July 10, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Grover Norquist takes a handout

This should be the end of anti-government politics.

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Newt Gingrich is usually, and rightly, blamed for destroying American politics, even more than Donald Trump. The former House Speaker didn’t go to Washington in the 1970s to strike deals. He went there to wage soft civil war against the United States.

But if there’s a close second to the title of America’s Worst Person, it probably goes to someone you never heard of. He’s not a politician. He’s not a pundit or bureaucrat. When it comes to influencing the GOP’s attitude toward taxing, spending and budgets, however, it would be hard to find someone more influential than Grover Norquist.

Sabotage was good politics when Barack Obama was in charge. With Donald Trump, it’s belly up to the trough.

Norquist is the head of Americans for Tax Reform. The name is a misnomer. It doesn’t want to “reform” taxes so much as get rid of taxes on the very, very rich. Norquist is probably most famous for saying, in 2001, that he doesn’t want to abolish government per se. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can … drown it in the bathtub.”

While Gingrich was on the front lines of the soft civil war, armed with lies, slander and disinformation as his weapons of choice, Norquist was in the backrooms, pulling strings, pressing Republicans to pledge to never ever—never ever ever—raise taxes or be punished. The last Republican to raise taxes for the purpose of balancing responsibly the federal budget was George H.W. Bush, the last one-term president.

At some point, it’s hard to say when, Gingrich’s focus on language and Norquist’s focus on policy merged so that the Republicans always sounded like they were being responsible when calling for balanced budgets, but they were in fact being reckless. Why? Responsible budgets consider expenses as well as revenues. You can’t just ignore one if you’re being serious or responsible. Thanks to pressure from Norquist, however, the Republicans pretended revenues didn’t exist. And, alas, the Democratic Party usually went along. The result has been that for years most debates over budgets turned on the question of how much to starve a government of, by and for the people.

Don’t forget the tip jar!

To be sure, this pretending was collective. Norquist’s group doesn’t care about the size of government. What it cares about is shoving the tax burden off the shoulders of the very, very rich while at the same time seeing the rich enriched with lucrative contracts. If that means huge deficits, so be it. Similarly, the Republican don’t care about deficits when Republicans are president. (Yes, Ronald Reagan raised taxes but he left office with the books well in the red.) Deficits only matter when Democrats are in charge.

All of this was clear to anyone paying close attention. Even so, Norquist in particular had plausible deniability on his side. Though budgets were swollen to bursting on account of irresponsible Republican attitudes, he and others could always say, well, we’re spending too much on wasteful expenditures. If we didn’t spend so much of what people don’t need—or on what people have grown dependent on—budgets and the government would be smaller and better. Plausible deniability meant his group always seemed to be at least somewhat principled, even to people paying close attention.

It seems to me the age of plausible deniability is over. Americans for Tax Reform, which was at the center the tea party movement that took over the Republican Party, applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan as part of an effort to stimulate the economy as it reels from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The guy who wanted to drown the government in a bathtub cried for help while drowning.

You could say, well, that’s OK. Everyone’s facing hard times. But everyone faced hard times during the financial panic of 2007-2008, too. Indeed, Barack Obama, after winning reelection, wanted George W. Bush-era tax cuts on the rich to expire in order to fund a multi-billion dollar jobs program. After 2012, when the GOP lost seats in the Senate, some Republicans felt pressure to play along—until Norquist stepped in. “We’ve got some people,” he said, “discussing impure thoughts on national television.”

The jobs program was shelved, almost certainly prolonging the Great Recession. Yet amid another historic crisis, here we see Grover Norquist of all people with his hand out. It’s not a lot, just $350,000 in forgivable loans. It’s the principle of the thing in that there are no and never have been principles guiding the fiscal conservative project. Only the idea that government is for the very, very rich, not of, by and for the people.

Norquist isn’t alone, of course. The Republicans were so hostile toward Obama’s economic agenda that they brought the country to the brink of insolvency by refusing to lift the debt limit. And yet Republican members of Congress and the president’s family business got access this month to $660 billion in forgivable PPP money, as did 90,000 well-connected businesses that promised to save zero jobs in the bargain.

Sabotage was good politics when Obama was in charge. With Trump, it’s belly up to the trough. This should matter to white swing voters after the election. The Republicans will try reupping the con. They will say they fight for them. They don’t. They are waging soft civil war. While that was never obvious, it should be clear now.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

13 Comments

  1. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    So many catastrophic failures converging. The artificial arguments on the far right hiding behind a ‘principled ideology’, the endlessly ‘gullible’ media who simply parrot these arguments under the guise of free speech, and the myopic and weak oversight by the Pelosi-run House which simultaneously managed to fail most small businesses during a period of maximum inequality and hand additional wealth to the 10%. It took failures of both parties and the media to reach this level of moral and economic degradation.

  2. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    Touché

    Our nation being held hostage by ideas thought up by twelve year old has always sickened me beyond words.

  3. Dimitri Barton on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    The gop was running on the anti government platform long before Grover and his rhetoric became part of the narrative. Even before Reagan and his the government is the problem nonsense.
    It’s always been ridiculous to see the firmly anti government gop candidate urging and welcoming people to vote for them into the very government they proclaim to hate so much. Anyone paying attention has known that its all about garnering power to break down the functions of government in order to then say government does not work.

    • imhumanru on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      True that the GOP has always – even when it represented the Union in the Civil War – been on the side of the biggest businesses and against “big government”. However, they were largely feckless since the 30s, until Lewis Powell’s memo in ’71, urging the business community to invest more in taking over government. It took a little time getting it off the ground, but it really started changing government when Reagan took over. Massive tax cuts combined with an explosion of military spending created huge deficits; the neutering of social programs, Iran-Contra, the full-frontal assault on unions – all contributed to the transformation of government. So much so that Democrats flipped to a conservative agenda to get some of that good Wall Street cash.

      Grover took what Reagan started and pushed it to the extreme. Gingrich decided it was not enough and tried to make government entirely dysfunctional. It didn’t exactly start with these two demons, but they brought it all into the political mainstream.

  4. EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    The soft civil war, as you call it, certainly did begin with Gingrich. It’s a war fought with movingly ephemeral adverbs and strong, catchy adjectives that made 15-second soundbites so delightful for news broadcasters and easily rolled into talking points for the parroting know-nothing know-it-alls. The slitheringly silvered-tongued used masterful imagery to lure the working class into voting against their own self-interest, time, and time again.

    The capitalistic class lured evangelicals into fighting against abortion as the only BIG calling of Christians as though Jesus’s call for us to love and care for one another was meaningless, thereby keeping one hand distracted from what the other was doing–and the rich kept getting richer.

    Bit by bit the social safety net was shredded because suddenly welfare queens were robbing tax-payers of their hard-earned cash. Without it being spelled out, white voters always knew what color of skin those welfare queens had.

    Obviously, the money would be better spent on national security, whether it was more ships, newer missile systems, or the war in Iraq. Waving the flag has always helped the Republican party… and the current president just loves to give it a hug now and then for good measure.

    Nevermind that the veterans who’ve fought those wars have pretty much been disregarded after serving because it would cost SO MUCH money to fully fund the VA and all the programs designed to help those who served.

    It seems that passing legislation and actually funding it are two different matters. And yet, the majority of veterans vote for Republicans, when they vote at all–because the mythology of the Department of Defense insists that it is Republicans and their support for the military-industrial complex that keeps America safe. After all, look who won the Cold War.

    It becomes critical to balance the budget when Democrats are in the White House because Democrats want to kill babies and also make welfare queens live even better, all without working, sometimes even buying steak or lobster with their Food Stamps. Plus Democrats are soft on crime and are for open borders to let all those murderers and rapists in. Demon-crats. The Devil’s spawn.

    Politics is no longer a clash of ideas. It is a struggle for money, but not just in funding legislation. It is a clash between the top 1% (and those who are actively working to join those ranks) and everyone else, being waged with weapons so insidious and destructive, they have the power of wanton destruction and in some cases, annihilation.

    Words.

    Words lobbed as soundbite grenades with the power to torch norms of civility and reason.

    Words twisted and tangled, then worked like clay until they no longer have shared meaning or understanding.

    Our common language has become so polluted with animus and loathing that we can no longer have confidence or faith in the other Americans who aren’t us. Republicans have enticed much of the working class to abandon unions and put their loyalty to a party that mouths platitudes to keep them entrenched in the dream of wealth and prosperity if only they pray enough and stay loyal, they will win the prize.

    If viewed from the beginning of Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” which collided spectacularly with Clinton’s lies, to W’s “scrubbing the Oval Office” while simultaneously misleading America about weapons of mass destruction, then the honorable John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Wasila Wonder who cast doubt on Obama’s religion and qualifications, but Hope and Change won only to be chipped away by birtherism, which was covertly enhanced by Mitch McConnell, who said it wasn’t legitimate for Merrick Garland to get a vote for the vacant Supreme Court seat, but then along comes outrageous Donald Trump, but there was also Clinton’s emails, and Benghazi, and 11 days before the election there was Comey…

    And now here we are. Over 130,000 people dead.

    Do I care about Norquist bullying up to the trough? Yeah, like a mosquito bite. The problem is I now have thousands of bites and they all itch.

    There is only relief if Joe Biden is elected president. So, remember this: If you don’t vote, you vote for Trump. If you write-in a name, you vote for Trump. If you vote for a third-party candidate, you vote for Trump. In this election, you either vote directly for the good man, Joe Biden, or you vote for the liar, the racist, the authoritarian, the man on the brink of destroying our country, Donald Trump.

    Words have power. But we can’t let words distract us from truth. We can’t let words convince us that white is black and black is white and that the sky is green.

    Likewise, we can’t let words convince us that our one, legal vote doesn’t matter, especially if one lives in a red state and wants to vote for a blue candidate. Our voices can only truly be heard by our votes.

    Remember, we are indeed fighting for the soul of America.

    • RUArmyNavyMominTX on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      Wow…truly well-written and thoughtful context. The only words I could summon were “shameless hypocrites,” forgetting that the R’s have no shame.

      • EllTeacher on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

        I’m just too tired of calling out Republican hypocrisy. They are incapable of feeling shame.

    • David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      And tonight #Dolt45 has just commuted Roger Stone’s sentence. On a Friday night when few are paying attention.

  5. REDPILLED on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    PLEASE read The Deficit Myth by economist Stephanie Kelton! The federal budget is NOT like the budget of states, local governments, households, or private businesses! It does NOT have to be “balanced”, and, in situations such as we are currently in, deficit spending on jobs, health care, affordable housing, and, above all else, a Green New Deal, is a NECESSITY!

    • imhumanru on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      Under normal circumstances I would both agree and disagree. The deficit itself is not an issue, but the debt is. The national debt is not the death sentence some would proclaim, but it is an albatross that hurts American policy. Payments on the interest of the debt are a major expenditure that takes away from other needs. And much of he debt is borrowed from other countries, including our enemies.

      That said, most of the debt that plagues us today was built by redistribution of wealth from what would be public coffers to the private investment vehicles of a few oligarchs. Because of that, our deficit and debt should not be an issue until much of that stolen wealth is recovered.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

      “taxes” = investment.

  6. imhumanru on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    Don’t forget the roles played by Frank Luntz, Karl Rove, and Lee Atwater. And Tom Delay. But Grinch and Dumbquist are surely the ones (that you haven’t heard of) most responsible for the death of American democracy and its exalted position in the world, along with millions of American lives either lost or ruined.

  7. JBR on July 30, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    IMHO – society has to be re-imagined. It’s like the tide went out – way out — and the blemishes and frauds are now vividly apparent for the world to see. Pandemic as opportunity for bold social, political and economic change

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