The GOP's Long Con

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in Manhattan on March 09, 2021 in New York City. (James Devaney/GC Images)
Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in Manhattan on March 09, 2021 in New York City. (James Devaney/GC Images)

Precisely no one should have been surprised to learn that Donald Trump used his phony claims of voter fraud to milk a quarter of a billion dollars from his most trusting supporters. Nor did it come as a shock that he used a series of online gambits to dupe his super fans into contributing more than they intended, forcing his campaign to refund more than $64.3 million in campaign contributions during the final months of 2020.

Trump, after all, has built his career on swindling investors, from self-dealing charitable foundations to shady real estate deals, to bogus real estate seminars.

But the notion that Trumpism took over the Republican Party as some kind of populist insurgency — an idea eagerly promoted by Never Trumpers far and wide — is worth about as much as a degree from Trump University.

In fact, the modern Republican Party has been running a long con for decades, convincing its loyal foot soldiers to support policies that have wreaked havoc on their lives.

The most obvious example is the theory of trickle-down economics used to justify the GOP’s central legislative agenda: cutting taxes on corporations and tycoons. It was Ronald Reagan who most vigorously promoted this virulent form of “voodoo economics” (in the words of his own vice president).

The notion that Trumpism took over the Republican Party as some kind of populist insurgency ... is worth about as much as a degree from Trump University.

The idea was that giving billions to billionaires in tax cuts would lead to an economic boom that would help middle and working-class Americans, a bit of magical thinking thoroughly debunked by an exhaustive study of tax cuts across 50 years and 18 nations.

Instead, the GOP’s campaign of endless tax cuts has turned the U.S. economy into a kind of centrifuge, in which wealth is continually concentrated at the top. The income gap in America has grown from a gap to a chasm. Back in 1989, for example, our richest families possessed 114 times as much wealth as those near the bottom. By 2016, that figure had soared to 248.

Then came the Trump regime’s single legislative victory: a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. Once again, the pitch was that these cuts “supercharge” the economy and create jobs. Once again, they did little more than provide a windfall for America’s least-needy citizens.

Virtually every crusade the GOP launches these days is pitched as an effort to defend the very people it hurts. A prime example: the party’s reflexive opposition to the Affordable Care Act, which has wound up causing massive hardship in the nation’s reddest districts.

The same thing is happening right before our eyes today. Not a single Republican member of Congress voted for the COVID relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan, nor will a single Republican likely vote for President Biden’s $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan, despite the fact that both pieces of legislation provide massive benefits to their own supporters. The con here is an old one: distract your base with culture war nonsense so they won’t notice that you just voted against them receiving a $1400 stimulus check, or improved internet service, or cleaner drinking water, or a good-paying job in the green energy sector.

The GOP capitulated to Trump precisely because he represents the purest expression of its own essential ethos: Grift Our People at all costs.

This is most obvious when considering the alleged scams of Trump’s various cronies, from his former campaign manager Paul Manafort (numerous state and federal indictments), to his senior advisor Steve Bannon (whose Build a Wall boondoggle was little more than a ploy to line his pockets), to the various Trump children, who have aped their father’s penchant for turning philanthropy into a cynical for-profit industry.

Grift has become the central driver of what I will charitably refer to as the Republican agenda, and its mechanisms are painfully obvious. To wit: if the private prison lobby donates millions to your campaign (or the gun lobby, or the fossil fuel industry) then your job is to help those industries.

Virtually anywhere you look in Republican circles — at the state or national level — you will find politicians who rose to power pledging to fight corruption, and who wound up using their power to abuse the public trust.

To cite an especially noxious recent example, let us turn to the case of Florida congressman and future-Fox-News-star Matt Gaetz. Over the past week or so we have learned much about the alleged activities of this diehard Trumper who is now being investigated by federal and congressional authorities for a host of alleged crimes, including sex trafficking.

But the story of Joel Greenberg, Gaetz’s avowed wingman, and potentially the most damning witness against him, is even more instructive.

Back in 2016, Greenberg self-funded a run for tax collector of Seminole County, north of Orlando, promising to fight “crony corruption.” His win made him a rising star in state politics, a poster boy for the "drain the swamp" crowd.

Four years later, Greenberg was indicted on 33 charges that document a dizzying array of scams. He allegedly funneled contracts to his groomsmen, created fake IDs, and set up a company to “embezzle and divert over $400,000” in public money. A week after his arrest, prosecutors say Greenberg launched a new con aimed at snatching COVID relief money. And this is putting aside Greenberg’s alleged role in procuring teenage girls as sexual partners for Gaetz.

This is your 2021 Republican Party. The more morally and intellectually bankrupt they become, the more obvious it is that they view power solely as a means to insure personal enrichment. They fleece, therefore they are.

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Steve Almond Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond’s new book, “Truth Is the Arrow, Mercy Is the Bow” will be out in 2024.



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