Next step is to look at “whether there has been a sufficient abuse to justify removing the president,” says Richard Painter
An ethics lawyer who served in George W. Bush’s White House is calling on Congress to investigate President Trump’s abrupt dismissal on Tuesday of FBI Director James Comey. Richard Painter tells Rolling Stone the surprise move is a clear-cut abuse of power.
“We cannot tolerate this – for the president to be firing people who are investigating him and his campaign and its collusion with the Russians,” Painter says. “It’s a lot worse than Watergate. Watergate was a third-rate burglary. It was purely domestic in nature. This situation involves Russian espionage, and we’ve got to find out who is collaborating.”
Trump removed Comey on Tuesday afternoon, acting, the president said in a statement, on the advice of both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Painter is not encouraged by Trump’s insistence that the decision was based on Sessions’ recommendation. “The attorney general was also part of the contacts made by the Trump campaign with Russia. The attorney general lied about that to the Senate at his confirmation hearing,” he says.
It’s unusual for an FBI director to be summarily fired the way Comey was. (He reportedly learned of his dismissal from a TV screen flashing news of it while addressing bureau employees in Los Angeles.) FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term, and Comey was only confirmed to his position in 2013.
Painter does not believe Trump had grounds for the firing. “The president has the right to do it – legally he can do it – but it’s an abuse of power. It’s what President Nixon did when he fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, and Nixon had to go through three attorneys general to do it – he had to fire two attorneys general for refusing to fire Cox,” he says.
“This time around the attorney general is [involved] in it himself, and he went along with this and he may have encouraged it, so we have a clear abuse of power.”
Painter says that the next step, as it was during Watergate, is for Congress to act – and, possibly, to impeach. “That’s what Congress is there for,” he says. “I think this has reached the point where the House Judiciary Committee ought to start the process of looking at this presidency and whether there has been a sufficient abuse to justify removing the president.”
“I think they need to have a hearing. That’s what the House Judiciary Committee did with Nixon, and I think we’ve reached more than enough incriminating evidence [of] abuse of power that the House Judiciary Committee ought to start the process,” he says.
Whether House Republicans will do so is another question. Most, like House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz, have shown little appetite for investigating the president. On Tuesday, Chaffetz’s Democratic counterpart on the committee, Elijah Cummings, called for immediate hearings to begin and blasted his Republican colleagues, saying in a statement, “There is now a crisis of confidence at the Justice Department, and President Trump is not being held accountable because House Republicans refuse to work with us to do do job.”
But at least one GOP member has spoken up: Rep. Justin Amash said on Twitter that his staff was reviewing legislation to establish an independent commission on Russia.
“We’ll see what happens,” Painter says. “I don’t think the voters are going to tolerate it. I think that Republicans in Congress need to think about whether they want to go down with the ship, with Trump, participating in a White House cover-up here, or whether they want to restrain abuse of power by the president.”
We all know exactly why President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. It had nothing to do with the reasons enumerated in the attorney general and deputy attorney general’s letters.
Trump fired Comey because Comey was investigating his and his associates’ ties to Russia. That’s it. Attorney General Sessions had recused himself from the investigation, but unrecused himself long enough to join in the firing party.
Are you feeling the creeping terror? Me too. I’ve been trying to avoid joining the more conspiracy-minded brethren of the anti-Trump brigade for the last 110 days of his presidency, but this move makes it increasingly difficult not to suspect the worst.
There is no one, absolutely no one, in the federal government to hold the president of the United States accountable for anything he does. The Department of Justice should be run independently, but it’s clear Jeff Sessions, whose recusal stems from his possible perjury at his confirmation hearing, will do nothing to make sure the president he supported from early on in the campaign follows the law.
Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, reportedly has a good reputation as a career prosecutor, but joining in this farce of a firing should destroy that reputation. Thanks to Sessions’ recusal, Rosenstein has the power to appoint an independent special prosecutor to lead the investigation into Trump’s Russian ties, but that seems unlikely now. And even if he does appoint one, it’s clear Trump would have no compunction firing both Rosenstein and the prosecutor.
The investigation into Trump doesn’t fall into the judicial system’s purview, and besides, any case that did make it to the Supreme Court would face a solid conservative majority. It’s always possible that one justice or another might break ranks, but Bush v. Gore showed us the Court is not above playing politics.
That leaves Congress.
Republicans control both houses, and so far they’ve shown no real interest in holding Trump accountable for anything he’s done to break down America’s democratic norms. Occasionally John McCain will take to cable news or the New York Times op-ed page to issue a gentle chiding; Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake or Susan Collins may occasionally express some discomfort for something Trump says or something he does. But when it comes to action – to taking a real stand to stop this corrupt, sad excuse of a man – they have utterly failed.
So although McCain and a handful of fellow GOP Congress members have said, in the wake of the Comey firing, that there should be an independent investigation, I’m not holding my breath for them to take action to make it a reality.
Indeed, many Republicans in Congress are lining up behind Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already given a floor speech parroting White House talking points in defense of the Comey firing. (Yes, Democrats – including me – have criticized Comey. But the president firing the head of the FBI for investigating him still amounts to a constitutional crisis.) The head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, took to Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, to tell critics of the firing to “suck it up and move on.”
Trump is consolidating and expanding executive power in a way never seen in modern politics. Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, now James Comey – anyone who shows any independence or stands up to this president is summarily fired.
How is there not a single Republican in Congress – not one! – who will take a real stand against this president? How can not one GOP senator question whether we should be allowing someone this power-hungry and corrupt to appoint judges or set their legislative agenda? Why can’t principled conservatives show some backbone and leave the Republican Party, which has become entirely the property of one Donald J. Trump?
Maybe it’s too much to hope for. Maybe there just aren’t any elected Republicans left brave enough to do what’s right. But that leaves my country in the hands of a madman who will do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and get rid of anyone who tries to hold him accountable. You feel that creeping terror? Me too.
A simple slip of the tongue by Trump? I don’t think so.
Here’s the thing with Trump: He is someone who has always created his own version of events and reality. One of his tried and true tactics as a businessman was, no matter the outcome of a deal, to declare victory and move on. He would aim to win the next day’s press story — knowing that for lots of people not paying close attention that would be all they would hear.
And he didn’t stop doing it once he became a candidate for president. He would simply say things — Muslims were celebrating on the roofs in northern New Jersey after 9/11, Ted Cruz’s father might have been involved in JFK’s assassination (or maybe he wasn’t!), all the polls showed him beating Hillary Clinton — that weren’t factually true but seemed right to him. His gut — the much-ballyhooed origin of most of Trump’s political instincts — told him this stuff was right, so who were fact checkers and biased media types to tell him — or his supporters — differently?
Trump kept building his own world once in the White House. He would have won the popular vote except for the 3 to 5 million votes cast by undocumented immigrants. His inauguration crowd was the biggest ever. His first 100 days were among the most successful of any president ever.
And so on and on and on.
It didn’t matter that all of these things were provably false. What mattered (and matters) is that Trump believed them. That made them truth to him.
Which brings us back to him inventing the phrase “prime the pump.” Of course he didn’t do that. But Trump came up with it in relation to his tax reform plan — raising the deficit in the near term via tax cuts in the belief they will “prime the pump” for future economic growth — so he, naturally, believed he was the first one to think it up.
That takes some significant self-regard. But also a sense that if you say it, it must be new and true. And Donald Trump believes that whatever he says is, by definition, new and true.
So Donald Trump fired James Comey because the FBI director mistreated Hillary Clinton last summer over her use of private emails.
Trump takes us for chumps. The Republic is nothing to him but a crap game. And he loads the dice.
In this case, he signs the letter dismissing Comey and hands it to his personal bodyguard to take over to the FBI office. But Comey isn’t there. He’s in Los Angeles, where he will hear on television that he has been dumped — and at first think it’s a practical joke. We are not making this up.
Hardly 24 hours has passed since Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general who in late January also was fired by Trump, testified before a Senate hearing that she had informed the White House that Trump’s duplicitous national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, had lied about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. But it took Trump another 18 days to fire him and then only after The Washington Post leaked what Yates had uncovered.
In her testimony Monday, Yates was such a straight arrow, the iconic public servant, and so devastatingly credible that the White House had to figure out how to blunt her testimony.
How to change the story? How to send the bloodhounds of the press howling down another trail?
Fire Comey, and say you don’t like the way he handled the Hillary Clinton email affair, although last year — gasp! — you lavished praise on him for doing exactly what you now say he screwed up.
“It took a lot of guts,” Trump said when Comey reopened his investigation of Clinton. But that was then and this is now. The irony of the man who screamed “Lock her up!” throughout his presidential campaign now trying to shed crocodile tears for “Crooked Hillary,” as Trump called his Democratic rival, would be hilarious if it wasn’t so very obviously cynical and contrived.
But clearly, something else is going on here. Could it be that Comey’s investigation of Russia’s interference with our election was getting closer and closer to Trump? Is that why the Trump gang pushed him out the nearest window?
And what about this statement in Trump’s brief letter officially dismissing Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless, concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.” WHAT three occasions, and what did Comey say, when did he say it, and why? Or is Trump lying about that, too?
Bottom line: Is the White House simply trying to cover up the truth? That question answers itself.
And oh, let’s not forget Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, the attorney general of the United States, who had to recuse himself from the investigation of Russia because he, too, had been dishonest about contacts with the Russian ambassador. Recused or not, he was directly involved in sacking Comey. Does anyone around Trump keep his word?
Trump’s dismissal of Comey smacks of what the autocrats in Turkey, Egypt, and the Philippines would do – each of them praised recently by Trump, who clearly sees them as role models. It is also more than a little reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s 1973 Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon wanted to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox but his attorney general and deputy attorney general refused to do his dirty work. They were fired, too. In Sessions, Trump has a more compliant stooge.
The constant drip of evidence continues. There are reports that a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas to associates of Michael Flynn. James Hohmann at The Washington Postnoted that at Monday’s Senate hearing, former director of national intelligence James Clapper “was asked about a news report that Britain’s intelligence service first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious interactions between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence agents. The same story also said multiple European allies passed along information in the spring of 2016. Asked if that is accurate, [Clapper] replied: ‘Yes, it is and it’s also quite sensitive… The specifics are quite sensitive.’”
How does Trump react? He fires off more of his querulous, defensive tweets, claiming the whole Russia story is “fake news.” That’s his response to just about everything. What was it Joseph Addison, playwright beloved by the Founders, said? Oh, yes: “Husband a lie, and trump it up in some extraordinary emergency.” No pun intended.
Trump is hiding something. Something extraordinary. To keep it hidden there is no end to the chaos he will stir at the highest level of government. Every day he lies lustily, as reflexively as the rest of us breathe, knowing some filth will stick. With each day he edges us closer to autocracy.
With the news of Comey’s sacking, the need is clear and more absolute than ever: We must have a special prosecutor to turn the stones over — or an independent and bipartisan commission with subpoena power and public hearings, like the 9/11 commission. Or both.
Trump’s presidency is deeply corrupted, our democracy is compromised, and the system of checks and balances is failing us.
He’s attempting a coup. No joke. We need the truth. Now.
Investigative journalist and filmmaker Greg Palast has spent decades covering two intertwined topics fueling the demise of American democracy: stolen elections and greedy billionaires. Trump’s call for massive corporate tax cuts doesn’t just revive failed Reagan-era economic policies, it’s another sign of how America’s super-rich have staged a coup. Palast, a trained economist, talked to AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld.
Steven Rosenfeld: It seems every bad economic idea championed by Republicans is coming back in style under the Donald Trump-Paul Ryan regime. Am I imagining that?
Greg Palast: Unfortunately, it’s not a dream. You’re wide awake. Yes, these ideas come back. As the economist John Maynard Keynes said, “Mad men in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
So yes, what’s come back is voodoo economics. That is, if you cut taxes on the rich, they’ll get so excited and go into so much busy economic activity, that the economy will grow and your tax revenues will actually rise. So cut taxes, collect more taxes. It is a miracle. It is voodoo economics, as George Bush Sr. called it. It’s from the Laffer Curve. That’s Art Laffer. He was my mentor at the University of Chicago, where I studied economics under him and Milton Friedman.
SR: Yes, so tell us, who was he?
GP: These were the guys who created supply-side economics. These miracles that if you cut taxes on the rich, if you take away all the rules and regulations, that there will be this frenzy of activity. We’ll have full employment. And the treasury will be bursting with tax revenue. There’s a problem with that. It works on a napkin. Famously, Art Laffer started with writing this curve (plotting tax rates versus tax revenues) on a napkin, which says that you get more revenue when you cut taxes. He put that on a napkin for me. I can’t make this up. He was a cheeseburger addict. He always had napkins and was writing on them. And it doesn’t work. It’s a con.
You can only get more revenue by reducing taxes on the rich if their taxes are somewhere above 90 percent. That’s how [President John] Kennedy got some extra tax revenue because the taxes on the rich (in the early 1960s) were at 90 percent. If you cut from 90 to 85 percent, you might induce some rich people to keep their money and invest. But right now, this is going to be a $2 trillion hole in the economy.
SR: So how do people keep making this argument with a straight face?
GP: Because it’s profitable. And the media has gone along—that Reagan was some kind of economic genius despite our massive deficits and destruction of the working class in America. That’s where it began. So there’s a profit to be made. Who owns the media? The guys who are getting these tax breaks.
And in fact, that’s one of the biggest problems. They’re deceiving us because they make money off the deception. And also long as the suckers in those red trucker hats think that these guys are making America great again won’t wake up from the spell, they’ll using the same trick. They’ll keep playing three-card monte with you while you keep thinking you know which cup has the penny in it. No you aren’t. The game’s rigged.
So, for example, Steve Mnuchin, who’s the Secretary of the Treasury, he’s the one who said that this tax cut, “will pay for itself with growth.” Now what is the number-one tax loophole that Trump insisted he would cut? He and Bernie Sanders. It’s something called carried interest. It is a loophole used only by speculators. Not even by the Kochs. Not even by anyone who hires anyone; purely by Wall Street speculators, including and particularly Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, and one of Trump’s biggest donors who’s been in the shadows, J.P. John Paulson, the foreclosure king—they are the guys who literally can save billions. John Paulson personally will save at least a billion by keeping open this tax loophole. One billion dollars for one guy, Steve Mnuchin’s partner.
That’s why they keep pulling this stunt. Because it works while they collect. But so Trump didn’t [propose to] close that loophole. Instead, he made it so wide that you can now fly a 747 through it.
SR: There’s this other thing you talk about, territoriality. I thought there were multi-billions offshore waiting to come back for reinvestment and spending—like Apple profits—if only the coast was clear. What is going on here?
GP: Right now, your profits are taxed anywhere you earn them in the world when you bring them back to the U.S. or pay dividends to your U.S. stockholders, which they’ll eventually want, right? Or pay your creditors with the money. So that’s taxable.
I’ll give you a real-world example. Delphi Automotive—now that’s the company that used to be called DelCo. It was part of General Motors. The auto parts for GM cars were made in Warren, Ohio, at the Delphi plant. Some of these billionaire speculators moved the plant to Monterey, Mexico. Now, follow this, when they earned profits in Warren, Ohio, that was taxable. When they earn any profits in Monterrey, Mexico, under Trump’s new [proposed] rule, that will be forever free of taxes. So, in other words, it a massive tax subsidy to move your factory from Ohio to Mexico. And no one said a damn word about it.
This is Donald Trump. Just so you know, Donald Trump talked about moving the plant to Monterrey, Mexico, while he was in Warren, Ohio. He told the laid-off Delphi workers, “I will bring this plant back… When I see the closed gates and this factory, I want to make that wall deeper and higher.” That’s what Trump said in Warren, Ohio, to those workers: “I’m going to bring your jobs back.”
Instead, he just gave a tax break to the guys who moved the plant over. You stay in Monterrey, you get a tax break. You bring your plant back to Warren, Ohio and you’re subject to the corporate tax. Let’s put it directly. Those guys in the red trucker hats—he’s pissing in their faces. And he’s laughing about it. He’s thinking those poor schmucks don’t know, they don’t care.
And I don’t like the idea that Trump is some kind of dummy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He isn’t. For a dummy, he keeps winning every chess game. How does that happen? This is deliberate. He’s letting the billionaires rewrite tax codes so you and I pay and they’re off the hook.
SR: This is what I hope people will start paying attention to, not the tweets or the stupid stuff he’s saying. But the way that the people he has surrounded himself with are rewriting the rules of the road, in all these different areas, whether environment or taxes or the courts.
GP: Let’s put it this way. The liberalati press has decided that Trump didn’t get anything done in 100 days. Boy, are they asleep. They’re paying attention to the tweets, and Miss America is too fat, and let’s bomb North Korea. Right? But behind it were a massive number of executive actions and bills that they put through Congress reversing regulations all over the place.
Including, for example, on a single day, the liberals are laughing that Trumpcare ended up facedown in the swimming pool. That’s at 3pm. What there was little discussion of, was at 10am that same morning, Trump officially approved the Keystone XL pipeline.
SR: Yes, I remember, that same day.
GP: Now, we talk about global warming, environmental disaster. Let’s look at the other end of the pipe, okay? I didn’t see a single place in any U.S. newspaper that said, who is the beneficiary of the XL pipeline? It ain’t this company TransCanada. It’s who gets the oil at the end of that pipe. If you saw my movie, we’re running a pipe from Canada across the United States to Texas—and I understand that Texas already has a little bit of oil. Texas is choking in oil. Why the hell are we bringing a filthy pipeline with the world’s filthiest oil across the United States to Texas, where there is a glut of oil?
The answer is K-O-C-H. It’s the Koch brothers. They own the Koch Industries refinery in Corpus Christi, which is the main beneficiary of that oil coming down from Canada, because the Koch refinery cannot handle the cleaner oil that comes out of Texas—west Texas immediate, as they call it, which means the intermediate filthy.
They need heavy or super heavy oil. That can only come from only two places in quantity. Venezuela, which is still controlled by the Chavistas, which charge the Kochs through the nose, or Canada, which is willing to charge the Kochs $15 a barrel less than Chavez’s crew in Venezuela. You work out the math. That’s over a billion dollars for two men, Charles and David Koch, every year. A billion dollars for two guys and we get to eat the pipe.
SR: This is what’s going on. Do you see any hopeful signs of resistance? Are the Democrats going to rubber-stamp this? Or is this all done under the guise of regulations and nobody can really stop it because there’s a Republican monopoly on federal power?
GP: It’s not a Republican monopoly. It’s a billionaire monopoly. We’ve had a billionaire coup d’etat. And the billionaires own enough Democrats that you will not see pushback on a lot of these items. You will not see pushback on carried interest because Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader from New York, is not going to hit Wall Street, which is what he represents. So I’m not sure that the Democrats, per se, are going to rise up.
That doesn’t mean that the public can’t. When the public gets angry and gets knowledgeable, we have action. There’s no question that grassroots action, like that group Indivisible—which the Democratic Party did not organize because the Democratic Party cannot organize grassroots anything—that took a bite out of Trumpcare. It’s bleeding. I don’t know if it’s dead. But the bite was taken out by grassroots activity not organized by the Democratic Party.
“What is meant by improvement?” Sir Francis Galton asked the Sociology Society of the University of London in 1904. At the time of his speech, Galton was already 35 years deep into a career promoting what he termed “eugenics,” the idea that the human race could improve itself through selective breeding—through propagating good traits and quarantining the bad ones. “All creatures would agree that it was better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life,” he explained. “So with men.”
Eugenics enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the most thoroughly discredited theories in scientific history. It is most closely associated with the Nazis and their obsession with racial superiority, but the Nazis did not invent it any more than they invented racism: It began in Great Britain, and swiftly spread to the United States. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, 32 states adopted laws “authorizing the sterilization of people judged to have hereditary defects,” Adam Cohen writes in his book Imbeciles. “They called for sterilizing anyone with ‘defective’ traits, such as epilepsy, criminality, alcoholism or ‘dependency,’ another word for poverty.” Americans adopted eugenics so enthusiastically that 70,000 people were sterilized under laws that eventually influenced the policies of the Third Reich.
But eugenics, though discredited, has never been abandoned. In fact, the most powerful people in America appear to enthusiastically embrace the idea that humans can be divided into inherently superior and inferior specimens and treated accordingly. “You have to be born lucky,” President Donald Trump told Oprah Winfrey in 1988, “in the sense that you have to have the right genes.” His biographer Michael D’Antonio explained to Frontline that Trump and his family subscribe “to a racehorse theory of human development. They believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring.”
So does Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, if the reports are to be believed. Sources told The New York Times this November that despite his devout Catholicism, Bannon “occasionally talked about the genetic superiority of some people and once mused about the desirability of limiting the vote to property owners.” Adam Serwer of The Atlantic reported in January that Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the Immigration Act of 1924 in a 2015 interview with Bannon, which could be an insight into the views of both these immigration hardliners: The act required would-be immigrants to specify whether they’d ever spent time in prison or the “almshouse,” and if their parents had ever been confined to a psychiatric hospital.
The work of Trump adviser Michael Anton also reveals a grim obsession with genetic purity. “‘Diversity’ is not ‘our strength;’ it’s a source of weakness, tension, and disunion,” he wrote in the Unz Review last year. As the Huffington Post noted at the time, the same essay claimed that the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s fascist America First Committee had been unfairly maligned. Lindbergh was a eugenicist who admired the Nazis: He once wrote that flying “is one of those priceless possessions which permit the White Race to live at all in a sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.”
Charles Lindbergh once wrote that flying “is one of those priceless possessions which permit the White Race to live at all in a sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.”
Of course, none of the people in Trump’s inner circle would describe themselves as eugenicists. They would call themselves capitalists, patriots, and Christians. And yet the Trump administration’s overt obsession with white supremacy—which the 2016 election showed to be the ugly beating heart of the conservative movement—has imbued the platform of the Republican Party with a lurid tinge, changing our understanding of its disdain not only for minorities, but for the weak, the poor, and the disabled. The GOP may loathe the term—indeed conservatives often accuse liberal abortion supporters of being the real eugenicists—but the party’s agenda in many ways channels the spirit of eugenics, even if it does not accept the theory in a literal sense.
If you think I’m exaggerating, just consider for a moment what it is like to be an American with “bad” genes. I was not born lucky, at least not as Donald Trump defines it: My brother and I have a rare genetic disease that affects our red blood cells. It isn’t terminal, but it also isn’t pleasant. It is expensive and painful, and the only thing I’ve learned from living with it is that all emergency rooms smell exactly the same. It also means that I am not sure if I should have children. It feels wrong to knowingly bequeath a disease to anyone. It feels especially wrong to do so in America, a country that still does not recognize an inalienable right to health care.
Trump’s comments are merely an open expression of a long-standing, institutionalized disdain for the poor and the sick. He helms a party at ease with the fact that American pharmaceutical companies can charge $89,000 for a life-extending muscular dystrophy drug. America charges you for childbirth, for check-ups, for cancer; it will bankrupt you over blood transfusions and ambulance rides. I had medical bills in collections before I’d even finished college, mostly due to a deductible so high that I paid to see specialists out of pocket.
Matters have recently improved. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can no longer discriminate against people with “pre-existing conditions.” But dismantling the Affordable Care Act is a top priority for this administration and for the Republicans in Congress, if they can ever get out from under a swiftly growing mountain of scandals. At the heart of the push to repeal Obamacare is the idea that dependency is a cancer on the republic and should be excised. Both parties have absorbed this idea, to different extents. The ACA is too market-dependent—too willing to put a market value on human life—to give everyone the health care they need.
But the Republican Party expresses this antipathy to dependency in vicious ways and in all avenues of public life. The GOP gets particularly vicious when dependency combines with race (eugenics and racism are toxins that have always reinforced each other anyway).
If Sir Francis Galton stood before the GOP in 2017 and asked them what they mean by improvement, they’d have ready answers. To Steve Bannon, it is a ban on Muslim refugees trying to enter this country. To Jeff Sessions, it is stricter voting laws that violate the rights of those who are most dependent on the government. To Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, it is an atrophied public school system and a weak Americans with Disabilities Act. To Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, it is “high-risk insurance pools” for sick Americans. To Vice President Mike Pence, it is legalized discrimination against LGBT people. And to Speaker Paul Ryan, it is the destruction of the welfare state.
Republicans target weakness as energetically as eugenicists did. They have embraced capitalism so fully that they will admit no flaw in it. Confronted with inequality, they tell us the problem lies, not with the system, but with the individual and his incurable deficiencies. “We don’t want a dependency culture,” Paul Ryan said in2013. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Ryan’s “Better Way” budget would increase the wealth of America’s extreme upper class while prohibiting new funds for the Affordable Care Act and expanding work requirements for welfare recipients. The implications—that the wealthy deserve to be even wealthier, and that the poor are poor because they make bad personal choices—have been long reflected in Ryan’s personal views on the subject.
Ryan has since tried to distance himself from his old intellectual hero Ayn Rand, and from the Objectivist “makers and takers” rhetoric that made him a conservative star. He has even generously conceded that, “Most people don’t want to be dependent.” But there is no question that Ryan’s policies would exacerbate income inequality. His welfare reform proposals build on former President Bill Clinton’s Personal Accountability and Work Opportunity Act, and we now know that deep povertynearly doubled after Clinton’s welfare policies were implemented.
Race and poverty and disability also intersect in a way that makes the eugenics comparison unavoidable. People with disabilities are disproportionately more likely to live in poverty. Low-income students are disproportionately more likely to drop out of high school. And communities of color suffer the most. According to a new Demos study, the racial wealth gap is so durable that nothing—not Ryan’s beloved two-parent households or college degrees or full-time jobs—closes the gap between communities of color and whites. The experiences of people of color provide the clearest proof that poverty is not a symptom of entitled dependency, but of a corrupt system.
Republicans are dedicated to perpetuating that system. Thus they cut welfare for the same reason eugenicists once sterilized the poor: Poor people drain resources better spent elsewhere.
Then there’s public education. Trump and Betsy DeVos both champion the expansion of school vouchers and charter schools as a means to promote “school choice” for low-income parents. Vouchers, which enable students to use public funding for the school of their choice, are especially flawed, since they disadvantage students with disabilities. Private schools are exempt from much of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, which means they can receive voucher funds while refusing to accommodate students with disabilities. Patchy application erodes the efficacy of anti-discrimination law, but that apparently doesn’t trouble DeVos. During her confirmation hearing, she told senators that it should be “up to the states” to require private schools to adhere to the ADA, and it wasn’t clear if she’d even heard of the IDEA before entering the chamber.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has signaled that it would fund a voucher expansion by assigning $20 billion in federal funds to vouchers. According to Chalkbeat, teacher’s unions fear that money would most likely come from Title I portability, an old education reform proposal that would reallocate Title I funding from public schools. That funding is currently assigned to public schools based on how many low-income students they serve: “The damage would spread through the system, raising class sizes even in non-Title I schools, threatening academic enrichment programs, guidance, art and music and other services our children depend on,” the United Federation of Teachers asserted in a press release.
Vouchers reinforce a two-tier educational system: Public schools are for the rabble, and private schools are for the elite.
If DeVos funds a voucher expansion in this manner, without also expanding the reach of the ADA, parents of students with disabilities would be trapped in under-funded, under-equipped public school districts. And that’s a throwback to a more discriminatory age of American history. Before the ADA, the IDEA, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, children with disabilities weren’t guaranteed access to quality public education. Instead, they were frequently confined to institutions or the home; a few attended disability-specific schools. Many were sterilized under eugenics laws.
But the needs of students with disabilities have never dissuaded school choice advocates in the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party, for that matter). The calculus of school choice explicitly excludes them because it must. It relies on the premise that private schools are superior because they are not controlled by the state. Privatization, of course, permits these schools to be more selective than their public alternatives, so vouchers reinforce a two-tier educational system: Public schools are for the rabble, and private schools are for the elite.
That approach harms all Americans, but it’s just one of two blows that Americans with disabilities can expect from Republican-controlled government. If the GOP’s planned replacement of Obamacare looks anything like Tom Price’s “Empowering Patients Act,” people with disabilities will, once again, be at the mercies of private insurance companies.
Price has supported replacing the ACA with age-adjusted tax credits, Medicaid block grants, and high-risk insurance pools for people with so-called “pre-existing” conditions. But the example of welfare reform demonstrates that states typically use block grants as an excuse to underfund aid programs, and high-risk pools have historically failed to meet the needs of Americans with serious or disabling conditions. According to one 2008 study, Kansas’s high risk pool left sick Kansans chronically underinsured, and actually increased the number of people dependent on disability payments.
If Price’s plan ever becomes federal law, he and his Republican colleagues will force Americans with disabilities back into their traditional role as an inferior class. People with disabilities will live shorter, poorer lives. We already have a real-life example of what this would look like nationally: In Texas, Medicaid cuts have already seriously harmed children with disabilities. “We have had a number of families who have had critical medication denied. We’ve had families who have had some surgical delays and have been told, sorry, you’re not in network,” a representative of Protect TX Fragile Kids told The Dallas Morning News.
Trump’s education policies will only make the situation more dire. Many children will be cut off from care, and then cut off from accessible free education, all so Republicans can say they’ve shrunk government. So long to social mobility, so long to life-saving medical care, so long to any illusion of equality: Republicans will accomplish what the eugenics movement sought to do so long ago.
And I will not be surprised when it happens. On the night of Trump’s election I did not sleep. First I thought of my brother, who only has health insurance because of the ACA. Then I stacked questions on top of hours: Should I wait four to eight years to have children? Or do I gamble? And I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t know the answer.
Trump makes obvious what I and Americans like me already understood: We are in the same vulnerable position that we have always occupied. This won’t change as long as we inhabit a world ruled by men who prioritize the free market over human lives. Their ideal society excludes us and every other group ever deemed an obstacle to prosperity. And when they come for us they will call it progress.
Sarah Jones is the social media editor at The New Republic.