The anonymous author of the op-ed that was published to great fanfare last week in the New York Times claimed to be one of many people in the Trump administration “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.”
No, the author specified, these people are not part of the left’s “resistance.” They are the responsible grown-ups in the room trying to keep the president away from the nuclear Gold Codes while gently steering him toward GOP priorities such as “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more.” Invoking the legacy of the late John McCain in calling for a return to civility and national dialogue, the writer, who was identified only as a “senior official” within the administration, no doubt intended to draw a contrast between a respectable form of American conservatism and the recklessness, amorality and authoritarian impulses that characterize Trump.
But there is a problem with this self-ennobling position: The upward transfer of wealth and gutting of the public sector so favored among “respectable” Republicans are really just the other side of the fascist coin. There is no way to fight Trump’s undermining of American democracy without also taking stock of the ways the conservative economic agenda undermines it.
Starting with the restructuring of the American economy begun under the Reagan administration and continuing to the 2017 tax cuts, conservatives have peddled the fiction that weaker unions, less regulation and regressive taxation will stimulate overall economic growth. The reality of these policies — often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism — has been less sanguine for everyday Americans. While the GDP has grown alongside corporate profitability, the Dow Jones is at an all-time high and productivity gains are demonstrable, American workers have been treated to wage stagnation and even falling life expectancy.
The economy has certainly grown, but that translates into a better quality of life for a fraction of Americans. According to a recent study by Deutsche Bank on inequality in the United States, the top 10 percent of families now own about 75 percent of total household wealth, up markedly from 1989. Moreover, the study found a direct correlation between Reagan- and George W. Bush-era tax cuts and increased inequality, and it confirmed that the discrepancy between higher productivity levels and stagnant wage growth has also played a role.
Mainstream liberals are rightfully committed to rallying for civic equality — for black Americans, women, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized groups — but even for them, talking about economic equality is still regarded as the utopian territory occupied by Bernie Sanders supporters and unwashed student protesters.
Civic equality alone is insufficient, however, as we see in the case of voting. Leaving aside the GOP’s continued efforts at voter suppression, having the legal right to vote matters little if you cannot afford to take time off from work to do so.
Increased economic inequality has ruinous political and social ramifications, and it is only by overlooking this that a “respectable” conservative like the anonymous op-ed writer can celebrate the central tenets of the GOP platform as if he or she were somehow wholly distinct from the hatred and fearmongering emerging from the White House.
The unfettered market can continue to distribute its gifts in an unequal fashion because Trump’s GOP is busy pointing the finger at all sorts of “elites” and “outsiders”: While the right hand locates its convenient scapegoats, the left hand doles out tax cuts to the already wealthy and undercuts organized labor — the only power historically able to ensure the benefits of capitalism are evenly spread.
The immigrants took your jobs, and welfare queens are hogging public benefits. Oh, and George Soros and journalists are plotting against everyday God-fearing Americans. The mobilization of the sentiment of nativism, attacks on the press and disdain for civic norms that typify the Trump agenda cannot be regarded as somehow apart from the social and economic transformation of America into a less equal, and consequently less free, republic.
Political equality does not depend on the perfectly even distribution of resources, of course, but thinkers since roughly Aristotle’s time have recognized that democracy is undermined when any group of individuals commands significantly more wealth than the rest. As Lena Khan has shown, it was the recognition of this essential link between money and political influence that originally drove American antitrust regulation, which, sadly, has been sadly reduced to little more than a demand that consumers get the best possible price on flat-screen TVs.
Perhaps most dangerously, the amassing of wealth by the few contributes to the sense that politics is a game played by and for the powerful. The virtually unchecked lobbying power of corporate interests enabled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has hardly helped curb voter apathy. The sense of resignation evident among many non-voters (“Politicians are all the same,” “It doesn’t matter who I vote for anyway”) is the sign of a democracy grown tired. Such sentiments cannot be understood apart from the overwhelming feeling that the individual voice doesn’t stand a chance. Why not just let a strongman take over?
The “bright spots” of the Trump administration — those centerpieces of the GOP platform — should not be viewed as the sweet victories of true conservatism over and against the fascist fringe. Rather than celebrating the renegades working to destroy the Trump agenda from the inside, we need to note just how compatible that agenda is with the anti-democratic core of the modern-day GOP.
As the German Jewish theorist Max Horkheimer wrote in 1939, “whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” We need to entertain the possibility that unchecked markets and shrinking public services are not just economic shifts but political catastrophes in the offing.