, Trump just doesn’t seem to have the intellectual stamina to do anything other than send 140-character book reports on whatever cable news show he’s watching.
Trump isn’t really a Keynesian. He just plays one on TV.