As Tropical Storm Harvey pummeled Texas and Louisiana this week, the contrast between the GOP's rhetoric and actions was stark — but also terribly familiar.
While the greater Houston area continued to suffer through catastrophic flooding that is sure to leave countless thousands homeless and displaced, many Republicans said the right things. But quietly (or loudly in the case of President Trump), they also showed the country where the party's priorities truly lie.
First, The Associated Press reported that House Republicans are "looking at cutting almost $1 billion from disaster accounts to help finance [the] Trump border wall." Then the president delivered a speech in Springfield, Missouri, in which he made a case for helping America's middle class by sharply cutting taxes on corporations and rich people.
There's your Republican Party, ladies and gentlemen — the party that sought to block aid to New Jersey and New York in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; the party that fights to give families the "choice" to drop health insurance it would also make many times more expensive; the party that venerates libertarian economists and entrepreneurs and private charities but that has no concept at all of the public and its place in our lives and in the life of our nation.
It's true that Congress will probably end up appropriating money for disaster relief. After weeks of delay while Republicans looked for cuts to offset the spending, Congress eventually approved a Sandy aid package for New Jersey and New York, though with 179 Republicans voting against it. The same thing is likely to happen now, and perhaps with fewer members of the party dissenting. Texas, after all, is a solidly red state, and that will make opposition more difficult. Such considerations wouldn't matter to a truly public-spirited party, but the GOP isn't such a party. It's a party that ruthlessly wants to win political power (hence the red-state favoritism) for the sake of advancing an agenda that takes no account of, and often actively opposes the government taking responsibility for, the public good.
How do Republicans view individuals? The foundation of society. Families? The incubator of sociality and morals. Free enterprise? The engine of opportunity that powers American greatness. Private associations? An expression of individual liberty and rightful locus for charity. But "the public"? The ideology that's reigned supreme within the Republican Party since 1980 has nothing to say about it, other than to denigrate it as an abstraction that justifies the expansion of government at the expense of individuals, families, free enterprise, and private associations. The public is the problem.
Why does this anti-public ideology maintain its grip on the Republican mind? Because it is grows out of and is rooted in a pair of potent (but wrongheaded) moral and economic assumptions.
The first is that the individuals who are the foundation of society need to live a life of struggle and striving in order to power economic growth, upward mobility, and technological progress. As social critic Corey Robin has put it, Republicans often believe that "the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher." Greatness comes from such acts of overcoming, just as mediocrity and decline follow from removing the goad that drives it. The goad is life, fate, hardship, suffering — especially when they are experienced (or rather, endured) without the protective cushion provided by a generous government programs.
In one of the most wickedly apt images proposed in the annals of punditry, political scientist John Holbo suggested back in 2003 that we call this "Donner Party Conservatism," after the 19th-century pioneers who were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive a brutal winter trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Think of the virtues instilled by such an ordeal — and also of vices allowed to fester by the government depriving them of it!
It's Donner Party Conservatism that explains the reluctance of Republicans to approve aid when hundreds of thousands are suffering in the wake of a natural disaster and the federal government is the only actor big and powerful enough to restore public health, services, and well-being across wide swaths of the country. It's certainly not fiscal prudence that drives it. The U.S. is a very rich country, and such concerns play little role in debates about our gargantuan military budgets. The opposition is driven by the worry that government acting in the name of the public good will make Americans soft.
The second assumption flows from the ideological synthesis of classical liberalism (equal parts John Locke and Adam Smith) and Ayn Rand's Nietzschean defense of capitalism that has come to dominate the American right over the past few decades. To the classical liberal assumption that the production of wealth in society benefits everyone ("a rising tide raises all boats") Rand added the nonsense moral claim that those entrepreneurial supermen who produce the wealth that benefits everyone else justly deserve to keep their profits for themselves to do with as they please. And if they are denied this fully earned reward for their excellence? In that case, they are entirely justified in withdrawing from social life altogether, leaving the mediocre masses to suffer the consequences of their refusal to display proper deference to their rightful economic overlords.
This Randified form of classical liberalism is what lies behind the GOP's monomaniacal emphasis on cutting taxes for the richest of the rich. Yes, the party's donors want their taxes lowered because they'd like to keep more of their earnings. But they justify this position to themselves and the rest of the country in explicitly moral terms. Many of them really think that they deserve to keep every penny and that the rest of us owe them an expression of gratitude for providing us the privilege of working for them.
How else to explain President Trump choosing to hock steep corporate and personal income tax cuts while whole neighborhoods remain underwater, and countless thousands face financial ruin, in southeastern Texas? How else to account for his presumption that such cuts would automatically lead to higher wages for American workers (instead of what is far more likely, which is vastly increased after-tax income, stock valuations, and profits for investors)? Those are the words and actions of someone who considers it self-evident that the rich deserve to get ever-richer — and that everyone else will benefit from bestowing ever-more good fortune on those who are already the most fortunate among us.
Are the president and his party right to think that rank-and-file Republicans hold these exceedingly contestable presumptions as self-evident truths? Are they justified in assuming that a plurality of American voters support their disinterest in and even active hostility to taking responsibility for the public good? It's up to the GOP's political opponents to present the electorate with an alternative that speaks without shame or apology about the public dimensions of our lives.