As the coronavirus pandemic shutters America’s storefronts and fills its ICUs, the GOP is camouflaging a whispered confession beneath a cough. The party’s admission is so quiet most Republicans can’t even make it out themselves. But listen carefully to recent directives from the Trump administration and its allies and you’ll hear unmistakably: Our theory of governance is a lie.
The modern conservative movement holds these truths to be self-evident:
1. Undocumented immigrants are a scourge of American society, a nefarious invading army that’s depriving native-born workers of precious jobs, filling our cities with crime, and leeching off our welfare programs.
2. Uncle Sam has grown badly bloated and could govern more effectively if a wide swath of federal agencies were gutted.
3. The market is (a largely) apolitical sphere ruled by the impartial dictates of an invisible hand. Thus the superrich do not owe their astronomical market incomes to any set of politically ordained laws or institutions; rather, they earn their gains in a fundamental, metaphysical sense, and the state must therefore meet a heavy burden before it can justify coercively redistributing the wealth that billionaires have rightly earned. By the same token, the working poor cannot blame their low pay on political powerlessness but the objectively low value of their contributions to society. Thus mandating a higher wage floor would only condemn workers with skills that are objectively worth only $7.25 an hour to permanent unemployment.
Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump made a halfway-convincing show of governing as though these claims had some correspondence with reality. The president established a new federal office dedicated to publicizing crimes committed by undocumented immigrants while ramping up deportations and border enforcement. As his chief strategist heralded the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” Trump downsized the federal bureaucracies — first by neglecting to fill vacant positions, then by purging the “deep state” of experts who would privilege their official duties over personal loyalty to the commander-in-chief. Finally, the White House has affirmed the moral premises of laissez-faire by prioritizing tax cuts, inveighing against socialism, opposing an increase to the federal minimum wage, and slashing regulations that attempt to price the social costs of economic activity that market signals fail to capture.
But conservative orthodoxy has always been too detached from reality to command strict adherence. A theory of government assembled out of the self-affirming delusions of the reactionary rich — and seething, amnesia-laden nostalgia of white cultural traditionalists — is bound to be a poor compass for guiding the ship of state. This was true before the coronavirus reached our shores. But the pandemic has brought the tension between the verities of CPAC and exigencies of governance to such vertiginous heights Republicans have been forced to (tacitly, quietly) make three startling admissions:
1. Undocumented immigrants are among the most indispensable contributors to the American economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the U.S. to determine whose labor it can and cannot live without. In much of the country, nonessential businesses have been forced to shut their doors, while workers in (temporarily) dispensable sectors of the economy — from event planning to tourism to (gulp) political commentary — have forfeited their paychecks. At present, our society has decided that if the American people’s most basic needs aren’t contingent on what you do for a living, you’re more valuable sitting at home than showing up for work.
Unfortunately for Trumpism, undocumented agricultural workers are among our economy’s most valuable players. As the New York Times reports:
Like legions of immigrant farmworkers, Nancy Silva for years has done the grueling work of picking fresh fruit that Americans savor, all the while afraid that one day she could lose her livelihood because she is in the country illegally.
But the widening coronavirus pandemic has brought an unusual kind of recognition: Her job as a field worker has been deemed by the federal government as “essential” to the country.
Ms. Silva, who has spent much of her life in the United States evading law enforcement, now carries a letter from her employer in her wallet, declaring that the Department of Homeland Security considers her “critical to the food supply chain.”
“It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” said Ms. Silva, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico who has been working in the clementine groves south of Bakersfield, Calif.
In truth, Donald Trump’s immigration policies have never been commensurate with his demagogic rhetoric. The president has expended little-to-no effort on punishing employers who avail themselves of undocumented labor (many of whom happen to be patrons of Trump’s party, if not subsidiaries of his company). But his administration has never before formally acknowledged the fact that undocumented workers are essential for keeping America fed.
By some estimates, roughly three-quarters of all crop hands in the U.S. do not have a legal right to be in this country. This is no accident. Since the early 1920s, when nativists enacted ethnic quotas restricting the inflow of Asian and European immigrants, America’s large growers have relied on Mexican migrants to provide the cheap, physically grueling seasonal labor that their business models demand. For much of the 20th century, such workers crossed the border with the coming and going of the harvest (and/or the push and pull between the American economy’s material needs and its xenophobic rages). But the border militarization policies of the past four decades erected literal and figurative barriers to seasonal migration, thereby nudging much of the workforce into permanent residence.
There is little evidence that these workers are taking jobs from native-born Americans. When the Trump administration and the Federal Reserve implemented full-employment fiscal and monetary policies before the pandemic, the unemployment rate went to historic lows even as the undocumented population remained millions strong. Rather, undocumented farmworkers are mostly just aiding U.S. consumers by accepting the low wages that keep food prices down and subsidizing Social Security recipients by paying into that program despite their own ineligibility for benefits. In truth, the undocumented aren’t an illicit foreign presence in the U.S. so much as our country’s hyperexploited lower caste; they are as essential to the functioning of our economy as they are to the demagoguery of plutocratic politicians in need of powerless scapegoats.
2. The administrative state needs to be reconstructed.
For the White House, this confession has been more tacit than explicit. But the pandemic has forced the Trump administration to confront the fact that much of America’s “administrative state” is less bloated than it is emaciated. In part, this is a mess of Trump’s own making; the president dissolved the National Security Council’s pandemic task force and pushed for cuts to the CDC and NIH budgets that plausibly undermined the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, Trump’s understaffing of the Treasury Department has undermined the administration’s management of the present economic crisis. But other difficulties besetting the White House are more damning for the conservative movement ideologically than the president personally.
Unlike many less-wealthy nations, the U.S. lacks the state capacity necessary to rapidly deposit cash relief into citizens’ bank accounts or cover the wage bills of struggling firms. As a result, the Trump administration was forced to structure its small-business bailout as a forgivable-loan program implemented through private banks, rather than a grant program implemented by the federal government. This has vastly increased the logistical difficulty of getting public funds into small-business owners’ hands. Similarly, our underfunded IRS (and large unbanked population) has made getting cash-relief checks to all working-class Americans a months-long endeavor. Meanwhile, our nation’s sclerotic unemployment-insurance systems have been failing to process the tidal wave of new jobless claims, preventing laid-off workers from accessing their new enhanced benefits. As the Washington Post reports:
Small-business owners have reported delays in getting approved for loans without which they will close their doors, while others say they have been denied altogether by their lenders and do not understand why. The law’s provision to boost unemployment benefits has become tangled in dated and overwhelmed state bureaucracies, as an unprecedented avalanche of jobless Americans seeks aid.
Officials at the Internal Revenue Service have warned that $1,200 relief checks may not reach many Americans until August or September if they haven’t already given their direct-deposit information to the government. Taxpayers in need of answers from the IRS amid a rapidly changing job market are encountering dysfunctional government websites and unresponsive call centers that have become understaffed as federal workers stay home.
The White House’s allies defended its efforts to the Post by citing the “daunting set of tasks” that the pandemic has created for the White House. But what makes those tasks so daunting is precisely that wide swathes of America’s administrative state are in sorry need of reconstruction.
In Florida, the GOP has confessed this point more forthrightly. As the Sunshine State’s deliberately underfunded unemployment-insurance system crashed last week, an adviser to Republican governor Ron DeSantis described the government office as a “shit sandwich.”
3. The “free market” is a big government program.
Markets, money, and corporations are all creations of the state. The distribution of income is not determined by an invisible hand’s objective appraisal of each worker and investor’s marginal utility but by the politically constructed laws and institutions that structure economic activity in a given society. These are plain facts. But they are inconvenient ones for a party that exists to oppose the progressive redistribution of economic power in a heinously unequal society. If Republicans were to concede that there is nothing natural or inherently just about the market distribution of income, then they would have to affirmatively defend deliberately increasing the superrich’s share of GDP growth at a time when the top 0.1 percent of households own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined. Thus, the GOP remains so committed to the notion that the market’s distribution of income is inherently just it initially proposed giving less cash relief to Americans too poor to pay federal taxes than to those who earn $75,000 a year (ostensibly because federal aid to the latter could be rationalized as a tax cut).
And yet, even as some congressional Republicans flail to uphold the fiction of an apolitical marketplace, the Trump administration’s bailout policies have torn it to shreds. With Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s eager approval, the Federal Reserve has set about directly financing U.S. corporations for the first time in its history. Which is to say: A government institution is deciding which firms to keep alive with cheap credit and which to let die. Meanwhile, the federal government is (however haphazardly) attempting to compensate firms and workers for their losses as it demonstrates its capacity to prioritize human welfare over economic growth. And, as already suggested, the fact that many of our economy’s most “essential” workers also happen to be among its least well paid has led some Trumpists to admit that the market is a poor adjudicator of labor value. As the New York Times reports:
“The era of limited-government, country-club Republicanism is over,” said Stephen K. Bannon, an ideological architect of Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory … Mr. Bannon, who left the Trump administration in 2017, saw evidence of a national coming together for measures, like a $15 federal minimum wage, to help “the heroes of this catastrophe” — whom he identified as “the truck drivers, the kids at the Amazon plants, police, doctors and nurses.”
The GOP’s tacit confessions of ideological obsolescence have been hushed, limited, and inconsistent. A reflexive aversion to contravening the prerogatives of capital is still undermining the White House’s response to the pandemic and recession. The Trump administration has stubbornly honored the conservative principle that the federal government must never coerce private industry into manufacturing public goods unless those goods can be used to kill foreigners. Thus, while Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act hundreds of thousands of times to ensure the procurement of missiles and drones, he has hesitated to use that law to mitigate shortages of medical equipment.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 has called many of the conservative movement’s biggest bluffs. Perhaps the GOP will therefore emerge from this crisis an ideologically revitalized center-right party that’s committed to an evidence-based conservatism that would favor deregulation where appropriate (such as, say, for physician’s licensing requirements), heightened state capacity where needed, and respect for all hard-working Americans.
But it seems infinitely more likely that the same affinity for self-affirming delusions and memory-obliterating nostalgia that birthed movement conservatism will ensure that it remains a plague on our body politic long after we’ve kicked COVID-19.