It’s hard to understand the thinking of people who believe it’s quite alright to financially undermine programs like Meals on Wheels or strip federal dollars from programs for the poor and homeless, including food assistance and job training, and cut off funds from Habitat for Humanity, the Rural Business Cooperative, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. What guides and motivates such people?
Part of the answer is found in the Dark Woods of conservative political philosophy. The shades of an American kind of us/them totalitarian thinking combined with a religiously inspired belief that poverty and misfortune are to be interpreted as signs of divine disapproval create a moral murkiness that is agitating the country as perhaps never before. But more of that in moment.
Mick Mulvaney, White House budget director, has a novel explanation why impoverishing the impoverished is good thing to do. He says the administration is being “compassionate” to the taxpayer. He asks rhetorically, how can we ask the taxpayer to pay for this?
Cutting out programs for the poor, meager as they are, would save the taxpayer a few cents a year, if that. How do you distribute through a population savings from the $455. 5 million budget slashing of PBS? That might come out to $2 or $3 a person a year, probably slightly more owing to all the tax cheaters and loophole corporate tax evaders. And what do you get for that $3 a year? Thousands of hours of children’s educational television, national, international and local news, music, drama, science and history programming, humanities documentaries,
and travel experiences—so much more than low income Americans could ever hope to afford on their own. It gives the “compassionate” tax savings remark the stink of a really gassy sick joke. What about savings to taxpayers of reducing the defense budget by its cost overruns, its goliath price gouging, its failure to inventory jet fuel that drips into aquifers under virtually every Air Force Base in the country?
What kind of thinking leads a dollars and sense budget analyst to make such an asinine remark? And what about the frackers? How do they get away with causing earth quakes, making ground water undrinkable, and wrecking the experience of historic sites and wilderness for the rest of us? What is the thinking behind going against virtually the whole world’s opinion that disastrous climate change is a product of burning fossil fuel and literally putting pedal to the metal to fill the atmosphere with more and more greenhouse gases? What are the race baiters, the homophobes, the misogynists, the white supremacists, the neo Nazis, the eco-haters think they’re doing?
The first stab at an answer has to be that this hodgepodge of horrors is not exclusively a form of Trumpism. It comes from the collective thinking of the Right-Wing of the American political spectrum embodied in the fractured and dysfunctional modern Republican Party, its fringes and its establishment core.
From what I can see, the thought processes and rationales of this stew of fishy thinking arises from such philosophical ghosts as Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Ayn Rand, Edmund Burke, Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary revisioning of tribalism and right-wing identity politics, a strain of materialistic religion that has underpinned capitalism since the Enlightenment, an eco-hatred as virulent as the hatred of strangers, and much more beyond the scope of a column.
What I’m about to layout could be framed in many different ways. One of them acknowledges that ideas have consequences, that they matter because they can be used to shape politics and policies, and because they often throw light on the deep disagreements inherent in any culture, no matter how “civilized.”
Eco-hatred stems from a perspective that sees land, water, and “global” environment, the commons of the natural world, as a collectivist reality to which the individual is forced to submit. Concern for environmental reality and its welfare is seen as getting in the way of a single person’s right to pursue happiness through the possession of property and the securing of property rights which allows an owner to do what he will with what he owns. Stretching the point a bit, perhaps, environmentalism seems to American conservatives like a naturalistic kind of communism, the ultimate bogeyman. It pits the common good against personal liberty assuming, wrongly I think, that the two are inherently at odds.
Couple that with the view of a materialistic branch of Western religion that sees personal wealth as a sign of approval from the deity and poverty as a penalty for mediocrity and degeneracy in the eyes of the divine, and you have the basis for a holier-than-thou kind of moral authoritarianism based on a person’s good luck and willingness to value money above all else and to ruthlessly scramble after more and more of it. Money equated with virtue seeps down into tax policy and a hatred of the welfare state, which is seen by many conservatives as mollycoddling losers.
The arising of white tribalism is in this mix as well. White supremacy movements are terrified of competition and paradoxically see the wealth, the access, and the utter domination of white and male America as being dangerously undermined by “lesser demographics.” The white tribe sees itself as being turned into the underdog by those who use identity politics unfairly to gain the upper hand in financial, cultural, and racial “warfare.”
Nibbling around the edges of white tribalism is the fear of a government that grows ever more sensitive to the needs and welfare of their racial and tribal competition and threatens their conviction that to win one must be as ruthless as other natural forces, as they learned perhaps from Thomas Hobbes’s 16th century rationalism. While they tend to ignore Hobbes’s idea of the social contract by which groups of people organize themselves, they latch on to his views of absolutism in the form of an all powerful sovereign. A hateful idea, absolutism becomes for white supremacists the deepest fear of government in the hands of other tribes and their sympathizers, government of their tribal and racial enemies that seeks to strip them of dominion.
Modern hard-right conservatives see Plato’s “Republic” as the moral model for good government and a good society in which everyone knows their place and stays in it, no matter what. It is a society with a rigid sense of social class. The leadership elite forms a hierarchy of moral aristocrats who govern for the good of all
according to their lights, a kind of ancient trickle down moral economics. Below them are the military and the worker-providers, all male. In the Republic, women have no say. The Republic is virtuous because change is kept to an absolute minimum, and only the aristocracy of the wise make public decisions. It’s an odious system to many of us, but not to Conservative America, even if many of them wouldn’t be caught dead reading Plato because he is part of what they consider to be the “liberal” university’s corrupting curriculum.
Eighteenth Century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke gave conservatives a way to think about the virtues of conserving the status quo, even when the rabble of the poor and disenfranchised are pounding at the door. In opposing the French Revolution, and associating it with its horrendous violence and not with the equally horrendous but commonplace violence of the aristocracy, he gave the status quo, any variety of stability no matter how vile, the halo of time-honored tradition to be respected and preserved.
In many ways, Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” and libertarian opposition to government may seem at odds with Burke, Hobbes, and Plato. But the virtue of her kind of selfishness belongs exclusively to traditional holders of power in Europeanized America – entitled whites, rich or poor. When disenfranchised people of other ethnicities gain access to government and assert themselves in favor of equal rights under the law, they turn government, in the eyes of Randians, into a tyrannical weapon of those who traditionally could not compete with the selfish class because god or virtue did not give them the means to do so.
The nasty, nihilistic, and deceptive part of modern conservatism seems to be flavored somewhat by the thinking of Carl Schmitt, a Nazi jurist turned philosopher, and Leo Strauss, a German Jewish refugee who moved to the United States in 1937 and who became a pillar of the University of Chicago as a classicist. Strauss is a controversial and contradictory figure, with adherents on the right and the left. His views on deception, and on the necessity of writing in an obscure kind of code, appeal to many millennials on the “alt-right” curve of the social media spectrum. Some conservatives have taken this to mean that deception and dirty tricks are legitimate political devices. Strauss’s conservative persona takes exception to what he considers a kind of knee-jerk view of progress, which sees science and the “open” society of toleration as automatically progressive. But they really leads us, he thinks, to the monster of “relativism” and the general spirit of nihilism in which the constant churning of change turns tradition into meaninglessness.
Strauss knew Carl Schmitt, corresponded with him, but broke off contact during WWII and apparently never re-established their scholarly relationship. Schmitt saw Hitler’s rise to power as a repudiation and eventual obliteration of the bureaucratic class, the “deep state” if you will, that kept German society moving in prosperous and efficient ways, but which choked off the power of the great man and leader who must overthrow the tedium of democracy in times of crisis. The civil service was seen as the natural enemy of those politicians who aspired to sovereign authority. From what I can tell Schmitt was a champion not only of Hitler but of the philosophy of dictatorship as a viable form of government. His deepest attachment to the Hard Right today is, in my view, his articulation of “the politics of enmity.” Successful modern states, and winner politicians, work off of a “friend or enemy” dichotomy in which there is a constant state of no-holds-barred hostility against the enemy, against virtually anyone who isn’t an outright friend. Though Schmitt would not have been known in the United States during the New Deal, his articulation of “us and them” eventually gave a legitimizing philosophical echo to conservatives who have opposed open government, toleration, and compassionate assistance since the New Deal began. They instinctively, religiously, philosophically, and economically opposed transforming America from an aristocracy of the rich and white to a more egalitarian democracy struggling for equality and a place in the sun.
The above seems to me a dank and smoggy wilderness of wrong thinking, but one that allows those who hold to bits and pieces of it a way to excuse the most selfish and vile forms of Hard-Right “what about me”ism and attack all those who protest and resist, shouting “what about us?”
Part of the reason the Republican Party could not pass health care legislation, despite owning the legislative and executive branches of government, is that the aristocracy of wealth and “politically correct” conservative values that idolize “what- about-me”ism ran roughshod over the marginalized “what-about-us” wing of their own party who refused to knuckle under, knuckle heads though they may be. “What-about-us” Republicans, the bow tie and bib overall anarchists who hate government, not only see Democrats and Liberals as enemies, they see the Hard-Right rich, who know how to use government to serve their ends, as the enemy of their righteous ideological purity. And so it goes on the smash-mouth Far Right.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it