The idea of universal basic income was largely ignored by Americans for forty years before it started to get traction again as a byproduct of conversations about automation and the end of the traditional manufacturing sector. Bernie Sanders popularized the pseudo-policy proposal in 2016, rallying supporters around the idea of an American social democracy. He didn’t win the primary. Which is not to say that the notion of paying citizens for being citizens is a wholly radical idea. Liberals have traditionally championed Social Security and Medicare, entitlement programs that offer state benefits to citizens in return for nothing. (Well, years in the workforce if you choose to look at it that way.) The Republican Party opposes these programs on the grounds that they are ineffective, wasteful, or simply incompatible with the idea of small government. What makes universal basic income interesting — especially with President Donald Trump in the White House — is that it can be pitched as both an initiative to shrink the government and as an element of a modern welfare state. And don’t be shocked if that’s exactly what happens.
In order to understand why Trump might pick up a policy initiative most effectively pushed by Senator Bernie Sanders, it’s important to consider the fact that he hasn’t spent his career as a Republican Party stalwart. Trump is a pragmatist, willing to piss off people on his left and on his right. In this way, he’s very similar to former President Richard Nixon, who was the last — and only — president to support universal basic income.
Nixon’s support for universal basic income was short lived and never led to law. But it does provide some historical precedent for a conservative openness to the idea and a willingness to advocate for it. Nixon went so far as to begin planning how to introduce the policy to Congress and the American people. Why was he so interested in paying Americans? Because he saw little use in fighting against the welfare state that had been steadily growing since FDR’s New Deal. Instead, Nixon thought it wise to come up with a Republican-branded entitlement that would be popular with his anti-elitist base of hardline conservatives. He figured that cash could be a populist policy, a tax cut given behind the back.
Nixon was also interested in data. He commissioned studies on whether a universal basic income would depress employment or prove too costly. Experts did some work and came back with a verdict: neither. All Nixon would have to do was make the idea palatable for Congress and the electorate. By all accounts, he believed he could do that. He was wrong because he wasn’t prepared to deal with his own party’s willingness to be wrong about facts.
Nixon’s plan would have provided “unconditional income for all poor families,” amounting to $10,000 yearly for a family of four (adjusted for inflation). Martin Anderson, an economic adviser with small-government proclivities, never liked that plan and presented Nixon with a case study of a similar policy in England that had failed. The findings in questions were later shown to be nonsense, but Nixon was not a man of conviction, and that was that.
President Trump’s similarities to Nixon are striking. Nixon campaigned against an urban elite supposedly unwilling and unable to handle the rigors of governing outside of New York and Los Angeles because of their obsession with racial equality and an unwillingness to deal directly with high crime rates. Trump did the same — despite low crime rates. Both men capitalized on wedge issues to win ugly elections. Both men also wandered way off the conservatives’ script.
Trump promised at various points during his campaign to build a border wall, refurbish American infrastructure, round up millions of immigrants, tighten immigration from Muslim countries, and reinstate illegal police tactics. These are not the policies of a small-government conservative. These are the sort of costly undertakings that grow a budget deficit. Yet, in the very same run-on sentence, Trump has frequently railed against the elite, promised jobs to blue-collar workers, and talked about a return to prosperity for all. That’s what Nixonian politics look like.
The core problem with Trump’s promise to improve the lives of working class Americans is that there is no clear way for him to bring jobs back to the places they’ve disappeared (to the degree to which they have and to the degree to which the gig economy hasn’t filled gaps with benefit-free labor). This is likely why Trump has spoken very little about cutting or privatizing entitlement programs, something polls have consistently shown Americans don’t support. In fact, voters were encouraged by Trump’s promise not to do those things.
If Trump’s base is concerned about economic backsliding — and that seems to be the case — universal basic income represents a politically expedient way to assuage their fears. Politically speaking, it also represents an expedient way to break through the Washington “gridlock.” Trump could easily present a UBI initiative as an effort to give Americans back the money taken from them by incompetent careerists and government elites. And, in a very literal sense, that would be the truth. It would also be big. And Donald Trump likes big.
Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” and willingness to aggressively sign executive orders outside of consultation with experts, has put the left on the defensive and in the streets. But Trump can’t keep signing orders forever, which means that he won’t be able to distract from the fact that he doesn’t seem to have a jobs program — unless you count infrastructure investment, which you probably shouldn’t. Pressure will mount and Trump will have to decide if he wants to heavily regulate industry in the hopes of protecting or creating jobs. It would be antithetical to his extreme capitalist stance. So why not do the alternative and just hand out cash? There are far more ridiculous plans.
More money in the hands of the public means more money being spent on products and services, as well as more widespread access to entrepreneurship. A universal basic income could even be sold as trickle-down economics at work — even though that’s not quite right.
However Trump chooses to frame this policy, it will come first and foremost out of the image he’s crafted for himself as someone who gets things done. Trump’s pragmatism may be a symptom of ideological apathy, but that ultimately doesn’t matter if he truly wants to throw Washington’s inherited wisdom into the Potomac. If he wants to be a different sort of president, he’ll have to do something no other president has done. Handing out money is better than going to nuclear war.
Photos via Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla