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Opinion: How the GOP scammed its voters … and created Trump

Mar 31, 2016 /

Nick Hanauer lays out the epic failure of the Republican party to serve its voters, prompting the popular surge in support for Donald Trump.

The Republican Party is coming apart, and Donald Trump is leading the charge. The GOP establishment, now aware of the existential crisis they face, is in full panic mode. Media elites and most of the punditry class appear to have been taken completely by surprise.

But this turn of events wasn’t just foreseeable — it was inevitable. Which is why I’ve been writing about it — and of all things, doing TED Talks on it — for years. (See Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming.)

The pitchforks are coming and Trump brought them. But I think that Donald Trump himself has far less to do with the fall of the GOP than the GOP itself. Because from the point of view of the typical GOP voter — their 99% — the modern Republican Party has been one of the most epic failures and betrayals of all time.

The modern GOP as a political construct has principally been an alliance between two interest groups: urban economic elites and rural social conservatives. The reason the party is disintegrating is that it has over-delivered to the former, and completely failed the latter.

If you are a working- or middle-class white Republican-leaning man, your party has completely and totally screwed you.

If there is one thing the Republican Party stands for and has effectively delivered on, it is trickle-down economics. Trickle-down economics has three major elements: tax cuts for the rich, deregulation of the powerful, and wage suppression for everyone else — all in the name of “growth.” There is, of course, no empirical evidence whatsoever that these policies do anything but make the rich richer. Nevertheless, the Republican Party (with the unfortunate cooperation or downright assistance from plenty of Democrats) has been extraordinarily effective in the promulgation of this idea. Over the last 35 years, middle-class voters from both parties bought this scam hook, line, and sinker. Voters persuaded by this “theory of growth” enabled economic policies that led to unprecedented wealth creation at the top and a decimation of the middle class.

At the same time, the Republican Party has theoretically represented the interests of social conservatives, fundamentalist religious types and racists. And for this group of voters, despite party rhetoric, Republicans have completely and utterly failed. Across any and all social issues, the country has lurched to the left, towards more inclusion and liberalism. From LGBT rights to drug legalization, women’s rights, reproductive rights, minority rights, and worst of all, the election of a black president named Barack Hussein Obama. From the point of view of these socially conservative Republican voters, the last decades have been a disaster.

But from the perspective of the GOP’s one percent — the secular, more socially centrist, urban economic elites who have controlled the party — the last 35 years have been an unprecedented bonanza. They have been the beneficiaries of an immense concentration of both wealth and power, without the inconvenience of having to live with the often bigoted and backwards social demands of what the GOP elite privately dismiss as their hillbilly, Bible-thumping brethren. Which brings us to the unresolvable challenge facing the modern GOP.

From the point of view of their 99%, the median Republican voter, the last 35 years have been a disaster, and their party has caused it. Because if you are a working- or middle-class white Republican-leaning man, your party has completely and totally screwed you.

They screwed you by holding down the minimum wage.

They screwed you by almost completely eliminating overtime pay.

They screwed the union that used to defend your interests.

The screwed you out of the pension on which the middle-class once retired.

They screwed you a thousand ways on trade, and exported your job.

They screwed you on tax policy by lowering taxes on the rich.

They screwed you on infrastructure and education investment.

They screwed you by deregulating the banks.

They screwed you out of your home during the housing bubble and subsequent collapse.

They screwed you on health care costs.

They screwed you on the cost of college and on student debt.

They screwed you (and sent your kids to die) in the Iraq war.

And then they also screwed you on abortion, and gay marriage, and the “War on Drugs,” and women’s rights, and minority rights, and Obamacare repeal, and all the other things you culturally care about, by delivering … absolutely nothing.

It should come as no surprise that a candidate like Donald Trump could take the GOP by storm. Daffy Duck with a nationalist message would be winning today.

Since 1980, 95 percent of the benefits of growth have accrued to the top 1 percent of earners. The share of income for the top 1 percent has tripled, from about 8 percent of national income to about 22 percent over this time. The minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or $2.13 plus tips, is at historically low levels; if it had tracked the wages of the top one percent, the minimum wage would be over $28 an hour today. Overtime pay, which used to apply to about 70 percent of salaried workers, now applies to only 9 percent. Union membership, and the middle-class wages and benefits that come with it, has fallen from a third of American workers in 1964 to only 10 percent today — and just 7 percent in the private sector. Consequently, wages as a percent of GDP have fallen about a trillion dollars, while corporate profits have increased by the same amount. Add in the ridiculous increases in compensation and other income for the very rich … and you are talking about close to a $2 trillion-a-year scam perpetuated on the American middle and working class. Over 30 years, that shit adds up.

If you are a rural social conservative, your party, the Republican party, has enacted economic policies that destroyed your communities and sucked the life out of your small towns. And then to add insult to injury, they could not stop people like me from winning on all of the social and cultural issues that you care about.

So it should come as no surprise that a candidate like Donald Trump, who appeals to the nativist, racist and nationalist tendencies of some right-leaning voters, despite his flaws, could take the GOP by storm. Who couldn’t? Daffy Duck with a nationalist message would be winning today.

I do not agree with a lot of the policies preferred by rural right-wing voters. I think they are wrong and misguided. But I emphatically agree with their anger. They should be angry. They deserve to be angry. And the focus of their anger should be on the GOP elites like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and the rest of the trickle-down clown car. These people have screwed, and want to continue to screw, the median Republican voter. And typical Republicans are finally beginning to notice.

I wish the answer to all of this was simply that more people should become Democrats. And in this election cycle, given what is at stake, that would be my preference. But long-term, that isn’t what our country needs. Instead, America needs a Republican party that isn’t simply a vehicle for the already very rich to increase their wealth and power. Our country needs a Republican Party that vigorously and honestly competes with the Democratic Party to actually increase the economic welfare of the typical American family. Not with a scam like trickle-down economics that simply makes the rich richer, but with ideas that might actually improve the life of the typical family.

Claiming that “raising wages kills jobs” is really just another way of saying “the Koch brothers prefer wages low and profits high.”

Thus, the Republican Party’s greatest challenge is how to ditch the economic program of their donor elite. Because embracing a new economic narrative that actually delivers the goods to regular folks is what it will take to compete in a meaningful way again. But if you’re reflexively and religiously opposed to policies like raising the minimum wage or raising the overtime threshold or the right of workers to unionize and bargain, you simply cannot do that. Paul Ryan is against raising the minimum wage because he is paid by his donors to oppose increases in the minimum wage. So, too, are Marco Rubio and the rest of the GOP elite. Claiming that “raising wages kills jobs” is really just another way of saying “the Koch brothers prefer wages low and profits high.” It’s the GOP elite declaring to the typical family: “We matter, and you don’t.”

I do not believe that we can easily eliminate the shameful racism and nativism we are seeing in our politics today, or that a Republican Party that works effectively to enact economic polices that benefit the many rather than the few will eliminate the racism in the party. Prosperity does not eliminate racism — but it is one hell of a distraction. When most citizens feel like they are winning and that their future is secure, it’s not so important to them that others lose. Shared prosperity creates the conditions whereby few reasonable people are angry enough to take a clown like Trump seriously.

Let’s all hope that the current crisis in the Republican Party will bring the fundamental change necessary to allow it to reconstitute itself in a new and more constructive way — one that we may not all agree with, but at least that we won’t be embarrassed or appalled by. America desperately needs a Republican Party that actually represents the true interests of ordinary Republicans, and isn’t simply an instrument of the very rich to increase their wealth and power. A huge amount is at stake. Because if we do not quickly and collectively figure out how to significantly improve the economic circumstances of the majority of our fellow Americans, this political cycle will look tame and civilized compared to the next one.