Ever since he unveiled it on the campaign trail, President Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” has prompted an obvious question: When exactly was this mythical period when America was last great?
At last we know the answer: the 1980s.
When it comes to aesthetics or general world outlook, the Greed Is Good decade was clearly Trump’s formative period.
Wanna look classy? Slather your residence in gold, spangle it with chandeliers. Wanna convince strangers that you’re important? Pretend to be on the cover of Time magazine, still the greatest honor a person can achieve.
Trump’s cultural touchstones remain Roy Cohn and Chachi. He uses the phrase “inner city” to mean “violent hellscape,” not seeming to realize that New York’s “inner city” today is less “Bonfire of the Vanities” and more bone-broth shops and spin studios.
But Trump’s ’80s ethos is more than merely cosmetic. It affects his, and his party’s, most significant policies as well.
Take the GOP economic agenda, which has not been updated in (at least) 30 years.
Supply-siders still run the show, championing tax cuts as a growth elixir while conveniently ignoring their track record. All Trump and his cronies seem to remember is that there was this one time when Ronald Reagan cut taxes, and then … the economy grew.
They seem to have missed the role that monetary policy and the business cycle played in that mid-’80s growth spurt. Not to mention all the other changes in tax rates over the past century, in both directions, that reveal no discernible relationship between tax levels and long-term growth.
Hence the GOP’s big unfunded tax cut, on the promise we’ll grow our way out of the expense. And when that doesn’t happen, whom will Trump and Republicans blame for emptying the public purse?
Why, Reagan’s favorite villain: the welfare queen!
The GOP has already begun this scapegoating, in fact. Last week Trump issued an executive order directing federal agencies to strengthen or create new work requirements for safety-net programs such as Medicaid and housing subsidies. House Republicans likewise introduced a farm bill that would make it harder for adults who aren’t working to get food stamps.
This despite the fact that we enacted similar “welfare reform” two decades ago, under President Bill Clinton. Poverty researchers have generally concluded that this effort left people in deep poverty more financially insecure, especially during downturns. That’s in part because benefit recipients who are not working are often unable, rather than unwilling, to find work.
But never mind all that. The image of the loafing, grifting welfare queen endures.
In Trump’s ’80s-shaped world, Berlin-style border walls are in vogue. An arms race is something you only pretend to lament.
But perhaps most troubling of all the ’80s-era zombie ideas are those related to the War on Drugs.
Trump and allies want to solve the opioid epidemic by arresting our way out of it (in addition to teaching kids to “just say no,” of course). This means ramping up potential punishments for drug crimes, such as by imposing new mandatory minimum sentences on people trafficking or distributing fentanyl, as Senate Republicans are considering; or seeking the death penalty in drug trafficking cases, as Trump recently directed the Justice Department to do where “appropriate under current law.”
No matter that such tough-on-crime policies contributed to today’s incarceration crisis. Or that public-health research has shown that more severe punishment does little to deter crime or make it more expensive to obtain illicit drugs.
Grafting these ’80s-era policies onto today’s crisis makes especially little sense when you consider how many opioid addicts first got hooked due to a legal prescription. Are we going to execute pharmacists and emergency room doctors, too?
Somehow the Party of Ideas stopped coming up with them circa, oh, 1987. The question is: Why?
Well, arguably, this is what happens when you’re no longer advised by experts, of any political persuasion.
One core function of social science research is to measure and document consequences of policies, both intended and unintended. And not surprisingly, it turns out we’ve learned a lot in the past few decades about drugs, crime, poverty, the economy, international relations and all manner of other issues.
Over several decades, Republicans have become increasingly hostile to expertise, a hostility that blossomed into outright denunciation last year. Rather than consulting people who’ve researched any of this stuff, or even read any of that research, Trump prefers to craft policy based on things he vaguely remembers reading, perhaps in a tabloid, some 30 years ago.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.