What's really behind Trump's 'poor person' comment

Trump: Don't want 'poor person' on economy gig
Trump: Don't want 'poor person' on economy gig

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Story highlights

  • President Trump touted wealth of two Cabinet members as part of their qualifications. He said: "In those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person."
  • Paul Waldman: GOP thinking that wealth equates with virtue is not new; Trump just willing to say it. And it benefits rich in domestic policies.

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, and a blogger for The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When he ran for president, one of the many things that made Donald Trump stand apart from other politicians was the way he turned the implied into the literal.

Paul Waldman
Other candidates would try to impress you with their insights. Trump just says, "I'm, like, a smart person." Others portray themselves as resolute and strong. Trump says "I'm the most militaristic person" and tells a debate audience that he has a big penis. Others make detailed pledges to convince you that things will be great if they get elected. Trump says, "I will give you everything."
You can look at this as an admirable forthrightness -- the difference between him and the rest of his party isn't in what they believe, just in how willing he is to speak it out loud. Trump may tell more lies than any other politician any of us has ever seen, but there's never any mystery about what he wants his audience to think. He lacks the subtlety to conceal his feelings behind clever formulations and eloquent words.
    That's never more true than when he's riffing in front of crowd of supporters, feeding off their energy and letting it all hang out. So it was that on Wednesday, at yet another campaign-style rally in Iowa, Trump lauded his top economic advisers -- billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president -- for their business success. Then he said this:
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    Trump receives praise from Cabinet 05:15
    "This is the president of Goldman Sachs. Smart. Having him represent us, he went from massive paydays to peanuts ... these are people that are great, brilliant business minds and that's what we need, that's what we need to have so the world doesn't take advantage of us anymore."
    He went on: "And I love all people -- rich or poor -- but in those particular positions, I just don't want a poor person. Does that make sense? Does that make sense? If you insist, I'll do it -- but I like it better this way, right?"
    He's certainly been true to his word on that, assembling what is probably the wealthiest group of advisers in history, full of billionaires and near-billionaires. But why exactly wouldn't Trump want a poor person advising him?
    To start with, let's be clear that we aren't talking about actual poor people. No one's suggesting that the President ought to pluck someone working for minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant to be the next chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. When Trump says "poor," what he really means is "not rich."
    And that's what has happened in his administration. Trump promised to take power from the "elite" and give it back to the people, but what he was really after was removing the influence of expertise and consolidating all power in the hands of the wealthy. It isn't just the billionaires at the top; in one department after another, he has made his intention clear to sweep away civil servants and experienced experts, and turn things over to lobbyists and the corporations looking to government to help them make even more money.
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    Is Trump backtracking on 'draining the swamp'? 09:35
    We should acknowledge that Democrats sometimes put rich people in high-ranking positions in their administrations, too; the Obama administration, for example, had one billionaire (Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker), some millionaires and some Wall Street alums.
    The difference is that only Trump argues that these people will do a good job precisely because they're rich, that their wealth is itself a qualification.
    There's nothing unusual for a Republican politician in these moves, because the party's entire approach to domestic policy is predicated on the idea that there's a causal link between the amount of money you have and your moral worth as a human being. Wealth, to most Republicans, appears as a sign of virtue.
    Just look at what Republicans in control of the government are doing right now on health care. Their attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act is essentially a giant tax cut for the wealthy, financed by taking insurance away from millions of poor and middle-class people.
    Once that's done, they'll be moving on to tax "reform" -- another giant tax cut for the wealthy, which they'll justify by arguing that we must unburden the noble "job creators" of the oppressive weight of taxation under which they currently suffer. When that's through, they'll be attacking other elements of the safety net, including food stamps.
    That agenda didn't originate with Donald Trump -- it's what the Republican Party has been seeking for years.
    When they're in charge -- however differently they may frame it for the base -- the wealthy will be hired, catered to, indulged and pampered, while the poor will be the target of vicious budget cuts and stern lectures about pulling on those bootstraps. It doesn't come from any notion about what makes for effective policies -- it's about values.
    Trump is just a little more willing to say it.