The GOP once again succumbs to Tea Party brain
So far as I am aware, none of the major streaming services is currently offering Planet of the Apes. I wish this were not the case, not because I need to watch the movie, which I have seen more times than I can count, but because Charlton Heston's wonderful closing monologue perfectly captures what I and millions of others are thinking about the Republican party: "They finally, really did it! You maniacs! You blew it up!"
There is no better summary of the way the GOP has handled the already much-delayed coronavirus relief package. This should have been a no-brainer. There is only one almost painfully straightforward solution to the problem of millions of Americans, many of them hourly rather than salaried employees, being unable to work and therefore unable to pay for the things they and their families need: Give them money, regardless of how much they made last year or their current employment status. A thousand or two thousand each for American adults, plus an additional amount of, say, $500 for their children.
This is, much to their credit, more or less exactly what some Republican senators — Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and, oddly enough, Willard Romney — have proposed. Individual plans have varied, but for several days it seemed as if a broad consensus had emerged in favor of sending checks to as many Americans as possible as soon as it can be arranged.
Then the thing that always happens whenever a few Republicans have a halfway decent idea happened: their colleagues began to display symptoms of a very serious neurological condition. Conservative epidemiologists such as this columnist have observed a number of strains of this disease over the years, but in my experience Tea Party brain looks the same in most patients season after season: pretending that we live in a fantasy world of stolid citizen-statesmen in tricorn hats devoted to the ideals of the Founding Fathers and something called "limited government" while quietly doing whatever Wall Street wants, regardless of whether it lines up with their supposed principles. This is why I was not remotely surprised by the symptoms exhibited by the Senate GOP's economic proposal this week: an utterly inexplicable phase-in that will limit relief checks for 64 million Americans, on the grounds that these people had not paid as much in 2018 income taxes. For some reason this logic has not been extended to corporations that pay little in tax year after year.
It was once thought by some of us that there was a vaccine effective against Tea Party brain. Donald Trump won a resounding victory in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries campaigning against Wall Street, free trade, cuts to entitlements (to say nothing of his past statements in favor of increasing taxes on the wealthy and other no-nos). It is amusing now to remember the mood just before his inauguration in 2017. I distinctly remember telling the editor of a prominent conservative periodical my hope that someone would convince the president to pass single-payer health care (which Trump had himself publicly supported only a few years earlier). All he would have had to do is bill it as golf-plated, diamond-studded platinum TrumpCare Like You Wouldn't Believe™ and the public's objections would vanish. The same thing could happen with everything from tariffs to infrastructure investment to guaranteed employment. The average American voter is socially conservative and economically moderate to progressive. The only possible objections to any of this would be from right-wing wonks. The Republican Party itself cares about winning more than anything else, and this was certainly a winning platform.
"No one is going to be more disappointed with Donald Trump's presidency than you are," my editor friend told me at the time. He was right. Instead of fulfilling the promise of his presidential campaign, when it comes to domestic affairs Trump has governed more or less exactly the way a President Cruz would have. With the exception of the criminal justice reform bill he signed into law at the behest of Kim Kardashian, Trump's only major legislative achievement was cutting taxes.
That does not mean that there has been no intellectual movement on the right in this country since 2016. What had briefly been referred to as the intellectual wing of Trumpism has metamorphosed into a broad, only slightly overlapping coalition, one that is made up to a significant degree of persons who were not initially (or indeed ever) supporters of the president: Jacksonian populists, neo-paleoconservatives, reform conservatives, so-called "postliberals," religious traditionalists. All of these groups have had two things in common: they have rejected the dead fusionist consensus that had animated the GOP in the post-Nixon era and they have vanishingly few allies in the institutional Republican party.
Not quite zero, though. With varying degrees of emphasis and, no doubt, a wide variety of motives, a handful of Republicans, mainly in the Senate, have attempted to shift the party away from a doomed free-market absolutism that has resulted only in the enrichment of a billionaire class that at least pretends to hate them and the immiseration of millions of others, here and across the globe. It is heartening that in certain quarters references to "solidarity" and "the common good" are no longer verboten — that Rubio is quoting papal encyclicals on the just wage and giving interviews to American Affairs, that Tom Cotton is calling for a total reorganization of the American supply chain that would return the manufacturing of prescription drugs to these shores. If these men were heeded, the GOP would not be a perfect party, but it would be more of a force for good both in the United States and the world than it has been since the Eisenhower administration.
Unless they are capable of strong-arming more of their fellow members soon, I suspect that the GOP is going to continue to suffer from Tea Party brain for a long time. Sooner or later, the condition will prove fatal.