In conservative circles, there has long been a self-satisfied conviction that liberals and left-wingers have little understanding of economic reality, and that, if unencumbered by right-wing obstructionism, Democrats would ruin the economy with vast redistributive schemes, over-regulation, onerous tax burdens on the rich, and so on. Their bleeding-hearts, conservatives argue, blind them from objective economic facts, and their policies would ultimately hurt the people — e.g. the middle class, American wage earners — who they intend to help. As Republican and conservative ideologues have made these arguments over the past several decades, the economic debate has shifted steadily to the right, and many Americans have accepted the notion that the GOP is the responsible and pragmatic party when it comes to the economy.
Starting in the 1970s, when the country was going through a period of economic turmoil for a variety of reasons, the American right began an extensive and methodical campaign against the Keynesian status quo that had persisted for decades. In his 1971 memorandum, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote a call-to-arms for the business community, declaring that,
“political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”
The next few decades saw the explosion of corporate lobbying, well-funded right-wing think tanks, and a multitude of political organizations promoting economic policies that benefited corporations and the wealthiest Americans. As Jane Mayer documents in her outstanding book "Dark Money," billionaire ideologues like the Koch brothers became highly efficient at the art of propaganda, and promoted reactionary policies — e.g. deregulation, anti-union legislation, privatization, tax cuts for the wealthiest — under the false pretense that they would benefit the majority, not the the wealthy minority.
With assistance from corporate spin, the narrative shifted, and under President Reagan, the government became the ostensible cause of all economic ills — particularly the scourge that was inflation. The state, which had been effectively used over the past 50 years to reduce the great inequities of capitalism and mediate class tensions was now seen as a barrier to the invisible hand of the market. (Amnesia had struck the field of economics, and the excesses of Gilded Age capitalism were largely dismissed as ancient history.)
Republicans became the party of economic pragmatism in the minds of most Americans, and trickle-down economics was sold as a pro-growth strategy that would inevitably lift all tides. The rules of the market were devised to favor private industry over workers (which will happen when lobbyists write the rules), and, unsurprisingly, wage earners saw their incomes stagnate as corporate profits and executive pay exploded.
As Republicans cultivated their reputation as economic realists, GOP administrations managed to balloon budget deficits with generous tax cuts for the wealthy and soaring military spending. President Reagan, whose administration is remembered as an economic triumph by many Americans, managed to almost triple the debt, while President George W. Bush squandered the fiscal surplus that he inherited from the Clinton administration. (“Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” declared Vice President Dick Cheney.)
The economic dogma of the modern Republican Party has always been based on the needs and wants of the wealthiest; and naturally, the policies that have been implemented over the years (with help from capitulating Democrats) have contributed to the vastly unequal America of today and the economic catastrophe of the late 2000s. This has not, however, altered the Republican faith in supply-side economics. As the Obama years have progressed, conservatives have simply doubled down on free market fundamentalism, like religious cult leaders who intensify their apocalyptic predictions after numerous failed prophesies.
It seems only fitting that a party that has strayed so far from economic reality would nominate someone like Donald Trump, whose economic policies (if you can call them that) are so ridiculous, they make Obama conspiracy theorists look sensible. Trump is not an anti-government fanatic — like House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example — but he is equally (if not more) deluded.
Last week, the billionaire said in an interview with Washington Post that he could eliminate America’s $19 trillion in debt in eight years by “renegotiating trade deals.” He also said that he could do this with the enormous tax cuts he has proposed (disproportionately for the wealthy, of course), which, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, would reduce revenues by nearly $10 trillion in the first decade and “increase the national debt by nearly 80 percent of gross domestic product by 2036.”
In an analysis of Trump’s claim, the Post writes that the American economy would have to grow “somewhere between 13 and 24 percent — every year.” In other words, “[Trump] would need to at least double the size of the U.S. economy in eight years, and possibly to quadruple it.” As the Post headline ironically observes: “There is fantasy math and there is Donald Trump economic math.” At this rate, Trump will be guaranteeing that 2 + 2 = 5 by May.
Trump’s plans may be the most preposterous, but his opponent Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) aren’t a whole lot more realistic. His proposed tax plan — a flat tax, along with the abolition of the IRS — would add nearly $9 trillion to the deficit in the first decade, according to a Tax Policy Center analysis.
All of this raises the question: How the hell are Republicans still taken seriously in the economic realm? The notion of economic responsibility — let alone fiscal responsibility! — coming from the Republican Party should be dismissed by any rational economic observer at this point. (No economic realist would dream of signing Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge.) The two leading GOP candidates have proven how extreme and deluded right-wingers have become in their single-minded goal to liberate private industry from democratic oversight and slash taxes for the wealthiest. No longer are right-wing economic policies just cruel, but now entirely irrational.
Of course, one can’t help but take these policies and ideas seriously, with Republicans in control of Congress and billions of dollars being spent to fuel both politicians and ideology. And as long as billionaires and lobbyists use their political power “without embarrassment and without reluctance,” as Powell put it, reality will remain a minor inconvenience to be trounced by financial clout.