Last night, the Republican Congress voted to overturn a rule protecting consumers from fraud committed by financial institutions. This is fully in keeping with the spirit of Republican government under Trump. What is less remarked upon, perhaps, is the lack of concern this pattern of behavior has generated among Trump’s Republican partners, who seem to regard their policy agenda as somehow helpful to their political survival.
The human mind is an incredibly adept tool for generating reasons to turn one’s own self-interest into a moral argument. The Republican Congress has turned this normal process of rationalization on its head. They have taken actions they truly consider to be morally correct, and convinced themselves that they are following their own self-interest.
Republicans have been chanting relentlessly for months that they must pass a tax reform or else lose their majority. The Republican tax plan is, in fact, comprehensively unpopular. Only 28 percent of the public supports it. The public wants the tax code to impose higher rates on corporations and higher-earners, and they believe (correctly) that the Republican plan would do the opposite.
Yet somehow Republicans have convinced themselves that their popularity depends upon passing this unpopular plan that would carry out unpopular goals. In place of a coherent argument for why the voters will reward them for doing so, they typically substitute the tautological claim that Republicans believe in tax reform because Republican believe in tax reform. “Tax reform is what we are about,” Mitch McConnell “explains.” “If there’s anything that unifies Republicans, it’s tax reform.”
And while the tax cut provides the centerpiece to this agenda, it is not the only element. Paul Ryan is promising to oppose a bipartisan plan to make insurance payments that are needed to hold down premiums. They will therefore cause insurance premiums to rise dramatically and immediately for several million customers. The public overwhelmingly wants Republicans to make Obamacare work rather than scuttle it, but Republicans instead appear fixated on the prospect that voters will punish them for violating their promise to repeal the law.
Last night’s vote to prevent suing fraudulent banks seems almost designed to seed Democratic campaign ads. Unlike many complex financial policy questions, this issue is not too technical for voters to grasp. Banks mislead their customers with jacked-up rates or hidden fees in the tiny print. They also insert into the tiny print a clause denying customers the right to sue for fraud, forcing them instead into arbitration that limits their ability to recover damages. Almost every Republicans in both chambers voted to overturn a rule preventing this.
One of the important facts Republicans have by and large failed to internalize is the degree to which Trump benefitted by posing to the Democrats’ left on economics. A fortunate confluence of events and messages drove this theme in 2016: scandals involving Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders’s attacks on Clinton as a corrupt handmaiden of wealth, Establishmentarian panic about Trump, and Trump’s own rhetorical forays against Wall Street and the financial elite. Voters who switched from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 saw Trump as more opposed to the interests of the rich. In a poll last spring, 42 percent of Obama-Trump voters said congressional Democrats’ economic policies would favor the wealthy, and only half as many said this about Trump. Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seem almost determined to forfeit this advantage.
Their motive is perfectly understandable. Republicans by and large believe rich people are treated unfairly by government, and that this unfair treatment saps economic growth. They will inevitably use whatever power they have to advance policies following from these premises. A clever Republican Party would understand that this agenda is a way of spending its political capital. Instead they have somehow persuaded themselves that they are earning more of it.