How Republicans Stoke Anti-Government Hate
Trump supporters attempt to break through a police barrier on Capitol Hill in Washington on January 6, 2021 (AP Photo / Julio Cortez).
The January 6 uprising, instigated by then-President Donald Trump, may not seem nearly as similar to then-actor Ronald Reagan’s claim in 1961 that government-funded health care for the elderly amounted to “imposing statism or socialism to a people. ” But political scientists Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris believe that these episodes employ the long-standing Republican strategy of “interaction between a distrustful public and the conservative elite who will benefit from that distrust.” Like Reagan said In his 1981 inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problem; the government is the problem. “
On At War With The Government: How Conservatives Armed Goldwater’s Distrust Of Trump (Columbia University Press, 2021), Fried and Harris provide a powerful exegesis of American politics and explain how conservative elites have cultivated a toxic distrust of government. This is not a traditional conservative argument about US spending and tax levels or commitments abroad. It means playing on citizens’ fears that their government is corrupt, undemocratic, elitist, and their enemy. This, they argue, is “the fundamental strategy of conservative Republican politics.” It is based on “public dissatisfaction to build its movement, win elections, participate in conflicts of separation of powers and thwart advances in liberal politics.” Sometimes leaders struggle to control those they woke up. Sometimes they lay eggs. And whether implicit or overt, racism and xenophobia are essential components of these efforts.
Conservative elites can adjust their anti-government goals according to circumstances. Fried and Harris recounted how Republicans’ arguments about how government should operate changed, depending on who was in control. Newt Gingrich’s rise to power was prompted by the accusation that Congress had become too powerful. After Republicans won a majority in the House in 1994, Gingrich went on to argue that Congress should be the dominant power. In the same way that a broken watch ticks twice a day, Gingrich might have stumbled upon the truth, as the power of the executive branch has grown hauntingly great since World War II.
This can lead to infuriating hypocrisy. Despite the Republicans’ description of their grievances about “big government” as rooted in a constant ideology, Fried and Harris show that they are situational. In the same Press conference Where President Reagan said, “The nine scariest words in English are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,'” the conservative icon also announced “record amounts of assistance” to farmers. Later, at the same press conference, Gipper rejected Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s claim that federal budget cuts were hurting his city’s residents.
In this account, Donald Trump is no exception to decades of GOP demagoguery. Of course, Trump’s anger, xenophobia, racism, and criticism of the “deep state” were more rude and outspoken; it was unusual in embracing overtly undemocratic norms. But Trump fit comfortably into the Republican tradition of arousing Americans’ suspicions of the government. Trump sought to intimidate, “attack and scapegoat“Immigrants, trying to prohibit” foreigners “from benefiting from social programs. That stands in stark contrast to Reagan’s granting of amnesty to about 3 million undocumented immigrants, many of them poor. But Trump’s anti-immigrant policies amplified the Republicans’ long-standing project to slash government, for certain groups and not for others.
In 1981, Reagan accused black women of defrauding the government when he cut cash benefits. Republicans cut taxes for the wealthy in 2017, praising the dignity of the beneficiaries. Did the Republican Party’s successes and its tapping of public ire scare Democrats away from New Deal and Great Society programs? Even with 60 Democratic senators and a substantial Democratic majority in the House, Barack Obama was barely able to pass the Affordable Care Act. Joe Biden is fighting to pass his expansive human infrastructure plan, as well as his more modest bipartisan plan to repair roads and bridges.
Reagan’s claims about socialism, successful efforts to stop Clinton’s health care reform, failed efforts to stop the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the subsequent execution-like process employed to sink it all employed the distrust of the government. All were activated using the Republican Party’s weapon of first resort: distrust of the government.
Fried and Harris’s wise analytical framework sometimes downplays the intersections of race and gender. Surely mistrust in the government, combined with messages linked to race and gender, have been part of the arguments against improving housing policy for the poor, food support, equal pay, support for basic income and the like. Distrust in government is essential to understanding Republican power, but so is race and gender.
Threading the intersections between race and gender more intentionally in their analysis, in the same way that they intertwine health policy across administrations, would have enriched this valuable study. And while Fried and Harris acknowledge that you sometimes deserve mistrust, this too could have been discussed further.
Risk to the common good is the reason all of this matters; why, say Fried and Harris, “political trust and mistrust are important.” Chronicle for the first time around 1175-1225, the word confidence comes from the old norse word misfortune, related to the German word trost or comfort. Distrust appeared in the 16th century. Using the Latin prefix dis- meaning “apart, in pieces, completely”, suggests that confidence has not only been reversed but torn Besides.
Fried and Harris argue that the use of mistrust as a weapon undermines the ability of Americans to achieve collective goals. Michael Sandel, who teaches Harvard’s political philosophy echoes that sentiment: “Any hope of renewing our moral and civic lives depends on understanding how, over … decades, our social ties and mutual respect fell apart.” The charge, he says, is “to find our way to a policy of the common good.”
Unlike most books of this type, Fried and Harris chart a way forward, presenting suggestions to counter Republicans’ promotion of political distrust. There are ways to “make peace with the government,” they argue, even after questioning whether partisan polarization is reversible and whether racial animosity can be softened.
After showing how “distrust is politically useful … full of political potential for those who exercise it in an informed and skillful manner,” Fried and Harris present ways in which trust could be used strategically to recruit candidates and run campaigns. The message of trust should mimic that of its unfading counterpart: distrust.
The Biden administration is promoting plans that leave no one untouched. These strategies are bold, daring, and expansive. Now, political leaders and activists must be intentional in their message to the American public; These are public and governmental efforts. The White House has sought to reduce the costs of childcare, college and prescription drug costs, rural health services, and broadband coverage, to name just a few. As Biden proclaimed in March 2021, fighting the pandemic benefits from placing our “trust and faith in our government to fulfill its most important role, which is to protect the American people. . . America thrives when we give our hearts, when we put our hands in a common purpose. “
For citizens to understand the importance of public policies, they must experience them as part of their daily lives: the bridges they cross, the schools their children attend, the rural hospital that saved their lives. Only then is there hope that they will favor collective enterprise.
“Building back better” is not just a plan to revitalize the country, but an opportunity to regain confidence. Fried and Harris’s book gives us the knowledge and tools we need to take on this task: better rebuild a commitment to the public good.