The agenda of the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress is rather confusing but in recent weeks a light has dawned, for me at least, revealing to me what is really going on in Washington. I owe my new insights (if such they are) largely to Jane Mayer and her book Dark Money, which I reviewed here some weeks ago. That book, I am discovering, has not had nearly the impact that it should have. I just gave a talk on the current crisis to about 30 students and faculty at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and a show of hands revealed that not one audience member had read it. Neither had a reporter for a major newspaper whom I called to discuss a story about one piece of the network that Dark Money described. But I have kept the picture it drew of the influence of the Koch brothers and their allies in the Bradley, Scaife, Olin and other foundations in mind, and Jane Mayer herself pointed out an important story in the Guardian about what they have been up to lately. Here are my conclusions.
This past week, the Senate and House Republicans finally had to abandon their last attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. The alternative put forward by Senator Lindsay Graham and three others was the most radical yet, eliminating mandates, subsides, and mandatory protection for those with pre-existing conditions, capping medicaid, and putting a major hurt on blue states while helping red ones. The mainstream media was initially amazed by the emergence of this new bill, since the earlier iterations had proven so unpopular with the medical establishment and the public. It explained this as an appeal to the "Republican base." So it is, I think--but only if one gives up the idea that the Republican base is composed of voters. It isn't--it's composed of billionaire contributors, led by the Kochs, who have discovered ways to put their agenda through without reference to the voters. They control today's Republican Party as completely as the steel industries and railroads controlled our politics in the late 19th century, because they can fund any campaign that they want.
Al Franken, I believe, has commented that only half the Republicans in Congress hold views similar to Michelle Bachmann's, but the other half are terrified to losing their next primary to another Michelle Bachmann. In recent elections Tea Party candidates have repeatedly toppled establishment Republicans, including long-time officeholders like Richard Lugar of Indiana. The Kochs periodically hold donor retreats to meet with Republican officeholders, and last June, the Guardian reported, their representative warned Republicans that campaign contributions would dry up unless they passed Obamacare repeal and tax reform this year. That, presumably, is why the latest and worst health care bill arose like a Phoenix during September. The real question, about which I have seen nothing, is where and by whom the bill was drafted. I would bet a good deal of money that intellectuals within the right-wing donor network did it first and found the sponsors later. Graham is smart enough to know the bill would be very unpopular, and Charles Grassley of Iowa has been quoted admitting that it is a bad bill. Yet the Republicans felt they had no choice but to cave in to their financial, as oppposed to their electoral, base. So many of them live in one-party states or gerrymandered districts that they have no reason to think about what Democratic voters think, but remain vulnerable to the votes of tea party activists (themselves part of the Koch network) in primaries.
The tax reform proposal unveiled this week is probably part of the same story. It will eliminated the inheritance tax, which is significant only for multi-millionaires like the Kochs. It will protect the low rates of many in the financial community thanks to "pass throughs." And by eliminating state and local tax deductions, it will increase taxes on residents of blue states that have significant income taxes. The network that is producing these plans is obviously pursuing a conscious strategy of regional war. And it is powerful enough to have induced Republican "deficit hawks" to swallow a bill that will add an estimated $200 billion a year to the federal deficit.
This week we are learning that the new division in the Republican party isn't between radicals and moderates, it's between two rival groups of mega-donors. Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, the patrons of Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, were the chief contributors to Judge Ray Moore, who just won the Republican nomination (and therefore, surely, the election) for Jeff Session's Senate seat in Alabama over the Trump-backed establishment candidate. Today's New York Times indicates that the Mercer network plans to run many Republican primary candidates next year. The Koch brothers' model of using their billions to field candidates, subsidize media outlets and maintain a retinue of friendly intellectuals is being adapted by other millionaires. One or two liberal billionaires have even tried it in recent years, but without much success. In Republican states--and most states are now Republican--such networks can effectively take any meaningful choice away from the mass of the voters.
Donald Trump is not a significant player in the policy battles now taking place, except insofar as he can be relied upon to deny the obvious--claiming, for instance, that his tax plan does not help the rich--and sign conservative legislation. He and Mike Pence have handed environmental regulation and educational policies over to allies and members of the ultraconservative donor network. They have also formed an alliance on social issues with the religious right. Their economic proposals, I believe, are coming from outside the Administration. If the anti-Trump media really want to make a contribution to our national life they should uncover where the drafts of the health care and tax bills are coming from, and how they will benefit certain specific people. The Democrats need to speak up on behalf of the whole people. For the time being, robust democracy is a thing of the past, a victim of the tax policies and conservative activism of the last 40 years. To learn more, go to your public library or bookstore and get your hands on Dark Money.