There’s a sickness on the land. You know the facts: millions of Americans lives in poverty. The number of Americans in the workforce remains low. Wages are stagnating and inequality is growing. “Deaths of despair” from alcoholism, opioid overdose, and suicide are on the rise.
But it’s not just the inequality, or the poverty, or the despair, that wounds us. It’s the fact that so many Republican leaders and voters find ways to justify living with these injustices, and are now making them worse.
There’s no polite way to say it: they suffer from a sickness of the soul.
That kind of talk upsets the delicate feelings of conservatives like Tucker Carlson, who recently complained about
the unreasonableness… (the) assumption — and it’s held by a lot of people I live around — that you’re on God’s side … and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.
With apologies to Tucker and other conservative snowflakes: when your party is calling for the starvation and mistreatment of large groups of people, it's reasonable to describe you in less than flattering terms.
Sometimes people look at the cruelties in Republican policies and ask, “How can these people live with themselves?” Here’s how: by telling elaborate lies and fictions so you don’t have to face the cruelty and consequences of your own deeds every time you look in the mirror.
It’s also one way to win elections. It’s easier to blame the victims of your policies for their misery than it is to tell voters you just don’t give a damn about them.
To Hell With Kids
If we judge them by their actions, Republicans and their donors don’t give a damn about kids. One in five American children lives in poverty. But House Republicans are now trying to “reform” a free school breakfast program – by reducing the number of children who would get free meals.
Sick kids would suffer under the Trump budget, which slashes $3.4 billion from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – nearly 20 percent of its funding.
School days at most Oklahoma schools have been cut from five days a week to four, the result of repeated budget cuts by the Republican legislature. The Republican governor called the development “hard for students,” but didn't ask for a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for education.
In Kansas, where schools were already reeling from years of budget cuts, Republican legislators nevertheless tried to balance the budget this year by cutting $128 million from education. A GOP leader said he “would prefer not to think of it as punishment. I would prefer to think of it as we have a monumental challenge in front of us and that’s what we need to be focused on.”
The “challenge” he had in mind was not the education of Kansas schoolchildren. He's “focused on” finding a way to balance the budget while preserving huge Republican tax cuts for the rich.
To Hell With the Disabled
They don’t give a damn about the disabled, either.
Applying for Social Security disability benefits is a rigorous process. The waiting period for people seeking a hearing is now nearly a year and a half, thanks to past Republican budget cuts, and more than 1 million people are waiting to have their appeals heard. They include a Missouri woman with debilitating brain tumors who has been waiting for a decision for more than four years. Even the dying are kept waiting – sometimes until it’s too late – like this Chicago woman, whose friends are raising money for her online.
Trump’s budget cuts funds for Social Security disability by $72 billion.
Mulvaney described Social Security disability as “a welfare program for the long-term disabled,” which it’s not. The average Social Security disability recipient paid into the program for 22 years before collecting benefits.
But then, there’s no reason why “welfare” should be a dirty word, since it exists to help people who are in need. To Republicans, however, it is.
To Hell With the Poor
“As ye do to the least of these …?” Republicans definitely don’t give a damn about the poor.
The Trump budget cuts $800 billion out of Medicaid, which provides health care for lower-income Americans. It would charge retailers for taking food stamps, making it harder for poor people to buy food. It would cut food assistance by $191 million over ten years, a move that would literally result in starvation.
Trump's budget would also eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which would cause some poor people to freeze (and some to die) every winter.
To Hell With the Rest of You, Too
They don’t give a damn about seniors. Republicans have been trying to cut Social Security and eliminate Medicare for years. Trump’s budget cuts to Meals on Wheels would hurt many older Americans. So would his Medicaid cuts, since many seniors rely on Medicaid for board and care.
They don’t give a damn about college kids trying to get ahead in life. Trump’s budget would cut the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which would hurt middle-class and low-income kids who study to become public health doctors, or public interest lawyers, or do other good works.
Trump and his colleagues don’t even give a damn about the rural, middle-American areas that made him president. As Politico reports, “the administration’s proposed federal budget cuts are, in effect, local budget cuts that ignore the economic realities of the communities that voted for Trump. The president’s plan proposes deep reductions to agriculture subsidies and eliminates billions of dollars for housing, transportation, environmental cleanup and job training.”
From the start of life until its end, from one end of the country to another: Republicans don’t give a damn.
A State of Mind?
How do people justify supporting such heartless policies? Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently said this:
I think poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind. You take somebody that has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street, and I guarantee in a little while they'll be right back up there. "And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they'll work their way right back down to the bottom.
Carson also alluded to what he called a “poverty of spirit.”
If you can convince yourself that the victims of your policies are responsible for their own misfortune, you need not feel guilty about making them suffer even more. You might even be doing them a favor by forcing them to change.
The only problem is, this worldview is fiction. Studies show that childhood poverty can be debilitating, and that generational poverty is extremely difficult to escape. And nearly half of the 45 million Americans who live below the poverty line in the United States are children. But Carson's deluded worldview probably helps him sleep at night.
For his part, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney thinks people who belong to government programs are committing “theft” and “larceny” against taxpayers -- especially the high-income taxpayers who form his natural constituency.
That's another tactic: accuse your victims. Fraud is rare among Social Security disability claimants, and the program is more likely to underpay claimants than over pay them. But Mulvaney cast the program in a larcenous light. “if you’re on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be, you're not truly disabled,” Mulvaney said, “we need you to go back to work.”
Rep. Todd Rokita, who’s leading the GOP charge to cut school breakfasts, also uses the fraud defense. Rokita claims he's “enhancing program integrity and fighting fraud, waste, and abuse." When you don’t want to admit you’re depriving needy kids of something they need, it’s easier to accuse those kids of fraud.
Recently a Republican House member, Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, was unable to respond coherently when asked if “every American is entitled to eat.” Smith stumbled over his words, mumbling about “nutrition” being “very important” before conceding that food is “essential.” But Smith said he was still willing to cut food stamps.
Poverty of Spirit
There is, indeed, a “poverty of spirit" at work here. But it’s not found among poor people, or among the disabled, or in struggling rural and inner-city communities.
The real poverty of spirit lives in the boardrooms and living rooms of Republican-backing CEOs, who reward themselves with record increases in their own compensation while the rest of the country suffers. It lives in the tortured, self-justifying and selfish logic of Ben Carson, Mick Mulvaney, and Adrian Smith. It lives in the sanctimonious sensitivity of Tucker Carlson and in that gelatinous embodiment of orgiastic self-indulgence that is President Donald Trump. And it lives in the political party who gives these spiritually impoverished impulses a home.