During the transition from primary season and to a general election, the typical presidential candidate from either party might be expected to move toward the center. But this is Donald Trump we’re talking about.
The GOP’s presumptive nominee, instead of moderating his views and positioning himself to attract non-Republican voters, is actually becoming more conservative on certain issues. Case in point, on Wednesday Trump’s chief policy adviser, Sam Clovis, said for the first time a President Trump would be willing to “take a look at all of the programs, including entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare,” while whittling down the federal budget.
A spokesperson later clarified to the Wall Street Journal that Clovis was talking about the “need to examine budgetary discipline,” and not necessarily calling for outright entitlement cuts. But it was still a stark shift from Trump’s earlier pledge to leave benefit programs like Social Security untouched.
The reversal was particularly odd because most polling shows that bipartisan majorities are opposed to raiding programs like Social Security and Medicare for savings. A representative 2013 Pew Survey found that Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to prioritize reducing the deficit over preserving entitlements, but not by much; more than 60 percent of GOP voters still thought “keeping Social Security [and] Medicare benefits at current levels” was the top priority.
But there’s a reason entitlement cuts keep getting floated in Washington, despite their broad unpopularity. Wealthy Americans, and wealthy Republican donors in particular, are much likelier to want cuts than the population at large. And while Trump made it through primary season largely without the support of the wealthiest 1 percent, he needs their money to compete in the general election.
Throughout the primary season, Trump financed his relatively low-budget campaign through a combination of personal loans, self-funding, and what his campaign has described as “unsolicited donations” from supporters. But that won’t be enough to support a full-sized national campaign going forward. By Trump’s own estimate, he’s going to need $1.5 billion in campaign funds to pose a credible threat to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Raising that sort of money could be a challenge, since he has spent much of the last several months antagonizing affluent Republican donors. But in this case, at least, he seems to be inching closer to their ideological territory.
The wealthier someone is, the likelier that person is to favor entitlement reductions. In 2015, Pew separated survey respondents into five brackets, ranging from most economically secure to least economically secure, and found a direct correlation between economic security and support for safety net cuts. Other polls have found the most support for cutting benefits among people making $75,000 a year or more.
Tracking the general opinion of millionaires and billionaires in particular is a little more difficult, simply because there are fewer of them. But there’s no question that anti-entitlement fervor animates many of the most active Republican megadonors. To name one particularly important example, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch — who together run the most influential conservative donor network in the United States — have poured hundreds of millions into think tanks and advocacy groups that prioritize shrinking the safety net.
The Kochs are also enthusiastic patrons of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the self-described “wonk” known for his detailed white papers on safety net reductions. Charles Koch even reportedly wanted Ryan to emerge as the Republican presidential nominee at a brokered convention though Ryan demurred and Trump soon won enough delegates to make a convention challenge extremely unlikely.
Trump has publicly taunted both Ryan and the Koch brothers in the past, but raising $1.5 billion could be tough without their imprimatur. At the moment, he doesn’t have it. Ryan said last week he was “not ready” to endorse Trump and was waiting to see whether the GOP’s presumptive nominee could successfully unite the party.
The two are meeting Thursday to work out their differences. Ryan did not say explicitly what Trump should do to unite the party, but since becoming speaker, he has proposed a unifying agenda of his own — including, of course, a major focus on entitlement cuts.