(Not) breaking news: Republicans are lying. I know, I know, if it’s a day that ends with “y,” the Party of Trump is spouting falsehoods—hell, that was true of the twice impeached former president personally (the Washington Post came up with a final count of 30,573 “false or misleading claims” during his time in office, an average of almost 21 per day, with just about half coming in the final twelve months).
What’s the lie about this time? Only a relatively small matter: namely on whose behalf each party is supposedly fighting. In all seriousness, there isn’t a more existential question in our politics today, there isn’t a lie with broader implications Republicans could peddle than this one: they are claiming to be the party of the working class. The truth is that conservative policies fail the working class on two grounds: first, they favor the interests of employers rather than employees, and second, they lead to weaker overall economic growth both nationally and in the areas they govern than do progressive policies.
Although it may not lead to the same kind of violence as the Big Lie about the election, this fiction may be even more dangerous in the long run. Combined with the disproportionate power our election system already gives white and rural voters, this other lie could actually help the Republicans win at the ballot box, and even return the Insurrectionist-in-Chief to the Oval Office in four years. Democrats must take this seriously. Thankfully, so far Joe Biden and his team are doing just that.
Recently, mini-Trumps such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, among others, have spread the aforementioned bullshit about their party and the working class.
At the end of March, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, a conservative House faction, authored a six-page memo with the subject line: “Cementing the GOP as the Working-Class Party” and sent it to House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. We’ve seen similar sorts of manure coming from conservative columnists at outlets like the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall). The facts—which John Adams called “stubborn things” and Ronald Reagan once revealingly called “stupid things”—beg to differ.
Lest we forget, Republicans are the party whose sole major legislative achievement during the two years they held the House, Senate, and White House under Trump consisted of a $2 trillion-plus monstrosity of a tax cut that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest individuals as well as big corporations (whose lobbyists worked assiduously after it was passed to ensure that companies avoided as much as hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes on their profits that the law was expected to collect from them).
David Cay Johnston broke down the data on how Trump’s Rich Man’s Tax Cut affected households across the economic spectrum, but here’s one comparison that puts the law into perspective:
Let’s compare two groups, those making $50,000 to $100,000 and those declaring $500,000 to $1 million. The second group averaged nine times as much income as the first group in 2018. Under the Trump tax law, the first group’s annual income taxes declined on average by $143, while the second group’s tax reduction averaged $17,800.
Put another way, a group that made nine times as much money enjoyed about 125 times as much in income tax savings.
As for those declaring over $1 million a year, Johnston had another fact that sheds more light on which class the Republicans prioritize. After Trump changed the tax code, 556 households earning over $1 million paid a big fat zilch in federal income taxes—an increase of 41% over the number who did so prior to him taking office. And we aren’t talking about people making a smidgen over $1 million. The average annual income in those households was a gaudy three and a half million bucks.
The Center for American Progress put together a graphic to show what our country could have bought with the money Trump sent mostly right up the economic ladder to those at the very top. All of these would bring significant material benefit to the American working class.
Of course, Trump and his party barely mentioned their billionaire boondoggle of a tax scheme on the campaign trail last year—because it’s a stinker politically. They’ve mostly continued to ignore it in 2021 as well. Instead, Republicans are now attacking so-called “woke capital”—corporations to which they’ve long shoveled money but which recently have had the audacity to stand up for voting rights and oppose GOP efforts to suppress the vote for partisan purposes.
The party of Trump is pitching this as evidence of them resisting corporate power. Please. As Greg Sargent wrote in the Washington Post, the reality is that “Republicans are cynically using the rhetoric of disempowerment to stoke a sense of victimization in conservative voters to justify actual efforts to disempower countless others through voter suppression.” Jamelle Bouie at the New York Times called out this “fake war against woke capital,” and laid out a series of measures Republicans could support if they actually wanted to push back against corporate power.
While their efforts on Republican voter suppression laws being passed in Georgia and elsewhere are laudable in and of themselves, let’s remember that corporations still oppose the broad interests of American workers, and overall have no desire to share control or a greater slice of the pie with their employees. As Adam Serwer wrote in the Atlantic, “‘Woke capital’ does not actually exist, only capital—and its interests remain the same as they have always been.”
The story outside Washington, D.C., differs little when it comes to Republicans and the working class. Red parts of the country—states and locations that consistently deliver most of their votes to the GOP—are doing worse economically than those that vote for Democrats, according to a new study that will appear in a forthcoming book examining this disparity. The co-author, Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker, explained in a March interview with the Washington Post that “Red America is falling farther behind, but the politicians who represent it at all levels have gotten more unified on an economic agenda that hurts the people who live there.” Ultimately, the authors argue that conservative policies are causing this phenomenon, and thus hurting above all the middle and lower-income voters whom they govern.
At the end of the day, the Republicans can’t be the party of workers if their policies favor those workers’ bosses—and the rich in general. This is even more true if Republican policies result in weaker economic growth for the regions they control. Even they know that, at least the ones who are being honest with themselves.
Speaking of honesty, when Republicans publicly pretend to care about the working class, they leave out the one word—five little letters—that reveals their true political strategy. It’s spelled: W-H-I-T-E. The GOP’s push to rebrand themselves the party of the working class doesn’t say so directly, but it is aimed at the white working class, and centers on white grievance—just like their overall pitch has done going on five decades now.
As folks like Heather McGhee and Ian Haney López have argued in recent books, Republicans have long practiced white identity politics and sought to divide working-class voters along racial lines. These authors and others have pushed Democratic candidates and campaigns to talk about right-wing race-baiting rather than ignore it, and in doing so specifically emphasize that it’s a cynical tactic employed by Republicans who don’t care one lick for working-class whites, and who merely want their votes so they can go on doing what they really care about—helping the rich get richer.
Republicans know they need to keep white voters—in particular the working class voters whom their policies actively harm—angry at “those people” over there: the Americans of color who are supposedly their enemies. That’s why conservatives spend so much time and energy focusing on cultural and non-economic issues. Most recently, Tucker Carlson—as loud a voice for white grievance and white nationalist politics as there is since Trump left the White House—put this vile hate at the center of a despicable rant on his Fox News show. He railed against Democrats whom he claimed want to “import” voters from the “third world” in order to “dilute” his vote and “disenfranchise” him and people like him. When he faced criticism over his racist rhetoric Carlson only doubled down.
Progressives must push back against this right-wing hate aimed at dividing the working class. One way to do so is by following the aforementioned advice of McGhee and López. The other is by supporting, implementing—and then afterward vigorously promoting—policies that meaningfully benefit working-class Americans of every race while also reducing the economic gaps between racial groups. This is something President Biden and Democratic leaders are doing right now.
Look at the two measures that dominate Biden’s domestic agenda thus far: the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package known as the American Rescue Plan (ARP) that he signed into law last month, and the new plan on infrastructure that will spend around $2 trillion, and pay for it by rolling back much of what the wealthy and corporations gained from the Trump tax cuts, along with other, similarly aimed measures (households earning under $400,000 a year and individual filers earning under $200,000 will not face an increase in their federal taxes, the president has pledged). Additionally, although it does not include details, we can also examine the preliminary proposal the White House submitted for discretionary federal spending in the upcoming fiscal year.
It’s impossible to discuss all of these in any depth here, but suffice it to say most of the money being spent or proposed is aimed at those at or below the median income line. In other words, the American working class—white and BIPOC—is going to receive significant support of the kind not seen in generations if Biden’s full agenda is enacted.
The American Rescue Plan is already the law of the land, and its benefits have begun to flow. Steven Rattner, an Obama economic adviser, put together this handy little graphic that compares Biden’s ARP to Trump’s tax giveaway to the rich specifically on what each one did for Americans across the economic spectrum.
Biden helped people at the bottom as well as the middle and even those above the middle roughly equally. The Orange Julius Caesar’s plan showered its riches largely on those who were already doing exceptionally well, and did little to nothing for those typically defined as working class.
Please note that these are the signature accomplishments of the Trump and Biden (to this point) administrations, and we are talking about approximately two trillion dollars being directed by each one. Only one can rightfully claim to serve the interests of the working class. It’s the president who is actually sending money their way, not the one who moved from Park Avenue to his private Palm Beach club after passing changes to the tax code that made him tens of millions—and lied about that too.
One last point on the ARP: it passed without a single Republican vote in Congress—not that it stopped a few of the most shameless from taking credit for the money authorized therein.
Come the next election, the key question is whether, as Ron Brownstein explored, working-class voters will support the party that helped their bottom line.
Last month, every House and Senate Republican opposed Biden’s massive $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, even though it delivered significant benefits to working-class white voters, the GOP’s foundational voting bloc, including increased health-care subsidies and expanded tax credits for families with children. That pattern is repeating with the infrastructure plan, even though it directs billions of dollars to rural communities, which are indispensable to Republican political fortunes.
That resistance represents a political gamble, because the proposed benefits—including $1,400 stimulus checks, and rural broadband in the infrastructure plan—are large enough and visible enough that voters may be more likely to feel them in their daily life than most legislative actions. Republicans “are going to have to explain how they are voting against the interests of their base, because I think there [would] be meaningful impacts” on their voters from the plans’ provisions, says Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant who led a research project last year that tried to improve his party’s performance among rural voters.
In addition to walking the walk with his policies, Biden has also talked the talk—going after Republicans hard on their hypocrisy and their support for plutocracy over the working-class voters their faux-rebranded party supposedly values.
On March 12, a day after signing the ARP, Biden spoke at the White House about what the legislation would do, and how it differed from the Republican approach regarding the interests of the working class and the wealthy:
It changes the paradigm. For the first time in a long time, this bill puts working people in this nation first. It’s not hyperbole; it’s a fact. (Applause.)
For too long, it’s been the folks at the top. They’re not bad folks. A significant number of them know they shouldn’t be getting the tax breaks they had. But it put the richest Americans first, who benefited the most. And the theory was—we’ve all heard it, and especially the last 15 years. The theory was: Cut taxes, and those at the top and the benefits they get will trickle down to everyone. Well, you saw what trickle down does. We’ve known it for a long time. But this is the first time we’ve been able to, since the Johnson administration and maybe even before that, to begin to change the paradigm.
We’ve seen time and time again that that trickle down does not work. And, by the way, we don’t have anything against wealthy people. You got a great idea, you’re going to go out and make millions of dollars—that’s fine. I have no problem with that. But guess what? You got to pay your fair share. You got to pay some. Because guess what? Folks who are making—living on the edge, they’re paying. And so, again, all it’s done is make those at the top richer in the past, and everyone else falling behind.
Take a look at whom the American people believe Biden’s American Rescue Plan is going to help. This is why Biden’s approach has a strong chance of working politically.
Here’s another example of Biden’s working-class rhetoric, from his March 25 press conference:
If you notice—don’t you find it kind of interesting that my Republican friends were worried about that the cost and the taxes that had to be had—if there is any tax to be had, as they talk about it—in dealing with the—the act that we just passed which puts money in people’s pockets—ordinary people.
Did you hear them complain when they passed close to a $2 trillion Trump tax cut—83 percent going to the top 1 percent? Did you hear them talk about that all? I love the fact that they’ve found this whole idea of concern about the federal budget. It’s kind of amazing.
When the federal budget is saving people’s lives, they don’t think it’s such a good idea. When the federal budget is feathering the nest of the wealthiest Americans—90 of the Fortune 500 companies making billions of dollars not paying a cent in taxes; reducing taxes to the point that people who are making—you know, if you’re a husband and wife, a schoolteacher and a cop, you’re paying at a higher rate than the average person making a billion dollars a year is—something is wrong. Their newfound concern.
Republicans are many things. One thing they are not is the party of the working class. Don’t look at what they say, look at the policies they pass. Of course, if you want a visual example of their hypocrisy, it doesn’t get much better than Cancún Cruz. I loved the line from the editorial board of the Houston Chronicle: “As Texans froze, Ted Cruz got a ticket to paradise. Paradise can have him.” As for the guy formerly in charge, Trump might like fast food, but here’s one union member who isn’t fooled into thinking that makes him a friend of workers—white or those of color.
Whether it’s a commitment to infrastructure, a far more equitable tax policy, combating climate change, or support for health care, a living wage, and child care, the Democratic Party is clearly the one doing more for workers of every race, including the white workers the other party is trying to bamboozle. Furthermore, working-class Americans of color know which party fights harder for racial justice and equal rights. The Republicans continue to serve the real masters they’ve served since the days of not just Reagan but Herbert Hoover—the wealthy elite, the 1%.
Democratic leaders from Joe Biden on down have the facts to counter the lie Republicans are selling. You do as well—Daily Kos is all about news you can use, after all. To paraphrase the wise philosopher and fictional senator John Blutarski, we just have to get out there and do it.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas).