There is no 'third rail' in Trump's cult of personality
Donald Trump’s proposed budget for upcoming years guts Social Security and Medicare. It cuts the core of the Centers for Disease Control despite the looming threat of a pandemic. It leaves behind only enough of the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee the unraveling of four decades of progress. And, most importantly, it makes permanent the idea that billionaires and corporations need never again worry their busy heads about taxes. Anyone upset that Amazon or Exxon paid $0 in taxes in 2019 can just multiply that number by infinity. Because in this kleptocracy, with great power comes no damn responsibility at all.
For decades, Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics, after the dangerous high-voltage line in the New York City subways: Touch it and die. But while it might seem reasonable that Trump supporters might back away from the suggestion that they surrender their own futures to poverty and their children to relabeled indentured servitude … they won’t. Of course they won’t. In a cult of personality, there is no third rail.
Crushing the social safety net isn’t just the realization of an authoritarian dream; it’s the political equivalent of Trump’s Fifth Avenue claims. He can shoot people’s financial security, and they won’t just forgive him for it—they’ll thank him.
Who are they going to believe, their own lying eyes or Donald Trump? That’s not even a contest. When Trump issues a call of “fake news” or “crazy Nancy,” it’s treated like a call from the pulpit of the responder’s church. The response it generates is every bit as fervid.
Even before the election, Trump recognized the difference between the support he enjoyed and the experience of any other politician. Elizabeth Warren might have found her numbers dipping when opponents attacked details of her healthcare plan. Trump would never face such an issue—because he doesn’t have issues. He could tell the American people tomorrow that his plan calls for bad health care, for no health care, or for requisite snake-handling. It would not make a 2% difference in his approval rating. That is not how his support works.
From the moment he landed at the White House, Trump has been probing the limits, just to see how far that support will flex. Can he pardon people obviously guilty of crimes because they said nice things about him? Of course he can. Can he spend a third of his time on the golf course after campaigning on the idea that he would be too busy to ever take a day off? Don’t even ask. Can he fire the director of the FBI and call him a criminal? Please do. Can he use his office to extort foreign allies? Sure. For political dirt? Why not. To cheat in the next election? Go for it!
Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about stepping over the line on positions, or going against Republicans’ core beliefs, because the Republican Party no longer has those. It has no underlying theme, no central message, no framework of ideas. It is free, utterly free … so long as it understands that means absolute obedience to Trump. And a majority of Republicans in the House and Senate understand that very, very well.
That Trump is offering a budget that savages those things Americans say they hold most dear should be a concern to him, and to everyone allied with him. It’s not. After all, poll after poll has demonstrated that when it comes to political positions, the majority agrees with Democrats on every point.
Trump’s budget should be an issue. If the nation still has those. Because what remains of American democracy is only exactly as much as Trump allows.