The Republican donor class is in a tantrum. Retired oil investors are spitting bile in Mitch McConnell’s face at black-tie dinners. Agribusiness moguls are reminding Iowa Republicans that campaign contributions don’t grow on cornstalks. New York real-estate investors are giving GOP bundlers lectures about personal responsibility; and a few cosmopolitan elites are even crawling into bed with Steve Bannon’s merry mutineers.
Conventional wisdom holds that this rage is justified — or, at least, understandable. Conservative megadonors spent eight years pouring precious capital into Republican coffers. They were promised that a unified GOP government would take a sledgehammer to the collectivist health-care system, and return all the money that Uncle Sam had been wasting to the job creators who’d earned it. And yet, nearly ten months into unchecked Republican rule, Obamacare remains the law of the land, and tax “reform” is creeping forward at a ominously slow pace. Can anyone blame Republican donors for closing their wallets to an enterprise that’s produced such poor returns? After all, as one GOP-bankrolling energy executive told Politico on Thursday, “When you’re in a business and you tell your stakeholders you’re going to build a building or something, you have to follow through. I can’t borrow money to build a building and then not follow through, which is what these guys are doing.”
Alas, the idea that right-wing plutocrats have been ill-served by the Trump government is a delusion. The Republican Party is not a business, and well-heeled reactionaries aren’t its only stakeholders. Rather, the GOP is a political party in a (dysfunctional) representative democracy, which is, at least theoretically, accountable to its voters — only a tiny fraction of whom share its donor wing’s Randian worldview.
And yet, the Trump-era Republicans have done their utmost to comport themselves as though they have a fiduciary duty to the Koch retreat’s annual attendees.
On the regulatory front, the Trump administration and the Republican Congress have done the bidding of their conservative donors even when doing so required them to perform a heavy-handed satire of “business-friendly” governance. The White House has expanded the liberty of coal companies to dump mining waste in streams; pushed to preserve the rights of retirement advisers to gamble with their clients’ money; allowed internet-service providers to track and sell consumers’ data without seeking their permission; banned states from setting up retirement savings plans for private-sector workers (a betrayal of federalism that serves no purpose beyond eliminating one of Wall Street’s potential competitors); freed employers from the burden of logging all workplace injuries; ended discrimination against serial labor-law violators in the bidding process for government contracts; and relaxed enforcement on evasion of the estate tax.
Meanwhile, wide swaths of the federal bureaucracy have ceased executing any duly passed laws that conservative donors don’t like. Health and Human Services is openly sabotaging the Affordable Care Act. The Environmental Protection Agency is declining to enforce new regulations against smog pollution, and working to cripple the Justice Department’s capacity to prosecute renegade polluters. The Education Department is letting for-profit colleges fleece their students — while its leader tours the country propagandizing against the very concept of public education. Ben Carson is gravely wounding the Department of Housing and Urban Development through his signature combination of compassionless conservatism and parodic incompetence.
Meanwhile, Trump is restocking the federal judiciary with Federalist Society fanatics, and his more-conservative-than-Scalia Supreme Court pick is poised to deliver a death blow to the American labor movement. And actuarial science strongly suggests that Trump will get to appoint another right-wing justice or three by term’s end.
But, okay: Republicans didn’t just promise to paralyze the regulatory state and paint the judiciary red. They promised “repeal and replace.” Don’t donors have rational cause for grievance on the legislative front?
In a word: No.
Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to replace Obamacare with a more generous and universal system of health-insurance provision. A large swath of congressional Republicans did the same. And yet, once in office, Trump and his party agreed to buck nearly every substantive promise they had made to voters, in service of the donor class’s grotesquely unpopular priorities.
Donald Trump could have launched his presidency with an infrastructure stimulus. Such a bill would have enjoyed broad popularity and bipartisan support. It would have divided the Democratic caucus against itself, and affirmed the president’s credentials as a master deal-maker. Instead, Trump spent his entire “honeymoon” period (such as it was) trying to cajole Congress into gutting Medicaid and federal subsidies for health insurance — policies that made Trumpcare the most unpopular piece of major legislation in the modern era.
House Republicans from purple districts could have bucked the toxic bill, and given themselves some insulation from the wrath of “the resistance” in 2018. Instead, the vast majority sacrificed their own political best interests to advance the donor class’s whims.
Senate Republicans could have used their relative political invulnerability to bring Trumpcare into greater conformity with popular opinion. They could have looked at surveys showing that a majority of conservative Republicans support an increase in federal health-care spending, and oppose tax cuts for the rich; observed the near-unanimous opposition to their health-care bill from doctors, hospitals, insurers, retirees, and the disabled; and contemplated their minuscule four-vote majority in the upper chamber — and decided it was time to make a course correction.
Mitch McConnell could have negotiated a bipartisan agreement to appropriate funds shoring up the Obamacare marketplaces, in exchange for measures granting red states greater regulatory flexibility. Such a bill would have been closer to the substantive preferences of Republican voters than Trumpcare ever was. It would have stabilized the individual market and kept premiums in check. And it would have allowed the GOP to honor the Senate’s procedural norms, and collect the plaudits of the centrist press.
Instead, Senate Republicans chose to serially debase themselves, and their institution, in service of their donor’s fringe ideology. To sidestep the overwhelming opposition of their ostensible constituents, Senate Republicans avoided hearings and town halls; kept their bills secret until days — or hours — before voting; tried to pass said bills faster than the Congressional Budget Office could score them; and, when that failed, attacked the CBO as a Democratic front group. In so doing, they made a joke of their past criticisms of the Obamacare process, and a mockery of their own promises to voters on the issues of Medicaid, the opioid crisis, and preexisting conditions. And they ensured that — as their party seeks to protect its majority in next year’s midterms — premiums in the individual market will spike by double digits.
Despite the fact that senators are insulated from special-interest pressure by their lengthy terms and name recognition, all but three members of the Senate Republican caucus were willing to forfeit their very integrity just to prevent the party’s Atlases from shrugging.
In return for campaign contributions, the Republican Party has awarded its donor class a subservient federal bureaucracy, a second Lochner era in American jurisprudence, and the slavish obedience of the House of Representatives, and 49 GOP senators. Any other interest group would die to have this much clout within one of America’s two major parties.
Conservative megadonors aren’t pitching a conniption because the GOP has failed to serve their interests — they are throwing a fit because the party has spoiled them rotten. Back in the day, revanchist plutocrats would have been grateful to see the United States slouching towards oligarchy. Today’s mollycoddled generation expects it to have arrived there months ago.