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The tax bill that makes Trump POSTUS (president of some of the United States)

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump shows off the tax bill after signing it on Dec. 22. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about local tax deductions since Congress and the administration passed their once-in-a-generation overhaul of the entire federal code with about the same amount of forethought you might put into picking a melon.

It was Christmas, you know. There was shopping to do.

Before we get into all that, though, let me briefly explain this issue in big-picture terms, because it’s probably confusing to a lot of taxpayers who aren’t directly affected, and it helps to know what we’re really talking about.

The federal tax code has always assumed that Washington is entitled to tax only the income you have left after the state (or the city or county) has taken its share in property and income taxes. I suppose that’s because, as Republicans are always telling us, we are a republic of states, and those local governments are the principal taxing authorities and service providers.

Under the new law, however, Washington cares only up to a point if you’ve already been taxed on your home and income. Now you can deduct the first $10,000 of property or local income taxes; after that, the IRS will consider all of it taxable income.

If you don’t earn much money, or if you happen to live in a low-tax state, that’s not a very big deal. The people who really get crushed here are middle- and upper-income families in states like New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois.

If you live in one of these urban states and have managed enough of a salary to buy a nice home in a good school district, and assuming you itemize your deductions, then your bill from Washington is probably going up by thousands of dollars.

Now, these higher-tax states have a couple of things in common. One is that they tend to have the best schools and basic services in the country. Unlike the federal government, states have to balance their budgets, which means you don’t get, say, free preschool or programs for the disabled without paying for them.

But the other, more salient characteristic of all these urban states that are about to get walloped is that they vote reliably Democratic. In other words, the unmistakable message from Republican lawmakers in Washington seems to be: “You’re not our people, so go get bent.”

All of which has given rise to a theory in the media that President Trump himself is taking partisanship to a remarkable extreme, by pushing through a tax plan that’s designed to punish those who didn’t vote for him. This, like Trump himself, would be something entirely new in American politics — a president who, rather than even making a pretense of uniting the country, governs with the express aim of making life worse for half of it.

It’s not an unreasonable interpretation, given where we are, but I suspect the reality is more mundane. There’s no evidence to suggest, at this point, that Trump is keeping a list of scores to settle, or using federal agencies to harass individual adversaries or states, in the mold of Richard Nixon. Maybe that’s coming.

No, the putative provision on local taxes was the masterstroke of resentful, red-state lawmakers who were doing what congressmen and senators do — looking out for their own and no one else. And Trump went along with it not only because he wanted to finally win at something, but also because his circle of influence doesn’t include anyone else.

Trump’s real governing failure is that, to an extent we’ve not seen before, he lives and learns in cultural isolation, insulated from perspectives that don’t comfort the ideological fringe. And in this way, he’s more a reflection of our moment than the one shaping it.

This goes back to the primary campaign in 2016, when establishment Republicans, many of them identifying with the “Never Trump” label, wanted nothing to do with Trump’s candidacy. It deepened his distrust for the party’s governing apparatus, even as it forced him to rely on people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller and, yes, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos — misfit operatives who saw an opportunity to advance marginal ideas.

Trump came to that campaign with what he considered to be some strong relationships in the upper echelons of Republican politics, as well as the industries of news, entertainment and finance. He emerged from it feeling like an outcast among intellectuals, a pariah even in the city whose social scene he once tried to dominate.

What he feels now, as a result, is complete alienation. He believes that the elites are out to get him, that they will stop at nothing to deny him what he’s won. Too often, he’s right.

But the problem with trusting no recognized establishment, no objective arbiter of truth, is that you no longer know what to believe about anything. Especially if you never knew much about policy to begin with, you become unmoored. You see every complicating, inconvenient set of facts as one more conspiracy, one more myth to debunk.

Trump succeeded in this raw political moment by exposing our growing contempt for the pillars of society that seem to have failed us — the media, the military, political and religious orders. But that same distrust leaves him wholly captive to the enraged plurality of voters — barely 35 percent in some polls — who support him, and to the operatives and politicians who channel them.

He has no mechanism for incorporating other worldviews, no check on his own reality that he considers creditable. He thinks “Fox & Friends” is the voice of America. He thinks Alex Jones is the new Ed Sullivan.

If you were designing the Trump silver dollar, its motto would be “E pluribus tertia.” Out of many, a third. His code name could be POSTUS: president of some of the United States.

Maybe Trump stays up at night scheming to stick it to suburban families in big, urban states. More likely, though, he doesn’t think about them at all, and if he does, it’s only to consider how duped they are by the liberal establishment.

But here’s the problem for the president and and his party: American politics, for all its divisiveness and corruption, remains essentially durable and responsive to the whole. You can’t keep majorities in Congress without at least the thread of a coalition. You can’t flip the bird to half the population and expect to walk away unharmed.

Republicans have been losing their hold on moderate, blue-state districts for decades now. What the president and his feckless congressional leaders just did in passing the new tax bill was to forfeit them all, finally and en masse.

At least 17 Republican House members who voted for the law are from high-tax districts that will be jolted by it. They chose partisan loyalty and fear of primaries over the interests of their constituents, and they should expect to be packing up after November.

So should a lot of their Republican colleagues who stood up and opposed the law, but who have that Scarlet “R” next to their name. Life isn’t fair that way.

Because by then, unless he finds it within himself to somehow broaden his concept of the presidency, Trump will have turned the once great Republican Party into a near-perfect reflection of his own raucous rallies — a hall full of loud and echoing voices, screaming its way into irrelevance.

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