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Again, this is Not Our Parents' Republican Party

by Neil H. Buchanan

When now-President Biden was running for the Democratic Party's nomination in 2019 and 2020, he was roundly mocked by people like me for talking about how well he would be able to work with his Republican pals after their inevitable post-Trump "epiphany."

A year or so into his presidency, Biden finally acknowledged reality with a speech in which he emphasized the label "MAGA Republicans," differentiating between the people he used to know and the extremist movement that Republicans have now become.  The not-entirely-rare group of people like Liz Cheney, who have been drummed out of the party that they once defined, are probably who Biden had in mind as non-MAGA Republicans, even though they are not welcome in the Republican Party anymore.

To end the week, I want to use this space to offer a reflection on the theme of how much American conservatives have changed.  In doing so, I will look at how even some of their worst old habits have morphed into something more ridiculous and damaging, while their new obsessions are outright contradictions with some of the conservative movement's supposed core commitments.

I used the oft-overused "not your father's Oldsmobile" framing in today's headline not referring to people like me, who in fact grew up with parents who were registered Republicans.  That is old news, because Mom and Dad (and all of my grandparents) were either Rockefeller or Romney Republicans, and they were Christian conservatives in the non-evangelical sense.  Those among them who were still alive in 1980 were thus appalled when Ronald Reagan joined with the Moral Majority to build the wave of White Christian supremacy that took another generation or two to swamp the party.

In short, today's Republican Party has not been my parents' Republican Party for so long that there is nothing interesting to say about the differences.  Day is different from night.  Health is different from sickness.  Got it.  No, what I am focused on here is a few examples showing how radically different recent trends in that party have become -- compared to only a few years (or even a few months) ago.  It is all rather amazing.

The first example comes from the recently declared presidential candidacy of Nikki Haley, the former governor of a small red state and self-important weather vane.  Even by the rock-bottom standards of political consistency, Haley is in a category of her own, jumping back and forth between embracing Trump, rejecting him, embracing him again, and now doing whatever the heck she thinks she is doing in running against him (and attacking the mental status of people who are "over 75 years old," ahem) while claiming not to reject him.  There is no surprise there, I suppose, coming from someone who tries to tiptoe around one of her only good moves in public life (which had to do with banning the Confederate flag).

In any case, it might be unsurprising that a Republican would decide to make a big deal about how much money the US supposedly spends on foreign aid.  That is a longstanding complaint on the right, after all.  Even so, that non-issue seems so passe as to be jarring, but Haley is seriously going there -- in 2023.

Speaking of the generations preceding mine, some readers of this blog are old enough to remember watching the TV show "M*A*S*H" during its original run, while younger readers might have seen it in endless reruns over the four decades since its ratings-smashing finale aired.  In the earlier (much better) seasons of that Korean War-based sitcom, one character was a gung-ho loser named Major Frank Burns, a hapless foil standing in for the America-firsters who supported McCarthyism and the Cold War.

Burns was a nitwit, and he reliably said the most ridiculous things that a small-town Indiana hack doctor might say.  Of relevance here, Burns credulously says in one episode: "The UN would be fine if it wasn't for all the foreigners."

Haley, of course, served briefly as the US ambassador to the United Nations, which makes it especially delicious to see her turn Burns-ian isolationism into present-day drivel.  She is not merely claiming the familiar territory of American conservatives complaining about all of our money going to a bunch of not-Americans.  What is notable is that she did not stop with the standard conservative misdirection of focusing on what is in fact less than one percent of the annual federal budget, as if that could be the cause of "our out-of-control spending."  That would be plain-vanilla stuff, but she figured out how to make it worse -- and even more inane.  How?

It turns out that Haley has decided to claim that every dollar in foreign aid that the US spends that is in any way connected to a particular country is aid to that country.  How does that work?  An article in The Washington Post runs through a list of countries that Haley has cited, among them her claim that "[y]ou’re giving half a billion dollars to Zimbabwe, the most anti-American African country there is."  The Post notes: "The figure is about $310 million, about half for health (HIV/AIDS prevention) and $110 million for humanitarian assistance, such as through the World Food Program. Haley’s staff said that hundreds of millions of dollars is a significant obligation to U.S. taxpayers."

So, Haley overstates the figure by more than 60 percent, then her staff says that the correct number is "significant," but they do not even bother to respond to the reality that the money going "to Zimbabwe" is used to fight HIV/AIDS and to provide humanitarian assistance.

As the article notes, this is true of virtually every country on Haley's list.  Aid to Iraq (again, to Iraq in what sense?): "About $80 million is for humanitarian assistance, while the rest mainly goes for civilian peace-building programs and a project to foster small and micro businesses." And that is after the article points out that Haley overstated the total amount of annual US aid by a factor of five, with her staff saying that the amount that she claimed had been spent "over the last few years."

But perhaps nothing gets to the heart of Haley's shameless dishonesty than this fact-check on her complaint that American money is going to "Belarus, who’s holding hands with Russia in this war against Ukraine":

Virtually all of the $33 million listed for Belarus goes to civil society groups hoping to lead the dictatorship into democracy. A spokesperson for the U.S. Agency for International Development said no money was given to the Belarusian government in 2022.

During a visit to the United States in June, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition leader who ran for president in a fraud-ridden election, thanked the agency “for the many years of assistance to deliver civil society. You were always on the side of the Belarusian people, and many organizations and people received your assistance, like an independent vocal journalist, entrepreneurs, civic activists, human rights defenders, and so on.” Haley’s staff said there was no justification for this aid, given Belarus’s record of voting against U.S. interests at the United Nations.

So, there is "no justification" to spend money to help the people who are fighting against a government with a record of voting against US interests?  What?  The Post also points out as a background matter that most of the money that the US calls foreign aid is in fact (and by law) spent in the United States: "With the exception of some aid given to Israel, all military aid must be used to purchase U.S. military equipment and training — meaning foreign military aid in reality is a jobs program in the United States."

Frank Burns would be in awe.  This is simply amazing, and in a way it is impressive that Haley could turn a stale conservative isolationist talking point into something even more insipid than it already was.  It is no longer a matter of conservatives complaining about furriners taking our 'murican money.  Now it is a supposed outrage for the people who are doing exactly what we would want them to do to get any money at all, because that means that Foreign Country X is "getting our dollars."

Maybe Haley is the rare Republican who wants to fully de-fund the police. After all, every dollar that we spend on public safety is money that we spend "on criminals."  Why should we be giving money to those baddies?

So that is the first example, where our parents' Republican Party's worst core instincts are recognizable but somehow have been mutated into something even more damaging and insane.  The second example is, however, something quite different.  If one were trying to come up with a list of things for which the Republican Party has proudly and loudly staked its positions, certainly "free enterprise" would be high on that list.  Businesses, we have been told forever, know how to do things better than government (which should not "pick winners and losers"), so politicians should leave the private sector to its own devices.

I have pointed out in a few places lately (most recently three days ago) that the new generation of conservative extremists is willing to punish private corporations simply for opposing Republicans' policies through corporate speech.  More broadly, the anti-mask, anti-vaxx crowd decided that private employers are not to be permitted to decide what constitutes an acceptable condition of employment.  And now?

The latest culture-war battle is about ESG -- private companies taking into account "environmental, social and governance" matters in making business decisions.  Twenty years after corporations voluntarily adopted internal standards based in part on ESG, "Republicans have taken aim at the philosophy, which essentially holds that companies should be focused at least in part on how their businesses affect the environment and society — not solely on profits — calling it a prime example of how Democrats and liberals have sought to impose their views on the rest of the country," according to a New York Times article.

In some ways, this hostility is not new.  After all, the once-idolized conservative economist Milton Friedman argued that corporate governance is an ethics-free zone.  He was wrong, but at least he was saying something that was recognizably conservative.  Just as he had argued that businesses would be forced by competitive pressures not to discriminate on the basis of race or gender (another fatuous bromide), one could claim that businesses should be Free to Choose to use ESG factors in their decision-making -- but potential investors should understand that such companies will be doomed to fail in a competitive environment of cutthroat capitalism.  That ESG has lasted for two decades suggests that businesses have found it to be profitable.

So what is the Republicans' solution?  Do they say that the free market should decide?  Or do they say, perhaps, that they have discovered some indirect and heretofore unknown government subsidy that they want to take away from those do-gooder companies?  No, the Republicans have now said that companies should be prohibited from making their own decisions, if such decisions take any account of environmental, social, or governance concerns.

The article in The Times begins with this:

Congress on Wednesday cleared a measure to block a Labor Department rule that allows retirement plan managers to incorporate climate and social considerations into their investment decisions, setting up a veto fight with President Biden over an otherwise obscure regulation that has become a flash point in the culture wars.

Note the word "allows."  That vote is the manifestation of the modern Republican Party's Senate caucus, joined by Democrats Jon Tester (who is up for reelection in a very red state next year) and Joe Manchin (natch).  No objections from the supposed moderates or non-MAGA Republicans in the chamber: Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, or whoever the press is currently giving the "but they're reasonable conservatives" treatment.

I suppose that we should not be surprised that Friedman's advice is being ignored.  After all, he also famously said that the country's macroeconomic policy should be run via monetary policy rather than fiscal policy, but when the Fed actually does its job in a way that helps the economy while a Democrat is president, the Republicans attack the Fed.

These two examples, then, show that the current Trumped-up Republican Party is what it has always been, except that it has become something different altogether.  Foreign aid is now unacceptable even when it undermines our adversaries, and private enterprise cannot even be trusted to make voluntary decisions without Republican approval.  Times have changed.