Discover more from Bernard Goldberg's Commentary
Only a Culture Battle Can Make Us Care About the Debt
As news outlets reported yesterday, our nation recorded a whopping $100.5 billion budget deficit in October alone (the start of our fiscal year). This is a 60% increase from the previous year, and despite a roaring economy and record-high tax revenue, our government's spending grew twice as fast as its collections.
President Trump's first full fiscal year in office gave us a $779 billion deficit (the highest in six years), with future Trump deficits projected to exceed $1 trillion.
Nice work everyone.
I say everyone, because this really is all of our fault. We can point fingers for our nearly $22 trillion national debt at elected leaders and political parties all day long, but these days it's a perversely disingenuous exercise. The fact of the matter is that we, as a society and culture, simply don't care about the long-term fiscal health of our nation. We don't see the ramifications in our daily lives, and we don't care about the astronomical burden we're placing on future generations of Americans.
We live in the now, and that has never been more apparent than it is today.
There was a bit of hope just a few years ago, back when Tea Party protestors took to the streets in huge numbers to demand some fiscal sanity in Washington. Angered by government bailouts, a trillion-dollar stimulus, and the Affordable Care Act, conservatives — many for the first time in their lives — made their voices heard. Sure, some of them dressed in silly colonial wear, and their ham-handed rhetoric didn't always portray them in the best light. But despite all of the criticism and maligning from the media, the Tea Party created a cultural sea-change.
In 2010, just two short years after the Democrats gained majority control of everything in Washington, the Tea Party movement carried fiscally conservative Republicans across the midterm finish line for a stunning retaking of the House. Some of the subsequent GOP-led initiatives, like Paul Ryan's entitlement reform bills and multiple efforts to stop Obamacare before it fully kicked in, were good. Others, like the government shutdown, weren't so good. Regardless, voter-backed fiscal discipline was the goal because the culture demanded it.
Of course, there was only so much change the Republicans could produce (despite the insistence otherwise by numerous conservative media figures) with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority still in the Senate. And when the Democrats lost the Senate in 2014, Republican voters were assured that the only thing needed to finally get this country's fiscal house in order was a Republican sitting in the Oval Office.
And that's when Republican voters nominated the one presidential candidate (out of 17) who ran on a big-government, big-spending, leave-entitlements-alone platform.
Again, nice work everyone.
In 2018, there is no fiscally conservative major political party. So a few questions need to be asked:
Why did the Republican/conservative base suddenly decide that fiscal discipline wasn't all that important after all?
Why are trillion-dollar deficits a crisis of epic proportions under a Democratic president, but fine and dandy under a Republican one?
Why aren't Sean Hannity and his fellow media "conservatives" hammering "runaway spending" like they did practically every day during the Obama era (when $9 trillion was added to our national debt)?
The answer comes back to the culture.
The Tea Party fought more than just a political battle. They fought a cultural one. They identified big-government overreach and unsustainable spending as a dire threat to the American way of life, and they earnestly believed it.
But like most impassioned movements, the intensity fizzled over time. Divided government and the separation of powers don't often lend well to immediate or even eventual results. This spawns frustration and apathy. Additionally, continual mockery and vilification from detractors with much larger platforms can take a toll on a person's spirit, and when that spirit leaves, so does the attention. And without the attention and the cohesiveness it naturally brings, a culture battle is no longer really a battle.
In a way, this explains the drawing power of Donald Trump. He frames nearly everything as a culture battle, and he does it with such passion and outrage that he can make anything (even an issue as mundane as an NFL player kneeling for the anthem) seem like a national crisis. He commands huge, consistent media attention for everything he says and tweets (which was true long before he took office), and those in the media who've shelved their long-preached principles to prop up and parrot his rhetoric enjoy the same spoils.
But what gives a cultural phenomenon like Trumpism a huge edge over societal movements like the Tea Party is that Trumpism isn't necessarily tied to results. The endgame often isn't victory or the betterment of the nation's health. The endgame is the fight itself.
For example, whether President Trump is in office another two or six years, he will likely never produce his much promised border wall (at least nothing remotely resembling what he campaigned on). And he won't lose a single supporter because of that failure. That's because the endgame is the fight.
In Trumpism, there will always be an enemy of the culture standing in Trump's way, whether it's the "open border" Democrats, insufficiently loyal Republicans, the media, Mexico, or whoever. And whenever our president doesn't feel like talking about the wall, he can just take on a different culture battle — like he's doing this week with "fake news," claims of election fraud, and liberals causing forest fires in California.
Again, this is how Trump frames such arguments. And as long as he's "fighting" for something, that's enough. Sure, he has some significant wins that he can justifiably brag about — victories that any Republican president would have pursued and achieved. Those are great and good for America, but does it matter that Trump is actively defying what was the Republican Party's top concern for nearly a decade? Clearly not.
If only such a low bar had been granted to the Republican incumbents in Congress who were portrayed as "RINOs" and "squishes" during the Obama era, and suffered primary defeats from GOP voters because they couldn't get fiscal legislation passed through both Reid and Obama.
I specifically remember people like Laura Ingraham actively campaigning against (and successfully defeating) people like Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for being insufficiently conservative.
Yet, these days, loyalty to Trump is a far hotter GOP primary stance than cutting federal spending, including to people like Ingraham.
Think about that for a second. The party of "small government" now rewards Trump suck-ups over fiscal conservatives.
This is what makes deficit and debt reduction such a hard-sell as a cultural battle these days. The fiscal conservatives who actually care about this issue (and there aren't many left) expect results. And now that the Right is conditioned to expect only the fight, there's little appetite to tackle something as politically complicated as the national debt, even though we desperately need to deal with it.
So we won't deal with it. We'll instead enjoy our strong economy for the time-being, and talk about "winning," and "owning the libs," and totally ignore the fact that our self-proclaimed nationalist president is significantly adding to our country's most serious national security threat — one that our kids and their kids will have to deal with at great personal expense and sacrifice.
But at least we get to say "Merry Christmas" again, right?
Nice work everyone.