The coming Republican assault on the safety net
With Republicans looking like they're about to pass their tax bill into law, it's tempting to see it as a lone and perhaps pyrrhic victory amidst a year of bumbling failure. If you look purely at their legislative record, that may be true. But if we pull back our gaze, it begins to look like they're having more success than we realize. They have an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, one that involves not just a bunch of discrete policy changes, but a fundamental remaking of American life. They're on their way to seeing it fulfilled, and they're about to get started on the most important piece of the puzzle.
The vision is one of an America that's more unequal and more cruel, where the wealthy and powerful accrue more wealth and power, and the rest of us find more obstacles in our way. In other words, "freedom."
The tax cut will most certainly have this effect. At a moment when the richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of America's wealth — a higher portion than at any time in the last 50 years — and corporate profits are near all-time highs, Republicans are about to pass a gigantic tax cut that mostly benefits the wealthy and corporations. And it isn't just that they're larding benefits on those who need it least; to pay for it, the bill will increase taxes on those making less than $75,000 and take health coverage away from millions.
But that's just one half of the plan. Once the tax bill is done, we get to phase II: an all-out war on the safety net. In an act of positively awe-inspiring shamelessness, they plan to argue that our high national debt demands that we cut back social programs, right after they voted to increase the debt by $1.5 trillion.
That's the rationale, but we know beyond any doubt that they don't really care about the debt. Republicans, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in particular, have long dreamed of taking a chainsaw to the social programs that emerged from the Great Society. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps — it will all be on the chopping block. "We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," says Ryan.
Eviscerating social programs has long been Ryan's dream, ever since he was a wee pup excitedly reading Ayn Rand novels, his mind expanding to take in this intoxicating perspective on how most of your fellow human beings are contemptible drones worthy only of serving your grand ambitions. The average college dudebro who thrills to doorstopper "philosophical" justifications for selfishness eventually grows up and gets over it, but Ryan never did ("I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it," he once said), and his career has been a single-minded project to translate those ideas into policy.
There is one problem, though: President Trump has a populist impulse on some of these questions, driven less by ideology than by his sense of what's popular and what isn't. That's why he repeatedly promised during the 2016 campaign not to cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. So how do Republicans convince him to break that promise? They seem to be trying to do it through the use of a magical incantation, the words "welfare reform."
Actual welfare — what is now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families — is in truth a mere shadow of what it once was. TANF funding is frozen at $16.5 billion, or about 0.004 percent of the federal budget, and the Trump administration wants to cut it even further. But when Republicans whisper the word "welfare" into Trump's ear, they aren't really talking about welfare. They're hoping to convince him to adopt their own view, that any social program is "welfare," with its associations of shiftless layabouts suckling at the public teat while hardworking Americans pull their weight.
And don't think there isn't a strong racial component to the use of that word — another thing that will make it appealing to Trump. Political scientists have long understood that Americans' views about welfare are colored by their views on race. Despite the reality of who the program serves, white voters tend to believe it coddles the undeserving poor, particularly African-Americans.
The effort to convince the president that social programs are all "welfare" may already be having its effect. Witness this excerpt from a speech he gave last week in Missouri:
Does anybody want welfare reform? And infrastructure. But welfare reform — I see it and I've talked to people. I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn't work at all. And the person who's not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that's working his and her ass off. And it's not going to happen. Not going to happen. [Trump]
Leaving aside the comical idea that Trump knows people who work three jobs, this is the philosophical argument against social programs, based on the idea that people who use them are lazy grifters milking the system. Twinned to the feigned concern about debt, it will form the justification of the coming Republican attack on the safety net. It all will be accompanied by lofty rhetoric about the "dignity of work," usually used to justify ritual humiliations meant to make sure poor people feel as bad as possible. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker is soon to start drug testing people before they can get food stamps, not because there's any evidence people on food stamps use more drugs than anyone else, but just to teach them a lesson.
The attack on the safety net may well falter when it runs into public opinion; as Republicans found out when they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, programs like Medicaid are extremely popular. But even so, their vision is advancing on multiple fronts.
At the EPA, polluters are being empowered to dump whatever they want into the air we breathe and the water we drink. The administration is dismantling the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so banks, credit card companies, payday lenders, and other corporations can defraud and exploit vulnerable citizens without having to worry about being held accountable. At the Department of Education, the Obama administration's efforts to rein in scam for-profit colleges are being aggressively reversed under Betsy DeVos. A generation of corporate-friendly conservative ideologues is being appointed to federal courts. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is bringing back the war on drugs and waging a battle against civil rights.
Republicans will have more failures before they give up total power in Washington, whether that happens in 2018, 2020, or some time after. But they will have successes too. The only question is how far they'll manage go in making our country the meaner, more divided, and more unequal place they've been hoping to see.