Members Only | September 6, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

The GOP’s ‘Flight from Freedom’

Recognize what it's done or there's no moving forward.

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Rick Wilson and Jason Sattler wrote a pair of pieces for USA Today this week that pour ice water all over hope that a Democrat can defeat the president. Neither is cynical, but neither is naive. We’ll need that combo as we head into primary season. 

But even if Donald Trump is defeated, we still face the problem of a decimated public sphere—a consensus understanding of the common good—which, when you think about it, gave way in 2016 to a demagogue who bullied his way to the White House.

I wrote Wednesday that fascism—or Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism, as the novelist Umberto Eco once termed it—is a sociopolitical force that’s always with us, that’s always present, and that’s always threatening to re-emerge but for the strength and integrity of a morality-based social contract by which our humanity is ennobled. 

At what point does greed turn malicious?

After half a century of “starving the beast,” which is to say cutting government revenues to the bone to the detriment of public services, and redistributing wealth upward while depriving working people of dignity and self-respect, it’s clear the Republicans did far more than Donald Trump to aid and abet Ur-Fascism’s revival. 

The first step is restoring public trust by reinvesting in the public sphere. That requires getting Americans to be less greedy (for another time) but that also means accepting the fact that we can’t move forward as long as the Republicans demonize the public sphere, which is to say politicize virtually everything, such the free press, free speech but especially the truth. (Another issue for another time is the nihilist press.)

To illustrate, let me focus on one thing: tax cuts.

You know the drill. Cutting taxes puts more money and more pockets, and even if the already rich get richer, so does everyone else. This is sometimes called “supply-side economics,” though it’s usually called tax policy that’s “pro-growth.” This idea is so common it’s hard to imagine a time when it was thought of as wacky. But there was such a time, in the 1970s, and there was such a wack job by the name of Arthur Laffer. 

The Prospect’s Paul Waldman, writing on the occasion of the president presenting Laffer with a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work, had the backstory:

Laffer sketched out his curve on a napkin at a dinner in 1974 whose attendees included influential Wall Street Journal editor Jude Wanniski (who would go on to spread its gospel) and two Ford administration officials, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The curve purported to show that since if you had a tax rate of 100 percent no one would bother working and tax revenues would be zero, then lowering the tax rate at almost any point must inevitably produce an increase in tax revenue. 

It was an idea that despite being idiotic at its core had a powerful appeal. We can cut taxes and raise revenue? The deficit will go down without any hard choices being made? What a spectacular win-win!

My point in bringing up Laffer is less about his idiocy and more about his and the Republicans’ effort to put a veneer of intellectual respectability on a lie. Tax cuts don’t enrich anyone expect the already rich. They don’t pay for themselves. And they don’t expand society’s economic pie. What they do do, however, is liberate a political party from even the thinnest pretense of responsible governance as well as weaken the common good to the point of breaking to allow a demagogue to rise to power. 

It’s one thing for the Republicans to advance a lie once, maybe twice. But it’s quite another for the Republicans to advance a lie again and again and again. Sure, they did it to enrich themselves and their friends, as David Lazarus said in the LA Times. But there’s more to it. At what point does greed turn malicious? I’d say right about now.

When you make a statement knowing it’s false, and when you repeat that pattern for years, there’s a word for that: bad faith. But I don’t mean its ordinary sense. Bad faith, as Connecticut philosopher Lewis Gordon understood it, “is a flight from freedom. It is an effort to hide from responsibility. … Since freedom and human beings are regarded as one, we can translate bad faith into more prosaic language as the effort to hide from human beings. The effort to hide from human beings takes at least two forms: rejection of the humanity in others and rejection of the humanity in oneself” (italics mine).

I can’t do justice to Lewis Gordon’s influential essay from 1995, but I hope you get the idea. If we don’t recognize what the Republican Party is doing, what it has been doing for decades, there’s no moving forward even if Donald Trump loses next year. 

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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