It took just four years, and Donald Trump, for the Republican Party to stop using the rhetoric of class warfare to discredit talk of income inequality
When was the last time we heard Republicans accuse Democrats of inciting “class warfare”? Believe it or not it was back in 2012 when the political world still made some sense, when we knew what the Republican party had come to represent over the last few decades
When the Republicans and Mitt Romney were still using the rhetoric of “class warfare” to discredit any talk of income inequality and money’s influence on politics as being bad for the nation. When Republicans still advocated fiercely that anybody could become successful as long as they worked hard.
But the Republican Party of four years ago is slowly becoming a sideshow to the new populist tone that has catapulted Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. Both candidates have swept Republican voters off their feet, not only because of their socially conservative values (especially Cruz’s), but also because of their willingness to tackle, at least through word of mouth, income inequality and a rigged political-economic system that favors the wealthy over the average American.
Trump has hit hard against conservative fiscal ideology, saying that he would raise taxes on hedge fund managers, impose tariffs on American companies who manufacture their products overseas, and leave federal social spending programs alone even though most Republicans want to cut or “reform” them.
But most importantly, he has championed the middle class as the true growers of the economy, totally contradictory to the trickle down economic theory of the Reagan Era that has defined American economic policy (conservatives in particular) for the last 35 years. As can be seen in this quote by Trump himself:
“I want to save the middle class.The hedge fund guys, they didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky…they make a fortune. They pay no tax. It’s ridiculous… It is the wrong thing. The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder… The middle class are getting absolutely destroyed. This country won’t have a middle class soon.”
The quote all but justifiably demonizes Wall Street for our current economic struggles. Instead of praising and defending Wall Street, like most Republican Reaganites do.
And while Ted Cruz’s victory in white evangelical Iowa can be largely attributed to his social conservative values, there is no doubt that part of his success in the polls is because of his “outsider” appeal, and his willingness to talk about “crony capitalism” and “defying” the elites to represent the will of the American people.
Following President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union, Ted Cruz mentioned how “the top 1 percent earn a higher share of our national income than any year since 1928” (right before the Great Depression) and accused Obama of getting the rich “fat and happy” under his presidency. Who would’ve thought 4 years ago that a Republican would be demonizing a President over making the wealthy richer?
Of course, Ted Cruz’s anti-Wall Street anti-elitist message is nothing more than hypocrisy, since he and his family are part of the elite and his campaign is heavily financed by Wall Street. In addition Cruz’s flat tax proposal would increase income inequality not decrease it. And for all the shouting, Donald Trump’s tax plans would be much of the same old stuff.
But these two figures have risen to the top of the game by riding on a message of income inequality and a rigged political system that would have been considered divisive by their own party just a couple of years ago. The question is do they signify a change in conservative ideology or are they just playing to the times?
A recent Pew Research Center study shows that 62% of Americans do not believe that the federal government is doing enough to help the middle class. A 2014 Gallup Poll found that among Republican voters, 45% believe that the rich pay too little in taxes. In addition, 84% of Americans believe that money has too much influence in politics along with 55% of Republican voters. Income inequality and money in politics is no longer viewed as an issue of “class warfare” rather than a growing reality that threatens the existence of the middle class, which is crucial to the survival of a thriving capitalist democracy.
This doesn’t mean that the Republican party will stop being the pro-free market party. Most Republican voters who are currently riding the populist wave still have a more positive view of business than government, and still believe that hard work is the key to success. What it does say is that Republican voters have become more aware of the rigged economic-political system that we have, and that this has contributed to growing income inequality. As a Trump supporter told the New Yorker:
“Trump is tapping into this belief that politicians are self-serving… He’s telling these donors, ‘I don’t need your money, I’ll finance my own campaign’. If you look at what’s controlling government these days, it’s lobbyists and all these big corporations.”
Republicans cannot avoid or dismiss these concerns. We will see either a further divide in the Republican party, like the current insurgencies of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, or Republican voters will embrace one of the other candidates who embrace anti-wall street messages. It’s not a coincidence that many Trump supporters favor Bernie Sanders as their second choice, strange as that may sound.
What is certain, is that the days of the GOP using class warfare as a smoke screen to support policies that would further worsen income inequality are slowly coming to an end.