Somewhere, PT Barnum Is Laughing

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Crimes usually happen in the wee hours, and what happened around 2 a.m. last Saturday night in the US Senate certainly qualifies. It was arguably the darkest day we have experienced since November 8, 2016 (and given the parade of horrors over the past thirteen months, the competition for that title is fierce). But there is no need for CSI, Colombo, or any other sleuths to determine the culprit, as the perpetrators committed the crime gleefully and proudly.

Both in its content and in the unconscionable way it was rammed through Congress, the Republican tax bill represents one of the worst examples of political corruption in modern American history. It is accurately described as corrupt in that its intent was sinister—to rob the Republic for the benefit of the very few, by means of paying back political donors—and its passage utterly dishonest.

When I first wrote about this issue back in October (“The Return of Voodoo Economics”), I refused to call the bill “tax reform,” as it is anything but, except in the way that dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima was “urban renewal.” At the time I argued for the more accurate term “tax cut.” Now I am loath even to call it that, as it fails to capture the scope and awfulness of what just happened. “Tax scam “ or “tax heist” strike me as closer to the mark.

In that previous post, I detailed the shamelessness of this bill, and the ways in which is delivers massive economic benefits to the rich while actively hurting the poor and the middle and working classes. Many others have outlined those facts in much more—and much more—damning detail. The facts are not in doubt, and have been so thoroughly reported that they barely require mention any more. Still, it is stomach-turning to watch Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), as old school and mainstream a Republican as they come, claim with a straight face that “we don’t have the money” to feed hungry children, then turn around and vote for a deficit-busting trillion-dollar giveaway to those who need it least. Suffice it to say that a bill that kills the alternative minimum tax—one of the few means of policing tax dodging by them that has—but no longer lets a public schoolteacher deduct the cost of school supplies she buys out of pocket for her students is a savage indictment of any country that dares to call itself a democracy.


Central to this issue is the aforementioned deficit, which the best non-partisan assessments predict will balloon by an additional $1.4 trillion over the next decade thanks to this bill, passed by a Republican majority that for decades has howled in self-righteous outrage over the lethal dangers of deficits. Of course, that was when Democrats were in power. Now the GOP is back to Dick Cheney’s infamous pre-Iraq War refrain ”Deficits don’t matter.” The hypocrisy is beyond staggering.

The GOP’s sole defense of this arithmetically-challenged bill is the specious claim that tax cuts will pay for themselves through massive economic growth. That is, essentially, supply side economics, which—per my earlier essay—has long ago been discredited as the worst scam on the economic menu, the province of fools and grifters. It is magical thinking that has never worked even once, yet reliably rises from the dead every decade due to its obvious appeal to the rich and powerful. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in the Washington Post:

“(The question is whether these GOP leaders) misunderstand the advice they get, choose to cherry-pick what they are given or simply don’t want to fess up that they’ve abandoned fiscal sanity in search of a political win and to soothe donors. The most generous interpretation is that they are operating with unsupportable optimism that these cuts will do something no other tax cuts have ever done– pay for themselves.

The faux deficit hawks who voted for the bill may have convinced themselves of something that just isn’t so. Now, however, there is no excuse. It’s clear what the economists they rely upon actually believe. Lawmakers should redesign the bill in conference to make it truly tax-neutral — if they still adhere to their anti-debt beliefs. If not, they should have the nerve to admit that they are ladling a ton of new debt on the backs of future generations.”

I am less generous than Jenn. If these Republican leaders—who are professional politicians well educated in all these matters of tax policy, economics, and history—truly do believe this bullshit it is only because they have rationalized it through the worst kind of self-brainwashing. Either way, they are perpetrating an unforgivable scam on the American people for which we will all pay, for generations…..and not merely financially, but in the reduced power, influence, and flexibility on the world stage of a diminished United States, to say nothing of what it reveals about the kind of nation we are, as opposed to the kind we profess to be.

The long term economic impact of the bill is yet unknown, which is a big part of the problem. This legislation, which by its very nature will have a tectonic impact on the entire American (and indeed global) economy, was rushed through Congress without even the pretense of expert analysis or testimony, public hearings, or even cursory staffing. Regardless of ideology that is criminally reckless governance (and I use the term “governance” loosely). What vetting did occur—by groups like the Tax Policy Center and the Joint Committee on Taxation—was scathing, and therefore subjected to an active disinformation campaign by the GOP, the same people who had once championed those very groups. Democrats in the Senate ridiculed a bill handed to them mere hours before the vote with indecipherable handwritten changes scrawled in the margins, and were denied a request for time even to read it. For a Republican Party that screamed bloody murder over how Obamacare was allegedly “jammed down our throats” after ten months of microscopic scrutiny and public debate, it was the height of hypocrisy.

Man, am I getting tired of writing that every week.

I’d say that the GOP should be forced to watch Schoolhouse Rock for a refresher on how bills are supposed to become law, but that clever and entertaining civics lesson is too good for them. It’s true that the House and Senate versions of the bill still need to be reconciled, and that might still prove a showstopper. But as others have noted, the same irresistible forces that improbably pushed this heist through both houses will again be in play in that reconciliation process, which will surely succeed. Needless to say, if the roles had been reversed the GOP would never have stopped yelling and stamping its feet over the other side “abusing” its power, complete with dire warnings of how we are slipping into dictatorship. They are less concerned about that now, I notice.

The enema-like passage of this bill thus stands with the obstruction of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court as the most egregious examples in recent memory of government in bad faith. I guess that is just how the Republican Party rules now.

There were so many other astonishingly evil things larded onto this bill that they cannot be enumerated here, though a short list includes a deathblow to the ACA’s individual mandate, the assertion of fetal personhood, opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the partisan punishment of the blue states out of sheer spite, and perhaps most disgusting, the fostering of further political involvement and campaign donations by churches and religious groups while allowing them to keep their non-profit tax-exempt status. In that sense, the bill is many ways a grab bag of right wing obsessions.

Of special note, however, is its wholly uncalled for evisceration of the inheritance tax (and no, I won’t call it the “estate tax,” which is already conceding linguistic victory to the right, let alone their preferred histrionic term “death tax”). Notwithstanding the emotional issues surrounding it, it is important to emphasize that this is a tax on inheritance. It’s not a tax you pay on money you leave to your heirs; it’s a tax your heirs pay on money they receive, and no more a matter of double taxation than any other transactional tax. When you take in income—whether through wages, dividends, gifts, casino winnings, or inheritance, it’s taxed. Why should a billionaire’s kid pay no tax on money daddy leaves him and a ditch digger pay through the nose on money he earns by the sweat of his brow?

Only someone with a surname like Trump would take issue with that, or so one would think.


This Robin Hood-in-reverse bill was so jawdroppingly bad in so many ways—brutally unjust, shamelessly un-researched, sloppily written, and rammed through Congress like the NYPD questioning Abner Louima—that I frankly did not expect it to pass. Call me naïve, but I wasn’t convinced something that shameless could survive public scrutiny. (Then again, we made Donald Trump president, so nothing should surprise us any more). More to the point, I thought it contained too many provisions that were ostensibly anathema even to the GOP, per above. There were a handful of Republican senators (fewer congressmen) who I simply could not imagine voting for such an obvious crime against the American people. But as it turns out, the marginal courage some of these senators showed in stopping the equally rancid attempt to rush through a repeal of Obamacare gave me a false sense of confidence, causing me to vastly underestimate the partisanship and venality of those individuals.

Every one of the handful of Republican senators who have shown some backbone is standing up to Trump thus far all rolled over and showed their true colors in voting for this monstrosity: McCain, Flake, Collins, Murkowski, Sasse, Graham. Only Bob Corker showed any courage and stuck to his principles (whether one agrees with them or not). So I don’t want to hear any more about the heroism of any of these weasels. I suppose we were foolish ever to think these men and women would stand up for what is right; they are, after all, Republicans in the first place. But among his many atrocities, Trump has distorted our image of reality such that we began to view these orthodox Republican politicians as heroes of some sort, or at least sane and decent human beings. Last Saturday night ought to disabuse us of that delusion.

So John McCain, please in future spare us your sanctimonious speeches about returning to “regular order,” lest we are forced to conclude that—much as it pains me to say it—Donald Trump was right. You are no hero.


Naturally, Trump himself claims that he won’t personally benefit from this highway robbery of the American people, and in fact will suffer. (“Believe me.”) Not surprisingly, it’s a blatant lie. Trump stands to profit handsomely from almost every major provision of the bill, from carried interest to private jets, with his main business—commercial real estate—singled out for especially generous treatment even by the plutocrat-friendly standards of the rest of the legislation. His children are estimated to receive $600 million just from the change to the inheritance tax alone. As more than one observer has noted, the bill seems almost curiously tailor-made to benefit one specific family profile in particular. Of course, because he won’t release his tax returns, we don’t fully know how much Trump will profit. (But Bob Mueller does.)

In many ways then, what happened in the dark of night last Saturday was the culmination of what the entire Trump campaign and presidency have been about, but not because Trump led it. What a laugh: Trump doesn’t even know what’s in the bill. A functional illiterate, he knows—at best—that it is an enormous Christmas present to the obscenely rich like him and his despicable clan, and that’s all he needs to know. So for once I am not laying the blame for this latest American tragedy at the feet of Donald John Trump, or focusing my anger and loathing on him, cancer on the American experiment though he is. In this case, he is but a bit player. The rot goes much, much deeper and wider.

The tax bill is the doing of the mainstream GOP and has been in the works long before Trump thought a good sequel to “The Apprentice” would be to become leader of the Free World. Trump is ancillary to it, a means to an end, a mere supporting player. The Republican Party’s entire willingness to put Trump atop its ticket, to excuse and even abet his numerous unconscionable and disqualifying actions on the campaign trail and in office, to give him blindly loyal support to the point of ignoring what might prove to be the worst scandal in American history (and to actively obstruct investigations thereof), can be attributed to one thing and one thing alone: its overwhelming imperative to lower taxes for the rich, come hell or high water. In that sense, the entire Trump campaign and presidency have been nothing but a prelude and prerequisite for what happened in the Senate last weekend.

As former GOP staffer-turned-sentient human being Mike Lofgren says, cutting taxes for the rich is the only thing the Republican Party really cares about. Even though other matters may get the headlines—guns, abortion, gay rights, Andres Serrano, defunding Big Bird, Islamophobia, hating on the NFL, and on and on—everything else the GOP does is just rube bait to advance its one true agenda. Yes, all that reactionary stuff is appealing to the right-wing mindset. But at the end of the day, for the 1% who are the Republicans’ most important demographic, it is mostly just about their fucking wallets.

And on Saturday night those folks achieved their goal.

Behind the partisan façade, McConnell, Ryan and the rest of the GOP mandarins have no love for Donald Trump. Many of them no doubt actively despise him, for a variety of personal and professional reasons. But they are in bed with him for one simple and blindingly obvious reason: because he enables them to advance their loathsome platform. Until he stops serving that purpose, don’t look for the GOP to turn on Donald.

In all fairness, the Republican leadership did not choose Trump as its preferred path in the 2016 campaign, and many of them actively tried to avoid it—not on principle (just kidding!), but purely for reasons of pragmatism and strategy. But once the Trump phenomenon was forced upon them, they made their Faustian bargain, and now are full-blown accomplices who will have to answer for it.

Until now, however, the idea of Trump as cover for the GOP agenda hasn’t really worked out as the party leaders had hoped. On the contrary, Trump’s human suicide vest style of governing has actually damaged and hindered the Republican legislative slate, the attempted repeal of the ACA being the prime example. (But now of course they’ve found a way to undermine Obamacare—if not fully destroy it—without repeal, thanks to the elimination of its linchpin, the individual mandate.)

But with the tax heist, Trump’s con man hold on close to 40% of the electorate and his idiot savant talent for distraction and for waging war on the media have provided the perfect covering fire for the GOP to achieve their decades-long dream of pillaging working- and middle class America in order to further enrich the wealthiest fraction of the uppermost 1% and their corporate cousins. That they were able to do so under the pretense of populism, of “draining the swamp,” and of fighting for the interests of “ordinary” working Americans against the interest of “elites” is an Orwellian achievement for the ages.

Then again, like the man said, you can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned. The credulousness of millions of average Americans in failing to subject the GOP plan to real scrutiny, and in falling for this blatant scam, makes them partially culpable in their own fleecing.

As we used to say on the playground: “Suckas…”


The cowardice, dishonesty, and hypocrisy of Republican politicians is one thing. But I remain astounded that such a large segment of Republican voters are fine with this travesty, even enthused about it, and willing to defend the GOP plan in the face of all the empirical evidence about how badly it will hurt so-called “regular folks” like themselves. Once again, we see the shocking power of tribalism and the blindness—or more correctly, mental illness—it induces. Shame on me for not having learned the depths of American gullibility in November 2016. But over the past twelve months that tribalism has reached the point of mass psychosis in the United States.

Recall that Trump came to power on the promise that he was a champion of the “forgotten” men and women of blue collar America. This of course is textbook Fascism 101. Volumes have already been written about the patent absurdity of a Manhattanite mock billionaire born with a silver spoon in mouth—this evil “Richie Rich” cartoon come to life—positioning himself as a working class hero, or of anyone buying into that outlandish charade, but never mind.

Even if one accepts the myth that white working class anxiety and alienation—rather than racism, misogyny, xenophobia, demagoguery, and the impulse for authoritarianism, not to mention collusion with a foreign power—were at the heart of the last election, why on Earth would working people choose Donald J. Trump of all people as their standard-bearer and the alleged solution? See the title of this essay.

No Trump supporter or other Republican can objectively look at the GOP tax scam and conclude that it is anything but a shameless giveaway to the very richest among us at crushing cost to the rest of the country and its future. To contend otherwise is Jonestown-level self-delusion. So why do rank-and-file GOP voters march happily along behind Trump, McConnell, and Ryan to self-inflicted doom while their putative champions gleefully profit? It’s a sort of masochism—or willful ignorance—that is hard to fathom.

Trump of course also famously promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, and repeatedly railed against Goldman Sachs in particular as the exemplar of Wall Street rapaciousness that was poisoning politics and trampling on the so-called little guy. Then—in case you missed it—he filled his Cabinet and inner circle with a rogues’ gallery of professional political hacks like Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pompeo, and Mitch McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao (Trump is especially cool with nepotism), along with multimillionaires and billionaires including Wilbur Ross, Betsy DeVos and multiple Goldman Sachs vets (among them, Mnuchin, Cohn, Dina Powell, deputy Treasury Secretary James Donovan, and even Bannon, the faux populist bombthrower himself). When hypocrisy of that sort fails even to budge the proverbial needle with Trump supporters, it’s fair to wonder if they are—hmmm, what is the technical term? Ah, yes—fucking stupid. (See also: golf.)

And so, with its willful blindness, tribalism run amok, and insatiable Kool-Aid-guzzling, the “regular folks” of Trump Nation bear a large share of the blame for the fact that the Republican Party was able to get away with this tax bill atrocity, one that promises to crush those very people more than anyone else. It is indeed hard to get one’s head around, but in the words of Sam Harris, “A puppet is free as long as it loves its strings.”


It is ironic that the Republican Party inexplicably thinks this bill was essential to its survival, as if there was a massive groundswell of public demand to be robbed at gunpoint. (Trump supporters were docile at being taken to the cleaners, but they didn’t initiate the idea or actively demand it.) Why is the GOP so convinced that passing this bill is a winner for them?

The conventional wisdom is that the Republican Party was desperate for a legislative victory—on something, anything—before the end of the year to avoid a massive voter mutiny after promising so much and delivering almost nothing: not even, most embarrassingly, their long-vowed repeal of Obamacare, even with uncontested control of both Congress and the White House.

But this is a circular argument. Even if that is true, why choose as your Hail Mary a tax bill that promises to eviscerate Main Street on behalf of Wall Street……the exact opposite of what you said you’d do during the campaign? I’m not questioning the GOP’s avarice, merely its tactical sense in choosing this hill to die on. Ironically, the exact opposite might ultimately prove true. Given how awful this “achievement” is, it is not at all clear that the GOP won’t in fact pay a hefty price at the polls in 2018—if enough Republican voters wake the fuck up—precisely because it rammed this bill through. (“Foisted it” on us, as Larry David would say.)

Then again, maybe not. Facts no longer matter, evidently, so the GOP might well get away with this crime, especially if the bill’s long-term destructiveness is sufficiently slow to reveal itself, frog-in-boiling-water-style, and the electorate doesn’t really feel the pain for some years to come, even as the damage is undeniably unfolding.

That leaves us with only one logical conclusion about the urgency the GOP felt toward this bill. It’s not about notching a legislative victory at all. Of course not! Do you really think a party and a president who, if it served their purposes, would angrily deny that the Earth is round, would bat an eye at playing off their failure to pass any landmark legislation? Don’t make me laugh.

No. The reason the GOP went all in on the tax bill despite all the attendant risks is because THIS IS WHAT ITS MASTERS DEMANDED.

In the end, it is not the voters the GOP is fears: it is their wealthy donors, corporate interests, and other dark money that is the lifeblood of the Republican Party. With the GOP in control of both houses of Congress and the White House (and increasingly the judiciary and most state governments as well), the powerful interests who are the financial backbone of the Republican Party will stand for nothing less than their pound of flesh. These forces made it very clear that this sort of massive payoff is EXACTLY the reason that they have backed the GOP lo these many years. If McConnell and Ryan had failed to deliver, then they would have truly been in mortal danger—a far more pressing threat than being voted out in the upcoming midterms. The GOP leadership doesn’t fear voters in Indiana or Georgia or Nebraska or anywhere else. They fear the 1%, who are the guys with the checkbooks.

And so here we are.

The fact that the GOP was willing to overlook that danger—to dismiss widespread public opposition, and the possibility that this could backfire terribly on them—speaks to the degree of their venality and the extent to which they are beholden to their loan shark benefactors in the top tax bracket. And now that they’ve managed to jam this scam down the throats of the American people, the Republicans will likely be emboldened to reach for more. Paul Ryan has already indicated that on the strength of this bill’s passage the GOP will try to capitalize on this momentum to gut welfare, Medicare, and Medicaid. Because somewhere in America there is a poor, hungry, ill child they haven’t yet kicked in the stomach.

Trump himself is a different matter, of course: for that infantile psychopath notching a win was indeed all that mattered. So it will be ironic if the lone achievement he (barely) mustered—or more accurately, had delivered to him on a platter—proves in the long run to be a historically reviled and infamously despicable low water mark in American political history.

So the question then becomes, will this bill indeed prove to be a boon to the GOP (apart from placating its plutocratic overlords), or will it be its undoing? Will it inject enough extraneous short term stimulus into the economy and take long enough to manifest its destructiveness that the GOP will escape the 2018 midterms (and maybe even the 2020 presidential election) unharmed? Or will this go down as the worst self-inflicted and possibly lethal wound in 21st century legislative politics?

Stay tuned. Either way, I am confident the GOP will find a way to blame Hillary.


One ray of light in all this is that the GOP’s midnight ripoff came less than 24 hours after the week’s other big news, Michael Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI and the revelation that he is cooperating with the Mueller inquiry. The significance of those events has been well documented elsewhere. Let us hope they mark, if not the beginning of the end, at least the end of the beginning (with apologies to Mr. Churchill). At the very least, if I were Jared, Don Jr, or even Don Sr, I would certainly be shitting my drawers.

That said, two pieces last week offered grim and pessimistic assessments on that front, one by Dahlia Lithwick in Slate (“Is It Too Late for Robert Mueller to Save Us?”) the other by Peter Beinart in the Atlantic ( “The Odds of Impeachment Are Dropping”). Both reminded us that impeachment is a political process, not a legal one (and the same would be true for the circumstances that would force a Trump resignation, or his removal under the 25th Amendment). Both also suggested that Republican fealty to Trump has already shown itself to be so craven, and the Republican electorate now so accustomed to bleating “fake news” at any facts that inconveniently conflict with its worldview, that nothing Bob Mueller ultimately produces—not even a proverbial smoking gun—will cause them to man up, acknowledge the truth, and do the right thing.

I suspect they are right. The refusal of even the best Republican senators (it’s a sliding scale) to vote against the GOP tax scam does not bode well for them to do jackshit about Russiagate, even if Mueller turns up with a video of Trump spit-shining Vladimir Putin’s wingtips.

So in the famous words of Stevie Bannon’s hero V.I. Lenin, and to stick with the Russian theme: Shto delat? What is to be done? (Read the original 1902 pamphlet; the 1983 film adaptation starring Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock really botched it.) What can be done when the victims of a crime refuse to recognize what has happened to them….when—on the contrary—they eagerly cheer and support their oppressors and angrily denigrate those who would try to stop (or even just point out) the crime?

Not much. We have already seen that an appeal to reason, facts, and objective reality no longer has any sway with a certain segment of the American electorate.

But as we have also seen—most pointedly in Virginia a month ago—that we can leapfrog over that Know-Nothing demographic. The hardcore Republican base comprises at most some 40% of the electorate. The remaining sane 60% of us can simply overwhelm them numerically—if we get out and organize and register and campaign and vote. McConnell, Ryan, Trump, and the rest are banking on the ignorance, short term memory loss, and tribalism of the voting public to enable them to get way with the Great Train Robbery of December 2, 2017. Let’s prove them wrong, make them lose that gamble, and punish them at the ballot box next year.

If we are unable to harness our outrage, if we merely sputter and spin our wheels and do nothing more than vent to each other on Facebook (and as my weekly hyperventilations suggest, I count myself as very much at risk of that temptation), if in the face of this absolute monstrosity and threat to the Union we can’t get our act together sufficiently to vote these fuckers out of office, then we deserve to be ruled by them.

Needless to say, that possibility is why the Republican Party has, for decades now, engaged in a systematic, blatantly anti-democratic effort to suppress the vote, including gerrymandering, propagation of the canard of voter fraud, distortion of the census, and other horrors for which Trump—again—serves as a bespoke, Hades-sent frontman. That, too, is a flank on which we must fight them.

Likewise, if incontrovertible evidence were presented that implicated Trump in a scandal that makes Watergate look like shoplifting and still McConnell, Ryan & Company do nothing but shrug, I have to believe that we will get out in the streets and DEMAND that justice be done….and by “we” I mean a significant segment of the still sane Americans who believe in non-alternative facts, and in the Constitution, and in the rule of law. I’m talking about millions of Americans marching on Washington as they did on January 21, 2017….except this time it will be not in protest but in outright revolution.

Make no mistake, Trump Nation: if you cheat us in Congress we will come for you at the ballot box, and if you cheat us there, we will come for you in the streets.

Photo: The Federalist



3 thoughts on “Somewhere, PT Barnum Is Laughing

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