Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Every drop in the polls or bit of blunt talk from Donald Trump ignites another explosion of Trump Derangement Syndrome from Republican pundits and politicians. And every time such Republicans open their mouths, they strengthen the perception that they are an out of touch elite having more in common with the Democrats with whom they share the same university credentials and tony zip codes. So they confirm the very suspicions that have driven much of Trump’s support.
It doesn’t help that too many Republicans use the same loaded language and share the same assumptions of the progressives. For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens wrote a whole column on the historical parallels with the 1930s, linking Trump to Italian fascism. In the Washington Post, the Brookings Institute’s Robert Kagan explained “this is how fascism comes to America.” More recently, NRO’s Jay Nordlinger meditated on whether the “F-word” applies to Trump, and concluded, “I’m not sure.”
The remoteness of the chance that America could move that far right leaves the topic of Trump’s fascistic tendencies a mere device for tarring Trump with the fascist brush. Everyone knows that “fascist” is the left’s favorite insult, and its use depends on massive ignorance of historical fascism, the differences between authoritarian and fascist regimes, and the distinctions between Italian fascism and German Nazism. But it’s an effective smear, at once tainting the target with the excesses of Nazism, but containing little content other than the speaker’s ideological dislike of whatever he is branding “fascist.” It should be a tenet of conservativism to respect the integrity of language and history, and not to indulge the linguistic dishonesty that defines progressive propaganda.
Then there’s the flap over Trump’s remarks about the judge who is hearing the suit over Trump University. House Speaker Paul Ryan, currently the lodestar of anti-Trump Republicans, called Trump’s charges that the judge might be biased toward him “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Sure it is, if your “textbook” is the Progressive Lexicon of Orwellian Smears.
Ryan elevated his dudgeon because Trump correctly said the judge is a Mexican. The Trumpophobes all cried “Gotcha” and smugly pointed out that the judge was born in Indiana. But they are as ignorant as Ryan is about how the children of immigrants self-identity. I have lived all my life amidst people descended from immigrants from a dozen different countries, and they all call themselves “Mexican” or “Portuguese” or “Italian” or “Armenian” when asked about their origins. Nobody thinks they mean they are citizens of those countries or were necessarily born there. Someone who calls himself “Scots-Irish” isn’t claiming dual citizenship in Scotland and Ireland. This episode reminded us once again that the “comprehensive immigration reform” Republicans who dream of flipping the Hispanic vote know very little about the daily reality of immigration in America whether legal or illegal––confirming the beliefs of Trump supporters that the Republicans can’t be trusted on immigration policy.
As bad as that was, though, calling Trump’s comment “racist” is just validating the progressives’ distortion of that word to serve their political and ideological interests. It’s as stupid as calling Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration “racist,” as though Islam is a race instead of a religion. There’s only one valid definition of “racism”: the belief that every member of a “race” is by nature immutably inferior to members of another race. Or, to use the Darwinian jargon of the progressives’ intellectual ancestors in the twenties and thirties, people “unfit” for survival. Since then the left has turned the word into an all-purpose smear used against anyone who disagrees with their politicized, self-serving analysis of race relations in America or any topic involving the Third World. Now anything and everything is “racist,” even simple statements of fact, such as black males commit nearly half of the murders in the U.S. For Ryan to use the word this way validates this corruption of language, and to Trump supporters it is just another example of how the Republican “establishment” is too ideologically cozy with the Democrats.
Or consider Paul Ryan’s recently announced resurrection of his 2014 anti-poverty plan. More significant than the proposals, which recycle the usual “work not welfare” generalities, is something Ryan said three months ago. He apologized for distinguishing between “makers and takers,” and admitted that he was “callous” and “oversimplified and castigated [low-income] people with a broad brush.” Ryan may have made such comments out of political calculation, an attempt to distance himself from Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment that many believed contributed to his and Ryan’s defeat in 2014. If so, it didn’t work. The progressive commentariat and Democrats alike have blasted the plan as a “new spin on a bad deal,” as Democrat House minority whip Steny Hoyer put it. Ryan doesn’t seem to get that the Dems are like Auric Goldfinger: they don’t expect Republicans to talk, they expect them to die.
But whatever his intention, the apology is a textbook example of the Republican “preemptive cringe,” the ceding to the left of too many of their questionable assumptions, and adopting the same maudlin rhetoric and groveling. Ryan’s proposals on “poverty” illustrate this bad habit.
First, Ryan should acknowledge that the “poor” are a statistical artifact, comprising all those people whose incomes fall below about $24,000 for a family of four. Ignored is the value of non-cash subsidies and benefits: food stamps, school meals, Section 8 housing subsidies, welfare, Medicaid, Obamacare subsidies, and Social Security Disability payments, just a few of the 80 means-tested programs funded by redistributing wealth through federal taxes, and by massive debt and deficits. Nor does the government’s data take into account the off-the-books economy, which in the U.S. amounts to nearly 10% of GDP, a low estimate. I’ve know many people over the years who were statistically poor and received benefits. Most of them worked at tax-free cash jobs like childcare, and some were engaged in illegal activities like dealing drugs.
That’s why Ryan’s “work not welfare” paradigm is so weak. People may be “poor,” but they’re not stupid. If they can work part-time in the cash economy and still receive numerous government benefits, why should they work and earn less? That’s partly why the workforce participation rate is at 62%, a 40-year low. We have 11 million illegal aliens, in part because citizens don’t want or need to work crappy jobs when they can work in the informal economy and still receive government benefits. And that also explains why the statistical poor consume nearly twice their cash income, and enjoy a level of material existence that would be considered opulent in the Third World. We are the first civilization in history to turn obesity into a disease of poverty.
Anyone who wants to talk about poverty, then, has to start with how we define the poor, and address what constitutes a reasonable level of material existence. But that never happens, because the progressives need “poverty” as one of those Alinskyite “good crises” that progressives must “never let go to waste.” They use the word as a rhetorical cudgel, evoking the pathos of Dickensian London to coerce people into giving even more money to government anti-poverty programs that have squandered $20 trillion since 1965 without budging the percentage of people deemed poor. A genuine conservative would start with defining words precisely, looking at the reality of people’s lives, and sorting out social injustice from bad personal decisions.
Finally, and most disturbing, is Ryan’s endorsing the progressive assumption that the federal government has the responsibility to deal with problems best addressed by the states, municipalities, and civil society. He seems to have forgotten Reagan’s quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Even worse is that Ryan seems to think that a properly designed government program can create morals, ethics, character, and virtues like hard work. This has been a central conceit of the progressives for over a century, and it is flat wrong. As even Ryan acknowledges, increased government involvement in people’s lives weakens character and virtue by creating perverse incentives that reward not being virtuous. But the solution is not to adjust another government program, but to get the government out of the way and eliminate the “moral hazard” of exempting people from personal responsibility.
Harping on Trump and tweaking government programs are distractions. Ryan and all Republicans must talk more about the biggest problem we face domestically–– a centralized, bloated federal government devouring more and more of the country’s wealth, hocking our children’s future, and eroding our freedom, all in order to create legions of electorally reliable Democrat functionaries and clients. Yet too many Republicans and conservatives have accepted the unconstitutional premise of progressivism––that the federal government should “solve problems.” Trump has skillfully created the perception that Republicans are on the same page as Democrats, and that he represents an alternative to this “rigged” duopoly.
Republicans and conservative critics of Trump need to stop talking like progressives and start confronting the people with the disastrous fiscal trajectory of the federal Leviathan. A good start is to restore the integrity of our language.