Donald Trump helps those who help themselves, Jared Kushner said on Monday. Bereft of sound justifications for his father-in-law’s record, Kushner fell back onto a timeworn conservative narrative. “One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the Black community, which is mostly Democrat, is that President Trump’s policies are the policies that can help people break out of the problems that they’re complaining about,” he said on Fox & Friends. “But he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”
Online, liberals greeted Kushner’s remark with predictable outrage. A Twitter account for the Democratic National Committee’s War Room highlighted the clip; the White House claimed, later, that “internet trolls” had taken Kushner’s remarks out of context. (They hadn’t.)
On the surface, Kushner’s latest misstep has all the trappings of a typical Trump administration scandal: Trump or an official says something offensive, critics attack, the White House cries persecution. But the Kushner interview is still notable, and not just because Kushner said something racist, or because he is one of the most powerful members of the Trump administration. It’s because Kushner admitted in public something the GOP has believed for decades.
The idea that poverty is a moral rather than a material state is old and persists in both major parties, but in the GOP it has achieved a uniquely virulent status. Shrinking the size of the government comes at a high cost to the poor; to paraphrase Adam Serwer, the cost is also the point. The same welfare policies derided by conservatives as handouts actually provide a route out of poverty — a lesson reinforced by the CARES Act that kept at least 12 million out of poverty before Republicans let its benefits expire. Without welfare, people will work, or so think tanks and elected Republicans insist. Since the Republican Party also opposes minimum-wage increases and regulations that make workplaces safer places to be, it offers the poor nothing but a trap. You can work yourself to death in America and have nothing to show for it but depression, hunger, and a miserable old age. The result is social stratification. Which, again, is the point.
Consider the “welfare queen,” as Ronald Reagan introduced her in the 1970s: Black, lazy, and female, the welfare queen soon assumed near-mythological status in the conservative movement. (The real-life woman Reagan cited to make the case against welfare was named Linda Taylor, and her life was substantially more complicated than Reagan or other small-government proponents ever allowed, as Josh Levin documented at length in his book The Queen.) Reagan was not an original thinker. Around the same time, Daniel Patrick Moynihan helped plant seeds that future generations of welfare-hostile politicians would reap. His titular report identified the breakdown of the family, namely the absence of Black fathers, as factors contributing to a culture of poverty. By reframing poverty as a behavioral rather than an economic problem, laissez-faire mythologists try to fend off the redistribution of wealth and power to the poor, and an accompanying loss of status. They shift the burden from their own shoulders to the poor: If small-government policies didn’t help you, examine your own heart and don’t point fingers, they suggest. A president can’t make Black men be good fathers, can’t make people work, can’t reform an underclass with bad values.
It would be unfair to assign Republicans sole credit for policy-making that treats poverty like moral delinquency. Moynihan worked for Lyndon B. Johnson when he authored the report and was later elected as a Democratic New York senator. Bill Clinton would later cite personal responsibility as the impetus for his infamous welfare-reform push. But the GOP’s dog whistles are uniquely clumsy; everyone can hear them, and Trump is loud even by the standards of previous Republican presidents. Kushner, then, is true to form. His only real innovation is his brutal, stupid honesty. He dispensed with the fiction that conservative policies are meant to help Black people, or anyone else without money or power. He was defending his own status because he believes it’s his birthright, and that is a fundamentally conservative view. If poverty is a state a person enters or stays in through their own lack of merit, wealth comes to signify superior character. Kushner, and the family he joined by marriage, have what they have because they deserve it.
That attitude won’t vanish with the Trump presidency. It’s mainstream Republican opinion and it complicates any effort to “save the GOP,” a cause that some Never Trump conservatives and Democrats still champion. Removing Kushner from power will be far easier than dismantling the ideas he represents.