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by Marc Jampole
AS MANY OTHERS have pointed out, the Republican Party hasn’t wasted any time letting the other shoe drop. They’re dancing their standard two-step of first creating a deficit by cutting taxes on the wealthy and then wailing that the deficit is hurting the economy — of course, the only way to fix it by cutting government spending on social welfare programs.
Reagan pulled this swindle in the 1980s. Bush did it in the first decade of the 21st century.
Now the Republicans are about to take the first step of the same old swindle by giving the ultra-wealthy the largest tax cut in American history. Most everyone knows that the Trump GOP plan is to pay for this new federal largesse to our least needy in three ways: 1) Cutting spending; 2) Raising taxes on the middle class; 3) Creating a deficit.
Typically, the GOP waits a few years before calling for slashing federal spending, but this crass and brazen new Trump-led GOP has already begun to call for deep cuts to close the large and soon to get larger deficit. Both Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan have explicitly said that the next step is to radically shrink Medicare and Social Security.
Yes, Social Security. Remember, Reagan tried to go after the government-run insurance program into which employees pay 6.25% of their earnings (up to a very low $118,500 annually) for the promise of a steady check once they retire. Social Security provides the bulk of retirement income for most Americans. The best Reagan could do was raise the tax, trim benefits, and enable the federal government to borrow money from the Social Security Trust Fund. Since then, Republicans routinely treat Social Security as if it were part of the budget, and not a separate Trust Fund.
Bush II went after Social Security literally the day after his second inauguration, but it backfired on him.
Obama’s Simpson-Bowles Commission wanted to lower Social Security benefits as a way to pay for the great tax cut to the wealthy it was proposing. That went nowhere fast.
NOW THE REPUBLICANS are ready for another assault on Social Security as part of a broader plan to get the federal government out of the business of helping anyone except those who don’t need the help. There’s little chance they’ll succeed in doing much more than raising the retirement age or trimming the benefit:Too many people depend upon on Social Security, so like any head-on assault against the Affordable Care Act, an attempt to end or radically change Social Security will fail. Nibbling at its edges, however, have succeeded before, so even as the GOP fire-bombers ask for a radical change such as privatization, the so-called moderates will be pushing to nip and tuck the program — lowering annual increases, raising the retirement age, increasing the tax, anything but raising the cap on income assessed the Social Security tax, which would of course hurt rich folk.
One reason that Social Security is so hard for the GOP to attack is that everyone uses it, and so it is impossible for the GOP to pretend that only the undeserving receive Social Security benefits, like they do with welfare, food stamps and Medicaid.
For those unhip to the language of racial coding, when the Republicans label a group like food stamp recipients as underserving, they mean “of color,” and more recently also “immigrant.” They revel in assuming that most recipients of aid from the government are minorities, and then playing on the racism that many whites still harbor — the secret feeling that whites are superior and, the not-so-secret fear that minorities are taking away the good jobs, the promotions, and the college acceptances, while deserving none of it. In fact, whites born and raised in the good ol’ U-S-of-A make up the overwhelming majority of the recipients of virtually all social welfare programs. But if the GOP can convince their base that only minorities — the undeserving — receive the benefit, they have a good chance of keeping their support.
WE CAN ALREADY SEE the GOP begin to demonize the poor. Many news and opinion articles are repeating some of the odious things Republicans have been saying to justify cutting social welfare programs. Comments by Senators Chuck Grassley and Orrin Hatch that blamed the poor for their predicament have rightfully received widespread condemnation. Grassley said that poor folk would be rich if they spent less on booze, women and movies. Hatch chided poor children without healthcare for “not lifting a finger” to help themselves.
Behind the racism of these comments is a secondary code that the news media does not pick up on, and in fact often enables. To a much smaller, but much richer base than the uneducated white wage-working class, goes this secondary message: It’s not just minorities and immigrants who are inferior, undeserving and responsible for their own dire condition — it is anyone who isn’t rich. The rich got that way through their hard work, deserve what they have and don’t deserve to have it taken away from them — no matter what.
The idea of the deserving rich and the underserving poor predates Ronald Reagan’s politics of selfishness. It is a mutation of what sociologists call the “Protestant ethic.” The Protestant ethic starts with the idea that it’s not prayer or ritual or even faith that gets you into heaven, but good works in the real world. But one form of Protestantism, Calvinism, added the concept of “predestination” that those deserving god’s grace and a glorious afterlife were predetermined.
As early as the Dutch Golden Age — decades before social thinkers were using Darwin’s theories to justify letting the wealthy prey on everyone else in a deregulated, laissez-faire market economy — the Protestant ethic underwent a secular inversion, at least in business circles and among the clericals feeding at their trough. The idea arose that becoming a success, and specifically a financial success, was a sign of goodness and god’s grace. Conversely, the poor manifested their inferiority by virtue of being poor. In a sense, everyone becomes self-made, untethered from their social background and wealth and the vagaries of chance. We know you’re inherently good because you’re rich. We assume that the poor remain so because they are inherently bad. The virtue of the “self-made multimillionaire,” as the right-looking-center publication The Economist once described Mitt Romney.
Of course the real world is far different, full of virtuous teachers, professors, nurses, home health aides and other educators and caregivers who make less money than they would as corporate attorneys or investment bankers. It’s also full of virtuous bus drivers, security guards, construction workers, janitors, telemarketers, cashiers, burger flippers and other low-paid jobs who work just as hard as corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers, advertising executives and professional athletes, but make much less money.
The wealthy have been playing one form or another of the “we deserve it” card since the emergence of modern democracy. Racism makes it easier to play because a racial inferior is by definition undeserving. But the ultra-wealthy merely use racism to divide and conquer. Believe me, they — and by “they” I mean the Trumps, Kochs, DeVoses, Mnuchins, Mercers, Anschutzes, Scaifes and their ilk — have just as much disdain for all poor people as the poor uneducated cracker cruising white power websites has for minorities.
Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer and retired public relations executive. He launched this column, “Left Is Right,” with a piece on immigration. Marc’s new poetry flip book, Cubist States of Mind/Not the Cruelest Month, is available at our Pushcart.
To see Lawrence Bush’s video Republican disdain for poor people, “Dangerous Splits in the Republican Party,” click here.