The classic metaphor for deception derives from Homer’s “Odyssey”:
For 10 years, Greek soldiers besieged the city of Troy. Thwarted, they pretended to retreat, leaving behind a huge wooden horse. Thinking it a symbol of victory, the Trojans dragged the horse inside their walls.
That night the Greeks hidden therein opened the gates, admitting their army under cover of darkness. Thus the Greeks seized Troy.
Now mythology repeats itself in Donald Trump. The distinguishing irony is that Trump invented himself. To their surprise, Paul Ryan and his right-wing army find themselves concealed within a tangerine Trojan horse, poised to inflict their will on voters who worshiped Trump as their symbol of victory.
Amazingly, this 21st-century horse could speak — albeit in primitive sentences — beguiling his listeners with mythic promises of change. No longer would elites besiege them. He would bring good health to everyone and protect them in old age. He would lower their taxes, revive their jobs, resurrect dying enterprises, rebuild roads and bridges, squelch unfair trade, and subdue menacing minorities — overnight. They need but believe in his transformative powers.
Unlike Homer’s Greeks, Trump’s nominal allies — Ryan, the Chamber of Commerce, the GOP’s donor classes — recoiled in horror. Trump epitomized a populist who threatened their right-wing wish-list: lower taxes for the wealthy, deregulation of Wall Street, and entitlement reform. It was no victory if the GOP was swallowed by the horse.
But voters at large shrank from Ryan’s agenda. They would vote for a tangerine horse, but not for a Darwinian America. And so the Republican ruling class gambled that Trump was as empty as the horse, and burrowed within.
It worked. And so Republicans stand mute while Trump claims that millions of illegal immigrants voted against him; that President Obama wiretapped his phones; that his campaign never dealt with Russian officials. They ignore his blatant lies; self-dealing; vilification of the media and judiciary; and assault on objective reality. They soft-pedal his entanglements with a hostile foreign power, reserving their indignation for the agencies which uncovered them. They are his partners in degrading the presidency.
Trump has the excuse of a personality disorder; Ryan has no excuse. He is enabling Trump’s pathology in order to betray his followers.
Candidate Trump excoriated global financiers who “robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth, and put that money into the pockets” of plutocrats. But inside the Trojan horse of Trumpism lurked an army of ideologues hostile to Trump’s blue-collar base.
Budget director Mick Mulvaney called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” HHS Secretary Tom Price supported converting Medicaid into block grants to the states and Medicare into a voucher program. And three ultra-rich cabinet members — Steve Mnuchin, Wilbur Ross, and Gary Cohen — are gunning investor safeguards and the consumer protection agency.
Trump’s fraudulence on health care provokes whiplash. During the campaign, he promised “insurance for everybody.” Now (to switch metaphors for a moment) he embraces the Rosemary’s baby of health care legislation — Ryancare.
Under Ryan’s plan, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Trump’s promise translates to 14 million more uninsured Americans by 2018, and 24 million in a decade. His pledge to protect Medicaid for low-income Americans now means gutting Medicaid. Ironically, the voters hit hardest — those eligible for $5,000 less in tax credits to help them buy insurance — supported Trump by a margin of 23 percent. Other vulnerable Americans inclined toward Trump, particularly seniors, will see their premiums rise sharply.
So who profits? Here, too, the Ryan playbook runs true to form. The wealthiest Americans will receive a $600 billion tax cut over the next decade. For plutocrats, that’s nirvana.
Now comes Trump’s draconian budget — courtesy of Mulvaney, erstwhile Freedom Caucus extremist. While it attacks everything from diplomacy to climate research, perhaps its cruelest cuts shred the social safety net for the rural voters who helped elect him — slashing Meals on Wheels, afterschool programs to feed kids, home heating for the elderly, disabled, or families with children. For those at the economic margins, Trump will, indeed, be a transformative president.
What of Trump’s pledge that our “crumbling infrastructure will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways”? Or his promised “massive tax relief” for the middle class? From Ryan’s caucus comes the silence of the grave. The voters who made Trump president are left with arbitrary deportations, a pointless wall, empty promises of protectionism, and a mindless travel ban against Muslims — all countenanced as cover by the right-wing cynics hiding within the horse, laughing too softly for their victims to hear.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.