Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Struggling to Survive the Revolution

Superficially, at any rate, there are some striking similarities between Greg Gianforte and Donald Trump. They are both business guys who have made piles of money and can pretty much pay for their own campaigns. They are both outsiders who assure us they will clean house if they end up in the Governor’s Mansion or the White House.  When it comes to public policy, they both have ideas that are mind bogglingly half baked. And they both claim that as captains of industry, if elected they would know how to “create jobs.”

But there the similarity ends. Unlike Trump, Gianforte is not a loud-mouthed, misogynistic, narcissistic, bullying fool. So far as I know, he does not think he can force Mexico to build a wall on its northern border (although for a lot of Mexicans, that’s beginning to look like a pretty good idea). There’s no evidence that he’s obsessed with the size of his hands and his sexual prowess. He doesn’t recommend beating up people who disagree with him, or torturing prisoners of war, or bombing their children. And unlike Trump, Gianforte is not trying to tear to shreds the Reaganism that has inhabited Republican thinking for the last 35 years.

Reaganism, as David Brooks describes it in a recent New York Times column, is that familiar notion that the road to economic prosperity is paved with deregulation and tax cuts, especially for the rich. And it’s the belief that when those policies unleash the energies of the private sector and the pace of economic growth quickens, all boats will rise with the tide, and prosperity will trickle down.

The trouble is, Brooks says, Reaganism just doesn’t work any more (if it ever did), and Republicans, in their heart of hearts, know it. They know instead that “technological change, globalization and social and family breakdown mean that the benefits of growth, to the extent there is growth, are not widely shared.” Ideologically, they are in a crisis, looking for a new and better way to understand the world and needing desperately to respond to the mostly white, typically not-well-educated men in their base who are the ones who have not “widely shared” in the benefits of growth. It’s a situation that’s ripe for Trump to step into - not, of course, because he can lead the Republican party onto firmer ground - but because he is a port in the storm to people for whom the party has become little more than a trail of false promises.

And that’s where Greg Gainforte comes in. Despite being an outsider and an entrepreneur and a fresh face and a job creator, Gianforte is still peddling the old time, Reaganite Republican religion. He says he is going to make things all better by bringing in “good jobs,” but if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the way he's going to do that sounds like he’s channeling Reagan himself. He wants to cut taxes on capital gains and on the personal property of big businesses. He promises to get rid of pesky regulations. He refuses to say where he is on right to work. He’d appoint a business guy to run the Department of Environmental Quality, presumably because more business is better for us than a clean environment. All the things, in other words, that orthodox Republicans have pinned their hopes on since the 1980s.

Brooks argues that the Republican world view – Reaganism - is in a crisis brought on by its increasing inability to explain reality. And invoking the theories of Thomas Kuhn, Brooks says that that world view is about to undergo a revolution – an abrupt and wrenching shift in perspective – impelled by the ravings of Donald Trump.* That could be, and if it is, it looks like a revolution Greg Gianforte will struggle to survive.

*Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, itself developed a revolutionary account of how science progresses over time. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch for Brooks to apply Kuhn’s thinking to what’s happening in the Republican party, but it’s an engaging argument.