By Russell Johnson
President Trump recently announced that there would be a fifty-four-billion dollar decrease in spending on non-defense programs like foreign aid, the EPA, and domestic agencies. This is in keeping with his campaign promises about fiscal responsibility and working toward paying off the national debt. As President Trump said, "With 20 trillion dollars in debt, the government must learn to tighten its belt.” It is also in keeping with Trump’s repeated claims that President Obama’s spending was suicidally excessive, and that his administration would be leaner and do more with less.
But at the same time, Trump promised a fifty-four-billion dollar increase in the defense budget. So we won’t actually be saving any money, merely redirecting it. The fact that the numbers are the same indicates that this is a highly symbolic act, and it tells us something about the state of the two major parties in America—namely that they disagree about the shape of government, not the size.
This may be transparent, but let me give an analogy. Imagine that my wife and I are working on our 2017 budget, and I suggest that she spend $260 less on clothes because we'll need to make some sacrifices if we’re going to pay off our student loans. Then imagine if I followed that up by announcing that I would be spending $260 more on Pokémon cards. What message would this send? Would she believe that I’m actually committed to paying off our debt?
President Trump has made it clear that national security will be prioritized at the expense of environmental protection, foreign aid, housing and urban development, and programs aimed at benefiting lower and middle class Americans. We can argue about whether or not this is justified. But the Trump administration cannot have its cake and eat it, too. They cannot rely on small-government, debt-reduction rhetoric and simultaneously propose a “historic” (Trump’s word) increase in defense spending. If this rhetoric of fiscal responsibility is selectively used and then promptly disregarded when an opportunity emerges to increase our military budget, it’s a con, a smokescreen rather than a serious commitment.
This “small government” con is part of a larger trend in which Republicans claim to be the party of low spending, low taxes but then use national security concerns to justify higher spending. This recent episode testifies to the fact that many Americans, especially on the right, don’t think of the military as part of “government.” The disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is not big government versus small government. As it stands right now, the debate between Democrats and Republicans is “big government justified by our need for equality and sustainability” versus “big government justified by our need for security and global dominance.” Even to call this a debate is misleading, given the largely bipartisan support for massive military spending when America already spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined.
President Trump should not be allowed to talk like Ron Paul out of one side of his mouth and then advocate an “arms race” out of the other side. If Republicans are going to advocate small government, they need to start putting their money where their mouths are—and stop sinking our money into more battleships.
 See, among many other references, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/02/09/this-remarkable-chart-shows-how-u-s-defense-spending-dwarfs-the-rest-of-the-world/?utm_term=.b67585600b94