The House Republican caucus has been an inmate-run asylum for years, and is shot through with kooks, open racists, and suspected criminals. Finally, there is a movement afoot to clean house. But the kooks are not the targets of this housecleaning, which is instead directed at the 13 Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
At a meeting with House Republicans last night, Donald Trump railed at the 13 defectors. Punchbowl News reports that the party may punish the infrastructure supporters by stripping them of their committee spots. The right-wing media is in high dudgeon demanding retribution against the traitors.
The infrastructure vote itself has very little importance. (Democrats ultimately could have moved the bill on their own, regardless of how the House Republicans voted.) The significance of the episode is what it reveals about the party’s ideological character and priorities.
The reason infrastructure was bipartisan to begin with has little to do with comity, trust, and other warm and fuzzy feelings. Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, calculated that lending their support to an infrastructure bill would make it easier to kill, or at least shrink, the social-policy bill that constitutes the heart of Biden’s agenda.
The strategy had two facets. First, Congress has a limited supply of accounting tricks it can use to generate paper savings. Congressional insiders call this “sofa cushion” money. Using all the sofa cushion money on infrastructure would mean there was none left over to pay for health care, community college, and other liberal priorities.
Second, they believed that carving off the physical infrastructure piece from Biden’s agenda would make it easier for centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin to walk away from the other bill. If Republicans blocked everything, then the physical infrastructure and the social spending would all be combined in one vote, and Manchin would feel more pressure to support at least one bill. Having passed infrastructure, Manchin and other centrists would have an easier time voting down the social-spending bill.
Republicans decided that giving Biden a high-profile bipartisan win on a relatively small and relatively unobjectionable infrastructure bill was a price worth paying in order to undermine his larger agenda. It is possible McConnell’s tabulation is wrong — maybe the cost side (a smiling bipartisan Rose Garden ceremony for Biden) is heavier than he thinks, or maybe the benefit (shrinking the social-spending bill) is smaller than he thinks.
But even if you doubt McConnell’s plan, the sheer depth of vitriol directed at the Republicans is striking. For one thing, many Republicans at least claim to support infrastructure spending. Trump promised to pass a trillion-dollar, debt-financed infrastructure bill. Now he and his cultists are back to depicting infrastructure spending as wasteful big government. Laura Ingraham, a Trump mouthpiece so slavishly loyal she obliterated any pretense of journalistic distance by speaking at his 2016 nominating convention, wails this week, “The complete inability of GOP leadership to hold the line, do what they were elected to do, and block over $1 trillion in wasteful spending that will lead to more inflation, is a classic example of why populism continues to grow.”
There are still analysts on the left and the right who believe Trump’s appeal to the Republican base is rooted in policy differences — he is more “populist,” and less dogmatically libertarian, than the party’s mainstream leaders. But here Trump is aligning himself with the anti-government purists.
All this shows yet again that Trumpism is, above all else, about a refusal to share power with the Democrats. There is a famous, widely misunderstood episode from Weimar Germany, in which a Nazi official tells a crowd, “We don’t want lower bread prices, we don’t want higher bread prices, we don’t want unchanged bread prices — we want National Socialist bread prices.” Peter Drucker interpreted the comment as a statement of faith in unreason. But the comment actually seems to have indicated something different: a belief that the only thing that mattered about bread prices was who was setting them. Any bread policy set by the opposition was illegitimate.
Trump and his loyalists are obviously not for the most part Nazis, but the mentality on display is similar. Under Democratic administrations, the failure to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure is a failure, and enacting a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan is also a failure. An infrastructure bill is only good if it is a Trump infrastructure bill.
Of course, some conservatives do have consistent views on policy questions like infrastructure. National Review, which has bitterly denounced Republican supporters, would have surely condemned a similar bill under a Trump administration.
But look closely at the raw vitriol of its condemnation. National Review Online editor Philip Klein* denounces the 13 defectors uses terms like “betrayal” and “utterly disgraceful,” and calls for a holy war to expunge them from the party:
Every Republican who voted for this monstrosity who is not already retiring should be primaried and defeated by candidates who will actually resist the left-wing agenda. Those who are retiring should be shamed for the rest of their lives. It also is not too soon to be asking whether Representative Kevin McCarthy should be ousted from leadership for his inability to keep his caucus together on such a crucial vote.
NR is known for administering the occasional wrist slap to Republicans who go overboard in their support for Trump’s authoritarianism. But those sins are easily forgiven. The magazine is not spending much time railing against the Republicans who voted against certifying the election. It takes a sin like voting for an infrastructure bill to rise to the level of a sin that an editor like Klein believes should be remembered “for the rest of their lives.”
Just this week, Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted out cross-endorsements of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-vaccine lunacy and a Paul Gosar–promoted video depicting him murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Republicans aren’t even contemplating punishments for acts like these, or any of the displays of authoritarianism, support for the insurrection, or violent ideation emanating with regularity from the party’s right wing. All the discipline is being reserved for the unforgivable sin and shame of voting for a bill Trump wanted to be able to sign himself.
*Correction: This column originally misidentified Klein’s column as an NR editorial.