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Heather Cox Richardson: April 13, 2024

April 13, 2024


There are really two major Republican political stories dominating the news these days. The more obvious of the two is the attempt by former president Donald Trump and his followers to destroy American democracy. The other story is older, the one that led to Trump but that stands at least a bit apart from him. It is the story of a national shift away from the supply-side ideology of Reagan Republicans toward an embrace of the idea that the government should hold the playing field among all Americans level.

While these two stories are related, they are not the same.

For forty years, between 1981, when Republican Ronald Reagan took office, and 2021, when Democrat Joe Biden did, the Republicans operated under the theory that the best way to run the country was for the government to stay out of the way of market forces. The idea was that if individuals could accumulate as much money as possible, they would invest more efficiently in the economy than they could if the government regulated business or levied taxes to invest in public infrastructure and public education. The growing economy would result in higher tax revenues, enabling Americans to have both low taxes and government services, and prosperity would spread to everyone. 

But the system never worked as promised. Instead, during that 40-year period, Republicans passed massive tax cuts under Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump, and slashed regulations. A new interpretation of antitrust laws articulated by Robert Bork in the 1980s permitted dramatic consolidation of corporations, while membership in labor unions declined. The result was that as much as $50 trillion moved upward from the bottom 90% of Americans to the top 1%. 

To keep voters on board the program that was hollowing out the middle class, Republicans emphasized culture wars, hitting hard on racism and sexism by claiming that taxes were designed by Democrats to give undeserving minorities and women government handouts and promising their evangelical voters they would overturn the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing the constitutional right to abortion. Those looking for tax cuts and business deregulation depended on culture warriors and white evangelicals to provide the votes to keep them in power.

But the election of Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 proved that Republican arguments were no longer effective enough to elect Republican presidents. So in 2010, with the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, the Supreme Court freed corporations to pour unlimited money into U.S. elections. That year, under Operation REDMAP, Republicans worked to dominate state legislatures so they could control redistricting under the 2010 census, yielding extreme partisan gerrymanders that gave Republicans disproportionate control. In 2013 the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision greenlighted the voter suppression Republicans had been working on since 1986.  

Even so, by 2016 it was not at all clear that the cultural threats, gerrymandering, and voter suppression would be enough to elect a Republican president. People forget it now because of all that has come since, but in 2016, Trump offered not only the racism and sexism Republicans had served up for decades, but also a more moderate economic program than any other Republican running that year. He called for closing the loopholes that permitted wealthy Americans to evade taxes, cheaper and better healthcare than the Democrats had provided with the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), bringing manufacturing back to the U.S., and addressing the long backlog of necessary repairs to our roads and bridges through an infrastructure bill. 

But once in office, Trump threw economic populism overboard and resurrected the Republican emphasis on tax cuts and deregulation. His signature law was the 2017 tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy at a cost of at least $1.9 trillion over ten years. At the same time, Trump continued to feed his base with racism and sexism, and after the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, he increasingly turned to his white nationalist base to shore up his power. On January 6, 2021, he used that base to try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. 

Republican senators then declined to convict Trump of that attempt in his second impeachment trial, apparently hoping he would go away. Instead, their acquiescence in his behavior has enabled him to continue to push the Big Lie that he won the 2020 election. But to return to power, Trump has increasingly turned away from establishment Republicans and has instead turned the party over to its culture war and Christian nationalist foot soldiers. Now Trump has taken over the Republican National Committee itself, and his supporters threaten to turn the nation over to the culture warriors who care far more about their ideology than they do about tax cuts or deregulation.

The extremism of Trump’s base is hugely unpopular among general voters. Most significantly, Trump catered to his white evangelical base by appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and in 2022, when the court did so, the dog caught the car. Americans overwhelmingly support reproductive freedoms, and Republicans are getting hammered over the extreme abortion bans now operative in Republican-dominated states. Now Trump and a number of Republicans have tried to back away from their antiabortion positions, infuriating antiabortion activists. 

It is hard to see how the Republican Party can appeal to both Trump’s base and general voters at the same time. 

That split dramatically weakens Trump politically while he is in an increasingly precarious position personally. He will, of course, go on trial on Monday, April 15, for alleged crimes committed as he interfered in the 2016 election. At the same time, the $175 million appeals bond he posted to cover the judgment in his business fraud trial has been questioned and must be justified by April 14. The court has scheduled a hearing on the bond for April 22. And his performance at rallies and private events has been unstable. 

He seems a shaky reed on which to hang a political party, especially as his MAGA Republicans have proven unable to manage the House of Representatives and are increasingly being called out as Russian puppets for their attacks on Ukraine aid.  

Regardless of Trump’s future, though, the Reagan Era is over. 

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have quite deliberately rejected the economic ideology that concentrated wealth among the 1%. On their watch, the federal government has worked to put money into the hands of ordinary Americans rather than the very wealthy. With Democrats and on occasion a few Republicans, they have passed legislation to support families, dedicate resources to making sure people with student debt are receiving the correct terms of their loans (thus relieving significant numbers of Americans), and invested in manufacturing, infrastructure, and addressing climate change. They have also supported unions and returned to an older definition of antitrust law, suing Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple and allowing the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies over drug prices.

Their system has worked. Under Biden and Harris the U.S. has had unemployment rates under 4% for 26 months, the longest streak since the 1960s. Wages for the bottom 80% of Americans have risen faster than inflation, chipping away at the huge disparity between the rich and the poor that the policies of the past 40 years have produced. 

Today, in an interview with Jamie Kitman of The Guardian, United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain, who negotiated landmark new union contracts with the country’s Big Three automakers, explained that the world has changed: “Workers have realized they’ve been getting screwed for decades, and they’re fed up.”










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