WASHINGTON -- The Republican establishment has spent a lot of energy over the past six months trying to convince the public that Donald Trump's rank bigotry breaks with conservative principles and has no place in the Party of Ronald Reagan.
"He's a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told CNN in December. "He doesn't represent my party." Mitt Romney and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have issued similar critiques using slightly more circumspect language.
The truth, of course, is that Republicans have been perfectly comfortable pandering to bigotry for decades. Romney touted Trump's endorsement during the 2012 campaign, when Trump was the highest-profile birther in the world. Romney's immigration plan was called "self-deportation" -- an effort to make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they would choose to leave the country. As a matter of policy, it may be even nastier than Trump's call for mass deportations. Ryan has a history of blaming poverty on the laziness of people who live in -- ahem -- "inner cities." Using identification requirements to prevent poor people and minorities from voting is a core GOP policy.
So maybe bigotry isn't the thing. Maybe the Republican establishment is really mad about something else.
The GOP establishment doesn't like Social Security or Medicare or the minimum wage or anything else that benefits the poor instead of the wealthy. It likes tax cuts for the rich and corporate deregulation and other policies that boost the incomes of shareholders -- who are overwhelmingly well-to-do. On Monday Trump appeared on CNN and took away their best weapon in the fight to win that agenda.
"People said I want to go and buy debt and default on debt, and I mean, these people are crazy. This is the United States government," Trump said. "First of all, you never have to default, because you print the money. I hate to tell you. So there’s never a default."
That statement is an attack on Paul Ryan's entire career in Congress. It's an attack on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the (failed) bipartisan austerity campaign launched by conservative private equity billionaire Peter J. Peterson. It says, essentially, that people shouldn't worry so much about the national debt. And the national debt has been the primary cudgel that Republicans (and many moderate Democrats) have deployed to bully the public into accepting economic policies that help the rich and hurt everybody else.
Ryan spent years warning that the United States was heading for a "debt crisis" that would put the country in the same position as Greece. The only way to fix things, he argued, was to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits. It would be great if old people could keep getting their benefits forever -- but golly, if they did, bond vigilantes and foreign powers would just take even more from vulnerable Americans. We have no choice but to stop being so generous to old people who are poor.
The Ryan/establishment position was never really about deficits or debt. At the same time he was calling to slash entitlements that help the poor and middle class, Ryan was also working (successfully) to kill a so-called "Grand Bargain" between Boehner and Obama that would have raised taxes and cut government spending. Ryan's objection? The deal would have raised taxes on the wealthy. If what you really care about is a debt crisis, then you just want to trim the deficit. It doesn't really matter if the deficit is reduced by slashing spending or raising taxes.
The national debt, in other words, allowed Republicans to pretend that they really, truly cared about the poor and middle classes, while pursuing policies that curbed their benefits and boosted returns for the wealthy.
And the establishment GOP fiscal story was always bunk. Greece has been forced into catastrophe, not because it had too much debt, but because it did not have control over its currency. The European Central Bank controls Greek currency -- the Euro -- and has used this power to dictate horrible and undemocratic Greek policies on government spending and taxation. If Greece had power over its currency, then -- as Trump suggested Monday -- it always could have printed money to get out of its debt jam.
Under conventional economic theories, printing money to pay off debts could spark inflation. Every new dollar you print, the argument goes, dilutes the value of existing dollars. This pays off your debt, but it also dilutes the paychecks and purchasing power of ordinary Americans.
But inflation is just one kind of economic problem, one that the Fed has always been pretty good at defeating stateside. It is not a total economic collapse and the loss of political sovereignty, which we have seen in Greece, and which Ryan and the GOP establishment have invoked as an inevitable result of rejecting conservative economic policies. And for millions of Americans, moderate inflation would be a much better result than slashing social services or entitlements, especially if the Fed could slay the inflation beast quickly.
It's not even clear that severe inflation would, in fact, result from printing more money. The Federal Reserve has printed a lot of money since 2008, and the country hasn't seen much inflation. As a result, an alternative theory about the real cause of inflation has dominated much of the post-crisis academic debate.
But no prominent Republican had ever questioned the GOP establishment's economic narrative until Trump's CNN appearance on Monday. And the GOP establishment desperately wants to maintain Ryan's narrative. Undercutting it would demonstrate that decades of Republican messaging and policy were totally wrong. Pretty sad that it takes a callous bigot to make the party squirm about that record.