Opinion

Centrists have a solution for Trumpism: Trump Lite

No Labels finds a perfect mascot

Self-described centrists have had a hard time of it for the last four years. With President Trump utterly dominant on the right, and the Democrats moving at least rhetorically to the left, the apparent space in the middle has shrunk virtually to nothing. And with ideological polarization and mutual animosity between the parties higher than it's been in over a century, there is little prospect for the sort of bipartisan compromise beloved by Washington establishment organizations like No Labels, the ostensibly nonpartisan group that pushes for sensible, moderate, pro-growth policy.

But now that Joe Biden is president-elect and promising a return to bipartisan comity, No Labels is bringing forth a new champion: Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. This Republican will bring honor and decency back to the GOP — by being openly corrupt and racist just like Trump, but in a quieter and more plausibly-deniable fashion. No Labels, and the school of centrism they typify, couldn't ask for a better mascot.

As Eric Cortellessa reports at Washington Monthly, Hogan's most notable act as governor has been canceling a public transit project in Baltimore and spending Maryland money on highway developments adjacent to land he owns personally. Just like Trump, instead of divesting himself of conflicts of interest, he put his business operations in the hands of a relative who keeps him abreast of what is happening. He "has advanced a number of major state transportation projects that are near properties his company owns," Cortellessa writes, including "millions of dollars in road and sidewalk improvements near property he had bought approximately two years earlier and was turning into a housing development." Hogan is making millions, more than any Maryland governor in history, yet just like Trump refuses to release his tax returns so his constituents can see where the money is coming from.

In addition to being wildly corrupt in basically exactly the same way that Trump is corrupt — again, Hogan shamelessly funneled public money into his own pockets — this decision was also racist, a climate disaster, and hugely wasteful. The Red Line metro rail project was a tentative, inadequate, and long-overdue effort to reverse just a little of the decades of disinvestment that have left majority-Black Baltimore as one of the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the country. Taking that money to spend on largely-white suburban roads is exactly what racist conservatives did in the 1970s to capitalize on post-civil rights white backlash, while of course cars and car-dependent suburbs consume dramatically more energy than dense urban cores. Hogan also had to flush millions down the toilet to kill the Red Line — not only foregoing $900 million in matching funds from the Obama administration, but also wasting a ton of money the state had spent on land acquisition prior to construction.

The choice of a guy like this is a perfect illustration of what No Labels "centrism" amounts to in practice. It is not about good government, or "problem solving," or bridging the partisan divide, or any of the other things these organizations say they are about. It's instead an attempt to paint a nanometer-thin veneer of honor and civility over the same corrupt neoliberal self-dealing that has saturated American politics for the last 30 years. As Alex Pareene writes:

Hogan … is exactly the "normal" to which politicians like Joe Biden promise to return us when they try to speak into existence a Republican Party that they can "work with." Here he is: a self-dealing crook whose racist policymaking will speed the destructive effects of climate change while making him even richer. [The New Republic]

But we can see also why No Labels has fixated on Hogan — he is a Republican who is extremely popular in Democratic Maryland, registering 73 percent approval among Democrats in the state, and 87 percent among Black voters there. Frankly, that level of popularity is baffling, but it seems liberal Democrats are depressingly willing to embrace a conservative who keeps taxes low, quietly starves the poor out of sight, and proves their open-mindedness, so long as he isn't too much a loudmouth. For his part, Hogan, whose second term in office expires in 2022 and is clearly angling for a future presidential run, gets a higher media profile and to appear Responsible.

The problem with "centrism" in an American context is that it is not actually anywhere close to the middle of the political spectrum, and its signature ideas are not popular at all. Now, some of the ideas No Labels advocates for are perfectly sensible and poll well, like treating capital gains as normal income or reforming the filibuster. But many others, like cutting the deficit and the corporate tax rate, are not. Its overall policy orientation is pure neoliberalism: removing regulatory "barriers" and bettering "incentives" supposedly to create growth, policies which the last 40 years of economic history have demonstrated do the opposite.

The real unoccupied center in American politics is genuine economic populism, where most rank-and-file Democrats and a nontrivial number of socially conservative Republicans agree — that taxes on the rich should be jacked up, that the minimum wage should be $15 an hour, that workers should have some control over the means of production, and so on.

The political function of No Labels is to keep such supposedly radical policies off the political menu at any cost, which is why it gets so much corporate funding. Joe Biden served a similar purpose for many years in the Senate as a stooge of the credit card companies that use Delaware as a corporate flag of convenience. His recent promise to obtain more bipartisan compromise probably will not work out, but if it does, it will likely involve exactly the kind of hideously unpopular cuts to social programs that he's been pushing for decades — that way both parties can launder responsibility for something Americans as a whole hate.

Pushing up a Republican who has figured out how to satisfy well-off liberals by quietly pandering to their most retrograde instincts is all part of the plan. We may end up with Trump Lite as president, but at least the corruption and racism will be out of sight — and the pocketbooks of the rich will be safe.

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