Paul Krugman, who never shies away from telling it like it really is, has summed up the “conservatism” of today’s GOP in the first paragraphs of a recent column:
News item #1: The Trump administration is taking thousands of children away from their parents, and putting them in cages.
News item #2: House Republicans have released a budget plan that would follow up last year’s big tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy with huge funding cuts for Medicare and Medicaid.
If you think these items are unrelated, you’ve missed the whole story of modern American politics. Conservatism – the actually existing conservative movement, as opposed to the philosophical stance whose constituency is maybe five pundits on major op-ed pages — is all about a coalition between racists and plutocrats. It’s about people who want to do (2) empowering people who want to do (1), and vice versa.
For a long time–especially when I was still a Republican–I was sure that the two wings of the GOP were headed for a split. The genuine fiscal conservatives I knew–people who defined fiscal conservatism as economic prudence and “pay as you go,” not as favoring the wealthy at the expense of the poor–were as appalled as I was by the hypocritical piety of the self-identified “Christian” wing, which even then was willing to turn a blind eye to very unChristian behavior so long as it cemented their privileged status and their right to impose their beliefs on everyone else.
I utterly failed to realize what Krugman points out: once you separate genuine fiscal conservatives from apologists for the greedy, and once you rip off the false facade of “policy differences” from the racists, the two wings actually complement each other. Genuine fiscal conservatives departed the GOP some time ago; Trumpism has removed the facade from racism.
Until Trump, the ugliness of this deal was cloaked in euphemisms. As Lee Atwater famously put it,
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.
But the reality was always there. The conservative economic agenda has never been popular, and it is objectively against the interests of working class voters, whatever their race. In fact, whites without a college degree are the biggest beneficiaries of the social safety net. Nonetheless, these voters supported the GOP because it spoke to their racial animosity.
For a while, what Krugman calls “this bait-and-switch” worked; racism was used to motivate the base, but once elections were over, it was mostly shoved back in the closet. As he notes, however, that tactic was ultimately unsustainable. “Sooner or later the people who voted for white dominance at their own economic expense were going to find a champion who would deliver on their side of the bargain.”
Now, many in the plutocrat wing of the GOP seem to be genuinely dismayed by where this is going. They aren’t themselves racists, or at least they aren’t crude racists. But so far they’ve been unwilling to go beyond hand-wringing. Remember, just two Republican senators could stop all of this by saying that they’ll refuse to support Trump judicial appointments and legislation until the cruelty stops; they could bring all the evil to a dead halt by threatening to caucus with Democrats. But not one has stepped forward – because taking such a step would endanger conservative economic policies, and those are evidently more important than human rights.
When members of the “plutocratic wing” decry child separation at the nation’s border, when they join the rest of us by protesting that “this isn’t who we are,” it’s hard to argue with Krugman’s response:
It is who you are: you made a deal with the devil, empowering racism and cruelty so you could get deregulation and tax cuts. Now the devil is having his due, and you must share the blame.
I was wrong to see the two wings of the Republican Party as incompatible. They’re locked into their very own Faustian bargain, and unless and until American voters demand payment, they will both continue getting the benefit of that bargain.