WASHINGTON – Dec. 1, 2017, will be remembered as the day when the vast majority of Americans fully grasped the consequences of the 2016 elections. They installed a man in the White House “likely to be under investigation for criminality for a very, very long time to come.” And they gave power to a Republican Party whose only purpose is to comfort the already extremely comfortable.
The quotation above, from Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Hillary Clinton, is now a better fit for his own circumstances than ever. The day after Michael Flynn’s guilty plea on Friday, Trump compounded his legal jeopardy with a tweet suggesting that (contrary to what he had said before) he knew Flynn, his one-time national security adviser, had lied to the FBI.
Trump’s lawyers will keep trying to explain his tweet away, but his overall vulnerability on obstructing justice has increased exponentially.
But it’s almost as important that Friday was also the day Senate Republican leaders brought forth a tax bill heralding the death of anything resembling a populist form of conservatism within the Republican Party. Plutocracy will now be the GOP’s calling card. Facing one of the most scandalous special-interest tax bills in a long history of such measures, even supposedly moderate members of the party caved in before the power of big money.
Republicans proved one other thing: What they say when they are out of power should never be believed again. Their progressive opponents, in turn, should never feel constrained in the future to limit their own ambitions out of deference to empty slogans about the superiority of bipartisanship.
When President Barack Obama was in office, conservatives waxed hysterical about the horrors of deficits by way of limiting government’s ability to help the needy or expand health insurance coverage. They spoke over and over about how terrible it was to pass bills on a partisan basis and how their foes should govern from “the center.”
Now the GOP has the votes, all those statements are inoperative. The party is running roughshod over democratic accountability and falling short of even minimal expectations of congressional decorum.
The leaders of “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” as the Senate pretentiously calls itself, no longer feel any obligation even to provide legible copies of complex legislation. The chicken scratches scribbled on the margins of their tax giveaway signed away any legitimacy these politicians can claim for their political project.
And deficits? Ah, deficits. They matter not a whit when there is money to pass out to corporations, rich heirs, private jet owners and the beer lobby represented by the son of one of our fine senators. But deficits will matter again soon, when Republicans will insist that they have no choice but to slash programs for the elderly, the sick, and the poor.
One salutary outcome of this episode is that Trump showed how nonsensical were the widely repeated assertions that he was outside the Republican mainstream. We now know he is just a flamboyantly clownish and unconscionably mean version of an old-fashioned corporate conservative.
There is not an authentically populist bone in this billionaire’s body. He regularly demonstrates his utter contempt for working people by treating them as rubes. He seems to think that racist gestures and malicious comments about immigrants and Muslims will distract working-class voters from how far he is tilting government away from their interests and toward those of his family and his rich friends.
Trump and his party will learn how many of the Americans they are taking for granted are much smarter than this and know when someone is selling them out – because, sadly, it’s something they are familiar with.
This is why the coincidence of the tax bill’s passage and Flynn’s decision to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller is so dangerous to Trump: The president’s populist mask is slipping at the very moment when he most needs to rally the troops. Flynn, who cherished the phrase “lock her up,” came face to face with the slammer himself and decided that loyalty to this most unfaithful of leaders was not worth the price. About this, at least, Flynn is right.
But don’t count on Republican politicians abandoning Trump quickly now that their tax victory is in sight. They and the president have a lot more in common than either side wants to admit. The primary loyalty they share is not to God or country or republican virtue. It is to the private accumulation of money, and this is a bond not easily broken.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.