Conservatism Unleashed

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Members of the cabinet applaud during Trump's State of the Union address on January 30, 2018.

In the Netflix science fiction series Altered Carbon, a major plot line involves a ship, hovering thousands of feet above the ground, where the super-rich go to fulfill their most sordid fantasies, involving not just kinky sex but the murder of attractive young women (and the occasional man), the ultimate privilege for a member of the overclass. It's a trope you've probably seen in a dozen films: When a group of people utterly removed from any kind of societal accountability gather to grant license to their desires, those desires turn out to be utterly depraved.

Something analagous is happening right now in American politics. The Republican Party, particularly its members in the Trump administration, are engaged in an ideological bacchanal that goes beyond what we imagined would occur when Donald Trump became president. We knew what a disaster he would be as an individual; his ignorant, insecure, petty, vindictive, authoritarian personality was amply clear to anyone who had paid even marginal attention to the 2016 presidential campaign. What was far less clear was how his party would take the opportunity of their momentary hold on power to not just move aggressively to advance their agenda, but to do so with a kind of mad desperation that is going far beyond what we, in a more innocent moment—say, any time before two years ago—would have thought possible.

Perhaps you think this is just bellyaching from a liberal displeased with the enactment of a conservative governing program. Wouldn't people like me be unhappy with every day of any Republican presidency, whether it was Trump's or that of a more mainstream figure like Marco Rubio or John Kasich? Of course we would. But something different is happening.

There's a deep irony at work, which I'll get to in a bit. But let's first look at just a few representative examples of what's happening right now.

  • In a move that will likely go unnoticed because it involves an arcane but vital corner of law, "The Trump administration has adopted new limits on the use of 'guidance documents' that federal agencies have issued on almost every conceivable subject, an action that could have sweeping implications for the government's ability to sue companies accused of violations." It's a complicated topic, but what it comes down to is the government hamstringing itself from being able to enforce its own laws and regulations, particularly against corporate violators. As the administration wrote, the new limits apply to lawsuits that seek to "impose penalties for violations of federal health, safety, civil rights or environmental laws," in a reversal of decades of policy.
  • The administration has sent a message to Republican states that the time has come to take any steps they can think of to start kicking poor, sick, and vulnerable people off Medicaid. They've already approved Kentucky's and Indiana's plans to impose work requirements on recipients, which have virtually no practical utility but do establish an intricate bureaucratic maze that recipients are required to navigate, with any misfiled form or missed deadline potentially resulting in coverage being yanked away. And now they're considering lifetime limits on Medicaid, so a poor person who got coverage for a few years could be barred from the program forever. For decades, this kind of unfathomable cruelty resided only in conservatives' whispered hopes; now it may well become policy.
  • Trump appointed budget director Mick Mulvaney to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in his brief time in the job Mulvaney has essentially attempted to dismantle the entire agency and everything it does. Mulvaney has dropped lawsuits and investigations against financial firms and payday lenders that exploit customers with interest rates up to 950 percent; informed his employees that the needs of corporations will be as important to him as the needs of consumers (he wrote that the agency will henceforth serve "those who use credit cards, and those who provide those cards; those who take loans, and those who make them; those who buy cars, and those who sell them"); and requested that the budget for his agency be reduced to $0.
  • In previous Republican administrations, the EPA might be headed by a moderate Republican like Christine Todd Whitman who liked to take walks in the woods. and while environmentalists would have plenty to complain about, at the very least there was an acknowledgment that the Environmental Protection Agency should make some attempt to protect the environment. No more. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has waged an outright war on the very idea of the federal government regulating the environment, turning the agency into nothing short of a servant of corporate polluters. "We've spent 40 years putting together an apparatus to protect public health and the environment from a lot of different pollutants," said William Ruckelshaus, who was EPA administrator under Nixon and Reagan. "He's pulling that whole apparatus down."

In cases like these, what's happening is more than a shift from a liberal policy orientation to a conservative policy orientation, but something much deeper, an attempt to go beyond what Republicans were willing to attempt before. And this is where the irony comes in: While we might have expected that Donald Trump would attract a collection of grifters, crooks, and domestic abusers to work for him — and he has — the Trump administration was not expected to be the kind of place where conservative ideologues would be given the green light to indulge every far-right fantasy they ever harbored.

In fact, that was precisely the reservation so many conservatives had about him back in 2016: not that he was a buffonish vulgarian, but that he couldn't be trusted to advance the conservative cause. Hadn't he been a sort-of-Democrat before, occasionally expressing sympathy for things like abortion rights and gun control? How could they be sure he wouldn't go off on some liberal tangent if it seemed to please the crowd?

But it turns out that Trump's erratic decision-making and copious personality flaws are exactly what has wound up pushing his presidency to be more conservative than any other candidate's might have been. A more traditional Republican would have attracted a broad range of Republicans to work for him, including many with sane ideas and a vision of their own careers that extended into the future. But without those mainstream Republicans, many of whom decided that they'd rather not forever sully their reputations by having worked for Donald Trump, the grifters and ideologues are the only ones left. They don't care what people think about them; if Trump gives them the chance to toss people off their health coverage or help corporations pollute, they'll grasp it with glee.

There's another key factor at work, one that is probably felt keenly among Trump's enablers and partners on Capitol Hill. They have complete control of government now, but they know how fragile it is. They could well lose one or both houses of Congress in November, and the White House in 2020. Not only that, given demographic trends and the GOP's unpopularity with young people, in order to get back in control in the future the party may have to moderate its appeal. So this could be their last chance for some time to come to attempt everything they've ever wanted to do.  

To be sure, the GOP was not only growing steadily more conservative but also happily busting through established norms before Trump took office; Mitch McConnell's decision to refuse to allow Barack Obama's last Supreme Court nominee even a hearing, let alone a vote, was just one vivid example. The party as a whole has dived in eagerly to the orgy of self-dealing, rule-flouting, and ideological extremism that has characterized the last year. They have decided to defend Trump at all costs, no matter what he does or is revealed to have done (just wait until Robert Mueller's investigation is done; then you'll see the depths to which they'll sink). So don't think for a moment that any of this happened solely because the president is such a deplorable and incompetent figure. In Trump's Washington, everybody on the right knows that it's now or never. So they're going to milk this moment for all it's worth.

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