A couple of weeks ago Paul D. Ryan, the speaker of the House, sort of laid out both a health care plan and a tax plan. I say sort of, because there weren’t enough details in either case to do any kind of quantitative analysis. But it was clear that Ryan’s latest proposals had the same general shape as every other proposal he’s released: huge tax cuts for the wealthy combined with savage but smaller cuts in aid to the poor, and the claim that all of this would somehow reduce the budget deficit thanks to unspecified additional measures.
Given everything else that’s going on, this latest installment of Ryanomics attracted little attention. One group that did notice, however, was Fix the Debt, a nonpartisan deficit-scold group that used to have substantial influence in Washington.
Indeed, Fix the Debt issued a statement — but not, as you might have expected, condemning Ryan for proposing to make the deficit bigger. No, the statement praised him. “We are concerned that the policies in the plan may not add up,” the organization admitted, but it went on to declare that “we welcome this blueprint.”
And there, in miniature, is the story of how America ended up with someone like Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee and possible next president. It’s all about the enablers, and the enablers of the enablers.
At one level, all Trump has done is to channel the racism that has always been a part of our political life — it’s literally as American as apple pie — and hitch it to the authoritarian impulse that has also always lurked behind democratic norms. But there’s a reason these tendencies are sufficiently concentrated in the Republican Party that Trumpism could triumph in the primaries: a cynical political strategy that the party’s establishment has pursued for decades.
To put it bluntly, the modern Republican Party is in essence a machine designed to deliver high after-tax incomes to the 1 percent. Look at Ryan: Has he ever shown any willingness, for any reason, to make the rich pay so much as a dime more in taxes? Comforting the very comfortable is what it’s all about.
But not many voters are interested in that goal. So the party has prospered politically by harnessing its fortunes to racial hostility, which it has not-so-discreetly encouraged for decades.
These days, former President George H.W. Bush is treated as an elder statesman, too gentlemanly to endorse the likes of Trump — but remember, he’s the one who ran the Willie Horton ad. Mitt Romney is also sitting this one out — but he was happy to accept Trump’s endorsement back when the candidate was best known for his rabid birtherism.
And Ryan, after a brief pretense of agonizing about Trump, is now in full attack-dog mode on the candidate’s behalf. After all, the Trump tax plan would be a huge windfall for the wealthy, while Hillary Clinton would surely sustain President Barack Obama’s significant tax increase on high incomes and try to push it further.
I’m not saying that all leading Republicans are racists; most of them probably aren’t, although Trump probably is. It is that in pursuit of their economic — actually, class-interest — goals they were willing to act as enablers, to make their party a safe space for prejudice. And the result is a party base that is strikingly racist, in which a plurality of voters believe Obama is a Muslim, and more — a base just waiting for a candidate willing to blurt out what the establishment conveyed by innuendo.
But there’s one more crucial element here: We wouldn’t have gotten to this point if so many people outside the Republican Party — in particular, journalists and self-proclaimed centrists — hadn’t refused to acknowledge what was happening.
Political analysts who tried to talk about the party’s transformation, like Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, were effectively ostracized for years. Instead, the respectable, “balanced” thing was to pretend that the parties were symmetric, to turn a blind eye to the cynicism of the modern Republican project.
Which brings me back to Ryan, the de facto leader of his party until the Trumpocalypse. How did he reach that position? Not by inspiring deep loyalty in the base, but rather by getting incredibly favorable treatment from journalists and centrists eager to show their bipartisanship by finding a serious, honest Republican to praise — or at least someone able to do a passable job of playing that character on TV. And as the latest from Fix the Debt shows, the charade is still going on.
The point is that this kind of false balance does real harm. The Republican establishment directly enabled the forces that led to Trump; but many influential people outside the party in effect enabled the enablers. And so here we are.