It’s been awhile since I’ve done a politics post. It’s not because of lack of interest, but because of overexposure. We all stew in this ongoing disaster every day. It’s hard to add light rather than heat, and it’s hard to write or read about these things without a dangerous rise in blood pressure. But I know some of you are interested, so let’s review.
Image from the incomparable Lil Friendys
What we’ve learned about the GOP is that it has only four values:
- making the rich richer
- making life harder for non-white people
- government control over women’s reproduction
- making sure crazy people can shoot up schools
That’s it. That’s modern conservatism. To facilitate these goals, conservatives will cozy up to Russia, elect harassers and child molesters, ignore corruption, steal elections, flirt with nuclear war, obstruct the FBI, run trillion-dollar deficits, and hurt their own voters. And lie about everything.
If you’re a consie yourself, you think ”I don’t support those things!“ But you do; you vote for them, you do nothing to stop them or express your supposed displeasure. That you thought you’d get something else, which hasn’t arrived for forty years, is no excuse.
Hating their own
The sad irony is conservatives’ disdain for their own voters. All this agitation and hatred, and for what? What did they actually do for the white people who voted for them who weren’t rich?
- Tried to take away their health care.
- Hoped to reduce their Social Security and Medicare. (Paul Ryan’s plan for 2019, thankfully scuttled now.)
- Making imports more expensive, something that hits farmers especially hard.
- Deporting their workers and loved ones. (“Oh, I thought they’d come down on those other immigrants!”)
- At this moment: if they work for the government, taking away their salaries.
Nothing to bring back manufacturing. Nothing to address opioids. Nothing to fix their roads and bridges. Nothing to raise their wages or improve their communities. Not even a tax cut that actually helps them.
What happened to populism? Trump’s appeal as a candidate was in part due to his seeming to be different, and more moderate, than the other candidates. (Does anyone think Ted Cruz would be a better president?) It turns out that to rule, Trump threw out his populism to accommodate conservatives, and the GOP threw out its standards to accommodate him.
From a poli sci perspective, it would have been interesting if Trump had brought in some real populism. This might have actually broadened the appeal of the party, and offered a way out of its demographic dilemma. Why didn’t it happen? The best answer, I think, is that Trump reflects whoever he talked to last, and after the election he surrounded himself with conservatives.
Why are conservatives like this? There are some intriguing explanations: the tendency of authoritarians to demonize minorities and excuse any sin in their leaders; the fear that women and brown people will treat white men as they’ve been treated; the comfort of denying any attack on privilege by going on the attack; the Evangelical persecution complex combined with a deep desire to tell others what to do.
But perhaps the most compelling is that conservatism is a machine to hawk fear, and it’s hooked on its own supply. Look at who advertises on right-wing talk shows and radio shows: people selling gold, guns, shaky investment deals, unlikely medical notions. In a word, grifters. The purpose of the fear is just to sell crappy stuff that people wouldn’t buy without it.
More on this here and here.
How do you sell obviously shady things? You work up fear among already-anxious old people. You convince them that the “mainstream media” is hiding the truth which only you know. You work up conspiracy theories and create bogeymen. Media personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones were all too happy to provide the alarmist background noise to enable the grift.
The grift goes back to the ’80s, but GOP leaders didn’t have to buy their own bullshit. That’s why Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill could abuse each other all day and go drinking together at night. But somewhere between Gingrich and Trump, GOP leaders became believers. There’s no adults in the room any more— those people were forced out as RINOs. Trump is unusual for his rapid-fire lies, but he has an excuse for many of them: he believes whatever they spew out on Fox.
The last two years have been a slow-motion disaster. Something bad happens every week, though it may be buried by the toddler-in-chief’s latest tweet. Here’s a recap, which is by no means complete. It’s useful to compare it to what I predicted two years ago: almost none of this was unexpected.
- The Muslim ban— an absurd and cruel response to an imaginary threat.
- A war on immigrants, including legal ones. ICE has been given license to hassle anyone Hispanic, they built concentration camps and separated children from their parents, they’ve gone after law-abiding grandmothers and citizens, they can’t seem to keep the kids in their concentration camps alive. I read recently that they’re going after Vietnamese in California— the one group of immigrants that votes Republican.
- White nationalists in the White House; praise for Nazis rallying and killing people. What’s most dispiriting is how hard it is to distinguish them from the rest of the staff. Who needs Steve Bannon when you have Mike Pence?
- A huge tax cut for the rich, leading inevitably to trillion-dollar deficits. Note: corporations continued laying off workers and mostly used the tax cut to buy back stock.
- Note Paul Ryan’s cynical hypocrisy: pretend that the tax cuts were revenue neutral, then when they weren’t, pretend that that justified cutting services.
- Ongoing demonization of the press, predictably resulting in crazy people trying to kill journalists.
- Gagging scientists and making public information harder to get.
- A stupid and nasty ban on trans people in the military, currently held up in the courts.
- Consorting with Russia during the election. A huge disinformation campaign against the FBI, of all people, simply to obstruct the investigation into this and into Trump’s finances.
- Firing the FBI director; admitting on TV that this was done to obstruct justice.
- Withdrawing from the Paris agreement, and of course doing nothing to avert climate change.
- Undermining our alliances with NATO and South Korea.
- Repudiating the treaty with Iran, so that Iran will feel free to develop nukes, and our credibility in any future negotiations (e.g. with North Korea) will be zero.
- Pure chaos in Syria “policy”: escalating the war with direct attacks on Assad; alternately cooperating and obstructing Russia; announcing a complete pullout and then immediately walking it back.
- Relaxing regulations on pollution, water purity, and coal production.
- Months of federal inaction and denial following the hurricane in Puerto Rico.
- Two bad Supreme Court picks. As a bonus, one is a sexual harrasser.
- Voter suppression on a wider scale— not just changing laws to make voting harder, but literally not counting Democratic votes.
- Rewriting the rules for state government after losing governorships.
- Slapping tariffs on our allies and on China, apparently under the impression that foreign countries, rather than US citizens, pay tariffs.
- Total shutdown of any Middle East peace negotiations, and needless provocation of the Arab side by moving the embassy.
- Threats of nuclear war against Korea— which turned into the spectacle of a third-rate dictator playing Trump like a violin.
- Open corruption— e.g. foreign nations offering deals to Trump properties, or buying up space in Trump hotels.
- Don’t forget that quietly, outside the news, the GOP is loading the courts with conservative judges.
The one big surprise was the incompetent failure to take away health care from tens of millions of people. Conservatism’s utter dishonesty was on full display here. If you really believe people don’t deserve government health care, then fucking say so. Run on a platform of “You should get sick and die because fuck you.” It’s honest and expresses your actual values! Do you think people just won’t notice if your RepublicanBrand™ law takes away their health care?
The apparent conservative talking point is that young healthy people shouldn’t have to pay for insurance. Of course, they’re still supposed to pay for RepublicanBrand™ wars and for Republican old people’s Social Security. But really, is the concept of insurance that hard to grasp? Those young people will be old one day! Or they’ll get cancer, or get hit by a car. But it’s hardly worth ranting about; the concern for young people is bogus. Consie pundits have health insurance and don’t give a fuck for people who don’t.
The ongoing comedy of the wall is another mild surprise. Mr. Art of the Deal could have had has stupid wall if he’d just protected children of illegal immigrants from being deported, but they’re brown people and had to be screwed over.
As I write, we’re in the middle of a government shutdown— putting thousands of government employees out of work, reducing airport security, trashing the national parks, evicting people from their homes— because Mr. Big Wall, having approved a deal, got criticized on Fox News. And the GOP plays along, conveniently forgetting that Congress can pass a law without the President’s signature.
Against all that
Against all this, there’s Trump’s unpopularity, culminating in a drubbing of the GOP in November. The Democrats flipped the House, gaining 40 seats. On the local level, they won 7 governorships, gained full control of 7 state legislatures, and broke Republican monopolies in 4 more. Turnout was 10% higher than in any recent midterm election, and higher than any of them in a century. There are more women in Congress than ever before— still barely a quarter of the seats, but that’s twice the level it was 20 years ago.
A lot of this was driven by activism that went back to the election, and involved the Democratic rediscovery of how to win elections: organize, communicate, fund-raise, find candidates, work locally, and wear out the shoe leather. For years, even as the Tea Party was taking over the GOP using these tactics, the left treated politics as a spectator sport, and didn’t bother to vote in the midterms, and wondered vaguely why the wrong people always won. (This was true even in the ’60s. In my review of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, I noted that the Brothers are far more left-wing than today’s activists… but do jack shit about it.)
Already there’s a great new voice for liberalism– the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s managed to get people talking about two very Rooseveltian ideas: 1) a Green New Deal: actually doing something about global warming; 2) raising the tax rate for the ultra-rich to 70%, the rate we had under Richard Nixon. Not surprisingly, she drives consies crazy, and they’re obsessed with her. Their biggest riposte so far: she danced as a college student!
Winning back the House was a key first step, but only a first step. The most important effect will be that the GOP can’t pursue the Ryan agenda; and next, that it can start holding the Administration responsible for its corruption.
What it can’t do, I hope everyone understands, is govern. It can pass bills, but on its own it can’t force the Senate to pass them, or Trump to sign them. What this means in practice is that very little will get done— mostly spending bills. And the easiest way to approach those, perhaps the only way, will be to more or less continue with existing spending levels.
Of course, the House can practice for 2021. By all means pass climate change or health care legislation and let the Senate go on record opposing it. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that this will impress the moderates who swing elections blue or red. The Republicans “repealed Obamacare” dozens of times as pure theater, and it didn’t matter to anyone except their base.
The House can impeach Trump. But remember your 1990s history: what this means, in effect, is that it can indict Trump, and he’d be tried by the Senate. You can do it as theater, as the ’90s GOP did to Clinton; or you can do it for real, as was going to happen to Nixon. The difference is getting the President’s party on board in the Senate.
The Senate has shown zero interest in turning on Trump. (Yes, a few senators defected on health care. But John McCain is dead, and we don’t need two or three senators defecting, we need 20.)
Don’t blame me for telling you this, but it’s been two years, and those 20 Senators know about everything Trump and the GOP have done, everything listed above and more. If a Democrat did the same things, they’d be all over him. But a Republican did, so: crickets. Remember what they care about: tax cuts, hurting brown people, abortion, guns. Opposing Trump isn’t on the list and it’s hard to see what would put it there.
I’m tempted to say more about what happens next, but that’s a discussion for another time. For now, I’ll just say:
- It’s not going to be easy, because the GOP has thrown out so many norms in its embrace of Trump.
- Don’t give up. The midterms show that Trump is not magic, and hurts his own party. Things have been this bad before. (Imagine a reactionary plutocrat being popular! Well, look at the ’80s.)
- The only thing that looks worse than Trumpism right now is both-sides-ism. It’s not 1992 any more and we do not need Republicanism Lite.