As Mark Hanna, a Republican senator best known for helping to steer William McKinley into power, famously said in the 1890s: “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money. I can’t remember what the second is.”
The Republican tax plan is still in the process of becoming law, but already several enduring features of the new American landscape it creates are clear for all to see.
It redistributes income upward from the middle class to the donor class at the top, thereby increasing economic inequality. It is as if the captain of the Titanic, upon setting sail, ordered the crew to take on ice.
It significantly increases the national debt, thus exposing all the deficit hawks in the Republican Party as chickens. The current chickens intend to recreate themselves as hawks, duplicitously decry the deficit they have just created, and then demand significant cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The brazen hypocrisy of it all defies paradox.
The way it passed is prime material for a feature film or miniseries entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Senate” or perhaps “Machiavelli was Naïve.” Passed in the dead of night without even knowing what is in the bill because the text itself remained an unfinished, partially handwritten draft, this is the kind of scene a documentary scriptwriter would not have dared make up.
Now we know what “Again” means in the Trump campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” It means the Gilded Age of late 19th-century America. This in turn means erasing most of the 20th century, to dismantle the political legacies of the Great Society, the New Deal, and the Progressive Movement. It means going back to the future when titans named Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Morgan wielded more power than presidents. It means accepting embedded economic inequality as the natural order.
Although Republicans call themselves conservatives, this is a radical vision, as it repudiates the social contract that laid the foundations for the American dream for much of the 20th century. The contract was most clearly articulated in FDR’s 1944 State of the Union address, known as the Economic Bill of Rights speech. As FDR said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. … People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
That social contract was a bargain brokered between capitalism and democracy. Corporate America would be permitted to pursue its profits in the marketplace on the condition that wealth was distributed to assure a robust middle class. The economic pie would grow in accord with capitalistic principles, while the pieces of the pie would be shared in accord with democratic principles.
The contract assumed that Jefferson’s lyrical phrase “pursuit of happiness” lacked any plausible credibility if ordinary Americans were trapped in poverty and incapable of pursuing much more than survival. It also assumed that a healthy economy required an affluent middle class capable of purchasing and consuming goods and services generated by the marketplace. At the highest rhetorical level, freedom and equality coexisted in a mutually beneficial partnership.
In our new Gilded Age there is no need for negotiation between two sides. Capitalism has bought democracy. There is no social contract because there is no such thing as “we the people,” only winners and losers, or in the Ayn Rand formulation, givers and takers. The American Dream has become, well, a dream.
This dystopian outcome has been implicit in the Republican agenda for several decades, ever since the right wing took control of the party in the 1990s. Emboldened by Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, they have called themselves the Tea Party, the Freedom Caucus and various other names. Now, with control of the presidency, the Supreme Court and both houses of Congress, the enactment of the Republican tax plan exposes explicitly the full meaning of this radical agenda.
This is why the Republican leadership in Congress has averted its eyes from the outrageous behavior of a President who is mentally, emotionally and morally unqualified for the job. Trump is their Great Enabler. He remains blissfully oblivious to the fact that he is selling out his base, who are dying by the thousands in the opioid epidemic and are at risk of losing their Medicaid coverage.
The looming midterm elections are expected to be a referendum on the Trump presidency. But now they are also likely to be a referendum on the Republican vision of the American Eden as a second Gilded Age.
There has long been an implicit bargain between the haves and the have-nots in the Republican coalition. Under the same anti-government, the haves get to control the economy while the have-nots control the cultural agenda. One side gets to keep its money; the other side gets to keep its guns, and prejudices. The viability of that awkward coalition is about to be put to the test.