Donald Trump ran for president as a welfare chauvinist. He backed benefits for white natives and social exclusion for Muslim refugees and Hispanic immigrants. He trumpeted Social Security and Medicare — programs associated with whiteness and white recipients — and slammed Obamacare, which disproportionately benefited black and Hispanic Americans. Trump sensed the deep anxiety of some white Americans — their inextricable fear of racial and economic decline — and promised a government for them and against others.
In office, of course, this government hasn’t really worked for them. It has worked for the wealthy and their heirs; for industry and concentrated capital. Trump cut taxes for corporations and slashed regulations on polluters. But his supporters could relish in the anti-immigrant hostility of his administration, as if travel bans and detention camps could actually restore the lost wages of racial advantage rather than build a worse, more precarious world for everyone.
There is, however, at least one place where Trump’s welfare chauvinism has taken hold — his multibillion-dollar payments to farmers harmed by the president’s trade war with China. In the context of his larger attack on the social safety net, those payments, a direct subsidy to a narrow group of favored Americans, are the closest thing to the kind of help Trump promised during the campaign.
In early 2018, Trump announced tariffs on a variety of Chinese goods. China responded in kind with large tariffs on American-grown agricultural products. The brunt of those penalties hit soybean growers in the United States, who sell roughly $14 billion worth of their product to Chinese buyers. As the trade war continued, farmers’ incomes plummeted. In response, the Trump administration announced an assistance plan. Using a New Deal-era law allowing limited agricultural support for struggling farmers, the Department of Agriculture would make direct payments to growers affected by the trade conflict. So far, the administration has distributed roughly $19 billion out of a total package of $28 billion. “These payments,” notes one analysis, “are large enough to constitute the single largest source of subsidies for farmers.”
President Trump bragged about these payments at a recent rally in Toledo, Ohio, and promised even more for the nation’s farmers. “We’re signing a monster,” he said. “A big, beautiful monster. Forty to 50 billion dollars to our farmers.”
But “our farmers” isn’t inclusive of the whole. The vast majority of payments have gone to white farmers, with large landowners the greatest beneficiaries. It’s true that most American farmers are white. But disparities exist nonetheless. In Mississippi, for example, 14 percent of farms are run by black operators, but those farmers have received 1.4 percent of the aid that has been distributed in the state.
This is welfare chauvinism, albeit modest in scope. The payments will strengthen Trump’s political position — generous compensation to a vocal constituency will buy votes and keep negative stories about his tariffs out of view — as well as signal his commitment to one group of Americans over another.
Contrast the president’s enthusiasm for his farm payments with his disdain for traditional assistance. In December, the Trump administration announced tighter work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. Under the new rules, states will have a harder time waiving work requirements for able-bodied adults in high unemployment areas.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said in a news release. “Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work.” The change is projected to end SNAP benefits for nearly 700,000 adults, saving $5 billion — or less than a third of the $19 billion the government has spent so far on farmers affected by the trade war.
It’s not too hard to imagine a Trump who pursued this strategy much more aggressively, doling out checks and assistance to his core constituencies at every opportunity. One of his early advisers, Steve Bannon, urged as much at the start of Trump’s administration, calling for an “economic nationalism” to match the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s an approach that may have left him more popular than he is now, or at least, less unpopular.
That gets to one takeaway from the Trump years: that there’s a real constituency for the white welfare state he gestured at during his campaign. It’s not a majority, but our election rules (starting with the Electoral College) and the structure of our government (like equal representation of states in the Senate) make it large enough to claim and maintain real political power. And the Trump phenomenon also shows that you don’t have to deliver the benefits to hold those voters in your camp. All you have to do is deliver pain to disfavored groups, to target them and make a show of it.
Donald Trump has been too erratic and undisciplined to take welfare chauvinism as far as it could probably go. But it is almost certainly true that somewhere in American politics, there’s someone who has paid attention to what Trump has discovered and is planning accordingly.