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Opinion How the Trump scam could deliver another big GOP victory

Former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Sunday. (John Raoux/AP)

The Trump scam is alive and well in the GOP. And it’s perfectly plausible that it might keep on delivering for Republicans — perhaps spectacularly so.

All signs are that Democrats are close to passing a massive $1.9 trillion rescue package. Despite last-minute haggling, we’ll soon likely see large stimulus checks for most Americans, extended unemployment insurance and big public expenditures to smooth the reopening of schools and speed vaccination distribution, which is already outpacing expectations.

All signs also are that just about every single Republican in Congress — if not every single one of them — will oppose the whole thing.

In a sense, this opposition represents a repurposing of former president Donald Trump’s playbook — the Trump scam. Even as they’re opposing President Biden’s rescue package — offering little economic assistance to working Americans at a time of crisis, just as Trump failed to do — Republicans are increasingly casting the GOP as the working-class party, in Trump’s empty image.

It might work. And a great new report in the New York Times captures why.

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As the Times notes, Republicans such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri keep saying things like “we are a working class party now.” But the reality is that this is largely cultural posturing:

At a high-profile, high-decibel gathering of conservatives in Florida last weekend, potential 2024 presidential candidates, including Mr. Hawley and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, scarcely mentioned a blue-collar agenda. They used their turns in the national spotlight to fan grievances about “cancel culture,” to bash the tech industry and to reinforce Mr. Trump’s false claims of a stolen election.
Inside and outside the party, critics see a familiar pattern: Republican officials, following Mr. Trump’s own example, are exploiting the cultural anger and racial resentment of a sizable segment of the white working class, but have not made a concerted effort to help these Americans economically.

Some Republicans worry that this will ultimately fail. As former Congressman Carlos Curbelo told the Times, this “new Republican coalition" will ultimately “abandon” the GOP unless Republicans “take action to improve people’s quality of life.”

And GOP pollster Whit Ayres adds that Republicans must develop “an economic agenda that benefits working people” rather than “relitigating a lost presidential election.”

One has to hope that is right. But there are reasons to be skeptical.

How the scam might work

First, as the Times piece notes, the GOP base might not actually punish Republican lawmakers for voting against the rescue package, because Republican voters will benefit from it anyway.

Indeed, I would add that after this is over, GOP lawmakers might be seen by their voters as having railed merely about phantom excesses in the bill that were invented for the base’s consumption. As Media Matters documents, right-wing media have wildly hyped such invented excesses.

And so, even as GOP voters pocket stimulus checks and get vaccines more quickly, the story in that information universe will become that GOP lawmakers rightly called out all these crazy socialist schemes brought to you by the Democrats who want to burn down your cities and cancel your children’s books.

Ryan Cooper calls this the “Republican grievance perpetual motion machine.” And as the Times reports, this might resonate with GOP voters more than the niggling matter of who supported sending that check:

It’s possible that Republicans who are not prioritizing economic issues are accurately reading their base. A survey last month by the G.O.P. pollster Echelon Insights found that the top concerns of Republican voters were mainly cultural ones: illegal immigration, lack of support for the police, high taxes and “liberal bias in mainstream media.”

The question then becomes whether Republicans can win back the House or more largely on these fumes. And what’s often missing from discussions like these is the centrality of the GOP’s increasing reliance on voter suppression and anti-majoritarian tactics to such an outcome.

Voter suppression is the key

New voter-suppression efforts are unfolding in numerous states. Republicans are openly boasting that retaking the House in 2022 — halting Biden’s agenda and positioning the GOP to win the White House in 2024 — will be aided by extreme gerrymanders.

This is crucial to seeing how the Trump scam, understood in all its manifold depravity, might actually work. Rather than being a mere distraction from the agenda Republicans supposedly must develop to win back power, the lie about the stolen election is itself central to doing that.

In this scenario, the continued devotion to the stolen election mythos, in addition to keeping GOP voters in that state of perpetual grievance, also underpins the voter-suppression and anti-majoritarian tactics that will make this more likely. The Trump scam is many-headed: It combines that grievance-mongering with those escalated tactics, justified by still more grievance ... about Trump.

None of this is to excuse the role of Democrats in what happens. They probably do have to have a difficult conversation about whether certain tendencies in their own base are making it easier for Republicans to turn on that grievance machine or even alienating certain segments of the working class in their own right.

Similarly, Democrats will have to deliver, which may run aground against their skittish unwillingness to undertake filibuster reform. Indeed, if they do deliver, there’s an optimistic alternative possibility: Demonstrating that government can defeat the pandemic, rebuild infrastructure, juice the economy and lift working people’s fortunes could undermine right-wing grievance appeals.

But if the question is whether Republicans can win back power without developing a genuine working-class agenda, well, it’s hard to answer that question in the negative with a great deal of confidence.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: The minimum-wage fiasco will hurt millions. But it will hit red states hardest.

Paul Waldman: The American right is consumed with its cultural Lost Cause

Dana Milbank: Did the Pentagon wait for Trump’s approval before defending the Capitol?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The crisis Biden can’t duck

Greg Sargent: A senator’s surprise call for filibuster reform shows the urgency of the moment