Health Care, Hatred and Lies

Oct 26, 2018 by

The New York Times

Hate is how Republicans change the subject from policy.

Paul Krugman

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Republican politicians don’t want to talk about health care. Credit David Goldman/Associated Press

Until recently, it looked as if the midterm elections might be defined largely by an argument about health care. Over the past few days, however, the headlines have been dominated instead by hatred — hysteria over a caravan of migrants a thousand miles from the U.S. border, and now the attempted assassination of multiple prominent Democrats.

But whoever sent the bombs and why, the caravan hysteria is no accident: creating a climate of hatred is how Republicans avoid talking about health care. What we’re seeing in this election is a kind of culmination of the strategy the right has been using for decades: distract working-class voters from policies that hurt them by promoting culture war and, above all, racial antagonism.

When it comes to substance, the modern conservative policy agenda, which centers on cutting taxes and tearing up the social safety net, is consistently unpopular. By large margins, voters want to raise, not lower, taxes on corporations and the wealthy. They overwhelmingly oppose cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Even self-identified Republicans favor preventing insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing medical conditions — something Obamacare does, but Republican health proposals wouldn’t.

So how do Republicans manage to win elections? Partly the answer is that gerrymandering, the Electoral College and other factors have rigged the system in their favor; Republicans have held the White House after three of the past six presidential elections, despite winning the popular vote only once. And they will probably hold the House unless Democrats win by at least 6 percent.

Also, let’s not forget about voter suppression, which is putting an increasingly heavy thumb on the scale. Still, given how unpopular Republicans’ policy positions are, how do they even get close enough to cheat?

One way they have traditionally gotten there is with red-baiting, portraying any and all progressive policies as the next thing to Communism. More than half a century ago, Ronald Reagan warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom. (It didn’t.) A few days ago, the Trump White House issued a report equating Medicare for All with Maoism.

Another key tactic involves lying about both their own positions and those of their opponents. During the administration of George W. Bush, the lies were relatively subtle by current standards, involving things like pretending that tax cuts favoring the rich were actually aimed at the middle class. These days, the lies are utterly shameless, with candidates who have worked nonstop to dismantle protections for pre-existing conditions posing as champions of such protections, and accusations that Democrats are the ones trying to destroy Medicare.

But lies about policy, while they may confuse some voters, aren’t enough. Hate has always been part of the package.

Let’s not romanticize the past. When Reagan talked about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, or a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy steaks, he knew exactly what he was doing.

Under Trump, however, the strategy of hatred has gone to a whole new level.

For one thing, after decades of cloaking its strategy in euphemisms, the G.O.P. is back to letting racists be racists. Hardly a week goes by without the revelation that some Trump official or prominent Republican supporter is a bigot and/or white nationalist.

At the same time, the mainstream G.O.P. has gone all in on the kind of conspiracy theorizing — tinged with anti-Semitism — that used to be restricted to the fringe. For example, not only Trump but also senior senators like Charles Grassley have bought into the false claim that people protesting Brett Kavanaugh were paid by George Soros.

Finally, threats of retribution against political opponents and critics have become standard fare on the right, and not just in the chants of “lock her up” — which Trump led on the same day someone sent Hillary Clinton a bomb. Ted Cruz may have been joking when he suggested sending Beto O’Rourke to jail, but that kind of joke would have been unthinkable not long ago.

And it’s hard to see calling the news media “enemies of the people” as anything other than an incitement to violence.

So will this ramped-up strategy of hate work? It might, in part because those same news media still dance to the haters’ tune. Take the story of the migrant caravan. The right’s hysteria is obviously insincere; it’s clear that it is hyping the story to take attention away from health care and other substantive issues: Never mind pre-existing conditions! Look at those scary brown people!

Yet major news organizations have given the caravan saturation coverage, more than they’ve ever given health care, all the same.

The thing is, if this strategy of hate works in the midterms, the right will pursue it even more avidly. Don’t expect anyone involved to experience any pangs of conscience. Indeed, after CNN and several prominent critics received bombs in the mail, Trump blamed … the media.

I have seen the future, and it’s full of menace.

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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Health Care, Hatred And Lies. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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