The Democratic Party seeks to contribute to the common good in a number of ways. Democrats seek higher wages for workers, better conditions for the sick and elderly, and more rights for the marginalized. Whether or not their policies actually achieve these goals, it’s clear they are aiming toward improvements in our society.
Republicans, historically, have been able to counter this altruism through a focus on economic expansion coupled with a layer of private-sector religious charity. Republicans sought to contribute to the common good by allowing affluence to grow, and relied on the logic that a wealthy society comprised of good people would provide for the less fortunate by their own choice.
The debate between the two parties, then, was between a government-mandated effort to improve our world or a free market effort. Serious people on both sides could have strong opinions, but both sides sought the same noble goal.
But now, in the era of Trump Republicanism, it is becoming less clear that Republicans are engaged in the same debate. More and more, it seems that Republicans aren’t arguing about the best ways to improve society, but whether it needs to be improved at all.
The immigration debate is a perfect example. Republicans supported widespread amnesty for illegal aliens during the Reagan Administration, and, as recently as the George W. Bush administration, sought humane ways to integrate undocumented immigrants into our society.
Now, Republicans have a president who refers to immigrants as “animals.” In Maine, we had a Republican governor who invented fake infestations (the non-existent “ziki fly“) and who lied about the spread of infectious diseases from immigrants. Instead of trying to find the best solution to the humanitarian problem of undocumented immigrants, many Republicans want to create hatred toward immigrants to use as leverage in order to end immigration altogether.
Health care has followed a similar arc. Where the GOP used to make cogent arguments for a more affordable, higher quality free market health care system, Republicans now, particularly in Maine, where the GOP has fought for the last eight years to stop Medicaid expansion, appear far more focused on shutting down access to health care for those who struggle to afford it than they do in providing an alternative vision about how to best provide it.
Republicans, until Trump, looked to the moral foundation of America’s religious community to inform much of their altruism. The argument, also made repeatedly during the George W. Bush administration, was that our vast network of religious institutions should be supported in their efforts to provide for their communities.
But Trump has essentially destroyed this moral foundation through his own personality. It’s one thing for a devout Christian like George W. Bush to make the argument that we can couple a free market with an altruistic community to provide for the common good. But it’s intellectually impossible for a moral reprobate like Donald Trump to make that argument. So much so that he hasn’t even bothered. Instead he has laid out a vision of retribution and anger to justify his policies.
Instead of putting forward a free market vision for a better society, Republicans increasingly embrace a pragmatic and self-serving vision that mirrors the horrors of the Ayn Rand movement, where amoral businesspeople wore dollar sign brooches on their lapels and embraced an animalistic pursuit of dominance with no regard for their fellow man. As Rand herself wrote, “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.” This is not what the Republican argument used to be, but it is the sentiment that echoes through the GOP in the Trump era.
Eventually, this has to have electoral consequence. If Republicans do not realign their free market policies with a clearer vision for the common good, voters will regard them, as many already do, as simply a vessel for the wealthy to become wealthier, or as a vessel for realizing various bigotries. This is not at all true for many Republicans, but the abandonment of a nobler vision makes it harder and harder to make the case that Republicanism is a better path toward an improved America.