The GOP Brought This Upon Itself, With a Little Help From Obama

We hear a lot about the consternation of the Republican Party “establishment” as a result of the rise in popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Worse yet is that one of them could become their party’s candidate for the presidency. It seems that long-time power players and office holders have been caught by surprise. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We can see how the Republican Party has brought this upon itself, with, of course, a little help from President Obama and a largely vacuous press.

Here are a few reasons why Trump and Cruz are so attractive to a great many people in the Republican Party “base.” The first is mostly a natural consequence, while the others have resulted in more of a self-inflicted reverberation.

Firstly, these two men tend to attract those people whom social scientists refer to as “authoritarians.” The concept of an authoritarian personality is not exclusively applicable to politics. It’s more fundamental. But the associated traits do affect political leanings. And not all Republicans or conservatives are authoritarians, but many are—and they are drawn to leaders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

An authoritarian personality is characterized by a tendency to understand most all things in terms of absolutes and to fit them into tidy categories. Such as, good or evil; Or government programs are always wasteful; One race or culture is superior to all others; Illegal immigrants come for government hand-outs; Poverty is usually the result of a lack of initiative, etc. Authoritarians abhor nuance or ambiguity, rely heavily upon emotion and instinct, and tend to shun any new information that might compromise a strongly held belief (often a preferred belief). They are distrustful of outsiders and very passionate about defending their beliefs, their group, and their leaders. Two extreme manifestations of these traits are the Militia and Tea Party movements.

Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug dealers and to prohibit Muslims from entering the country are well fitted to these simplistic, xenophobic tendencies. Ted Cruz’s passionate claims of absolute good and evil, and the certainty of his antigovernment ideology make him attractive to the disaffected—those who feel put-upon by the strain of civic responsibility.

These are largely natural consequences—the products of basic, though regrettable, human nature. But the title of this essay refers to other reasons why so many people think that Trump and Cruz are viable candidates for the presidency. They are the unintended result of several decades of incessantly exaggerated and often false claims by, usually, the GOP and the “conservative” talking heads of radio and television, and by the cynicism and distrust of government fostered by the behavior of members of Congress.

For many decades the Republican Party was mostly the minority party in both houses of Congress. As the opposition party, members were free to criticize the actions of the majority without the responsibility of actually governing. The criticism of Democrats and government became particularly exaggerated with the rise of Newt Gingrich in Congress and Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the early 1990s. Even when Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they were in opposition to the Bill Clinton presidency.

People often complain about how newly elected politicians change when they get to Washington. They invariably fail to do what they had promised. Of course, the reality is that when politicians are confronted with the requirements and the constraints of actually governing, they are usually unable to fulfill the unrealistic promises of their campaigns. Similarly, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the 2000s, many people were disappointed with the result. They didn’t fix Social Security. They didn’t reign in healthcare inflation. They didn’t stop illegal immigration. They didn’t win the “culture war.” Most significantly, they not only didn’t shrink the government, they significantly expanded the size and the reach of government. As a result, something of a split emerged between the Republican Party “establishment” and so-called “true conservatives.” The stage was set for the Tea Party movement.

The financial crisis at the end of the Bush presidency, the Great Recession, and the election of President Obama only made things worse—much worse. The necessary bailouts of financial institutions by both the Bush and the Obama Administrations was puzzling to many. They felt like the fat cats were being protected at the expense of the average guy, and besides, they had long subscribed to the notion that government was the problem, not the solution. They didn’t like the bailouts at all, and they blamed the “career politicians” or “the establishment” of both parties.

When Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2008, they sought to channel that anger toward President Obama and the Democrats, and they largely succeeded. Here is where we can blame Obama. While pretty good at giving speeches, the president proved to be really awful as a leader and effectively communicating with those people whom he most needed to reach—the mostly working-class white men who didn’t vote for him. Not only has he been unable to competently wield political power in working with Republicans in Congress, he has enabled the opposition to control the narrative and to disseminate an abundance of disinformation.

Meanwhile, Republicans had little interest in working with the president. They just wanted to regain power. As President Obama began his term in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that his number one priority was not to rescue the financial system, not to create jobs or to restore the economy, but to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president. Subsequent events showed that sentiment to be widespread among Republicans in Congress.

In January 2010, Senate Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad crafted a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force to alleviate the national debt problem. The task force’s recommendations would be sent to the Senate floor for a “fast-track” up-or-down vote. The proposal garnered widespread bipartisan support, until President Obama offered his support too. Because it could have been politically beneficial to the president, Republicans changed their positions, including seven co-sponsors of the resolution who allowed a filibuster to kill their own idea. Fred Hiatt, of the Washington Post, wrote of Mitch McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”

After serving as a Republican congressional staffer for some twenty-eight years—the last sixteen as a senior analyst for the House and Senate budget committees—Mike Lofgren resigned in exasperation in 2011. Among the many observations he revealed was this:

A couple of years ago a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) that there was a method to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government—i.e., the Republican Party—will come out the relative winner.

In 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner negotiated a “Grand Bargain” in which a combination of tax increases and spending cuts would substantially reduce the deficit and avert a crisis over the debt ceiling. The package included entitlement reforms that Republicans had sought for many years, and which would have been difficult for Obama to persuade the Democrats to accept. The Grand Bargain was a grand compromise that would have been hugely beneficial to the nation, both immediately and long term. At the urging of Paul Ryan, however, Majority Leader Eric Cantor scuttled the deal primarily for two reasons—any tax hikes at all would taint their ideological purity, and they believed a compromise agreement with Obama might help his reelection.

The irony is that Obama was reelected anyway and Cantor was defeated in 2014 by a (Tea Party) primary opponent after radio personality Laura Ingraham, along with Ann Coulter, had accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Of course no one in Congress, including Eric Cantor, had proposed or supported amnesty. Such is the power of disinformation in American politics.

Disinformation abounds because the press has too often failed in its responsibility to inform the public of the facts. While partisan outlets, such as FOX News, MSNBC and Talk Radio, make great profit (FOX anyway) by offering their patrons ample doses of a preferred, but imagined, reality, legitimate press outlets find themselves wanting for viewers or readers. What Sarah Palin calls the “lame-stream” press is so afraid of being accused of a “liberal bias” that they merely report the claims of two sides of a debate without bothering to parse out and report the truth, even if the claim of one side or the other is dangerous or ridiculous. As Paul Krugman quipped, “if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet’.” And if FOX News repeated the claim often enough, a great many people would believe it.

The cynicism fostered by obstructionist members of Congress and the misconceptions fostered by disinformation from congressmen and conservative radio and television has produced an angry and misinformed portion of the electorate that is apt to believe the wildest claims—like Donald Trump’s claim that, as a better manager and negotiator, he can “make America great again” (as if America isn’t great now), or Ted Cruz’s claims that the national debt is a result of “Obama’s out-of-control spending” (the rate of growth in discretionary spending during the Obama presidency has been the lowest since Eisenhower), that climate change is a hoax, that “Obamacare is a job-killer” (unemployment has dropped from 9 to 4.9 percent since its enactment) and has caused premiums to “skyrocket” (medical inflation remains near historic lows), that “millions have lost their health insurance” (the uninsured rate is now the lowest in history), that “Blue Cross Blue Shield cancelled all their individual policies in Texas” (I still have one), that Obama has “degraded our military,” that the president “ignores our immigration laws” (Obama has deported more people than any other president), Syrian refugees are entering the U.S. without “any meaningful background checks,” and the truly idiotic claim that a flat tax is the remedy for an overly complex tax code.

To tap into a populist mindset by appealing to fear and emotion and to less educated voters, the Republican Party has taken to dumbing down its narrative and agenda, at times completely abandoning rationality. No longer the party of Barry Goldwater who brought Planned Parenthood to Arizona or George H.W. Bush who chaired a Republican task force on population issues, the party now acts as if abortion has little to do with unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. To protect coal mining constituents and to avoid regulation of any sources of greenhouse emissions, they deny the science of climate change. To protect their hold on ill-informed religious conservatives, they either eschew or deny the findings of evolutionary science. To attract gun “enthusiasts,” they pretend that gun ownership is a practical means of self defense, while stoking fear of gun safety laws. To avoid driving away xenophobes, they refuse to pass sensible immigration reform and, instead, cynically mischaracterize the character and aspirations of immigrants. In place of the intellectually sound party of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol, the Republican Party has become the anti-intellectual party, where the word “elite” is a pejorative. It has become the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin (who is pretty sure that Paul Revere rode to “warn the British that they weren’t gonna be takin away our arms”), and now of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.

Of course the Democrats have their own problems—problems that require wholly different explanations. Among them are, like on the Republican side, the primary process pulls them too far to the extreme, and so few Democrats are willing to go through the ordeal of running for president, they are left with two extraordinarily weak candidates. There is no shortage of Republican candidates, but because of the irresponsibility of their party’s culture, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that competent candidates are rejected while it is Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who are preferred by a substantial portion of their party’s electoral base.

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The Party of Jesus?

In nineteenth-century America, through the Great Depression, and into the early 1960s, politically active Christians tended to be aligned with the causes of the political Left. They fought to end slavery. They fought for an end to child labor. They fought for a minimum wage, limited working hours, overtime pay, unemployment insurance, and the right to unionize. They fought for women’s suffrage. Just as James Madison had explained in the Federalist Papers, they believed that civil government could be utilized as an instrument of social justice, where the rights and the well-being of the weak, as well as the strong, could be protected. Their belief that the use of civil government to provide support for the poor seemed to them well fitted to Jesus’ mandate that we provide for “the least of these.” (Matthew 25:31-46)

Since the 1970s and 80s, however, the political sentiments of many Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, have more often been associated with the Republican Party and, thus, the political Right. While a comprehensive explanation of this transition would be too lengthy for this post, we can at least point to a few significant factors.

The turbulent and rebellious 1960s spawned a cultural revolution that was rather unsettling to many Americans. Newfound expressions of sexual freedom and feminist causes were particularly objectionable to conservative Christians. While the Democratic Party mostly sought to embrace the liberal idea of individual liberty in matters of personal lifestyle, the Republican Party mostly did not. The natural result was that the Republican Party became more attractive to Christians.

The “southern strategy,” implemented by Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and most effectively by Ronald Reagan, was an election strategy based on exploiting racist attitudes in the southern states, but its momentum nevertheless helped to transform the South more generally. The South came to no longer feel any particular obligation to the Democratic Party as a legacy of the Civil War era. Since the so-called “Bible belt” runs across the South, a great many Christians were included among those who had broken a habit of supporting the Democratic Party. President Reagan then bolstered the attractiveness of his party among Christians with his strong opposition to abortion and his eloquent expressions of lamenting the widely perceived decline of “traditional values.”

Another Christian tradition that aligns well with Republican ideology is that of individual responsibility and, thus, individual liberty and prosperity. The roots of this tradition are found in Protestantism, particularly its Calvinistic branch. Historians have argued that the cultural value of individualism and personal achievement have been instrumental benefits in enabling prosperity among the northern Protestant nations of Europe, and of North America.

There are other cultural and psychological factors that help to explain why so many Christians feel an allegiance to the Republican Party and its conservative ideology. Many are consistent with traditional Christian moral values. But any analysis of Republican ideology and its alignment with Christian principles must include a discussion of a pervasive worldview among today’s Republicans—a worldview that largely underpins the party’s political philosophy and virtually all of its policy positions, whether domestic social policy, economic policy, immigration policy or foreign policy—a worldview that, I will argue, is undeniably at odds with the views of Jesus, as reported in the Gospels.

Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been described by many, in recent years, as the intellectual leader of the Republican Party. As chairman of the House budget committee, his budgets (always adopted by the Republican majority) established him as the ideological leader of the party as well. His budgets have reflected his ideological worldview—a worldview he has said was primarily shaped by economists Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and more particularly by novelist Ayn Rand. Though he denied it when vying for a chance to be Mitt Romney’s running mate, an audio recording of Congressman Ryan at a gathering of The Atlas Society confirmed what he had said many times before: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are.” Rand’s books are required reading for Ryan’s staff and interns. (Rand’s books are popular among a number of other Republican office holders as well as with conservative radio personalities too.) It is Rand’s view of economics that most interests Congressman Ryan, but her economic philosophy cannot logically be separated from her broader view of humanity.

Rand was an outspoken atheist who described Arabs and Native Americans as “savages,” and expressed her view that, as such, the latter should have no rights. She objected to any government programs to help the poor. She was particularly repulsed by programs for educating disabled, or as she put it, “subnormal,” children. She famously told Mike Wallace in a 1959 interview that she believed altruism to be evil, while selfishness a virtue, as it is the necessary driving force of capitalism. Fundamentally, Ayn Rand saw humanity as consisting of virtuous self-reliant people and inferior and/or slothful people. Her social and economic philosophies presumed a struggle between “producers” and “moochers.”

Of course this worldview didn’t enter the Republican Party with Paul Ryan. As part of his “southern strategy” Ronald Reagan repeatedly spoke of “welfare queens” who drink martinis and drive Cadillacs while receiving welfare checks. There had been an infamous case of welfare fraud in the news that roughly fit that characterization. But as politicians usually do, Reagan used it to paint a broader picture in propagating the notion that taxes are high because too many undeserving moochers are suckling from government teats.

More recently, Mitt Romney expressed a similar view—a view that voters will act exclusively in their own immediate personal interest—when he suggested that 47 percent of the American electorate direct their votes toward simply gaining more benefits for themselves from government coffers. Of course Romney wasn’t completely wrong. Most Americans do tend to put personal interests ahead of the national interest in choosing their preferred candidates. But that is true of all sides of the political spectrum. Consequently candidates always promise government benefits, tax cuts, or both, believing it will help them get elected. This ongoing problem is a symptom of a failure of effective and constructive leadership. It is regrettable that Romney could evidently see only one side of that equation.

Deriding moochers is also a sentiment regularly expressed on AM talk radio and FOX News. FOX attempted to denied it, but their strategy of vilifying “moochers,” as they endeavor to define the political Left, was pretty well illustrated (even if not an objective analysis) by Jon Stewart and Comedy Central as seen here.

It should not be a surprise to anyone, therefore, that when Donald Trump made the (demonstrably false) claim that Mexico was “sending rapists and drug dealers” across the border, a great many Republican voters saw his assertion as valid. Never mind that illegal immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than American citizens generally, and come to the U.S. primarily to fill available jobs (a natural consequence of supply and demand). Never mind that children come as refugees from horribly dangerous circumstances in Central America. (Jesus was a child refugee too, of course, as His family fled the violence of Herod.) Trump’s assertion well fits the ideological worldview of “us versus them”—of patriots and parasites.

Since none of the dire predictions of catastrophic side effects of the Affordable Care Act have come to pass, the continuing vehement Republican opposition to the ACA as a whole (rather than simply repairing its flaws) can only be attributed to an opposition to the subsidies and the taxes that pay for them—the public assistance to those who otherwise cannot afford health insurance. It is evidently thought that such people are undeserving of our assistance. (Though another explanation could be that pride simply prevents an admission that President Obama has done something worthwhile.)

Very often the sentiment of “us versus them” is much more subtle and, instead of moochers and producers, it is manifest as a hierarchical view of society. Republican economic policy, for example, hinges on the idea that capital is paramount to labor (or supply paramount to demand) in the function of capitalism. As Republicans speak of “job creators” they tend to assume that employment is merely the result of the activity of producers, with little recognition of the fundamental role and needs of the labor from which demand arises. Republicans decry what they call the “death tax” (inheritance tax), supposing no particular obligation to the society that enabled an accumulation of wealth, while assenting to more of a financially aristocratic society. Similarly, patriotism morphs into a nationalism that supposes our nation can do no wrong. After President Obama expressed regret for some of the errors of the United States in a speech in Cairo at the beginning of his term, Republicans have ever since accused him of going around the world apologizing for America, as if, contrary to the teaching of Jesus, humility is a regrettable vice.

There is no doubt that there are a great many unscrupulous and unmotivated people in the world who resent others who have prospered as a result of initiative and hard work, and many of them are aligned with the Democratic Party. And the Democratic Party too often confuses the goal of fairness of opportunity with a redistribution of wealth. But an ideology that presumes people are poor because of a lack of initiative is not an ideology informed of reality. More to the point of this post, it is not an ideology that Jesus would recognize as grounded in Godly thinking.

There is no indication in Scripture that Jesus saw the poor as mere slackers. On the contrary—the Gospels tell us that Jesus spoke of the poor in the most sympathetic terms. “…the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5) Throughout the Gospels Jesus expressed grace toward the poor and the disabled, and implored us to provide for them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20-21) When the tax collector Zacchaeus told Jesus that he would give half of his possessions to the poor and pay back four times any amount he may have cheated anyone, Jesus told him that his salvation was assured. (Luke 19:1-9) This does not necessarily mean that giving to the poor secures one’s salvation, but it is a clear proclamation that such behavior is a measure of one’s faithfulness to God.

Some of us may prefer to believe that private philanthropic initiatives are sufficient, or even more effective than the use of civil government, as we might envision the political struggle in America as one of redistributing wealth, rather than one of ensuring fairness of opportunity. But let’s face it—the worldview of many in today’s Republican Party can be aligned with the views of Jesus only if somehow we imagine that Jesus spent His days among us complaining about how moochers would inherit the earth.