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Covid stimulus bill passes as Republicans use cancel culture to hide their obstruction

A brutal political incentive pushes GOP leaders to embrace policies that hurt their own constituents.
Image: Senate GOP Leadership Briefs Press After Policy Luncheon
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., holds a press conference on Capitol Hill on March 2, 2021.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

A simple formula, or what we might call a neat magic trick, allows Republican Party leaders to retain the support of their "base" even as they enact policies that hurt their own voters. Two competing storylines highlight exactly how this is playing out right now.

A simple formula allows Republican Party leaders to retain the support of their "base" even as they enact policies that hurt their own voters.

The Republican Party claims to be the party of the working class. On Feb. 26, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the GOP was "the party of steelworkers and construction workers and pipeline workers and taxicab drivers and cops and firefighters and waiters and waitresses and the men and women with calluses on their hands who are working for this country." And yet just a few days later, 49 Republican senators — including Cruz — voted against President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill (one senator was absent).

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The bill, which passed on a hairline, party-line vote in the Senate before final approval came in the House on Wednesday, will provide $1,400-per-person stimulus payments for individuals earning under $80,000 and couples earning under $160,000. It includes a child care tax credit that would take 5 million children out of poverty, according to Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy. The goal is to support working families hurt by the pandemic in a way that would provide direct relief. In contrast, Trump-era tax cuts supported by the Republican leadership helped millionaires and billionaires pay less taxes than the working class.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who also did not vote for the bill, said that if workers received $1,400 they might not go to work — as if anyone could retire on a single payment of $1,400. Kentucky is one of America's eight poorest states. In fact, seven of the eight poorest states are red states: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and West Virginia. Yet the Republican Party enjoys the support of its so-called base in red states, even as — to quote Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker — "Red America is falling farther behind."

In other words, Republicans have (quietly) worked hard to undermine a Covid-19 relief bill that would obviously help struggling conservative constituents pay bills, shop for food, keep their pensions and enjoy access to health care in a pandemic. And yet, those constituents continue — at least for the time being — to vote Republican. How is this possible?

Erick Erikson, a conservative evangelical radio show host, succinctly explains how they do it.

In a nutshell: Republicans are very good at inventing enemies. Made-up enemies are safest. That's why, to paraphrase George Orwell, Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

Republicans responded to Biden's bill — which is popular with most Americans — by fueling a massive conservative backlash to what they have termed "cancel culture." Fox News spent days decrying the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises (a private company) to stop publishing a few lesser-known Dr. Seuss books, which the estate deemed outdated and racist. This fake controversy, and its perceived threat to the American way of life, is a made-up enemy. Yet Republicans and their media spokespersons spun this as a culture war waged by radical leftists on "Green Eggs and Ham" (a book unaffected by the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises). Dangerous to American free speech? Hardly. Excellent distraction from the GOP's Covid-19 obstruction? Absolutely.

Another, more predictable example of this strategy is Cruz opposing the $1,400 payments by falsely claiming that undocumented immigrants would also get stimulus payments.

According to Yale history professor Timothy Snyder, Republican leaders' motives are likely deeply cynical. Snyder proposes a concept called "sadopopulism," which refers to politicians who purposefully govern in a way that makes life worse for the bulk their supporters. Snyder presents the strategy in a few easy steps:

  • Identify an "enemy."
  • Enact policies that create pain in your own constituents.
  • Blame the ensuing pain on the "enemies."
  • Present yourself as the strongman who can fight the enemies.

In a nutshell, you can't have a white grievance party if your constituents aren't grieving. Policy that keeps the rank and file in pain keeps them angry, and perversely that can help you at the ballot box by directing their anger at "made-up enemies" who — so the story goes — are powered by Democrats who are out to ruin (cancel) American culture. The formula creates a brutal political incentive to embrace policies that hurt their own constituents.

Snyder explains that this formula is commonly used by modern-day oligarchs and would-be oligarchs. If you're a would-be oligarch — if you want both wealth and power — you have no incentive to give more real power to the people but every incentive to make it look like you are fighting for them publicly.

To get the masses on board, such leaders have to present themselves as strongmen doing battle with the enemies. As Erickson explained, if they do this right, people will remember that the leaders did battle with those who wanted to stop publishing a few Dr. Seuss books, and they'll forget that those same leaders voted to deny them relief from the economic stress caused by the pandemic.

It's a neat trick worthy of a magician. Meanwhile, data suggest that the Republican Party may be shrinking. Perhaps this is because more and more voters are seeing behind the curtain.