I recently wrote about how international trade has made some Western nations — Germany in particular — unwilling to confront autocracy. Germany hasn’t just been weak-kneed in its response to Vladimir Putin; it and other European nations have stood by and even continued to provide economic aid to Hungary while Viktor Orban dismantles democracy.
In response, I received mail from Europeans to the effect that American democracy is also under threat and that some of our right-wing politicians are every bit as bad as Orban. Agreed! But that wasn’t the point of my argument. And while I’m quite willing to believe, for example, that Ron DeSantis would be Florida’s Orban if he could, state governors don’t have as much repressive power as rulers of sovereign nations.
Still, the comparison of European and U.S. ethnonationalists raises some interesting questions. In particular, as the G.O.P. has become a full-on antidemocratic party, why has it also remained the party of plutocrats and the enemy of any policy that might help its many working-class supporters?
To understand the puzzle, consider the policy positions of Marine Le Pen, who has a serious chance of becoming France’s next president. Her party, National Rally — previously called the National Front — is often described as right-wing. And on social issues it is; in particular, the party is largely defined by its hostility to immigrants and the alleged threat they pose to France’s national identity. On economic policy, however, Le Pen is if anything to the left of President Emmanuel Macron.
Now, it’s important to understand the context. France provides social benefits on a scale beyond the wildest dreams of U.S. progressives: universal health care, huge family benefits and more. Macron isn’t challenging the fundamentals of that system. He is, however, trying to trim some benefits, notably by raising the retirement age. Le Pen, by contrast, actually wants to reduce the retirement age for some workers.
I am not making a case for Le Pen. If she wins, the consequences for France, Europe and the world will be terrifying. But there is some genuine populism — advocacy of policies that might actually help workers — in her platform.
Compare that with the positions taken by prominent U.S. Republicans. I can’t tell you what the official Republican economic program is, because the party doesn’t have one — in fact, it has made a point of not saying what it will do if it regains power.
We do, however, know what the party did when it was last in power: It gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy, while almost succeeding in repealing the Affordable Care Act, which would have caused tens of millions of Americans to lose health insurance. There’s no reason to believe it won’t once again pursue anti-worker, pro-plutocrat policies if it regains control.
At the state level, the debacle in Kansas has apparently done nothing to shake Republicans’ faith in the magical power of tax cuts for the affluent. Mississippi — America’s poorest state, with the lowest life expectancy and facing a collapse of its rural hospitals — is slashing income taxes.
And recently Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who heads the Republican senatorial campaign, released a “Rescue America” plan that called for tax increases on the half of Americans whose incomes are low enough that they don’t pay income taxes (even though they pay payroll taxes, sales taxes and so on). He also warned, falsely, that Social Security and Medicare are headed for bankruptcy, without offering any suggestions about how to preserve them.
Senior Republicans have said that they don’t support Scott’s agenda, but haven’t explained what their actual agenda is — and have left Scott in his key campaign position, suggesting that his views have wide support within the party.
So everything suggests that the Republican Party is as pro-wealthy, anti-worker as ever. Unlike right-wing European parties, it hasn’t made any gestures toward actual populism. Why?
The answer, presumably, is that the G.O.P. caters to plutocrats, even as it attacks “elites,” because it thinks it can. After all, being nice to plutocrats and crony capitalists can yield tangible rewards, not just in the form of campaign contributions but also in the form of personal enrichment.
And the Republican Party doesn’t believe that it will pay any price for pursuing these rewards. It believes that its supporters will focus on denunciations of critical race theory and buy into conspiracy theories — almost half of Republicans agree that top Democrats are involved in child sex-trafficking — while not even being aware of what the party is doing for the very rich. After The Times revealed Jared Kushner’s highly questionable $2 billion deal with the Saudis, Fox News simply ignored the report, while harping endlessly on Hunter Biden.
I wish I could say with any confidence that this cynicism will backfire. But I can’t. In particular, Democrats who want to campaign on bread-and-butter issues are assuming that voters will understand who’s actually buttering their bread. And that doesn’t look at all like a safe assumption.