This week, we have seen perhaps the closest thing to a real-world specimen of a phenomenon that has heretofore been confined to theoretical (albeit extensive) speculation: a Republican Party schism with corporate America. The cause of the split is a Georgia law designed to make voting more cumbersome in the hopes of winnowing minorities and young people from the electorate.
After the CEO of Atlanta-based Delta Airlines denounced the vote-suppression measure, Republicans in the state’s lower chamber retaliated by voting to repeal a tax break the airline enjoyed. The state senate failed to pass it, leaving the vote as a warning that House Speaker David Ralston made explicit: “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
Republicans have been yearning for something like this since Donald Trump appeared on the political scene. It is no longer just the self-styled populists and Trump personality-cult devotees who are plumping for open conflict with corporate America. The Wall Street Journal editorial page has joined the ranks of conservatives denouncing “woke capital.” A House Republican strategy memo urges members to “use corporations’ preference for the Democrat [sic] Party to drive individual donations.”
What this little tiff lacks, however, is any coherent policy content. A populist argument would be that airlines should pay a higher tax rate and that their favorable treatment is the result of undue influence on the system. Georgia Republicans aren’t saying that. They’re not making any substantive case against the airline tax break at all, in fact. Instead, they’re explicitly using the issue as a club to force corporations to stay loyal, or at least neutral, on issues Republicans care about.
During the George W. Bush administration, Republicans in Congress launched something they called the “K Street Project.” Its explicit goal was to pressure lobbying firms to fire former Democrats and withhold donations and cooperation from the Democratic Party.
A lot of businesses resented these heavy-handed tactics. But their angst wasn’t over the GOP going “populist”; in fact, this split occurred during the party’s most intensely plutocratic incarnation. The point was to intimidate corporations into staying loyal to their team with the explicit payoff being that they would continue to benefit from Republican policy.
The Georgia airline tax break is in the same mold. The end point isn’t to get rid of the tax break; it’s to force corporations to withhold criticism of their agenda.
It’s revealing that the supposed Republican schism with corporate America is occurring against the backdrop of a debate over raising taxes on corporations. If Republicans want to engage in actual political conflict with big business, here is their golden opportunity.
But of course, nobody in the Republican coalition — not the House leaders urging big splashy fights with corporations, not aspirational pseudo-hayseed Josh Hawley, not the angry Trumpists at American Greatness and The Federalist — support this policy. The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have long wished for upgraded infrastructure spending, but both groups oppose Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill because of its tax hike on big business.
Perhaps the most incoherent version of the Republican position was articulated, naturally, by Trump, who asserted, “This tax hike is a classic globalist betrayal by Joe Biden and his friends: The lobbyists will win, the special interests will win.” Lobbyists and special interests win by … raising taxes on themselves?
It is true that big business, especially public-facing business, has increasingly faced pressure to position itself as socially liberal. It is also true, as Marco Rubio notes, that this posture is heavily inflected with hypocrisy born of commercial calculation. Businesses will denounce Jim Crow Lite in Georgia while ignoring Chinese Communist Party political repression on a scale Republicans can only dream of.
But none of this is happening because the Republican program threatens corporate profits. Just the opposite. Republicans want to continue feeding corporations out of their hands and wish their devotion were met in kind. The pretense of righteous anger masks the anguish of unrequited love.