"Reopen the Economy": the Republicans' Nero Decree

"Republicans have their own mythic qualities: they'll sacrifice lives on the altar of the economy to propitiate an angry and jealous god - one named Donald Trump." (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

"Reopen the Economy": the Republicans' Nero Decree

GOP policies aren't "mistaken." They're a conscious waste of lives for deceitful purposes.

The New York Times' columnist Paul Krugman is one of the few fixtures of the major prestige media honest enough to forthrightly explain why there should be no "controversy" (a word beloved of journalists) about Republican policies.

These policies are not just mistaken, nor are they something about which reasonable people can differ -- the GOP consciously advocates for them in bad faith, using arguments they know are false.

Krugman's favorite target is tax cuts for the rich. Although they have repeatedly been proven not to help the real economy (beyond giving a temporary cocaine buzz to investors), and although their supposed zero impact on deficits is laughably false, Republicans make these justifications with robotic consistency.

Inside testimony proves their bad faith arguments go back decades. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's memoir recounts how, when he warned that the 2001 Bush tax cut would throw the budget into deficit, Vice President Cheney cut him short in his trademarked charming manner: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter... This is our due."

Of course, once Barack Obama became president amid economic turmoil largely the result of the GOP's own policies, deficits mattered to Republicans once again - and intensely so. But they magically ceased to matter when Donald Trump became president.

See the pattern?

My own field was national security. Traditionally, Republican policy was characterized by a theatrical fear of Russia (then as the Soviet Union), a fear that was often counterproductive to real security, as the McCarthy era showed. Even after the collapse of the USSR and near anarchy in the new Russian Federation, their publicly proclaimed fear did not abate.

I remember an emotionally overwrought Republican congressman, Curt Weldon, who held a hearing in the mid-1990s trying to prove the contention of Stanislav Lunev, a GRU defector presumably looking for a book contract, that the Russians had hidden suitcase nuclear weapons in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park. Later, Rep. Dan Burton (a certifiable wacko), along with then-Congressman "Morning Joe" Scarborough, held a field hearing in California premised on the belief that there also were such nukes in the Golden State.

The denouement? No evidence of the nukes was ever found. (Personal note: I have hiked the Shenandoah for decades. I've occasionally caught a glimpse of a black bear, and the Park Service duly posts warnings. Suitcase nukes? I never heard that one, even in campfire tales. But, as Donald Rumsfeld said about the phantom WMD in Iraq, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence").

And yet Weldon, who started the uproar, wound up with a strange new respect for Russia, even as it grew increasingly authoritarian under Vladimir Putin. Out of office since 2007, perhaps he needed to leverage his alleged Russia expertise for ready cash. He promoted and did favors for a Kremlin-influenced foundation, the International Exchange Group, which funneled money to Weldon's daughter and an associate of Weldon's. Later, he became a go-between in the Trump campaign's murky dealings with Moscow, holding out the lure of getting Russian sanctions lifted in return for certain services to the campaign.

Just as with tax cuts, Republicans say one thing for public consumption about Russia and another in private. Get a Republican on the record, and he'll tell you Trump is as pure as the driven snow: the Russian connection is a fantasy cooked up by the DNC and the media to slander poor ol' Donald.

But off the record, it's a little different. When House Member Dana Rohrabacher of California, another prime specimen in the menagerie of wacko Republicans, got caught up in the Russian caper, Kevin McCarthy, then the GOP's House majority leader, told a meeting of his conference: "Here's two people, I think, Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump . . . [laughter] . . . swear to God."

Speaker Paul Ryan, then the third-highest official in the country, chimed in: "This is an off-the-record . . . [laughter] . . . NO LEAKS ... [laughter] . . . alright?!"

In public, McCarthy now grovels to Trump as abjectly as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov once did to his boss, Joe Stalin. Molotov continued the public groveling even after Stalin wanted to send Molotov's wife to the gulag, with Molotov even voting for her arrest in a Politburo meeting. I wonder when it will come to that here.

Republicans' bad-faith arguments have intensified during the coronavirus pandemic. The rationale is, roughly, "Something, something, the economy! Something, something, Obama was worse; tough decisions!" But even as COVID-19 infections are increasing in a large number of states (primarily those that haven't been hard-hit yet), southern Red State governors are making a big show of reopening businesses.

These governors aren't just peckerwood yahoos who think that Jesus will protect them and their constituents from COVID-19. They know that if they open businesses, they can legally deny those workers who are too afraid to go back to work their unemployment compensation; then they'll get the double thrill of punishing people and basking in the status of fiscal hawk.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott privately admitted the decision will lead to increased infections:

"Listen, the fact of the matter is pretty much every scientific and medical report shows that whenever you have a reopening--whether you want to call it a reopening of businesses or just a reopening of society--in the aftermath of something like this, that actually will lead to an increase in spread. It's almost ipso facto."

We might add that increased spread will lead to increased deaths. Why, it's almost ipso facto, to use Abbott's technical term.

An additional fact makes Republicans' decision not just inhumane, but irrational. According toThe Economist, the example of Sweden and Denmark makes the jobs-versus-lives argument look fallacious. The two Nordic countries have similar economies and social structures, but Sweden pursued one of the most lax shutdown policies, while Denmark one of the strictest. The two economies still performed similarly, even though Sweden suffered a very high per capita death rate from COVID-19 while Denmark had a substantially lower one.

Denmark did not fare any worse economically than Sweden despite maintaining more stringent anti-infection measures. American proponents of "re-opening the economy" therefore have little basis for saying the US economy would magically improve by exposing more people to the likelihood of infection and death. After all, airliners are not flying 95-percent empty because people are banned from flying. You're still allowed to fly: but would you?

In the near future, most people will probably still shy away from hair salons, gyms, cinemas, and similar establishments, even if they are officially open, enough to keep the economy depressed. The few incautious persons, believing themselves to be bullet-proof, patronizing these businesses won't make much of a contribution to economic activity. But they will vastly increase the risk of infection to themselves, family, and associates.

This whole wretched business is beginning to look like a prosaically stupid American manifestation of Hitler's Nero Decree of March 1945. Indifferent to human life, the war visibly lost, his own status as "the greatest warlord of all time" in tatters, Hitler had no other instinct than to bring down the whole show in a blaze of glory, fulfilling his "artistic" vision of a Wagnerian Gotterdammerung.

The GOP governors, egged on by Trump, have their own indifference to human life, although their other motivations stem from prehensile greed and a characteristically Republican view that as long as it doesn't personally happen to them, it doesn't exist, rather than Hitler's suicidal longing for a funeral pyre.

But Republicans have their own mythic qualities as well: they'll sacrifice lives on the altar of the economy to propitiate an angry and jealous god - one named Donald Trump.

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