For years, conservatives warned that liberals were “defining deviancy downward.” They said that by tolerating bad social behavior, liberals in effect lowered what was deemed acceptable behavior overall – allowing social norms to decline.
There was never a lot of evidence for that view, but there’s little question that Donald Trump is actively defining deviancy downward for the nation as a whole – whether it’s by lying, denigrating basic democratic values, celebrating tyrants around the world, using his office to build his family wealth, or stopping at nothing to win the presidency.
Now comes his budget. Budgets are overall expressions of values and priorities. Trump’s budget is cruel and deviant. He proposes to cut federal spending by more than $3.6 trillion over the next decade, much of it for programs that help the poor (Medicaid, food stamps, Social Security disability, and health insurance for poor children) – in order to finance a huge military buildup and tax cuts for corporations and the rich.
Trump’s budget won’t get through Congress, but it defines deviancy downward in 3 respects:
1. It imposes huge burdens on people who already are hurting.
Not just the very poor, but also the working class. In fact, among the biggest losers would be people who voted for Trump – whites in rural and poor areas of the country who depend on Medicaid, food stamps,and Social Security disability.
Yet will they know that Trump is willing to sell them out to the rich and corporate interests, or will they fall for the right-wing Republican propaganda (amplified by Fox News and yell radio) that the budget is designed to help people take more responsibility for themselves?
2. It sets a new low bar for congressional and public debate over social insurance in America, and of government’s role
– far lower than anything proposed by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. It pushes the idea that each of us is and should be on our own, rather than that we are part of a society that benefits from social insurance – spreading the risks and costs of adversity that could hit any one of us.
As White House OMB director Mick Mulvaney absurdly put it, the government should show “compassion” for low-income Americans but it should “also…have compassion for folks who are paying [for] it.” That illogic eliminates the justification for social insurance altogether.
The budget thereby frames the debate over Trumpcare, for example, as “why should I pay for her pre-existing health problem if I’m healthy?”
3. Finally, the budget eviscerates the notion that an important aspect of patriotism involves sacrificing for the common good
– paying for public services you won’t use but will be used by others and will thereby help the nation as a whole, such as schools, roads, clean air and health care.
Trump’s budget celebrates a cruel and virulent form of individualism – much like Trump himself. Until Trump, this view of America was considered deviant. But Trump is defining deviancy downward.
We are a better nation than this.
Robert Reich is the chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, and Time magazine named him one of the 10 most effective Cabinet secretaries of the 20th century. He has written 14 books, including the best-sellers Aftershock, The Work of Nations and Beyond Outrage and, most recently, Saving Capitalism . He is also a founding editor of The American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and co-creator of the award-winning documentary Inequality for All.