Imagine for a moment a scheme in which American taxpayers were taken to the cleaners to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars and there was barely a hint of criticism or outrage. Imagine as well that the White House and a majority of the politicians in Washington, no matter the party, acquiesced in the arrangement. In fact, the annual quest to boost Pentagon spending into the stratosphere regularly follows that very scenario, assisted by predictions of imminent doom from industry-funded hawks with a vested interest in increased military outlays.
Most Americans are probably aware that the Pentagon spends a lot of money, but it’s unlikely they grasp just how huge those sums really are. All too often, astonishingly lavish military budgets are treated as if they were part of the natural order, like death or taxes.
The figures contained in the recent budget deal that kept Congress open, as well as in President Trump’s budget proposal for 2019, are a case in point: $700 billion for the Pentagon and related programs in 2018 and $716 billion the following year. Remarkably, such numbers far exceeded even the Pentagon’s own expansive expectations. According to Donald Trump, admittedly not the most reliable source in all cases, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly said, “Wow, I can’t believe we got everything we wanted”—a rare admission from the head of an organization whose only response to virtually any budget proposal is to ask for more.
The public reaction to such staggering Pentagon budget hikes was muted, to put it mildly. Unlike last year’s tax giveaway to the rich, throwing near-record amounts of tax dollars at the Department of Defense generated no visible public outrage. Yet those tax cuts and Pentagon increases are closely related. The Trump administration’s pairing of the two mimics the failed approach of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s—only more so. It’s a phenomenon I’ve termed “Reaganomics on steroids.” Reagan’s approach yielded oceans of red ink and a severe weakening of the social safety net. It also provoked such a strong pushback that he later backtracked by raising taxes and set the stage for sharp reductions in nuclear weapons.
Donald Trump’s retrograde policies on immigration, women’s rights, racial justice, LGBT rights, and economic inequality have spawned an impressive and growing resistance. It remains to be seen whether his generous treatment of the Pentagon at the expense of basic human needs will spur a similar backlash.
Of course, it’s hard to even get a bead on what’s being lavished on the Pentagon when much of the media coverage failed to drive home just how enormous these sums actually are. A rare exception was an Associated Press story headlined “Congress, Trump Give the Pentagon a Budget the Likes of Which It Has Never Seen.” This was certainly far closer to the truth than claims like that of Mackenzie Eaglen of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which over the years has housed such uber-hawks as Dick Cheney and John Bolton. She described the new budget as a “modest year-on-year increase.” If that’s the case, one shudders to think what an immodest increase might look like.