President Trump radiates so much moral toxicity, and his administration displays so much malice and ineptitude in policymaking, that his opponents often fall into the habit of making everything about him. Trump’s racism. Trump’s corruption. Trump’s demagoguery. Trump’s authoritarianism.
There’s truth to all of that. But it might not be the wisest way to wage a political war against the right. Trump’s vileness is all there, right on the surface, broadcast without shame or apology to the largest possible audience every single day. People either love it or hate it — and there are already significantly more people in the latter camp. Why not let the president’s polarizing personality speak for itself and instead take a different, broader tack against the right-wing party and movement he leads?
Every political coalition is a conglomeration of factions that put aside or suppress their differences for the sake of mutual gain. In the case of the many right-populist parties and movements around the world, those differences are especially sharp and ripe for exploitation by political opponents.
Consider Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The German establishment treats the upstart party as ideologically beyond the pale because of its nativist and xenophobic position on immigration. But the AfD is actually a conglomeration of two very different factions. One of them is a genuine neo-fascist movement that traffics in outright racism, but the other focuses on economic policy, advocating for lower taxes and cuts to regulations on business. The two factions fight often and bitterly, but they stick together out of electoral self-interest, realizing that they have a greater chance of gaining and holding power if they collaborate in taking aim at the political establishment (even though they disagree in many ways about what that establishment has done wrong).
This broad fissure — between hard-core nationalist anti-liberalism and an amped-up form of neoliberal or libertarian ideology — can be found embedded in nearly every right-wing populist party or movement. It certainly plays a role in the interminable Brexit debate in Great Britain. Many of those clamoring to leave the European Union do so in xenophobic opposition to the free movement of people allowed and encouraged by Brussels. But many others have no objection to high rates of migration and instead bristle at EU regulations that stand in the way of the UK becoming a free-market mecca parked just outside the over-regulated monetary union like an Anglophone Singapore ready to cash in on a craving for unbridled commerce.
The same tensions are present on multiple dimensions in the Trumpified Republican Party. A number of them have been there in the GOP since the time of Ronald Reagan. But they’ve been pushed to the edge of utter incoherence since Trump’s hostile takeover of the party in 2016.
In recent months, members of the religious right have taken a sharply anti-liberal turn, denouncing the aspiration toward liberal fairness and impartiality in government, which they now consider a sucker’s game that keeps conservatives perpetually on the defensive. In its place, the religious right increasingly advocates a politics oriented toward the “highest good,” which it defines in terms of traditional Christian morals.
As a model, this faction of the right looks longingly toward the explicitly anti-liberal government of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary. A Republican Party that followed Orban’s lead would include policies designed to restrain and restrict capitalism, ultimately subordinating the economy to moral concerns. (This would likely include obscenity laws, censorship of pornography, regulations aimed at taming the “creative destruction” of markets, and the enactment of pro-natalist policies.)
Even aside from the singular absurdity of Donald Trump serving as the leader of a theologically inspired moral crusade, the Trump administration has done something close to the opposite — cutting taxes and regulations on the corporate sector and reining in government-imposed oversight and restraint, even when businesses would prefer otherwise. Far from subordinating the economy to a moral vision, this is a libertarian’s wet dream of unconstrained profit-seeking.
Another dimension to the religious right’s more aggressive agenda is an emphasis on local communities (often low-density rural areas where farming remains an important aspect of daily life) as the proper locus of the yearning for moral regeneration. Yet these hopes for the future revitalization of moral standards and limits are projected onto an administration in which the Secretary of Agriculture recently warned that family farms don’t have much of a future, because “in America the big get bigger and the small go out.” Once again, a radicalized conservative critique of liberalism sits side-by-side with a radicalized form of economic libertarianism.
Nowhere are such tensions more apparent than in foreign policy, where a sizable number of Republicans pine for a revival of realism and restraint (fewer wars and fewer obligations for American soldiers to police the world), whereas many others appear to favor bombing more people than ever as a way of throwing our weight around, showing the world who’s boss, and bullying other nations (allies and enemies alike) into doing our bidding in purely transactional terms. These two visions of America’s role in the world stand in stark contrast with one another, and the haphazard, incontinent character of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is the result.
Put it all together and we’re left with a picture of a political movement in complete ideological disarray, unsure of what it wants to do, and in constant danger of internal conflict. That’s something that Democrats can and should be attempting at every opportunity to encourage and exploit.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. And neither can a political party.
President Trump came into office promising some fabulous yet unspecified health-care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act. No plan existed; every plan Republicans came up with managed to reduce the number of insured. Trump promised never to cut entitlements; his fiscal 2020 budget proposal would have done just that.
Trump said he’d bring back manufacturing. In fact, it slowed and now has slumped. (“Manufacturing has slowed amid global uncertainty,” NPR reported earlier this month. “That’s one of the reasons the Federal Reserve gave for cutting interest rates this week.”)
Trump said he’d
- get tough on drug companies. He hasn’t. He said his
- tax cut would be aimed at the middle class,
- deliver $4,000 a year to the average American family and
- permanently boost business investment, pushing growth above 3 percent. Nope, nope and nope.
An old line about war says that amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics. A similar line about the economy would be that amateurs talk about stocks, but professionals study the bond market. And lately the bond market is telling a tale of profound pessimism.
Why does the bond market reflect economic expectations? If investors expect a boom, they also expect the Fed to try to rein in the boom by raising short-term interest rates (which it more or less directly controls), to head off potential inflation. The prospect of higher short-term rates then leads to higher long-term rates, because nobody wants to lock money in at a low yield if returns are going up. Conversely, if investors expect a slump, they expect the Fed to cut rates, and pile into long-term bonds to lock in returns while they can.
So the slump in long-term yields since last fall, from a peak of 3.2 percent to just 1.63 percent this morning, says that investors have grown drastically less sanguine about the economy. Long-term rates are now notably lower than short-term rates — and this kind of “yield curve inversion” has in the past consistently been the precursor to recession:
Ominous yieldsFederal Reserve of St. Louis
Bond investors could, of course, be wrong — there are some people out there claiming that we’re in a bond bubble. And so far the real economy, as measured by G.D.P., job growth, and all that, is still chugging along. But as I said, there’s clearly a wave of pessimism sweeping the market. What’s it about?
One answer is that last fall many investors were looking at a couple of quarters of high growth, and thinking that this might be the start of an extended boom. Serious economists warned that this growth was a temporary lift — a “sugar high” — driven by the shift from fiscal austerity to what-me-worry deficit finance. But at least some people bought into the Trumpist line that tax cuts were going to produce an enduring rise in the growth rate.
At the same time, Trump’s trade war may be starting to take a toll. In particular, the uncertainty may be deterring business spending. Whether new tariffs would hurt or help your business, it now makes sense to hold off on plans to expand, until you see what he actually does.
Finally, economic troubles in the rest of the world — several major European economies are quite possibly in recession — are filtering back to the U.S.
Now, most economists aren’t predicting a recession here, for good reason. The truth is that nobody is very good at calling turning points in the economy, and calling a recession before it’s really obvious in the data is much more likely to get you declared a Chicken Little than hailed as a prophet. (Believe me, I know all about it.) But the bond market, which doesn’t worry about such things, is looking remarkably grim. I leave the possible political implications as an exercise for all of you.
Why do Republicans enable right-wing extremism?
Why has the Republican Party become a systematic enabler of terrorism?
Don’t pretend to be shocked. Just look at G.O.P. responses to the massacre in El Paso. They have ranged from the ludicrous (blame video games!) to the almost honest (who would have expected Ted Cruz, of all people, to speak out against white supremacy?). But as far as I can tell, not one prominent Republican has even hinted at the obvious link between Donald Trump’s repeated incitements to violence and the upsurge in hate crimes.
So the party remains in lock step behind a man who has arguably done more to promote racial violence than any American since Nathan Bedford Forrest, who helped found the Ku Klux Klan, a terrorist organization if there ever was one — and who was recently honored by the Republican governor of Tennessee.
Anyway, the party’s complicity started long before Trump came on the scene. More than a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning about a surge of right-wing extremism. The report was prescient, to say the least. But when congressional Republicans learned about it, they went on a rampage, demanding the resignation of Janet Napolitano, who headed the agency, and insisted that even using the term “right-wing extremism” was unacceptable.
This backlash was effective: Homeland Security drastically scaled back its efforts to monitor and head off what was already becoming a major threat. In effect, Republicans bullied law enforcement into creating a safe space for potential terrorists, as long as their violent impulses were motivated by the right kind of hatred.
No, not exactly. No doubt some members of Congress, and a significant number of Trump administration officials, very much including the tweeter in chief, really are white supremacists. And a much larger fraction — almost surely bigger than anyone wants to admit — are racists. (Recently released tapes of conversations between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon reveal that the modern G.O.P.’s patron saint was, in fact, a crude racist who called Africans “monkeys.”)
But racism isn’t what drives the Republican establishment, and my guess is that a majority of the party’s elected officials find it a little bit repugnant — just not repugnant enough to induce them to repudiate its political exploitation. And their exploitation of racism has led them inexorably to where they are today: de facto enablers of a wave of white supremacist terrorism.
The central story of U.S. politics since the 1970s is the takeover of the Republican Party by economic radicals, determined to slash taxes for the wealthy while undermining the social safety net.
With the arguable exception of George H.W. Bush, every Republican president since 1980 has pushed through tax cuts that disproportionately benefited the 1 percent while trying to defund and/or privatize key social programs like
- Social Security,
- Medicaid and the
- Affordable Care Act.
So how do Republicans win elections? By appealing to racial animus. This is such an obvious fact of American political life that you have to be willfully blind not to see it.
For a long time, the G.O.P. establishment was able to keep this game under control. It would campaign using implicit appeals to racial hostility (welfare queens! Willie Horton!) but turn postelection to privatization and tax cuts.
But for some reason this bait-and-switch started getting less effective in the 2000s. Maybe it was the reality of America’s growing racial diversity; maybe it was the fact that American society as a whole was becoming less racist, leaving the hard-core racists feeling isolated and frustrated. And the election of our first black president really kicked hatred into overdrive.
The result is that there are more and more angry white people out there willing to commit mayhem — and able to do so because those same Republicans have blocked any effective control over sales of assault weapons.
A different, better G.O.P. might have been willing to acknowledge the growing threat and supported a crackdown on violent right-wing extremism, comparable to the F.B.I.’s successful campaign against the modern K.K.K. in the 1960s. A lot of innocent victims would be alive today if Republicans had done so.
But they didn’t, because admitting that right-wing extremism was a threat, or even a phrase law enforcement should be allowed to use, might have threatened the party’s exploitation of racial hostility to achieve its economic goals.
In effect, then, the Republican Party decided that a few massacres were an acceptable price to pay in return for tax cuts. I wish that were hyperbole, but the continuing refusal of G.O.P. figures to criticize Trump even after El Paso shows that it’s the literal truth.
So as I said at the beginning, the G.O.P. has become a systematic enabler of terrorism. Why? Follow the money.
The scariest part of Trump’s first year as president isn’t how abnormal he is, it’s how normal he makes everything else look by comparison.
Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.
I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s —
- gun rights,
- right to work
— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.
But Trump’s theatrics were also very convenient because they disguised the fact that he cannot now, or ever, deliver on his signature promise to create a “great” infrastructure program. This is why Trump “infrastructure weeks” have become a standing joke in Washington. LaTourette was right: The Republican Party is no longer interested in spending public money to solve big problems if doing so gets in the way of cutting taxes.
LaTourette explained this in his rough-and-ready way back in 2011 when he called the 2010 tea party class of Republicans “knuckledraggers that came in in the last election that hate taxes.”
One of those newcomers was Mick Mulvaney, now Trump’s acting chief of staff and budget director. From the moment Trump, Pelosi and Schumer announced their convergence on a $2 trillion infrastructure plan last month, Mulvaney began sabotaging it. “Is it difficult to pass any infrastructure bill in this environment, let alone a $2 trillion one, in this environment? Absolutely,” Mulvaney said.
He was far from alone because the entire Republican leadership in Congress is now part of the Knuckledraggers Caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly signaled that he had absolutely no interest in a big infrastructure plan if it required rolling back any part of the GOP’s 2017 corporate tax cut.
Democrats argue that because business is clamoring for infrastructure, it would make sense to ask business to foot part of the bill. They have suggested raising the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from the 21 percent enshrined in the 2017 law and pulling back on some of its other provisions.
No way, say the Republicans. A “nonstarter,” declared McConnell. Faced with the choice of bridges collapsing in a heap or reining in the tax giveaways, the bridges don’t have much of a chance.
Note that the meeting Trump sabotaged was about how to finance the plan. He had no way of coming up with anything constructive because, for all of his bravado, he is totally under the thumb of Congress’s conservative ideologues. His tantrum was part of the coverup no one is talking about: The emperor has no money.
This fact underscores a widespread misunderstanding about our politics. “Normal” Republicans are regularly described as privately horrified with Trump. Trump is said to have engaged in “a hostile takeover” of the GOP.
In fact, it’s Trump who has been taken over. He campaigned as a different kind of Republican, and his infrastructure promise was a major component of his antiideological image. But on all the things the ideologues and right-wing business interests care about —
Trump caves in.
We know the president’s boast that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any votes.” Perhaps Republicans in Congress wouldn’t go that far. Otherwise, they’ll keep standing with him as long as he prostrates himself before their tax-cutting god, even if this means showing he is too weak and powerless to fix the roads.