Generosity is a central part of Donald Trump’s populist mythos. In exchange for loyalty, his pitch goes, he can grant you wonderful things: Your job at the coal mine back! Lower prices for your prescriptions! A loved one in the military may come home from their overseas deployment! Or one in prison may receive an early release!
These gifts are party favors: They serve mostly to increase the status of the person giving them and trick their recipients into thinking everyone is having a good time. It’s a lazy comparison to liken last night’s State of the Union Address to a reality show; a better analogy is that Trump’s acts of goodwill are nothing more than corporate PR-philanthropy delivered from a head of state.
Look at the headlines: Trump announced Rush Limbaugh will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in recognition of his unwavering support of conservative values for the past three decades. Sure, Limbaugh used that platform to advocate passionately against any form of social progress using the most racist and discriminatory rhetoric possible, but now he will pass away with the highest civilian honor our country awards around his neck.
A few short weeks ago, the U.S. was on the brink of war with Iran, following the Trump administration’s short-sighted decision to massively escalate tensions by assassinating one of Iran’s top generals. But at the State of the Union, Trump reunited Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams of the 82nd Airborne with his family after a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan.
This is Trump’s entire game plan: In the absence of systemic change, it’s an effective political strategy to have a few specific examples of magnanimity you can point to whenever someone makes the case that your policies hurt millions.
We have seen this again and again. On Sunday, during the Super Bowl, Trump released an ad touting his attempts at criminal justice reform, exemplified by emotional testimony from families that have benefitted from the First Step Act. That gift is real: First proposed during the Obama administration, the First Step Act does reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, and has likely reunited some families early (Trump got to claim the credit because Mitch McConnell refused to give it a vote until the end of 2018.) But its successes only apply to three percent of the roughly 181,000 federal inmates, and it also includes provisions that greatly benefit the private prison corporations who run halfway houses many of those inmates are released to.
At the Carrier furnace factory, which Trump famously saved in his first year in office, the preservation of jobs quickly turned to despair, as workers remained convinced their employer was only waiting for a more politically expedient moment to shut the facility down. But Trump can and will still claim credit for a Blue Collar Boom, because of targeted instances of goodwill that only serve to enhance his own ego.
In his speech on Tuesday, Trump bragged about the 7 million Americans who have come off of food stamp rolls. As Trump fought for superficial jobs gains in the rust belt, he cut SNAP benefits multiple times, purging 700,000 unemployed Americans from the program with new work requirements. In Puerto Rico, devastated by a Hurricane in the first year of his presidency, Trump steadily cut SNAP benefits to communities still dealing with the aftereffects of the storm. One thing this system makes clear is who is valued and who is not: helping an entire island of desperate Americans matters far less to the president than postponing layoffs at one midwest factory. Food stamps, unfortunately, are a perfect example of a society using collective resources to care for its own. The generosity is systemic, not personal, which means there’s nothing in it for Trump. People at a party rarely stop to ask whether or not the caterers are being paid well, but they remember the goodie bags on the way out of the door.
And as any kid can tell you, the gifts you get as party favors rarely last a long time.