Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) this week did something remarkable for a politician: He expressed regret. “It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end,” he said, announcing that he would retire at the conclusion of his term rather than participate in the politics championed by President Trump.
His remarks (and I say this despite being a Democrat and a former Obama speechwriter) were thoughtful and bold. His description of Trumpism was alarming and accurate: “Indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake.”
Yet Flake’s attempt at introspection fell short. It’s not just Trump who calls “fake things true” — it’s the whole GOP. Consider, for example, the way Flake and his fellow Republicans are even now busy selling the administration’s tax plan.
I was born in 1986, which means that for as long as I’ve been alive, tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations have been the central tenets of Republican orthodoxy. In the Reagan years, trickle-down theory held that tax cuts for the rich would lead to more wealth for everybody. According to George W. Bush’s “ownership society” doctrine, tax cuts meant both prosperity and freedom. When I cast my first vote for president, in 2004, these ideas were still broadly popular among Americans as a whole.
By the time I cast my second vote for president, however, the country had changed: A massive recession had put the lie to the idea that tax cuts inevitably lead to growth.
I joined the White House as a speechwriter in 2011, and wrote speeches for President Obama on the 2012 campaign when income inequality became a major issue among the electorate. In poll after poll, focus group after focus group, it was clear that tax cuts for the wealthy were massively unpopular. It was equally clear that the Republican Party was wedded to them.
That’s still true today. For nearly a decade, the centerpiece of the Republican agenda has been toxic with voters. This, to put it mildly, is a dilemma for a political party. As early as 2008, the GOP was faced with three options: A) dial back the tax cuts; B) persuade skeptical Americans that tax cuts would be good for them; C) find another way to win elections.
They chose C. Donald Trump is president today not because he championed conservative ideas on taxes and spending, but because he promised to reject them. He pledged to protect so-called entitlements and said on the campaign trail that “hedge fund guys” would “be paying up.” He did promise tax cuts — but said he would focus on the middle class.
Which brings us to the debate currently taking place. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has analyzed Trump’s framework. In 2018, the wealthiest 1% would receive more than 50% of the benefits. By 2027, the top 0.01% of earners would receive more than 40% of the benefits, while the bottom 80% would receive just 13%.
Faced with the unpopularity of tax cuts that are enormously regressive, the Republicans’ strategy is simple: pretend they’re not. With the help of some alternative math, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders declared that the average American family “would get a $4,000 raise” under Trump’s proposal. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said the proposal is about helping families who live paycheck to paycheck. Trump himself has called his plan a “middle-class bill.”
None of these things is remotely true. In fact, if the tax cuts are paid for via the spending cuts Trump has already proposed, the Tax Policy Center estimates that 94% of Americans would lose money as a result.
I’m not suggesting that Flake, or any other Republican, should vote against these tax cuts simply because they’re worried about Trump. But I am suggesting that they should be honest about the policies they propose. The Republican plan puts the federal government further into the red in order to lower taxes, primarily for the wealthy. If you believe that’s what America should do, make your case. Convince us. But don’t condemn the Trump administration’s dangerous falsehoods only to ignore them when it becomes convenient.
Because that’s exactly the kind of moral compromise, followed by moral surrender, that brought us to this point. What Flake did this week was admirable. I really do believe he was trying his best to articulate the threat we face. But this has to be the beginning, not the end, of introspection. To maintain power, Trump relies on the Republican elites willing to condone any tactic, break any norm, stomach any lie as long it will lead to a massive upper-income tax cut.
That isn’t politics as usual. It’s a form of complicity. And it, too, must end.
David Litt is the author of the memoir “Thanks, Obama: My Hopey Changey White House Years” and the head writer for Funny or Die DC.
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