Now more than ever, Republicans are engaged in class warfare: Isn't it time for Democrats to fight back?

Conservatives accused Obama (falsely) of waging class war, when they have perfected a highly deceptive version

Published July 5, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell   (AP/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/J. Scott Applewhite)
Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell (AP/Reuters/Yuri Gripas/Jonathan Ernst/J. Scott Applewhite)
Throughout the Obama years, one of the more frequent Republican criticisms of the Democratic president was that he was engaging in “class warfare”  against the rich and “punishing success.” President Obama, Republicans claimed time and again, was fostering resentment against the wealthy and cynically exploiting class divisions for political gain. “Class warfare may make for good politics, but it makes for rotten economics,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., at one point, while responding to Obama’s proposal for a minimum tax of 30 percent on millionaires (i.e., the “Buffett tax”).

Like the allegations that Obama was a foreign-born Muslim or a socialist (and occasionally even a communist), however, this charge never had much truth to it. The wealthiest Americans continued to do exceedingly well under Obama. Indeed, President Obama was if anything the antithesis of a “class warrior,” as he approached governing in a detached and technocratic manner, often setting aside moral questions about class, inequality and social structure to concentrate on more “practical” questions. (Would a true left-wing class warrior have protected Wall Street CEOs from the “pitchforks"?)

Though Obama was far from the moralizing class warrior that Fox News depicted him to be, Republicans perceived him as such because his administration’s policies were not always favorable toward billionaires and corporations, and on occasion the president would  remark on the fact that economic inequality had increased. Ironically, the conservative obsession with Obama’s apparent class politics often revealed more about Republicans and their own class politics than it did about Obama. While the 44th president’s administration sought to played a neutral role in terms of class interests (something that earned him plenty of criticism from progressives), modern Republicans have never failed to serve the interests of billionaires and corporate America.

This kind of rhetoric was part of a long tradition in which Republican politicians denounce “class warfare” and those who purportedly engage in it -- while actively waging their own class war against the poor and working class.

This class warfare has become all the more apparent since the GOP took over the federal government earlier this year. Nothing has revealed the GOP’s disdain for poor people and working-class families quite like the Republican health care bills currently in the House and Senate, which would both provide generous tax cuts to the rich while cutting health benefits for the poor, the middle class and the elderly (and also throw more than 20 million people off health insurance, according to the CBO). It is hard to exaggerate the mass suffering that these bills would cause. As Jeff Spross recently pointed out in The Week, “Not in their most fevered imaginations do left-wing tax-hikers envision inflicting this kind of suffering on the 1 percent.”

In the Nation, Zoe Carpenter accurately summed up Trumpcare last week: “The Senate GOP isn’t fixing healthcare. It’s waging class war.”

With this class war on full display one might expect a growing number of Americans to finally recognize the GOP as the party of, by and for the rich. But it’s not as if this is a new effort. Republicans have been waging this class war for decades, yet just eight months ago Donald Trump managed to win the election by running as a “populist,” and his victory was due in large part to the support he received from Rust Belt states, where working-class people have felt the brunt of the GOP’s decades-long assault on working people. To some extent, Trump succeeded in the Rust Belt because he was seen by many people as a different kind of Republican who would actually help workers (his stance on free trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership obviously played a role in this perception). But Trump’s success was also the result of a kind of cultural class warfare that has been in the GOP playbook for a very long time.

Over the past few decades Republicans have not only waged an economic class war against the working class but a cultural class war against the so-called “liberal elite” — which includes college professors, journalists, Democratic politicians, urban professionals, Hollywood entertainers and so on. While Trump’s rhetoric may be unusually belligerent, the practice of railing against cultural elites has been employed by conservatives for generations, as Thomas Frank explored in his 2004 book, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” The true genius of the right’s “culture war” is that it enables clear economic elites like Trump to portray themselves as populists, even while they enact policies that serve billionaires and multinational corporations.

Right-wing populism, Frank observes, “both encourages class hostility” in the cultural sense and “simultaneously denies the economic basis of the grievance.” Thus, Republicans can wage their class war on the working class while still claiming to be populists who are fighting for “real Americans.”  Frank elucidates further on the right-wing conception of class:

Class, conservatives insist, is not really about money or birth or even occupation. It is primarily a matter of authenticity, that most valuable cultural commodity. ... The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas.

That last point has become all the more relevant in the era of Trump. If the erasure of the economic (from class) is in fact a necessary precondition for the ideas we see embodied in the Republican Party today, then the obvious solution is to restore the primacy of the economic. Frank goes on to make an interesting analogy, describing the right-wing populist vision as “nothing more than an old-fashioned leftist vision of the world with the economics drained out.”

“Where the muckrakers of old faulted capitalism for botching this institution and that,” he writes, “the backlash thinkers simply change the script to blame liberalism.”

This analogy is somewhat unfair to leftists, who had a much more sophisticated worldview that was largely based on reality -- since capitalism really was at fault for many of the problems identified by the muckrakers. But it does raise an important question: Is a modern version of the “old-fashioned leftist vision” the best way to defeat the phony populism of the right? Obviously left-wingers like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn believe it is, and the latter’s unexpected success in last month’s British election certainly bolstered the argument.

Thomas Frank — who knows a thing or two about right-wing populism — agrees with this sentiment. In his most recent book, “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?,” Frank looks at how the Democratic Party abandoned class politics toward the latter part of the 20th century and embraced corporate-friendly centrism, which gave right-wingers a perfect opportunity to advance their own warped form of class politics. Today we are living in the aftermath of this Democratic shift towards neoliberalism.

“If class warfare is being waged, it is not Democrats who are the aggressors,” said Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institute in an analysis of the House version of Trumpcare published in March. This is doubtless the case, and it is why the Republicans have been so successful in crushing the working class while maintaining their populist veneer. If Democrats want to expose Republicans as the party of the 1 percent and start winning elections again, then perhaps it is time for them to become the aggressors and start waging a class war of their own.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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