The right-wing, anti-government forces which took root in the Republican party more than 40 years ago are now in full bloom, and Trump is their willing avatar.
The government shutdown, now in its fourth miserable week, shows few signs of ending. Donald Trump, obsessed with his own image and curtailing immigration at all costs, wants money for a border wall House Democrats won’t give to him. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, is content to do Trump’s bidding, twice blocking Democratic bills to reopen the government.
This is now the longest shutdown in US history and it’s striking how little Trump and the Republican Senate majority care. McConnell turned into a political phantom. Trump gloats about ordering fast food for football players because the cooks in the White House are furloughed.
It’s easy to see the shutdown as another symptom of Trump’s instability and hatred of Mexican immigrants – and it is. The lack of alarm from his Republican peers is, just as importantly, revelatory of another disturbing truth: the rightwing, anti-government forces which first took root in the GOP more than 40 years ago are now in full bloom, and Trump is their willing avatar.
Republican party leaders have long slashed the size of government, reduced the social safety net, and privatized whatever they can. Paul Ryan, the former House speaker, called social security a “Ponzi scheme.” It has long been the dream of movement conservatives to bring to the knees a federal government that grew dramatically in scope under the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B Johnson’s anti-poverty programs.
About 800,000 federal workers currently are furloughed. Many of them have the kind of job protections and benefits right-wing politicians demonize. Especially the many people of color for whom a government job is the path to a middle-class existence, with healthcare, a pension, and paid time off.
Ronald Reagan’s administration spoke of “starving the beast” of the federal government to achieve his desired policy outcomes. The idea was simple: deprive the government of tax revenue, reduce its ability to function, and cut spending on as many programs as possible. Nothing domestically should be spared: Medicare, Medicaid, social security, housing programs, and welfare.
While Trump appears incapable of reading a book, he has absorbed – through osmosis, as well as through cabinet members such as the vice-president, Mike Pence, and acting the chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, – the philosophies of hardline conservative economists, especially Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek and James Buchanan.
All three men were the godfathers of modern conservatism, which sought to purge the remnants of the Republican party’s liberalism and its taste for a certain element of noblesse oblige. The growing federal government, with its programs for the poor and its ossifying bureaucracy, was the true enemy of liberty in their eyes, and a total war must be waged against it.
Trump’s declaration in early January that he could keep the government shutdown going “months or even years” was taken as a sign, in most circles, of his usual recklessness and his commitment to a farcical border wall. It should be viewed through another lens: a Republican leader telling the American people the shutdown just doesn’t mean very much to him.
One could imagine a President Ted Cruz saying something similar. The Texas senator was the architect of the last shutdown in 2013, willing to kneecap the federal government over his hatred of the Affordable Care Act. Cruz and Trump share a disdain for the market-based healthcare law which is anything but socialism. Their willingness to shred it at all costs was another reminder of how extreme Republican party leaders have become.
If you believe an expansive federal government is ultimately illegitimate and an impingement on liberty, what difference does a shutdown make? Though it’s unlikely the shutdown will last as long as Trump said it could, what if federal workers, tired of being at home without a paycheck or working without getting paid, simply walk away and find other jobs?
Reagan infamously fired striking air traffic controllers, presaging the long, successful war against once powerful labor unions. In the fantasies of the most fevered right-wing thinkers, Trump could have his own Reagan moment. Conservative columnists already argue “the temporary shutdown of parts of the federal government is a good argument for the permanent shutdown of parts of the federal government,” in the words of the National Review’s Kevin Williamson.
Remember: the conservatives in Trump’s corner have no incentive for government to work well. Ineffective, pared down bureaucracy is merely a further argument for its inability to help people, and the vicious cycle spins on. Starve it so it can’t be of use to anyone. And then hope Americans lose any loyalty to the services it provided.
This chilling vision may not come to pass. Anti-government fervor is not a mainstream position. Republican voters like getting their social security checks and Medicare. Universal healthcare polls well.
This is a source of frustration for the most committed fundamentalists of an unfettered free market. Beyond unrestrained capitalism and business owners being left to their own devices, they can’t really offer much else. Most Americans understand “freedom” doesn’t mean the reduction of healthcare coverage, poorly-funded schools, and the end of protections for consumers.
It will be up to the next president to undo the damage Trump is doing. Until then, we can only hope somehow, someway, Trump and his allies decide it’s not fun any more to lock hundreds of thousands of people out of work.