Soft Corruption and the Limits of Populism

There are currently two clown shows — sorry, but let’s be honest — going on in the Republican Party. One is the intraparty fighting that seems extremely likely to cause a government shutdown a few days from now. The other is the fight over who will come a distant second to Donald Trump in the presidential primaries.

There are many strange aspects to both shows. But here’s the one that has long puzzled me: Everyone says that with the rise of MAGA, the G.O.P. has been taken over by populists. So why is the Republican Party’s economic ideology so elitist and antipopulist?

Listen to the rhetoric of the people making Kevin McCarthy look like a fool or of the presidential candidates, and it’s full of attacks on elites — but also of promises to cut taxes for the rich and slash government spending that benefits the working class. For example, Nikki Haley — who is making a credible bid to be Trump’s also-ran, given Ron DeSantis’s implosion — is calling for big cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

As I write this, McCarthy is reportedly trying to appease MAGA dissidents with a temporary funding bill that would cut nonmilitary discretionary spending outside of Veterans Affairs by 27 percent — meaning savage cuts to things like the administration of Social Security (as opposed to the benefits themselves).

The thing is, such proposals are deeply unpopular. It’s true that Americans tell pollsters that the government spends too much, but if you ask them about specific types of spending, the only area on which they say we spend too much is foreign aid, which is a trivial part of the budget. Oh, and most Americans still support aid to Ukraine.

So there would seem to be an opening for politicians who are right wing on social issues like immigration and wokeness but are also genuinely populist in their spending priorities. Such politicians exist in other countries. For example, Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, whose party has deep links to the nation’s fascist past, ran last year on a platform calling for earlier retirement for some workers and increases in minimum pensions and child benefits.

So why aren’t there such figures in the G.O.P.? To be fair, during the 2016 campaign Trump sometimes sounded as if he might turn his back on Republican economic orthodoxy, but once in office he pursued the usual agenda of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy combined with benefit cuts for the rest.

Part of the answer may lie in the American right’s general mind-set, which valorizes harshness, not empathy. People who are drawn to MAGA tend to imagine that solving society’s problems should involve punishing people, not helping them.

Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of ignorance: MAGA politicians, who generally disdain any kind of expertise, may not have any clear idea of what the federal government does and where tax dollars go.

Finally, there’s the Clarence Thomas factor.

What I mean is that part of the explanation for the absence of genuine Republican populists may involve the gravitational pull of big money, which is both broader and subtler than the way it’s often portrayed.

If the accusations against Senator Robert Menendez are true — and it’s not looking good — old-fashioned bribery, payments to politicians in exchange for favors, hasn’t gone away. But it’s probably not shaping party ideology.

Campaign contributions, on the other hand, definitely do shape ideology; DeSantis was touted as a rival to Trump because he got a lot of support from big donors who believed he would serve their interests and had real political skills. (Being rich doesn’t necessarily come with good judgment.)

But there’s a sort of gray area that doesn’t involve outright bribes in the sense of money given in return for specific actions but nonetheless involves a form of soft corruption. For the fact is that public figures whom the very rich see as being on their side can reap considerable personal rewards from their positions.

Recent revelations about Justice Thomas show how this works. ProPublica reports that he has received many favors from ultrawealthy conservatives, notably lavish free vacations. These reports are shocking because we don’t expect such behavior from a Supreme Court justice, and Thomas may have violated the law by failing to disclose these gifts. But does anyone doubt that many politicians who favor tax cuts for the rich and reduced benefits for the working class, even as they rail against elites, receive similar favors?

And the hermetic information space of the American right surely facilitates this soft corruption. Suggestions of improper influence on right-wing officials and politicians won’t get much coverage on Fox News, except possibly for claims that they’re the victims of a liberal smear campaign.

Now, I don’t know how important these different factors are to the fact that America’s “populists” are anything but populist in practice. But we do need to ask why people who denounce elites somehow always manage to avoid targeting corporations not named Disney and billionaires not named George Soros.

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