America’s Most Powerful Conspiracy Theorists

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That hand gesture is not leader-y enough, Mr. President. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The belief that President Obama not only should but can lure Republicans to support higher taxes on the rich is the most insanely wrong thing that is believed by respectable people. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt’s column today once again recites this belief, which is both preposterous and banal. The combination of the banality and the preposterousness is what lends this belief its special fascination. There are, after all, all sorts of fantastical beliefs at large among the American population — conspiracy theories involving aliens or the World Trade Center, or pseudoscientific theories linking vaccines to autism, and so on — that attract adherents who are alienated in some way from the established channels. The interesting thing about Tax Trutherism is not only that is is shared by esteemed elites but that, somewhat like the predations of Bernie Madoff, esteemed elites are the only people who are taken in by it.

The original cause of this mental affliction is obvious enough. Establishmentarian centrists share a belief that the long-term budget deficit constitutes the most important problem facing the United States. I don’t share that belief. I do think the long-term deficit is probably still too high, and reducing it could be useful, though decidedly non-urgent compared to crises like climate change and long-term unemployment.

The seriousness of long-term debt projections, and the urgency of acting upon them soon, is something reasonable people can disagree about. The debt-hawk position crosses over into pure delusion when it confronts the political obstacles standing before it. The debt hawks want Democrats to agree to reduce spending on Medicare and Social Security in return for Republican agreement to increase taxes paid by rich people. The Obama administration and most key Democrats agree to this deal, but Republicans do not. Tax Truthers simply refuse to accept this.

Hiatt’s column argues that Republicans would have agreed to raise taxes on the rich if only Obama had exercised “leadership.” He writes, “Imagine instead that Obama had embraced the bipartisanship of Simpson-Bowles and tried to steer through Congress a package that made the tax system fairer and solved the nation’s long-term debt problem.”

Of course, Obama tried strenuously, for years on end, to persuade Republicans to accept such a deal. He attempted every possible means: private negotiations with John Boehner in the summer of 2011, a supercommission in Congress that fall, more negotiations with Congress following the 2012 elections, still more negotiations between the budget committees last year.

Every single one of them died because Republicans stated openly that they would not accept higher revenue under any circumstances. Opposition to higher taxes on the rich is the maximal position of the Republican Party and has been since 1990, when George H.W. Bush struck a deficit deal with Democrats in Congress and angry conservatives organized the Party so as to prevent any such thing from happening again.

Hiatt builds his column around the premise that, if Obama had used “leadership” to persuade Republicans to support policies they find abhorrent, his party would be poised for success in the midterm elections. Sadly, he observes, lack of partisan comity has left Obama unpopular and his party on the run. “Instead of a partisan president on the defensive with slipping poll numbers,” Hiatt writes, “Obama could have been, as he had once promised, the president of both red and blue America.”

Hiatt’s political theory, that high-profile agreement between the parties would lift Obama’s poll numbers and benefit his party, has some real basis. But it also happens to be Mitch McConnell’s political theory. And McConnell wants to win the midterm elections. So it is not clear why Republicans are going to want to help Obama shore up his poll numbers and prevent them from winning seats in the fall election.

Interestingly, the Tax Truthers don’t believe that “leadership” could persuade Republicans to change their position on, say, climate change, or abortion, or financial regulation. The conviction that Obama could talk Republicans into supporting policies they forcefully oppose is limited to the issue that they care about more than any other.

Tax Trutherism sustains itself among elite political and business circles through constant repetition by fellow believers, creating a cocoon, much like the Alex Jones listening audience, where the preposterous becomes mundane. Unfortunately, that cocoon includes large sections of the seat of government of the United States.