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An Abdication of Leadership: How reality is disrupting an ideology still opposed to the New Deal

For a generation, Republicans have tried to unravel the activist government under which Americans have lived since the 1930s, when Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt created a government that regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and invested in infrastructure. From the beginning, that government was enormously popular. Both Republicans and Democrats believed that the principle behind it — that the country worked best when government protected and defended ordinary Americans — was permanent.

But the ideologues who now control the Republican Party have always wanted to get rid of this New Deal state and go back to the world of the 1920s, when businessmen ran the government. They believe that government regulation and taxation is an assault on their liberty, because it restricts their ability to make money.

They have won office not by convincing Americans to give up their own government benefits — most Americans actually like clean water and Social Security and safe bridges — but by selling a narrative in which “Liberals” are trying to undermine the country by stealing the tax dollars of hardworking Americans — quietly understood to be white men — and redistributing them to lazy people who want handouts, not-so-quietly understood to be people of color and feminist women. According to this narrative, legislation that protects ordinary Americans simply redistributes wealth. It is “socialism,” or “communism.”

Meanwhile, Republican policies have actually redistributed wealth upward. When voters began to turn against those policies, Republicans upped the ante, saying that “Liberals” were simply buying Black votes with handouts, or, as Carly Fiorina said in a 2016 debate, planning to butcher babies and sell their body parts. To make sure Republicans stayed in power, they suppressed voting by people likely to vote Democratic, and gerrymandered states so that even if Democrats won a majority of votes, they would have a minority of representatives.

This system rewarded those who moved to the right, not to the middle. It gave them Donald Trump as a 2016 candidate, who talked of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and treated women not as equals but as objects either for sex or derision.

And, although as a candidate Trump talked about making taxes fairer, improving health care, and helping those struggling economically, in fact as president he has done more to bring about the destruction of the New Deal state than most of his predecessors. He has slashed regulations, given a huge tax cut to the wealthy, and gutted the government.

If the end of the New Deal state is going to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity, it should be now.

Instead, the gutting of our government destroyed our carefully constructed pandemic response teams and plans, leaving America vulnerable to the coronavirus. Pressed to take the lead on combatting the virus, the administration refused to use federal power, and instead relied on “public-private partnerships” which meant states were largely on their own. When governors tried to take over, the Republican objection to government regulation, cultivated over a generation, had people refusing to wear masks or follow government instructions.

As the rest of the world watches in horror, we have suffered more than 4 million infections, and are approaching 150,000 deaths.

The pandemic also crashed the economy as businesses shut down to avoid infections. It threw more than 20 million Americans out of work. Republican ideology says the government has no business supporting ordinary Americans: they should work to survive, even if that means they have to take the risk of contracting COVID-19. Schools should open, businesses should get up and going, and the economy should rebuild. As Texas’s lieutenant governor Dan Patrick said to Fox News Channel personality Tucker Carlson in March, grandparents should be willing to contract coronavirus for the U.S. to “get back to work.”

The coronavirus has brought the Republican narrative up against reality. Just 32% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, and only 38% of the country think the economy is good. Americans believe that the government should have done a better job managing the pandemic, and they do not believe they should risk their lives for the economy.

To try to deflect attention from the failure of his approach to the coronavirus, Trump is once, again, escalating the narrative. He has launched an offensive against Democratic cities, trying to convince voters he is protecting them from “violent anarchists” coddled by Democrats. He is using federal law enforcement officers in unprecedented ways, not to quell protests, but to escalate them. In Portland, Oregon, as officers have used tear gas, less-than-lethal munitions – which nonetheless fractured a man’s skull, and batons to attack protesters, the events, which had fallen to a few hundred attendees, grew again into the thousands. And now the administration is planning to send in more officers, to escalate further.

The Republicans’ ideology is also making it impossible for them to deal with the economy. We are on the verge of a catastrophe as the $600 weekly federal bonus attached to state unemployment benefits runs out this week just as the moratorium on evictions for an inability to pay rent ends. At the same time, state and local budgets, hammered by the pandemic, will mean more layoffs.

The House passed a $3 trillion bill in May to address these issues, along with providing more money to combat the coronavirus, but Republicans in the Senate rejected it out of hand. On the July 26 broadcast on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) went back to his ideological roots. “The only objective Democrats have is to defeat Donald Trump, and they’ve cynically decided the best way to defeat Donald Trump is shut down every business in America, shut down every school in America,” he said. House Speaker “Nancy Pelosi talks about working men and women. What she’s proposing is keeping working men and women from working.” “Her objectives are shoveling cash at the problem and shutting America down.”

Instead, both Trump and Cruz want a payroll tax cut, which will do little to stimulate the economy since the tens of millions who have lost their jobs would not see any money, and this late in the year much of the tax has already been paid. But the payroll tax cut is popular among Republican ideologues because it funds Social Security and Medicare. Cut it, and those programs take a hit.

Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took to the Sunday talk shows on July 26 to try to reassure people that the Republicans would, in fact, manage to cobble together a relief bill in the next few days (after not writing one in the last two months). They are talking about passing piecemeal measures, but, recognizing that this means Republicans will call all the shots, Pelosi says no.

Meadows and Mnuchin say they want liability protection for businesses and schools if they open and people get Covid-19. They were also clear they would not agree to extending the $600 federal addition to state unemployment benefits, arguing that it simply “paid people to stay home.” They say they want to guarantee people 70% of their wages, but the reason the earlier bill had a flat $600 payment was because it appeared impossible for states to administer a complicated program based on a percentage, so this might well just be a straw argument.

The Republican approach to handling the coronavirus and the economy is apparently not to turn to our government, but to put our heads down, go on as usual, and hope for a vaccine. What will end the pandemic is “not masks. It’s not shutting down the economy,” Meadows said. “Hopefully it is American ingenuity that will allow for therapies and vaccines to ultimately conquer this.”

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

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About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.