Donald Trump used his first Joint Address to the Congress of the United States to engage in an unprecedented flight of fiscal fantasy. Specifically, the president imagined that the United States could cut taxes for wealthy Americans and corporations, rip tens of billions of dollars out of domestic programs (and diplomacy), hand that money over to the military-industrial complex, and somehow remain a functional and genuinely strong nation.
Trump did not articulate this agenda quite so bluntly. His hour-long speech was far more traditional and temperate in character than his ballistic inaugural address. The themes were, for the most part, predictable: “construction of a great wall along our southern border,” “vetting procedures,” “for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated,” “school choice,” “construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines.” The rhetoric was, by the standards of this presidency, disciplined. But the specifics were few. Only toward the end did the president get precise, saying, “I am sending the Congress a budget that rebuilds the military, eliminates the Defense sequester, and calls for one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
Trump was brought little precision to the task of explaining how he would pay for that increase—aside from mentioning the fact that he had “placed a hiring freeze on non-military and non-essential Federal workers.” But his administration has been very clear about its hope that the money will come from deep cuts to domestic programs.
This argument in favor of austerity for working families and munificence for military contractors (the president’s speech actually talked up Lockheed and “the fantastic new F-35 jet fighter”) is not exactly new. It has been a conservative mantra since the Grand Old Party purged itself of the “Modern Republicans” who clung to the vision of former President Dwight Eisenhower and made theirs a party of reaction rather than reason. But even Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush eschewed the budgetary extremism that Trump has embraced with an immediacy and a fervor that arrests any fantasy that a “billionaire populist” president might steer his adopted party back from the brink.
The “Budget Blueprint” that Trump took to Congress on Tuesday night did not plot a course to “make America great again.” It tipped the balance against greatness by making what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as “the last best hope of earth” into an ever more heavily militarized state that will not care for its own.