The GOP Is Getting Back to Business as Usual — Trying to Gut Social Programs

Spitting in the face of science, Donald Trump and Mike Pence have spent the week explaining how the COVID-19 pandemic is supposedly behind us.

Now, that may largely be true in Iceland, which flattened the curve early on and then eradicated the virus from its shores — which is why tens of thousands of people, clustered in sub-groups of up to 500, were allowed to safely congregate in Reykjavik this week to celebrate the island-nation’s independence day. But it most certainly isn’t true in the U.S., where somewhere between 20,000 and 28,000 new infections are being identified daily, and where, in many states, new infections are now being recorded at a record pace.

Meanwhile, Trump’s strategy seems to be to bury the science — the coronavirus task force rarely meets, and doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have almost entirely disappeared as public faces of the administration’s response. Moreover, Trump appears to be hoping that, in ceasing to send out usable communiques to the public and to local health authorities, somehow the virus will cease to be a public health emergency. Perhaps most notably, the administration appears determined to bludgeon the economy back to operating at full-throttle no matter the cost in lives.

The Sunbelt now teeters on becoming the new COVID-19 global hot zone, with the governors of states such as Arizona and Florida opening up their economies with scant regard for the public health science, and with cases skyrocketing to the point that health care systems are now at risk of being inundated. Yet, despite this, Trump has doubled down on his claims that all is now normal again, and on his decision to hold huge indoor political events in Sunbelt states, at which attendees will not be socially spaced and won’t be mandated — or even encouraged, given Trump’s personal behavior around the issue — to wear masks. Roughly 20,000 people were expected to cram into an indoor arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday for a Trump rally, marketed as the first of many this election season (though barely 6,200 attended); and tens of thousands will be drawn to the convention center and hotels in Jacksonville, Florida, in August to participate in Trump’s coronation as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.

There is something beyond irony in this, given that, in the early days of the outbreak in China, what was a local calamity in Wuhan was magnified into a national and then a global disaster in part by the decision of Communist Party officials there to go ahead with a huge indoor banquet-cum-political rally.

Now Trump and his political minions are repeating the mistake to help the virus reach additional victims in Oklahoma, Florida and, presumably, further afield.

To back up his magical thinking that the virus is now largely contained (hard data notwithstanding), and that Americans are both able and ready to resume pre-pandemic patterns of working and consuming, Trump needs a set of policies in place that will make it look, to casual observers, as if things are back on track. He needs to align himself with long-standing GOP priorities that will provide him with economic bona fides with conservative voters. And there’s nothing more business-as-usual for the GOP than using any and every excuse to take down the pension obligations negotiated over the decades by more liberal states and cities with their public sector trade unions; attacking those who use government services; and blaming the poor, and especially poor people of color, for the sorry state of public finances. Indeed, news outlets reported this week that Trump’s top campaign contributor, Timothy Mellon, described a Faustian bargain in which poor people voted Democrat in exchange for being “awarded with yet more and more freebies: food stamps, cell phones, WIC payments, Obamacare, and on, and on, and on.”

The Trump administration is now siding with conservative voices in Congress and conservative coordinating think tanks such as the American Legislative Exchange Council in opposing “bail outs” of hard-strapped cities and states, as well as coming out against an extension past July of the expanded system of unemployment payments that Congress passed back in March and April as state-level stay-in-place orders shuttered much of the economy. If people refuse to return to work out of fears of infection, some states are now encouraging employers to call hotlines to turn them in, thus rendering them potentially ineligible for ongoing unemployment payments.

This comes atop ongoing efforts, even amid the pandemic, to make it more difficult for low-income families to access food stamps. And it comes during a time of renewed chatter about the need to pare back Social Security in order to tackle the federal budget deficit and soaring national debt that accelerated following the 2017 tax cut legislation, and which was further exacerbated by the series of COVID relief packages that Congress passed this spring.

On this issue, Mitt Romney, who has been a vocal, and honorable, critic of many aspects of Trumpism, has joined forces with other conservatives as one of the lead voices calling for a restructuring of Social Security, adding new impetus to “reform” proposals that he has been circulating in Congress for the past year. Supporters of this idea argue that recent reports showing Medicare and Social Security are heading toward insolvency prove the urgency of legislative changes to the programs — while ignoring the possibility of instead injecting more money into these systems through targeted increases in the tax burden faced by high-end earners.

Cumulatively, the accelerating efforts to gut the safety net represent an extraordinary effort to martial federal power to corral employees back to work, despite the accelerating pandemic, and to use the financial chaos unleashed by the pandemic as an excuse to follow through on a long-standing wish list of GOP cuts to entitlement programs. This is an electoral strategy that isn’t even pretending to be concerned with the public health implications or with the U.S.’s ongoing status as the world’s COVID-19 epicenter. It is, in short, a Potemkin Village, a façade of economic policy, intended to dazzle a select audience, which has no coherence, no solidity, once one peels back the veneer.

Trump has spent his years in office selling one Brooklyn Bridge after another to his political followers. The efforts to lower unemployment numbers by attacking unemployment benefits, to lower food stamp enrollment numbers by attacking eligibility, to reduce Social Security payouts by a capricious restructuring of benefits calculations — none of these are efforts to genuinely tackle need, to really grapple with economic hardship. All are, instead, merely additional Brooklyn Bridges for sale, public policy con jobs designed solely for their headline value.

Note: This article has been updated to indicate the actual number of people who attended Trump’s rally on Saturday.