Donald Trump’s flaws may be endless and his daily actions beyond preposterous, but there is one thing he does well: misdirection, whether by design or some combination of blind ignorance, vulgarity and unbridled ego never before witnessed in a U.S. president. It’s a crude sleight of hand that is so shocking and unprecedented that it’s working. He has a good part of the media and country looking off in one direction at Stormy Davis and fights with Hillary, Mueller, Comey, Oprah, Great Britain, Mexico — take your pick — and meanwhile off to the other direction he is relentlessly destroying environmental regulations, consumer rights, protections for workers, the public safety net and more.
The latest is his executive order that requires people who receive federal aid, such as welfare, food stamps, housing assistance or Medicaid to join the workforce or lose their benefits. It is directed at “any program that provides means-tested assistance or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households or families that have low incomes.” In other words, if you’re low-income, the Trump Administration is coming for you.
In the alternative universe that is the Trump administration and Washington, D.C. in general, the order is entitled: “Reducing Poverty in America” — the kind of Orwellian language that has become so commonplace we read right over the absurdity. It’s an worldview that only someone who has never suffered real hardship could put forward: people are perfectly happy being in poverty, not having a decent place to live, lacking health care, or going hungry and it is their fault. This twisted world view totally ignores the structural injustice — built into our economy and markets, politics and government, education and health care, and housing and real estate— that places money and power in the hands of the few and builds walls around that money and power so that no one else can get access to it. Those on the outside of the wall, it assumes, are less motivated, less creative, less smart, and, for some, less devout.
The truth: most people who receive food or housing assistance or are on Medicaid already work. The hitch is their jobs provide no health or sick leave benefits and their low pay keeps them in poverty. Those recipients who don’t work most often have a good reason, such as a severe injury or have sick relatives they need to look after.
The recent work requirement comes on top of previous executive orders and regulations that are cruelly designed to take access to quality health care from millions of people.
All this is happening, of course, on a backdrop of December’s trillion dollar-plus tax cut that overwhelmingly benefits corporations and the wealthy. In the Trump world, welfare for billionaires wins over health care for everyday Americans, who work hard but struggle to provide for themselves and their families.
“But hey! Look over there! James Comey is a ‘slime ball.’ ‘The attorney-client privilege is dead.’ An FBI criminal raid is ‘an attack on our country!’” And, once again, off go the cable news stations endlessly covering sleight of hand over substance.
But it’s not all Trump reality TV all the time. Voters have the opportunity to see through the distraction and focus squarely on substantive issues that can bring real change to people’s lives. As Vann Newkirk II wrote in The Atlantic wrote this week, “Through citizen-led ballot measures, voters in many states can use the power of direct democracy to bypass state legislatures and create new laws.”
In Maine last fall, voters overwhelmingly expanded Medicaid to more than 70,000 people. In Virginia, the legislature is poised to do the same for 400,000 in that state. In Utah advocates handed in over 165,000 signatures — only 113,000 are required — to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot in November. Idaho and Nebraska supporters are gathering signatures to put expansion on their November ballot as well. All this work will bring health care to hundreds of thousands. And in Montana, a ballot initiative would protect health care for more than 90,000 by making the expansion permanent, instead of allowing it to lapse, as it’s scheduled to do next year.
Voters are ignoring the distractions and taking matters into their own hands to directly improve workers’ economic lives through ballot measures in other states as well, to gradually raise the minimum wage to $12 in Missouri, and guarantee paid sick leave in Michigan, Dallas and San Antonio.
These voters have seen through the chicanery coming from Washington, D.C., refusing to be sucked into the vortex of hysteria that more and more pushes rational discussion to the sideline. They are pushing back on bad policy by turning hype to hope.
Trump may have his sleight of hand, but, fortunately, these voters don’t need tricks up their sleeves. They see clearly and have a winning strategy to bring the improvements people really need.