It was only a matter of time before the national conservative bloc within the still-rising Republican Party began to loudly note that President Joe Biden was embracing some of the policies they used to differentiate themselves from your father’s GOP: mercantilist trade, subsidies for strategic US manufacturing, incoherent belligerence towards Beijing, brazen attacks on Big Tech, and – yes! – protection of the rights program for the elderly.
“I corresponded with [Chronicles magazine writer Pedro L. Gonzalez],” Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk chirped late last night, “we both agree that Biden’s speech was, surprisingly, a kind of… MAGA? It sounds strange, but it’s true. Biden appropriated themes from the nationalist movement and weaved them into his speech.”
Added The New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat: “Biden just gave a State of the Nation address whose key themes and most enthusiastic riffs could have been lifted — albeit with more Bidenism and fewer insults — from Trump’s populist campaign.”
Whether Biden moved away from Trump and his ideologues who supported him, or whether the populist right learned precisely from the traditional left the electoral joys of industrial politics and demagogic social security, is a question for historians, or at least for those who skillfully show Spider-Man in Spider- Man memes.
But the effects of this ecstatic-if-tumultuous political embrace on the rest of us will now stretch indefinitely into the future, more likely to be halted only by an external shock rather than any attempt by the major parties to prepare for the utterly predictable, self-inflicted policy failure. Our long (and global) populist moment now looks more like an era.
In terms of governance, we should expect not only an expansion of the social security and health care status quo, but attempts to expand them. Until ten years from now, when either taxes will have to be raised, or benefits will be hit with an automatic 20 percent cut, because we’ve been too busy “protecting” Social Security to actually fix its cruel demographic arithmetic.
Annual federal spending, which was about $2 trillion at the turn of the millennium, then nearly $3 trillion under George W. Bush, Barack Obama increased to the mid-3 trillion, Donald Trump jumped above $4 trillion, then rose above 6 trillion dollars under the Trump/Biden response to COVID-19, will likely treat that last level as a baseline, asserting the federal government’s permanent, ahistorical right to one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.
These deficit overruns require huge amounts of debt. Let’s see, are there any bad outcomes associated with it? “A high and growing federal debt makes the economy more vulnerable to rising interest rates and, depending on how that debt is financed, rising inflation,” the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned in 2019. Last year, as it updated its long-term projections due to spending due to the coronavirus, CBO opined that unless current spending trajectories change, “the likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States would increase. Specifically, the risk of a loss of investor confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to service and repay its debt would increase, causing a sharp increase in interest rates and rising inflation or other disturbances.” Oh.
To the applause of too many conservatives, Biden last night proposed a long list of Made in America malarkey, maybe-they-make-this one-temporary price controls and other regulatory micro-aggressions that will inexorably make both the state and business more expensive. “Almost all of President Biden’s economic proposals,” former Congressman Justin Amash chirped last night, “will increase the cost of goods and services for Americans. Government intervention, regardless of intent, almost always reduces competition and makes things more expensive, hitting those with the least the most.”
A decade ago, Amash’s criticism would not have been uncommon in the Republican Party or Congress, but now he is a voice in the wilderness. This fact gets obscured, especially on the journalistic left, by the exciting spectacle of Uncle Joe allegedly setting a cunning trap for the crazy Republican benches. “Dark Brandon appears on State of the Union, wipes the floor with lost Republicans,” read the cringe-inducing headline USA Today headline above Rex Huppke’s article.
The continued relegation of institutional journalism to the surveillance of “platforms”, the disparagement of “objectivity” and the falsification of facts in the name of defending democracy guarantees an almost comical inability to read the Republican room. Huppke couldn’t contain his enthusiasm that Biden “backed the entire party into a corner and made them swear to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits,” writing, “I’ve never seen anything like it in a State of the Nation address—they ran to him like a pack of lemmings, and he politely directed them towards the cliff, winking and smiling.”
Yeah man, it’s such a ninja maneuver to trick Republicans into agreeing with (checks notes) Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy!
Still, it is true, and significant, that several House Republicans acted like a bunch of rowdy high school kids on Tuesday night, which made Joe Wilson look old.You’re lying!” The outburst at Obama in 2009 seems positively polite by comparison. Part of modern populism is a deranged and deliberately provocative style. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that during the 118th Congress we’ll see the kind of open fists more associated with countries like South Africa, Kosovo and Taiwan.
This is a terrible development, which threatens to become a vicious circle. Biden was right when he aspirationally asserted last night that “there is no place for political violence in America.” Yet he was characteristically wrong when he cast the issue as politically one-sided, reducing deeply deranged attacker Paul Pelosi to a “reckless attacker of the Big Lie” and neglecting to even nod in the direction of Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R–La. ) who was literally in the audience and survived a politically motivated assassination attempt in 2017.
Conservatives are all too willing to respond to democratic and media imbalances with a shrug; such a cowardly approach encourages even more brazen behavior in the future. Democrats and journalists, on the other hand, have become so fixated on the lunacy of Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.) that they treat left-wing extremism more as a virtue than a vice.
Biden accused the Republican Party of wanting to “destroy the country,” accused congressional Republicans of wanting to “crash the economy,” accused Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Rick Abbott of “playing politics with the lives of their citizens, especially children,” and accused social networks to simply “kill people”. Like Trump calling the media or anyone else “enemies of the state,” I’m sure that can be enjoyable, even cathartic, for some audiences.
But putting political rhetoric on a constant war footing, especially in a two-party system, is a recipe for mimetic escalation. So we’re likely to have the worst of both worlds – bipartisan amity when it comes to steadily growing the size of government, but then bitter and occasionally violent competition over who will wield the Leviathan against their most hated domestic enemies. The economy will be worse, trust in all seemingly impartial institutions will fall, corruption will increase.
Republican fevers are such that they are likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination must loudly demonstrate that they are ready to arm the government against awakening and other subversives. Democratic backlash requires maximalist use of pejorative adjectives, open bribery of preferred constituents (college graduates, teachers unions), and permanent rejection of Econ 101.
In other words, it is the perfect time to touch the grass instead of obsessing over national politics and start looking for ways out of the applied irrational populism that surrounds us. The situation in our union has been bad since at least 2015, and it is hard to imagine that it will be bad anytime soon.