It may be too glib to say that Republicans hate the poor. After all, any political party is made up of lots of different people with differing views and priorities. But it isn’t far off to say that the Republican Party is at its core a collection of men (and women) who broadly believe that the poor should bear more of the burdens of funding the government, while the rich should enjoy more of its fruits.
Listen to Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s budget chief and a founding member of the House “Freedom Caucus,” bark into the camera about “fairness to the people who pay the bills” versus aid to the poor, or Paul Ryan giggle with delight at the prospect of throwing millions of people off Medicaid to make room for “tax reform” and you’ll get the idea.
Mulvaney and Ryan are proud architects of the deeply cruel, almost cartoonishly villainous Trump budget, unveiled this week amidst the ongoing swirl of Russiagate and Donald Trump’s variously weird and awkward travels abroad.
But while many are attempting to label the budget a betrayal of the ideas Trump ran on, even a cursory inspection of his life proves that he does indeed buy into the Ryan-Mulvaney reverse Robin Hood fairy tale. And by the way, so do his voters, who almost to a person believe not only that the rich deserve more but that even the most draconian budget cuts will restore fairness to the system by cutting the undeserving—read “lazy minorities” and “illegals”—out of it.
These beliefs aren’t new. They’ve been nurtured among generations of young Republicans who devoured Ayn Rand novels in high school and who revere Ronald Reagan—not just the Reagan of the 1980s, but the one who in 1965 declared Medicare to be the first horseman of the socialist Apocalypse. They’re reinforced every Sunday by a conservative Protestant church that teaches that riches are a tangible sign of God’s grace, and that prosperity, not charity, is what the believer should aspire to. They’re backstopped by friends and neighbors and plumbers and store clerks who view wealth as a sign of intelligence, even when the tortured syntax of a rich man they revere renders that notion laughable. And they are redoubled by an American culture that almost since its founding has mistaken material success for achievement, and plunder for pluck.
The Republican Party in its DNA subscribes to the belief that poverty denotes a flaw in the character . The poor are where they are because they failed to marry before having children (or in Ben Carson’s formulation, their poverty isn’t even real—it’s merely a “state of mind.” They’re sick because didn’t “lead good lives and keep their bodies healthy.” Even if they are barely able-bodied they don’t deserve Medicaid—at least not without a drug test.Their neighborhoods are crumbling not because of civic neglect but because they wallow in a “secular progressive” culture where lewd music, scantily dressed women and ready weed replaced the good, clean, Christian ideals Republicans subscribed to the sing-song America of the 1950s. Never mind that this happy-go-lucky tableau is itself a giant lie or that the ladder of opportunity has been hoisted up so far that by and large, only the rich remain standing on the rungs.
Mulvaney, Ryan, Orrin Hatch and the “freedom caucus” may be more blunt and callous in voicing their disdain for people without means, but they are not out of their party’s mainstream. Ask any average Republican, of any income level, if they agree with the following statement: “the U.S. must balance its budget even if it means cutting out things like public broadcasting and Meals on Wheels, and even if we spend more on defense and tax cuts.” Your pity for Trump voters who stand to be grievously harmed by his economic policies may not survive the answer.
These voters may not know that Trump, like his apparent slumlord son-in-law financed his dream of buying his way into Manhattan and Palm Beach respectability on the backs of his struggling tenants’ misery. The media they rely on won’t tell them that Trump has even suggested he thinks winning the genetic lottery separates him from the losers of this world whose description sounds a lot like his burned contractors, Trump University “graduates” and his voters. But it’s not clear that if they did know that they would care. Trump’s greatest con has been convincing the average Joes and Janes in his voter base that because he’s rich, he really he is as smart at as he thinks he is, and so their best bet is to let him handle things as he sees fit.
As it turns out, Trump sees fit to put forward a budget designed to fulfill Ryan’s dream of “rolling back two major entitlement programs”—Obamacare and Medicaid—while setting up the Big Two, Medicare and Social Security, for privatization. Throw in the elimination of the estate tax, and the Trump-Ryan-Mulvaney economic plan would turn back the clock not to the 1950s, but to the 1920s, when unbridled capitalism ran over un-unionized workers (including children) like a Mack truck, and wealth speculation made a handful of corporate titans the superiors of the national treasury, and even its lenders.
Meanwhile, elected Republicans find themselves gaming out who is more likely to turn out to vote in response to all of this next November: the business owners who are demanding to be relieved of the financial burden of providing health insurance to their employees, the pitchfork wielders who just want to see anything connected with Obama abolished (and who may not even realize they’re on Obamacare), or the financially strapped Rust Belters who voted for the wall, but never dreamed their Medicaid benefits would be on the chopping block too. The latter two groups are more likely to show up and yell at town halls than they are to vote on a regular basis. The former don’t care how many fake tears Republicans shed, they want Obamacare gone. Given those odds, most House Republicans are risking the wrath of the soon-to-be uninsured and siding with the shopkeepers.
That may or may not be a smart short-term bet. But the unpopularity of Donald Trump, his budget and the Obamacare repeal-and-replace gambit presents the real risk for Republicans that the “party that hates the poor” branding sticks to all of them, not just to one-off GOP candidates, and that the country’s actual majority decides to hate the GOP right back, and punish anyone with an R label on them at the polls.