This op-ed originally appeared on The Hill.
Donald Trump rolled to the White House on a wave of populist anger and a sense that he represented the “Common Man” against the political and media elites of Washington. In office, his governing philosophy is based on identity politics for the white middle class and is symbolized by his key campaign promises like building the wall, draining the swamp, and replacing Obamacare. Conventional wisdom indicates that President Trump’s populist base is going to come into conflict with the new Republican tax reform plan likely to be written into law. However, the reality is these supporters are likely to stay with the President and any cognitive dissonance will be erased.
The substance of the current Republican tax reform proposal is not popular. Significant amounts of public opinion research, including studies we have conducted with Reuters and NPR, indicate that the more Americans learn about the Republican tax program, the less they like it. In our November 2017 poll with Reuters, we found that almost all Americans, including Republicans, prioritize cutting middle class taxes over cutting taxes for corporations. (Nov: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/reuters-ipsos-tax-reform-2017-11-13)
However, in our October poll with Reuters, we found that the majority of Republicans support the tax reform plan proposed by Congressional Republicans, even while most other Americans oppose it. How do we get to this disconnect where Republicans dislike specific policies in the plan but support it as a whole? (Oct: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/reuters-ipsos-tax-policy-2017-10-25)
Our April poll on tax policy with NPR sheds some light on what is happening. This survey showed that Americans find taxes to be complicated and that they are unlikely to know details of the policy. For instance, only about 1 in 10 Americans said they know “a great deal” about U.S. tax policy. When asked a series of factual questions about tax policy, most people could not answer even a majority correctly. Most Americans (86%), including most Republicans (89%), also say that the U.S. tax code is too complicated. Taken together, this indicates that when it comes to taxes, most Americans are not going to figure out the policies on their own. (Apr: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/npr-ipsos-tax-policy-2017-4-17)
With few Americans actually learning about the tax reform plan on their own, they are left to learn about it through reporting from three sources: Democratic opponents of the plan, Republican supporters of the plan, and the news media. This is where the tension between the facts of the reform plan and the reality of Republican support for it are resolved. Rank-and-file Republicans (strongly) distrust both Democrats and the media; in fact, our September study with BuzzFeed shows that fewer than half of Republicans trust newspapers or TV news. (https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/trust-news-sources-2017-10-23) At the same time, more than three quarters of Republicans approve of President Trump’s job performance in our latest Reuters Core Political release. Along these lines, 72% of Republicans approve of how Trump is handling taxation. (Dec: https://www.ipsos.com/en/2017-us-politics-58-americans-say-country-wrong-track-december-6)
In this light, Republican support for the tax reform plan starts to make more sense. President Trump and Republican officials have consistently talked about how this tax plan is true pocketbook populism – great for the middle class and not a giveaway to wealthy interests. Meanwhile, tax experts have analyzed the plan and come to the opposite conclusion – that this plan will raise middle class taxes and is a huge break for the wealthy and corporations. However, those findings have been virtually absent in Republican and conservative media outlets. These expert analyses have been primarily reported through mainstream media and Democratic talking points.
The consequence of these trends in public opinion coupled with trends in media coverage around the bill is that Republicans officials could put almost anything they want into a plan and hold significant support from the President Trump’s base. The demonization of news, which has reached a crescendo under President Trump and his frequent accusations of “fake news,” means that for many people, Trump and Congressional Republicans are the final arbiters of truth. For these Americans – representing between a quarter and a third of the country – the President’s words are going to be the final authority on taxes, rather than any pesky details like actual facts.