For four decades, Republicans have cast the federal government as a sclerotic beast manned by incompetent meddlers to serve invidious moochers. Hence Ronald Reagan’s cheerfully mindless dicta: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
Indeed, Republicans still parrot a catchphrase lifted from Reagan’s first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
But the class warfare concealed beneath is best captured by Mitt Romney’s disquisition to a gaggle of rich donors:
[T]here are 47 percent ... who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it … And the government should give it to them … I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
To propagate this political misanthropy, Republican plutocrats like the Koch brothers have spent millions convincing ordinary Americans that government is their enemy — the better to satisfy their insatiable desire for tax cuts and deregulation. Among rank-and file Republicans, it has worked — a 2015 Gallup poll showed that 57 percent favor reducing the size of government.
Trump’s negotiating tactics over the wall embody this deep-dyed disdain – if government and its employees are largely useless or worse, what harm in shutting it down? “Cut it or shut it,” Mike Pence said blithely in 2011, while Trump’s current economic advisor Larry Kudlow called shutdowns “a miniscule price to be paid for the greater good of financial solvency and economic growth.”
But operationalizing mythology disfigures economic reality. Effects of the shutdown continue to proliferate: 800,000 government workers aren’t spending. Federal contractors, losing an estimated $200 million per day, are furloughing workers. Fearing longer lines or canceled flights, fewer Americans are traveling; Delta’s CEO calculates that the shutdown has cost it $25 million. The SEC has stopped approving initial public offerings.
The irrational Republican hatred of governance has given us the most dangerous and incompetent president in American history.
The supposedly useless unpaid workers include air traffic controllers, the Coast Guard, food inspectors, TSA employees charged with airport security, FBI agents, the Secret Service, and IRS workers who process tax returns. Cynically, Trump’s administration is seeking to disguise the impact by forcing 420,000 government employees to work without pay ― including, ironically, border patrol agents ― while commending garage sales as a substitute for paychecks.
This would seem unsustainable. But among Trump’s base, the undifferentiated loathing for an allegedly malign government matches passion for the wall ― in 2016, 96 percent of Trump supporters expressed generalized anger at federal policies. Sadly, much of this animus is rooted in a race-based contempt for the allegedly useless “other” – the “welfare queens” Ronald Reagan conjured in the 1980s. A companion myth is that support for low-income families is sucking America dry ― in reality, it comprises less than 5 percent of federal spending.
Equally pernicious, many Americans who benefit from government assistance are literally in denial. The classic example is the angry constituent who told his congressman, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” But this ignorance is too pervasive to amuse.
In 2011, Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler surveyed the number of recipients of government benefits who deny receiving benefits. The numbers are shocking: depending on the program, they include a range of 50 to 65 percent of those benefiting from 529 tuition savings plans, the home mortgage deduction, student loans, or childcare tax credits; 40 to 50 percent of those receiving Social Security, Pell grants, unemployment insurance, and veterans benefits; and 25 to 40 percent of those receiving Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. Left unanswered was whether these folks believed their benefactor was the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.
Such delusions are particularly prevalent in red states, which contribute the least in federal revenues and rely most heavily on federal services. But they also pervade the generally fortunate people who rely on tax breaks without realizing they are receiving government largess. The result, as Mettler has written, is a massive disconnect between the common perception of government and its reality in our daily lives.
In turn, this obliviousness to fact facilitates Republican scapegoating of federal employees. Typical is Trump’s blocking of an automatic cost-of-living pay increase, supposedly to put America on a “fiscally sustainable course” — directly after passing a fiscally catastrophic tax cut for the rich. Uglier yet is the cadre of appointees through which he attempts to silence career officials; suppress scientific studies; and demean the loyalty and dedication of federal employees.
But this brings us to the heart of things. The irrational Republican hatred of governance has given us the most dangerous and incompetent president in American history — a narcissistic ignoramus whose craving for our attention is exceeded only by his manifest unfitness for the job millions of Americans chose to give him. The crux of our distemper is this: If we deem government generally intrusive and unnecessary, a president need not be qualified to run it. All we require is that a candidate give voice to our contempt — for that, any old Herman Cain is preferable to a Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Out of grim necessity, Trump has undertaken this mission with a vengeance — we did not simply elect a fool, but a knave who trashes essential government institutions to protect himself from prosecution or impeachment. Hence his attack on the integrity of the FBI, our intelligence agencies, and his own Justice Department.
Here, the criminal meets the political — at once Trump fuses his followers’ hunger for a culture war with his need to suppress the rule of law. The shutdown can only accelerate the damage to law enforcement and national security: an FBI, DOJ and CIA already demoralized by his attacks will further hemorrhage their best and brightest while discouraging prospective recruits.
But the practical and spiritual damage inflicted by Trump’s ill-governance is all- embracing. The sheer cruelty of his child separation policy is deepened by the absence of any system for tracking separated children — or even determining their number. The GOP’s systematic gutting of the IRS is costing an estimated $125 billion a year lost to tax evasion; Trump’s reckless tax cut threatens the next generation with crippling debt. His primitive tariffs and trade wars are weakening the economy; his beknighted environmental policies will accelerate climate change.
For too long, Republicans have denied the inescapable: We can only solve our most pressing existential problems by intelligently harnessing the power of government. One can debate the size and scope of the federal role. But only government can protect our climate; renew our infrastructure; assure our national security; preserve the rule of law; strengthen public safety; blunt the threat of terrorism; extend opportunity to struggling communities; monitor the quality of our food, water, drugs, cars and roadways, and secure the civil rights of all. And a government degraded by the incompetent and malicious endangers these imperatives — and every one of us.
The immediate peril of the Trump shutdown is that Democrats cannot give him what he asks — lest he inflict yet more damage through another shutdown, then another, further destabilizing our society. But the deeper lesson is this: Government is not the problem. The problem, ineluctably, is America’s president ― and the unreasoning party which spawned him.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.