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The Republican Party’s reality problem — and ours

It’s not just Donald Trump and Roy Moore. It’s Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Susan Collins.

Javier Zarracina/Vox
Javier Zarracina/Vox
Javier Zarracina/Vox

In Alabama, 71 percent of Republicans say they believe the allegations against Roy Moore are fabricated. In Washington, President Donald Trump believes he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” (he didn’t), that he had “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan” (nope), that his inauguration crowds were the largest ever (they weren’t), and that virtually any information he dislikes is “FAKE NEWS!”

It’s comforting to imagine this denialism as a particular affliction of the Trumpist factions of the modern GOP. It isn’t. It’s present even in the most sober, credible, and respected corners of the Republican Party. It predates Trump and Moore, and it arguably led to their rise.

The battle over tax reform has been a particularly stunning example. Republicans in the House and Senate have passed bills that will add a trillion dollars or more to the debt, and they simply pretend otherwise, despite mountains of evidence (and common sense) to the contrary. The debate shows that the most established of establishment Republicans are just as resistant to unpleasant information, just as happy to live in fantasy worlds of their own concoction, just as likely to wave away overwhelming evidence as partisan fabrication.

That the GOP tax bills will add to the debt is not a controversial, or even arguable, conclusion. The proposals have been assessed by the right-wing Tax Foundation, the centrist Tax Policy Center, the respected Penn Wharton Budget Model, and even Congress’s internal referee, the Joint Committee on Taxation. A number of these estimates were so-called “dynamic scores” — the Republican gold standard for tax analysis, which takes into account the possible growth from tax changes and the new revenues that growth can create.

Every single one of these estimates concluded that the GOP’s tax plan would add $1 trillion or more to the debt over the next decade. “Tax cuts do not pay for themselves — they do not even come close to paying for themselves,” wrote the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in a meta-analysis of the various estimates. A survey of 42 top economists failed to find a single one who believed the tax cuts wouldn’t add to the national debt.

Republican leaders insist their tax cuts will pay for themselves, despite all evidence to the contrary

Top Republicans could have accepted these numbers, and said that it was worth adding a trillion dollars or more to the deficit to pass their tax cuts. Or they could have gone back to the drawing board and changed their bill so it really was revenue-neutral, as they had promised. Instead, they retreated into fantasy.

“We are totally confident this is a revenue-neutral bill and probably a revenue producer,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Face the Nation.

“I’m telling you that’s what I believe will happen,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told NPR, when asked if the tax cuts would pay for themselves.

Even Sen. Susan Collins, the most moderate Republican in Congress, got in on the act. “Economic growth produces more revenue and that will help to offset this tax cut and actually lower the debt,” she said on Meet the Press.

It’s important to be clear on this point: Top Republicans said all this despite the absence of any estimate showing their tax cut would pay for itself, or come anywhere close. They said this even though estimates from conservative organizations and their own budget scorekeeper said otherwise.

It gets worse. Congressional Republicans went so far as to try to discredit the Joint Committee on Taxation after it released its analysis. As Jim Tankersley reported at the New York Times:

Public statements and messaging documents obtained by The New York Times show a concerted push by Republican lawmakers to discredit a nonpartisan agency they had long praised. Party leaders circulated two pages of “response points” that declared “the substance, timing and growth assumptions of J.C.T.’s ‘dynamic’ score are suspect.” Among their arguments was that the joint committee was using “consistently wrong” growth models to assess the effect the tax cuts would have on hiring, wages and investment.

The GOP’s mistrust of the Joint Committee on Taxation is newly held. The House Budget Committee’s website used to say, “The people who prepare our cost estimates are the best in the business, and they’ve been working on this issue for years.” Recently, that page was deleted, though it has since been restored — Republicans say the deletion was accidental.

This, then, is the truth of the establishment Republican Party: It is Donald Trump without the caps lock, Alex Jones in a suit. Compared to the president, McConnell and Ryan are less alarming in their demeanor, less unhinged in their tone, but, when convenient, they are similarly willing to unmoor themselves from reality.

How the establishment GOP paved the way for Trump and Moore

It is tempting to split today’s Republican Party into factions, to see Trump as a bizarre aberration, to see his voters as alienated and marginal, to see Roy Moore as an inexplicably Alabaman phenomenon, and to frame establishment Republicans as fundamentally normal politicians suffering through an abnormal moment. This is wrong.

Trump could flourish in the Republican Party precisely because “normal” Republicans like McConnell and Ryan spent years dismissing the facts they didn’t like, undermining the institutions and information sources that contradicted them, indulging the conspiracies and falsehoods they found convenient.

Given the Republican Party’s years-long campaign against the media, its constant assertions that it is liberal and biased, why is it any surprise so many conservatives are willing to dismiss the allegations against Moore? Given the Republican Party’s ongoing denial of information it doesn’t like — from climate change science to empirical economic analysis of tax cuts — what is truly so new about Trump’s cries of fake news or his administration’s insistence on “alternative facts”?

Dave Roberts has written in detail about our “epistemic crisis,” which he traces to “the US conservative movement’s rejection of the mainstream institutions devoted to gathering and disseminating knowledge (journalism, science, the academy) — the ones society has appointed as referees in matters of factual dispute.” You see the process in action here. To hold fast to their assertions that tax cuts pay for themselves, Ryan, McConnell, and even Collins have had to ignore the economics profession, all credible journalism on tax policy, and the official judgment of Congress’s own analysts. And if they can ignore those institutions, and encourage their supporters to ignore those institutions, why can’t Trump and Moore do the same on matters both trivial and profound?

Here is what I want to say: In the end, reality wins. Facts remains when lies wash out. A political party that builds itself atop a foundation made of fantasies will soon collapse. If you pass a bad tax plan, voters notice, and suffer, and they punish you. If you elect a president who lies to the country and to himself, governance suffers, and the country punishes you.

I want to say that, but I am not sure it’s true. Policy lags. A tax plan that piles on debt is often forgotten by the time that debt needs to be paid down. The politicians preventing action on global warming today will not be there to pay the price tomorrow. If Moore wins because the allegations against him were disbelieved, it is unlikely the Senate will do anything about it. If Trump misgoverns the country but benefits from a run of good economic luck, he may well be reelected.

In the end, bad policy creates bad outcomes. But the Republican Party has amassed quite a bit of political power in part by exhibiting casual cruelty toward hard truths, and it would be my own form of happy denialism to assert that they will surely pay some future price. The country, however, will.

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