Why Trump’s $12 billion for farmers should freak you out

By insulating their political base from the fallout of destructive policies, strongmen maintain power no matter how bad their nation’s situation becomes.

Photo by Scott Goodwill on Unsplash

One recent Trump action deserves more attention:

On July 25, the White House announced that it would give $12 billion in aid to U.S. farmers hurt by the “trade war” between Pres. Trump and China.

As a progressive, I usually like the idea of government aid for disadvantaged groups. But here, the group in question is only in trouble because of Trump’s own trade policies — and Trump is only allocating funds (a lot of funds!) to help them because they’re a key part of his political base.

Those facts put this initiative into much ickier territory than typical Federal aid. This is less like Pell grants for college or FEMA relief for natural disasters, and more like the kind of calculated government giveaways that leaders in backsliding democracies use to build and secure their political support.

Two clear parallels immediately come to mind: Turkey and Venezuela. In both countries, authoritarian leaders have lavished state resources on their most loyal supporters while stoking economic and political chaos for everyone else. By insulating their political base from the fallout of their destructive policies, these strongmen maintain power no matter how bad their nation’s overall situation becomes.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has purged opponents and jailed more journalists than any other country on earth — and Turkey’s economy is now showing signs of severe distress. But in 2017, a slim majority of Turks voted to change the constitution and give Erdoğan even more power. Before the vote, a New York Times reporter observed that

Mr. Erdogan’s power is derived as much from what he promises and provides to his supporters as from how he frightens his critics. […]
To Ms. Dalkilic, a former farm laborer, Mr. Erdoğan is the man who expanded welfare programs, keeping her from poverty after her husband died.
Hulya Cataloglu, a former teacher attending the rally with her two children, says Mr. Erdoğan improved the city hospital, built better roads and raised the standard of local schools. She believes that increasing the president’s powers would improve the quality of state infrastructure.

In Venezuela, where oil drives the economy, former President Hugo Chavez fired 18,000 workers for the state oil company and replaced them “with some 100,000 supporters. Much of the firm’s operating budget was diverted into programmes for Chavez’s political base, payoffs for government cronies and subsidies to keep his promise of affordable food.”

Venezuela’s economy has since spiraled into chaos, while Chavez and his successor have seized control of courts and legislatures. But still, earlier this year, “Poor Venezuelans scanned state-issued ‘fatherland cards’ at red tents after voting […] in hope of receiving a prize promised by President Nicolas Maduro, a practice opponents said was akin to vote-buying. Leftist Maduro was expected to cruise to victory thanks to the heavy use of state resources, a ban on two of his most popular rivals, and a loyalist electoral council.”

Critics often warn that Trump’s hateful rhetoric and attacks on the press echo authoritarian tactics — and they do. But we need to recognize that blatant largess for supporters is a key part of the strongman’s playbook, too.

If you still doubt the similarity, look at who Trump isn’t trying to help. Almost all Americans are likely to face some increased prices from Trump’s trade war. If the President’s real concern was easing this financial burden, why belatedly announce an aid package that only benefits one profession in mostly Red, rural regions? Why not offer tariff relief to all Americans who might suffer?

Because all Americans didn’t vote for Trump, and the President, like strongmen around the world, doesn’t care about harming those who don’t support him. Trump is perfectly happy to give his base $12 billion (can you imagine the Right’s rage if Obama had actually done something like this?), while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves.