For the Republicans in opposition to Barack Obama, it was rule or ruin. If they couldn’t advance their agenda, then they would paralyze Congress, sabotage the courts, and hold the economy hostage to hyper-ideological demands. If they couldn’t set the terms of American governance, then no one would.
Far from paying a political price for this behavior, Republicans rode it to the trifecta of federal power: a majority in the House, a majority in the Senate, and a president in the White House. Finally, they ruled. But in forging this path to power, the GOP abandoned any commitment to the public interest. The result is rule and ruin from a Republican Party that holds power but wields it in destructive, irresponsible ways.
Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice detailed the demise of the moderate Republican at the hands of an uber-ideological conservative movement in his book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. But the current GOP has laid bare exactly what this means when the party takes power.
Republicans pushed, again and again, to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, despite wide opposition and clear evidence of disastrous consequences for ordinary Americans. They slapped together plans with little forethought and even less rigor, with predictable results: Any one of the GOP repeal bills would have crashed the individual health care market and crippled Medicaid, leaving tens of millions of Americans without health coverage. Pressed on why exactly they were doing this, few Republican lawmakers could even answer the question. They weren't legislating to solve problems or further the public good, they were legislating to achieve a narrow ideological goal, whatever the costs for actual, living people.
We see this, now, with the Republican tax plan. Sold to the public as a generous middle-class tax cut, the reality is just the opposite. As it currently exists, the Republican bill is a large tax cut for corporations and wealthy households, paid for by tax hikes on middle- and working-class households and designed to land glancing blows on the social safety net writ large.
Republicans would slash corporate tax rates, spending more than $1 trillion over the next decade to cut the rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. They would slash rates on the highest income earners, as well as create a new loophole lowering taxes on certain kinds of businesses. They would also make cuts to the estate tax, with an eye toward phasing it out entirely, hugely benefiting wealthy heirs. There is a middle-class tax cut, but unlike these provisions, it’s temporary. “By 2027,” notes the New York Times, “people making $40,000 to $50,000 would pay a combined $5.3 billion more in taxes, while the group earning $1 million or more would get a $5.8 billion cut.”
Adding to this, Republicans intend to use this bill to end the individual mandate in Obamacare, potentially crippling the law’s health insurance markets and lowering the insurance rate by an estimated 13 million people over the next 10 years. Other measures include the end of a federal deduction for state and local taxes—sharply raising the tax burden in high-tax states like New York and California—and a provision that would end deductibility for tuition waivers for graduate students and repeal the student loan interest deduction, policies that might restrict access to higher education for people from marginalized groups.
The economic case for these policies is nonexistent. There’s little evidence that, in these conditions, a tax cut would stimulate significant economic growth. On Thursday, the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation said that the Senate GOP plan would result in just 0.8 percent more growth over the next decade. And Republican rhetoric notwithstanding, this growth would only cover a third of the cost of the tax cut. The public would be on the hook for $1 trillion. The only way to close that gap, if you won’t raise taxes on the rich, is to slash vital services like Social Security and Medicare, plans that are already taking shape.
The Republican tax plan, then, is potentially transformative. It would supercharge inequality, putting even more of the nation’s wealth in the pockets of a handful of wealthy families (one of which is the Trump family, which would benefit enormously from the provisions of the bill, even as Trump says the opposite), and it would fund this by slashing health care, burdening students, and raising taxes on middle-income families. All to fix a problem—high, burdensome taxes on the wealthy—which doesn't exist.
In other words, this tax plan does not serve the larger public. It’s simply a giveaway to wealthy interests, robbing the country of needed investments and loading younger generations with endless debt and little to show for it. As we saw in Kansas and Oklahoma—states that had to make deep cuts to infrastructure and education to afford their tax cuts—this is essentially rule in order to ruin. The looting of public coffers for the sake of individuals and interests who already have so much. And while Trump is a central figure here, he is not the driving force. This is the endpoint of conservative ideology, the all-consuming priority of the Republican governing class. Replace President Trump with President Rubio or President Cruz and we’d be looking at a similar bill, with a similarly reckless process.
The “rule and ruin” ethos applies to more than just legislation. It defines the relationship between President Trump and the Republican Party, as GOP lawmakers tolerate racist demagoguery and dangerously unstable rhetoric for the sake of narrow ideological concerns, ignoring or rationalizing the real damage to America’s norms and institutions. It captures the dynamic of GOP-led states like Wisconsin and Michigan, where “rule” has meant all-out attacks on unions and higher education. You could almost see this repeat itself in Virginia, where the Republican nominee for governor, Ed Gillespie, promised massive tax cuts (while demanding steep spending cuts) had he won the election.
Backed by a network of activist billionaires, the Republican Party has launched an assault on public goods and the public interest, bent on destroying the idea that affluent citizens owe anything to the commons. It’s the return to a Gilded Age ideology, where politicians openly worshipped wealth, and where keeping that wealth in the hands of the wealthy was more critical—and more worthy—than attending to the vulnerable among us.