This passage in Michael Grunwald’s Politico piece on Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s OMB director, nicely illustrates standard Republican shadiness about what does and does not count as “welfare”:
During his populist run for the White House, Trump had vowed to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. But Trump had also vowed to rein in America’s national debt, which Mulvaney didn’t think was possible without reining in the two biggest chunks of the federal budget. So Mick the Knife brought a cut list to his meeting in the Oval.
“Look, this is my idea on how to reform Social Security,” the former South Carolina congressman began.
“No!” the president replied. “I told people we wouldn’t do that. What’s next?”
“Well, here are some Medicare reforms,” Mulvaney said.
“No!” Trump repeated. “I’m not doing that.”
“OK, disability insurance.”
This was a clever twist. Mulvaney was talking about the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which, as its full name indicates, is part of Social Security. But Americans don’t tend to think of it as Social Security, and its 11 million beneficiaries are not the senior citizens who tend to support Trump.
“Tell me about that,” Trump replied.
“It’s welfare,” Mulvaney said.
“OK, we can fix welfare,” Trump declared.
First, Trump is … not bright.
Second, the standard conservative mental model of “welfare” is that it consists of government transfers that don’t go to older white people, who vote overwhelmingly Republican. Of course, Social Security (the non-SSDI part) and Medicare alone consume more than 1/3 of the annual budget. The main beneficiary of the welfare state is older white Republicans—by a long shot. The fact that the welfare state, fairly defined, is actually wildly popular with the GOP base is a huge problem for ideological “small government” dogmatists like Mulvaney. If you think the secret sauce of freedom and booming economic performance is a much lower level of tax-financed government spending, there’s no alternative to furiously hacking away at Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and SSDI with a hatchet. Taken together, they’re half the federal budget:
The tension between electoral necessity and ideological motivation leads small-government supply-siders to shamelessly equivocate on the meaning of “welfare.” When speaking to their older, white base, right-wing politicians code “welfare”as government checks for poor brown people, not as the expensive major entitlements, or the tax breaks, that are mainly enjoyed by white Republicans. Of course, public assistance for the less-white poor is relatively trivial stuff, budget-wise. Melissa Kearney, an economist at the University of Maryland, observes that, “Spending on cash and near-cash transfer programs to low-income families comprises less than 5 percent of the federal budget,” as the chart above (from Kearney) makes clear. Which is why, when criticizing “the welfare state” as a source of growth-killing tax larceny, our shady right-wing Mulvaneys quietly smuggle the white welfare-state back in. They have to. That’s where nearly all the “big government” spending is.
The Politico excerpt is so instructive because it shows Mulvaney duping Trump with this venerable GOP three-card-monte trick. Let’s also stop to note the connection between Trump’s white-identity politics and Mulvaney’s small-government zealotry. Because the actual welfare state is so popular with old white Republican people, the most reliable way for ideological opponents of the welfare state to drive opposition to it is by encouraging the idea that it amounts to the systemic exploitation of hard-working whites by shiftless brown people, which then suggests that beating back the welfare state would benefit whites as a group—though of course it wouldn’t, since they’re its primary beneficiaries. Mulvaney’s spending preferences are clearly at odds with Trump’s big-spending, populist, bread-and-circuses instincts. But the racialized bait-and-switch about what is and is not “welfare,” perfected over decades by small-government ideologues likes of Mulvaney, helped make Trump’s overt white-identity politics possible.