It’s hard to admit, but President Donald Trump has triggered progress on a long-simmering issue: economic inequality.
The notion that the rich ― billionaires in particular ― have too much at the expense of too many has taken off in recent weeks. There’s talk of “banning billionaires,” and in the U.S. there are serious ― and popular ― policy proposals looking at how to raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy, most notably from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Americans have actually long supported raising taxes on the wealthy, surveys show. But for years, the ultra-rich, Republicans and anti-tax extremists like Grover Norquist have kept that popular sentiment at bay, partly with rhetoric about freedom and partly by philanthropic deeds, not to mention good PR to portray themselves as benevolent, self-made geniuses.
Now that Trump’s in office. The tide has turned.
“The current occupant of the White House has rather taken the sheen off the billionaires,” said Justin Wolfers, an economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s easier today to believe that a bunch of them are grifters rather than the value-creating entrepreneurs that we might hope for.”
In the past, Americans wanted to tax the rich to pay for specific policies. These days, the reasoning goes that taxing the ultra-wealthy will tamp down extreme inequality, said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor at Michigan State University.
“You’re seeing more willingness to say it’s just a moral issue that someone shouldn’t start out with that much of an advantage in life,” he said.
The recent popularity of tax-the-rich policies isn’t simply a reaction to Trump, Grossman added, but part of a natural tendency in American politics for public opinion to swing in opposition to whichever party is in power. “Public opinion moves ‘thermostatically,’” he said. “When Republicans are in office and policy moves to the right, public opinion moves leftward.”
Still, it’s fair to say that the Democratic Party’s reaction to Trump has been more extreme than it would’ve been under, say, a President Jeb Bush. Trump has energized progressives on issues, like women’s rights, in resistance to the president, which has inspired record numbers of women to run for office. He’s also been a catalyst for environmental issues, in a way. Before Trump took office, activists and scientists had trouble getting attention for climate issues, but now it’s become much easier, in part thanks to opposition to Trump, FiveThirtyEight recently reported.
Of course, there are a host of other non-Trump reasons why tax-the-rich ideas are taking off now, including a rise in economic inequality that is hard to ignore and the work of economists, such as Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who’ve been able to demonstrate, with hard data, how bad the situation has become.
There’s also the lingering effects of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, which pushed Democrats to the left on these issues. Sanders proposed raising taxes on wealthy Americans and railed against income inequality.
And outrage over inequality really hasn’t gone away since the Great Recession a decade ago led to the protests of Occupy Wall Street.
In the background, as these longer-term trends play out, is our super-rich president and his super-rich Cabinet. They’ve demonstrated repeatedly how out of touch they are with regular people.
Most recently, during the partial government shutdown, the multimillionaire (and reported grifter) Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had his “let them eat cake” moment when he told CNBC that he couldn’t understand why furloughed workers would go to food banks when they could instead get loans to carry them through the loss of pay.
Trump himself helped further along the out-of-touch narrative by claiming that grocery stores would work with these unpaid government employees to help them get food if they were short on cash.
Former Goldman Sachs executive and millionaire Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s wife, Louise Linton, caught flak in 2017 for comments she made online essentially boasting about the taxes she and her husband pay. “Pretty sure the amount we sacrifice per year is a lot more than you’d be willing to sacrifice if the choice was yours,” she commented on an Instagram post, responding to someone who had criticized her.
Beyond image, keep in mind that Trump’s singular policy achievement is a massive tax cut that has mostly benefited corporations. Bloomberg recently reported that the nation’s largest banks got a $21 billion “windfall” from the legislation but wound up cutting employees anyway.
Finally, Trump’s set himself apart from all other modern presidents by keeping his tax returns private ― inadvertently perhaps shining a light on how the rich often get away with not paying their fair share.
“Politicians can come to embody problems that exist,” said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University. “The president all of a sudden becomes a walking reminder of the issue.”