God, Cocaine, Money and Forgetting: A Look at Donald Trump's New Economic Adviser

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Larry Kudlow, a CNBC commentator, speaks about the economy during a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation on December 18, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

Updated | The story of the man who might rewrite America’s tax plan if Donald Trump is elected is, as the mogul might say, really, really fantastic, just terrific.

It’s a story of God, cocaine, money and forgetting—but maybe not in that order. Born at the beginning of the baby boom in 1947, Lawrence Alan "Larry" Kudlow—whom Trump recently turned to for a revision of his tax package—grew up to be lefty, hairy and against the Vietnam War. He worked on Democratic political campaigns alongside Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton future campaign chairman John Podesta before he had his first conversion, veered hard right and soon found himself working in Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget.

After this stint in D.C., Kudlow returned to the private sector in 1987, headed to Wall Street and spent some years like every other debauched executive with an excess of cash and a waterbed in the tail end of the Me Decade: on weeklong cocaine binges. His drug problem caused him to resign from the investment bank Bear Stearns in 1994.

Conservative intellectual godfather William Buckley, never one to let a fine right-wing mind go to waste, soon scooped him off the sidewalk and appointed him senior economics editor at National Review, the nation’s preeminent conservative publication. 

“I loved that, because of National Review’s intellectual atmosphere and interesting people,” Kudlow told the Catholic publication Crisis Magazine in 2000. “And there is a certain Catholicism that permeates the place.”

But Kudlow kept drinking and snorting, and National Review fired him after a year. He hit rock bottom in 1995 and shipped out for five months in a Minnesota rehab. There, he ditched the coke and booze for good. Upon leaving rehab, he signed up for some Catholic Opus Dei retreats and found he liked the rigor of a conservative, and what some call "cult-like," group that has been likened to Scientology, with ties to fascist organizations in Italy, and which offered spiritual succor to the likes of the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

In 1997, Kudlow was on his knees in a chapel at St. Thomas More Church in New York City, bawling and converting to Catholicism in front of the whole lock-jawed National Review gang, including Buckley, Kate O’Beirne and Peggy Noonan.

“As soon as I saw Christ on the cross, I felt at one with it,” said Kudlow, who was bar mitzvahed at age 13. 

He soon found his other true calling as the King of All Right-Wing Economic Media, and today he is a CNBC senior contributor, has his own live radio program, the syndicated Larry Kudlow Show, airing every Saturday from 10 a.m to 1 p.m. ET, and publishes comments “roughly” once or twice a week to “present detailed economic research analysis of recent economic and political trends and developments,” according to his website.

He also dispenses wisdom privately to “clients” through Kudlow & Company, according to his website.

Those investors apparently don’t know or care that Kudlow has been spectacularly wrong on the biggest economic turning points in modern history. Just before the real estate crash that provoked the 2008 global financial meltdown, he ridiculed people predicting that outcome as “bubbleheads” and was still assuring his listeners and viewers after the financial crash that there was nothing to worry about. As late as 2011, he predicted that the Obama administration stimulus program would create “1970s-style stagflation.” Meanwhile, the country has been seeing the lowest inflation in two generations and the lowest interest rates in history.

Trump’s original tax plan—released to ridicule from mainstream economists on both sides of the political spectrum last September—would have cost $10 trillion and given massive tax cuts to the rich. He has since brought on Kudlow and former American Heritage senior economist Stephen Moore—another supply-side disciple—to tinker with it. The two new advisers have, according to Bloomberg, pared down the cost of the plan to $3.8 trillion by raising his top tax rate to 28 percent from 25 percent. This is still an epic bonanza for the super-rich, since the current top tax rate is 39.6 percent. The plan keeps the capital gains tax rate at 15 percent across income levels and lets companies use “immediate expensing of equipment” for tax purposes.

Trump himself has still not released his own tax returns, and on Tuesday he reiterated that he probably will not do so, making him the first presidential candidate in 40 years not to. A Clinton-aligned super PAC on Wednesday said he is less transparent than Richard Nixon—who did release his taxes, even while under audit.

Kudlow has periodically toyed with the idea of running for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, where he has a home. He is not known to have revised his own theories about the trickling down of money from untaxed wealth since the working class revolted against the GOP’s supply-side-hypnotized establishment and nominated Trump.

Kudlow, Moore and Art Laffer (he of the risible “Laffer Curve,” a Reagan-era economics graphic that supposedly proved the poor benefit as the rich get richer) formed a “Committee to Unleash American Prosperity” that wielded some influence over the now-vanquished 2016 GOP candidates. Kudlow even hosted vetting dinners in New York last summer and was among the early cheerleaders for the doomed candidacy of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

The summer of 2015 is a long, long time ago now. And while he remembers his Catholic conversion day “really clearly,” Kudlow conceded to Crisis: “I don't remember many things anymore.”

The supply-side purists have been able to maintain the fig leaf that their billionaire patrons needed during the decades in which wealth inequality in America kept rising. Trump himself appears to have benefited from the long-delayed awakening of the middle-class Republican electorate about the economic philosophy that’s robbed them of their prosperity. By selecting two of the discredited Laffer Curve’s biggest cheerleaders as his economic brain trust, Trump is sending up a smoke signal to the party bosses in Washington and in the Koch mansions that he’s still, wink-wink, one of them.

If he’s lucky—and he has been so far—his working- and middle-class supporters have as many holes in their memory as Kudlow does.

Correction: This article originally called Larry Kudlow a CNBC anchor. He is a CNBC senior contributor.