The President’s House Is Empty
Jan 19, 2017
7 Min read time
Opting out, as Trump has done with the White House, is a neoliberal habit. But who bears the cost?
In November 2016 Donald Trump announced that his family would not live in the White House after the inauguration. His wife and son preferred to live in New York. Perhaps due to mounting public pressure—even from conservative Trump supporters concerned with the optics of this unconventional First Family—or perhaps simply because the school year ended, Melania and Barron moved to the White House on June 12. The cost in security alone of having maintained a household for them in New York City is estimated to be about $24 million. Meanwhile, since taking office, Trump has made 24 trips to golf on his own courses, at a cost of about $3 million per trip. Many of these trips have been to his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago—his so-called “winter White House”—where (as of mid-June) he has spent approximately 30 days of his presidency.
These choices have implications for all of us. Who will pay for all of the additional security necessitated by the decisions to maintain a second household and to frequent Trump resorts? Who has already borne the costs of the disruptions caused by repeated presidential flights to New York and Florida airports, not to mention motorcades in and out of midtown Manhattan and Palm Springs?
Taxpayers already pay for a secure home and office for the president. It is called the White House.
The answer, of course, has turned out to be: taxpayers—or, as we used to be called, the public. Many of those costs, racked up on Trump properties, will be paid right into the president’s own pockets. For example, according to the New York Post, in addition to “the cost of agents, staff and equipment and barriers that are normal in such cases,” security services protecting Trump’s family in New York were obliged to rent space in Trump Tower at a cost of more than $3 million a year, to be paid to the president’s own corporation. Secret Service agents protecting Trump in Florida have been billed for their use of golf carts to follow him on his rounds. Although Politico reported that Trump footed the bill for Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe’s stay at Mar-a-Lago, it was also reported that Trump promised to donate all money spent by foreign governments at his hotels to the Treasury so that he would not violate the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause. But so far there is no sign that those donations have been made. On May 16 congressional Democrats introduced legislation that would order Trump to reimburse the federal government for any public money spent on trips to his private resorts. The bill is unlikely to go anywhere, however, and in the meantime the bipartisan congressional budget of early May guarantees that the federal government will pay New York for costs incurred protecting Melania’s household.
This is galling because taxpayers already pay for a secure home and office for the president of the United States and his family. It is called the White House. The White House is a public thing to be used by the president and his or her family while in public office. The White House has an infrastructure of security that provides presidents and their families with the protection they need. What Trump and his family did was opt out of that public thing. They chose to go private. And in so doing, they incurred costs that they then passed on to the public. Their “free choice” was subsidized, as are so many “free” choices (charter schools, gated neighborhoods), by the public.
A president who lives at his private home(s) requires a mobile security apparatus and governance infrastructure. The public thing, the White House, enables certain efficiencies in the provision of security and administrative support but these are lost when the private option is preferred. The American public even provides the president with a holiday home, Camp David, which, because of its long use by presidents, also has in place the necessary infrastructure. However, Trump has spurned this home as well: “Have you seen it?” he said of Camp David, as if that were enough to explain his preference for his own commercial hotel and golf course, Mar-a-Lago. It seems obvious that, if a president disdains the homes the public provides for him, and thus foregoes their efficiencies, the resulting costs should be borne by him, the one who has opted out, and not by the very public whose public thing has been spurned. That is, Trump’s family members are free to not use the residence provided by the public, but they should then be personally responsible for assuming the costs of that choice. They should not pass them on to us.
For neoliberals, choice is synonymous with freedom. But it always imposes hidden costs on others.
Beyond the monetary costs of the Trump opt-out, there are symbolic costs, as well. Here there may even be a lesson for Trump. Not that anyone expects him to learn it. Faced with the refusal of Mexico to pay for the much-promised border wall, Trump has said he expects U.S. taxpayers to pay for it (promising vaguely that Mexico will pay us back). But taxpayers have lost the habit of happily paying for public things and Trump, the one opting out, is in no position to revivify the habit. After years of neoliberalization, there is no reservoir of love for public things on which to draw, no exemplary public sacrifice to inspire. Recall when Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father, asked if Trump had ever sacrificed anything for his country. Trump’s answer—given to a man whose son died fighting in Iraq—was that yes, he had sacrificed: to build a business.
Neoliberalism means many things to many people, but the one trait by which it is always distinguished is its approval of the opt-out and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the hidden costs of such a choice. Everything is optional for the neoliberal; this is how neoliberalism defines freedom. Neoliberals opt out of any collective thing they can afford to opt out of. They believe everyone should be free to send their children to private or charter schools, to live in private gated communities, to hire private transport rather than take the school bus, and so on. “Choice” is their watchword and choice is synonymous with freedom.
The hidden costs of opting out are not their problem. But they are ours. If the well-to-do do not use the public school system, the community is deprived of their energies and contributions. If they do not use city roads and sewage, they come to resent having to pay for the upkeep of infrastructure that others rely on. If fewer and fewer children take the school bus, it soon becomes an added expense to the public purse that cannot be justified, and suddenly there is no bus service, even if some need it—or else only its users are asked to pay for it, which raises costs and singles some people out. It should come as no surprise then that in recent debates about repealing the Affordable Care Act, some congressmen have asked why the healthy should “subsidize” the sick, thus betraying little understanding of the workings of insurance (in which those who are now healthy pay to indemnify themselves against the contingency of one day becoming sick) and of the very idea of democracy (in which redistributions are made to underwrite social equilibria that benefit everyone).
But there is a still worse cost. The democratic experiment involves living cheek by jowl with others, sharing classrooms, roads, and buses, paying for them together, complaining about them together, and sometimes even praising and enjoying them together, as picnickers will do on a sunny afternoon in Central Park. But the neoliberal corrective absolves us of this necessity and responsibility. One of the many sad ironies here is that Central Park—landscape architecture’s ode to the power of democratic beauty—is just a stone’s throw away from where barricades encircled Trump Tower from January to June.
The democratic experiment involves living cheek by jowl with others. But the neoliberal corrective absolves us of this necessity and responsibility.
All too often opting out depends on the public purse it pretends to circumvent. Charter schools and voucher programs invite locals to opt out of public schools while drawing on public funds that might have improved the public education system rather than provide an alternative to it. Someone is making money on charter schools and vouchers and it is not the community. Also, and more importantly—as Senator Maggie Hassan pointed out to Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing to become secretary of education—charter schools and voucher programs are not governed by public education’s mandate to educate all students. Like the Affordable Care Act, which mandates providing health care coverage to those with preexisting conditions, a properly democratic education system mandates providing education to those with preexisting conditions, too, such as poverty, recent immigration, physical and learning disabilities, as well as other challenges that may make learning difficult. This democratic mandate to educate everyone is what charters and voucher systems opt out of. Such mandates are the last, dying breath of the public thing.
Why review the vexations of the neoliberal opt-out now? Because we will all feel the impact—both financial and symbolic—of the latest and most public one. Regardless of whether the White House is occupied by members of the First Family, their cavalier attitude toward it is a stark reminder of the emptiness of this presidency and its disdain for public things.
January 19, 2017
7 Min read time