The Closing of the Republican Mind

The tax debate offers a clear measure of how deeply insular the GOP has become. It’s now governing solely of, by, and for Red America.

A delegate wears elephant-themed glasses at the 2004 Republican National Convention.
A delegate wears elephant-themed glasses at the 2004 Republican National Convention. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

When Ronald Reagan passed his historic tax cut in 1981, he won support from 25 Democrats in the Senate and 113 in the House.

When George W. Bush passed his sweeping tax cut in 2001, he won support from 12 Democrats in the Senate and 28 in the House.

But when President Trump and Republican leadership muscled their respective tax-cut plans through Congress this fall, not a single Democrat in either chamber voted yes. That shutout came even though 12 House Democrats represent districts Trump carried last year, and Democrats in 2018 are defending 10 Senate seats in states the president won.

Many factors contributed to the change. Across all issues, it’s become less common for legislators to vote across party lines than in the Reagan, and even Bush, era. And Trump has less leverage over Democratic legislators than his predecessors did because he has a much lower job-approval rating than either of them, especially among Democratic voters.

But there is a more straightforward reason why not a single Democrat backed the legislation: The GOP not only entirely excluded Democrats from the process of drafting the bills, but the party punished Democratic constituencies—from residents of high-tax states to graduate students—in the bills’ substance. The tax plans represent a political closed circle: bills written solely by Republicans and passed solely by Republican votes that shower their greatest benefits on Republican constituencies. Meanwhile, the biggest losers in the plans are the constituencies of the Democrats who universally opposed them. It’s not just redistribution: The tax bills are also grounded in retribution.

In that way, the tax debate offers the clearest measure of how powerfully the Republican Party in the Trump era is folding inward. Neither Trump nor GOP congressional leaders are even pretending to represent the entire country—or to consider perspectives beyond those of their core coalition. Instead the party has shown that as long as it can maintain internal unity over its direction, it will ignore objections from virtually any outside source—not just Democrats, but also independent experts, affected interest groups, and traditional allies abroad.

In a best-selling book published during the Reagan years, neoconservative cultural critic Allan Bloom lamented The Closing of the American Mind. The Trump era is crystallizing the closing of the Republican mind.

In several distinct ways, the party is now governing solely of, by, and for Red America. Key among them:

Distorting the legislative process: On the tax and especially the recent health-care bills, the GOP Congress short-circuited the legislative process to minimize public input. Leadership negotiated all the key decisions behind closed doors. That dampened public debate and ultimately forced legislators to vote on massive (and at times handwritten) packages with little time to consider consequences or mobilize opposition. More important, the negotiations took place only among Republicans, denying meaningful input to Democrats or skeptical groups.

Congress has long been growing more partisan, but this still represented a quantum leap in exclusion. Former President Barack Obama made significant changes to his stimulus plan in 2009 to win support from three GOP senators. He also allowed the Senate Finance Committee to delay consideration of the Affordable Care Act for over three months to conduct extended negotiations with Republicans. (No Republicans ultimately backed the ACA on the floor, but that didn’t erase the effort.)

Punishing Democratic strongholds: The tax bills, as I’ve noted before, are not unusual in benefitting GOP constituencies. But they are unusual in consciously punishing so many Democratic-leaning groups, especially in the House bill. Among others, these groups include families in blue, high-tax states, who’d be hurt by restrictions on state- and local-tax deductibility; homeowners in large, mostly Democratic metro areas, who’d face limits on mortgage deductions; and students, who’d face higher taxes on college debt or graduate tuition waivers.

This confrontational instinct extends beyond taxes. Violating conservatives’ usual fondness for federalism, the House passed legislation Wednesday that would force every state to recognize a concealed-weapon permit granted in any state. The administration is seeking to withhold federal grants to pressure so-called “sanctuary cities” that limit local cooperation with federal immigration authorities. And Trump is trying to undermine blue-state regulatory standards by allowing the interstate sale of health insurance.

Rejecting independent information: From top to bottom, the party is now routinely dismissing objective information it considers inconvenient. Examples range from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan blithely discounting the array of independent analyses on their tax plans, which show they’d massively increase the federal deficit and primarily benefit the wealthy; to Trump’s rejection of climate science; to nearly three-fourths of Alabama Republicans saying they don’t believe detailed allegations of sexual misconduct and child molestation against Senate candidate Roy Moore. Similarly, on the ACA repeal, the GOP ignored the unprecedented, unified warnings from every pillar of the medical community—from doctors to patients to insurers—that their plan would degrade care. Trump has pushed this to the extreme, labeling as “fake news” any fact he finds threatening and confining his television interviews almost solely to Fox News.

Disregarding international allies: The widespread international condemnation of Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy in Israel deepens the isolation from traditional allies already evident in his moves against the Trans-Pacific Partnership and NAFTA trade deals, the Iranian nuclear agreement, and the Paris climate accord. Only a handful of congressional Republicans have questioned any of these breaks with the world.

In all these ways, the Trump-era GOP has grown impervious to virtually any opinion that resists its own internal consensus. Next November’s midterm elections will begin answering whether the party has drawn that closed circle too narrowly to preserve its upper hand in Washington.