It was only a few weeks ago that France seemed to be on the verge of total breakdown. The flammable environment of French politics was created by the political disconnect between provincial France and the Parisian elite. French president Emmanuel Macron announced a simple policy adjustment in that environment, and suddenly the country and its cities lit up with explosive protests that shut down the cities.
Donald Trump is looking to do the same here in the United States. It won’t generate the same kind of movement — American politics are not as combustible as their French counterpart — but it’s just as stupid here as it was there. The policy is raising taxes on gasoline. Trump is considering a 25-cent per-gallon tax that would fund infrastructure projects. The Chamber of Commerce supports the idea. Democrats are excited about it and Republicans are reported to be “divided” by it.
Here’s how McClatchy put it in a recent report:
Last week, President Donald Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, told senators that a gas tax hike was on the table when asked whether the White House would support such a move.
And this week, Democrats are indicating that they too are ready to consider a tax increase — an effort that would fund publicly popular infrastructure improvements but has hit a hard wall of opposition for years from fiscal conservatives and advocates for low-income people alike.
The last president to raise taxes on gas was Bill Clinton. He did so in 1993, just before the landslide election that created the modern Republican congressional majority.
It’s difficult to express how stupid this gas tax would be, though Tucker Carlson tried in a notable segment on his prime-time show. Carlson called the tax “so mindless and counterproductive there is literally no way you could get reelected after doing it” in a riff that suggested Donald Trump was purposely sabotaging his reelection to escape from his imprisonment in the White House.
Gas taxes are insidiously regressive. They don’t just impose extra costs on those who commute long distances. Over time the raised fuel costs of trucking, delivery, fertilizing, and harvesting flow through to everything. You wake up and every bite of corn flakes is more expensive. Your morning commute is of course more expensive. The tax gets priced into your property tax bill, which goes up to pay the higher fuel bill for the fleet of school buses for public schools. Snowplow services become more expensive. A gas tax like this follows people everywhere.
Admittedly, the American situation is different from that of France. Our economy is more dynamic, and we’re riding on what seems like the froth of a long recovery and economic boom that has brought the unemployment rate way down, and wages up. The French economy is far more sclerotic, and far more protectionist. What France lacks in dynamism during good times is traded for more security during rough ones.
But this regressive fuel-tax increase would come after Trump had passed a major tax reform that slashed corporate taxes. Yes, there is some evidence that these slashed rates have goosed the economy and contribute to the general uptick. But the benefits are also concentrated among wealthy and upwardly mobile people who run their income through corporate structures, often with their family names attached to them. Notably it is those voters who find Trump most repulsive and who have been abandoning the GOP for the Democrats since his nomination.
The Trump revenue legacy is becoming almost a caricature of the country-club Republicanism he ran against. It is relatively easy to avoid the increased prices on certain appliances due to Trump’s trade wars. It would be impossible to avoid the costs that a gas tax would impose, which would fall disproportionately on the people Trump claims to serve. And it would do so at a time when gas prices are already rising quickly.
If it wasn’t clear already, a gas tax like this makes Trump’s nationalist populism even more of a fraud. Trump announces an end to America’s war in Syria, and the CIA and DOD announce that it will continue. He announces the creation of a worker’s party, and he rewards bosses and asset-rich entrepreneurs instead. He says he will fight for the forgotten American, and then he sticks those Americans with the bill for his infrastructure dreams. Trump’s enemies — Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, and the leading Democrats — should be laughing at their good fortunes. Those fortunes are growing by the day.