Commentary: Would Trump ever propose a universal basic income?

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump greets cheering supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Lakeland, Florida, U.S., October 12, 2016. 

REUTERS/Mike Segar - RTSRZPH

Pet theory: Not today, and not tomorrow, but somewhere down the line, Donald Trump might set out on a radical economic reform. In short, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him try and give Americans, whether they’re employed or not, a monthly infusion of free money in the form of a universal basic income (UBI).

A UBI is an idea that the left loves and conservatives, predictably enough, have mixed feelings about. The central (and very simplified) gist of the idea involves giving people taxpayer dollars, either in lieu of, or more usually in addition to, whatever benefits they might already receive from the federal government. And they can do what they please with that money: save it, spend it, waste it, whatever.

There are various UBI proposals that have been kicked around by wonks, and there are many disagreements about how such a policy should be implemented. The UBI has been getting more attention recently, however, due to a Finnish pilot program that’s giving money to a select group of Finns in order to see how it would work in practice.

The merits of a UBI program can be debated, and indeed have already been debated, at great length. Some on the left see it as a great way to severely reduce poverty. Critics on the right, meanwhile, worry that it would remove more people from the work force, which they argue would produce negative social effects.

Putting all that aside, there’s something about a UBI that seems rather Trumpian. The president is not exactly a policy wonk, but the idea of just giving Americans cash, with little bureaucratic oversight or interference, would mesh well with his populist message. Looking ahead to 2020, it also would allow Trump to visit the downwardly-mobile Americans who voted for him and remind them that he literally put cash in their bank accounts. 

Or at least will have tried to. There is probably a way to get congressional Republicans to sign onto a UBI proposal assuming a) the White House was all for it and b) it was coupled with a slash in benefits. Then again, those cuts to programs they’d demand in exchange might be unpopular enough to doom the whole effort from getting off the ground.

But let’s take a step back and remember that Trump’s top strategic advisor, Steve Bannon, has made it abundantly clear that he’s a big-government guy. Last week, Mike Flynn described his ideas as “more left than right.” Bannon himself doesn’t make much effort to hide this: “The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” he told Michael Wolff just after the election.

The UBI would seem to fit snugly in a worldview like that, particularly as we start to see more and more jobs losses due to automation in the coming years. And there’s an easy social conservative argument for UBI, which is that it would allow parents, particularly mothers, to spend more time raising their children. It has the potential to reduce the great atomizing of society, increasingly a fixation of conservative intellectuals.

What the proposal would look like is obviously the big issue here – who would get the money, how much, how do you pay for it, etc. But if Trump’s polling numbers stay low for much longer, or dip even further, some sort of UBI proposal might start looking more and more attractive to the White House, if only as a Hail Mary somewhere down the line. 

Trump, a natural showman, knows that you need to shake up the plot when the ratings start to sag, and a UBI proposal would do that. It would put the left in a bit of a pickle – how do you resist a redistribution initiative from the right? – while at the same time bolstering his populist cred with voters.

It would make some sense, is what I’m saying, even if it sounds bizarrely counterintuitive. Trump’s detractors would no doubt argue that a plutocrat like him would never stick his neck out for what’s really a lefty idea, and they might be right.

But from a purely political standpoint, given what we know of Trump’s lack of any ideological mooring and his sense of theatre, I’d argue there’s at least a chance it happens. And sold the right way by a Republican president, it might even become reality. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.