The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Harvey shows the anti-government crowd’s utter hypocrisy

Houston residents evacuate their homes amid Harvey flooding after a reservoir spilled over for the first time in history. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)
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The Freedom Caucus, like-minded GOP senators and right-wing Beltway groups see government as the enemy — all public spending as suspect, all tax cuts positive, all deregulation good — with little nuance or understanding of the essential role government can play in the lives of not only the most vulnerable but also the middle-class people they might actually know.

The people who backed the government shutdown in 2013, refuse to kill the sequester (despite its utter failure to stop the debt from soaring, since it reaches only discretionary spending) and dream about privatizing the air traffic system have little regard for the professionals who do the day-to day work of governing. If a slew of government spots go unfilled (according to the Partnership for Public Service of 591 top political spots, 366 have no nominee), they see no problem. They reject the notion that professionals who are experts in their field know more than they do on diplomacy, climate change or any other complex matter. (Hence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s delay in filling open slots or his refusal to consult beyond his tight-knit staff.)

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We can all agree that there is excess, wrongheadedness, confusion and sloth in some quarters of government. We can concede that many aspects of government need reform. However, the anti-government forces see government per se as negative. They care little for policy details or for reform. The ax is preferable to the scalpel for this group. (At times it leads to stunning ignorance — as when Republicans seemed clueless as to the scope of Medicaid and its coverage beyond the poorest of the poor.)

The anti-government crowd, however, seems indifferent to actual abuse of power, one key reason to keep government limited and transparent. These same anti-government figures couldn’t care less about President Trump’s conflicts of interest and money-making off the federal government, ludicrous nepotism that invests huge power in unqualified and ignorant presidential family members, abusive Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids that tear apart families, or ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio’s vicious racism and violation of civil liberties. In sum, they hate the functioning, responsible and professional part of government while they embrace the authoritarian, abusive, erratic Trumpism we now see. Somehow the “rule of law” and of predictable government has gone out of fashion with the right wing.

Opinion: Trump's pardon of Arpaio is reprehensible. And totally legal. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Part of the anomaly is surely attributable to jaw-dropping lack of empathy for people who do not look like them (e.g. poor immigrants, minorities) and to rank partisanship (President Barack Obama’s support for Solyndra is bad, but Big Ag subsidies are fine). The anti-government syndrome is fueled by a refusal to look at the particular beneficiaries of government help and the obsession with generalized, usually grossly inaccurate data. Illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs! (They’re not.)

When something like Harvey comes along, however, the light ever so briefly goes on (sometimes) for the anti-government types. Suffering is visible, the need impossible to ignore. And when the tragedy is in deep-red Texas, not deep-blue New Jersey or New Orleans, suddenly the wonders of government become clear to them. (Then-Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who now heads the Office of Management and Budget, opposed a large Sandy relief package without offsets, while both Texas senators tried to block the Sandy relief bill on the grounds that it was extraneous spending.) The crew that cheered Trump’s proposed 11 percent cut to FEMA (government is bad!) will support billions of dollars in Harvey relief (my people are suffering!).

Empathy requires one to put oneself in others’ shoes — to understand their needs and concerns that do not affect you. That seems to be beyond their abilities. It seems the essence of their philosophy boils down to: Government is good only when it’s abusing people you don’t like and when it’s helping your own.