Remember the 1980s commercial for Polly-O string cheese? The kid orders a pizza—hold the sauce, hold the bread. The guy taking the order cries out: “Gimme a cheese with nuttin’.” The incredulous baker scrunches up his face and asks in response: “Nuttin’?”
The memory of that exchange about a pizza with nothing came to mind as I thought of the seriousness, or lack thereof, of the Trump Republican Party’s policy agenda one year out from midterm elections. They are running a campaign on a whole lot of nothing; Nothing but lies and hate, that is.
To be sure, 2021 is not the first time Republicans have had what one might call a relatively thin platform. In fact, the most recent midterm elections, which took place in 2018, saw the Party of Fuck a l’Orange run mostly on something called The Caravan. Trump, his various assorted apparatchiks, Republican candidates at every level, as well as the right-wing media—led by Rush Limbaugh—bleated on and on about a whole bunch of brown people streaming north from Central America, through Mexico, ominously heading for our southern border.
At a Montana campaign event on Oct. 18, 2018, Trump offered his priorities for the midterms in the form of a list: “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense.” Some nice alliteration, but not much in the way of policy proposals, either for or against. In the end, mostly the campaign was about The Caravan. Then, once Election Day came along: Poof!
The Caravan promptly disappeared from conservative media. Trump, along with his minions, also dropped it like a hot tamale (you saw that one coming, didn’t you?). Don’t forget that in addition to fearmongering, the twice-impeached former guy also played politics with U.S. troops, sending thousands of them to the border. After the election, Adm. James G. Stavridis, who had led the U.S. Southern Command and thus knew the area well, exposed the reality behind the Orange Julius Caesar's despicable move: “Now that the political utility of troops on the southern border to face a fictitious caravan invasion threat is over, let’s hope the president will stand down the troops so they can be with their families—especially over the holidays.”
Even before Trump, Republicans have long placed cultural wedge issues at the center of their campaigns. For example, the 2004 election saw the Bush-era GOP use opposition to LGBTQ marriage equality as a way to bring out the base. That is a serious policy matter, of course, as is immigration in the Trump era. But still, it’s an issue that has little actual effect on the lives of the Republican voters that the party was hoping to motivate by freaking them out about it.
Some Republican campaigns have been more substantive by comparison. In 2008, John McCain ran for president largely on his foreign policy record, and also maintained his long-standing support for comprehensive immigration reform along with his relatively reasonable position on climate change. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign emphasized his conservative economic philosophy and support for policies that favored the wealthy and business owners—wrong-headed policies, no doubt, but at least substantive ones. On health care, whether it was a presidential year or a midterm, every campaign from 2010 through 2016 highlighted opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans kept on claiming they would “repeal and replace” Obamacare, you might recall.
Right now, however, the Republicans are running on a kind of nothing that’s different from previous campaigns—even ones during the Trump era. First of all, the policy cupboard is as empty as the chief MAGAmaniac’s soul. Not even three years ago, they held the White House as well as majorities in both houses of Congress. Anything they could now claim they want to do at the federal level, they already tried to get done during those two years—and it didn’t amount to much. Even they aren’t shameless enough to run one more time on getting rid of Obamacare, not after failing to do so back in 2017. Are they really going to run on building the wall again—the thing they couldn’t get done with the supposedly ultimate builder sitting in the Oval Office?
Their only major legislative accomplishment during Trump’s time in power—the Rich Man’s Tax Cut of 2017—was so unpopular that he and his fellow conservatives barely mentioned it during the 2020 election season. They certainly aren’t out there now touting their plans for more of the same. Those tax cuts, handed out when the economy was already humming, blew a trillion-dollar hole in the national debt, sending huge sums to those already at the top of the economic heap. It’s no longer feasible for Republicans to run as the party of fiscal responsibility either because finally, after they’ve shoveled trillions out the door to millionaires and billionaires not once but multiple times, there’s no one left who’ll believe them.
Almost half of the Republicans in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently voted for an infrastructure spending package that’s projected to add a quarter-trillion dollars to the national debt—a reasonable thing to do, by the way, at a time of historically low long-term interest rates—in order to make investments that will pay off in the long run. Still, doing so makes it tough to portray themselves credibly as the party of deficit hawks—something Republicans once did as a core plank of their campaigns.
On foreign policy, Biden’s most significant move thus far is to finally acknowledge that it’s time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan—something three-quarters of Americans support according to one July poll, with strong support showing up across every recent poll. Most Republican voters are on the same page. Trump, even this summer, was still taking credit for the move.
The almost impossibly swift collapse of the corrupt Afghan government—which received tens of billions of dollars from the U.S. alone over the past two decades—is obviously a horrific development for freedom and equality in Afghanistan, in particular for women. However, that swiftness also makes clear that such a result was inevitable, whenever U.S. troops left. President Biden, the fourth to preside over the war in Afghanistan, vowed he wouldn’t leave the job of withdrawal to a fifth, and he’s kept his word. Our troops left, as scheduled, on Aug. 31. The political attacks on him leveled by his predecessor and other Republicans reveal a level of hypocrisy that, although stunning in its brazenness, shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point.
In the end, given that Biden inherited a terrible deal with the Taliban from his predecessor, the die on withdrawal was basically cast even before he took office in any case, despite the lies coming out of Bedminster or Mar-a-Lago or wherever about some kind of unofficial “discussions'' Trump had—the terms of which didn’t appear anywhere in the aforementioned deal—that would supposedly have made the withdrawal smoother. It also didn’t help that the Trump administration—and you had to know Stephen Miller would be at the center of this—deliberately waylaid the process for issuing visas to Afghans who worked with our forces. Why? Racism, of course, explained an official who had a birds-eye view from inside the highest ranks of Trump’s national security apparatus.
The American people aren’t going to vote in 2022 based on how things looked the morning after Kabul fell, or even based on the despicable terrorist attack committed by ISIS-K that killed hundreds of people, including 13 U.S. service members. Once some time passes, even the evacuation itself is going to be seen in a much different light by most Americans.
However, if Afghanistan figures at all, it will likely be based on how leaving that country affected American security in the long run. I’ll predict that Republicans will find they are unable to gain traction campaigning on Afghanistan by the time we get to next year. That doesn’t make the situation for the Afghan people any less tragic, of course.
On a related note, Republicans can't pretend they'll be the tougher party on dictators after Trump spent four years kissing up to Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping, and others—not to mention when their party’s leading, ahem, intellectual, Tucker Carlson, has been paying fawning visits to Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orban.
Running a substantive campaign of opposing the sitting president and his party’s policies is certainly a legitimate way to go. Democrats did it in 2018, when they were in a roughly similar situation to today’s Republicans—i.e., in the minority against a first-term president who had congressional majorities. They ran hard against Trump on real issues, with health care being the most prominent, and retook the House in a blue wave. Likewise, in 2006 Democrats ran against George W. Bush’s Iraq War, and swept the House and Senate.
But what exactly are Republicans going to run against this time around? The Biden-Harris administration has been passing popular legislation on COVID-19, including a relief package, the American Rescue Plan, that most Americans (including lower-income Republican voters) like as much or better than the ones passed under Trump—and those had overwhelming Republican support in Congress. Unlike Trump, Biden is also having success, so it appears at least, in passing major legislation with significant bipartisan support on issues like infrastructure.
Finally, the $3.5 trillion budget plan Democrats are aiming to pass through reconciliation (the budget resolution setting it up has now passed both houses of Congress) also garners strong majority support among voters. A Fox News poll shows 56% in favor compared to only 38% opposed, and a USA Today poll finds 52% support. Since Republicans won’t be able to run against what Biden is actually doing, and since they have no real policy proposals of their own, that leaves the aforementioned lies and hate.
Right now, Republicans are running on literally no policy agenda. They’ve cycled through various outrages d’jour (Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, anyone?), while consistently holding on to a few especially harmful fictions.
Attacks on critical race theory (CRT) appear to be one keeper—although it’s just the latest iteration of the decades-long Republican tactic of stoking white racial fear and anxiety to divide working- and middle-class Americans along racial lines. Does it matter that the GOP is passing laws in a number of states to stop schools from teaching CRT that haven’t been teaching it in the first place? Sorry, I forgot facts don’t really figure into this wholly manufactured controversy.
These red-meat Republican laws don’t even substantively address the concept of CRT, but are instead aimed at, as Laura Clawson accurately summarized, "keep[ing] the teaching of history from challenging white supremacy and, most of all...mak[ing] white voters feel like Republicans are the only people looking out for them.” University of California, Irvine political science professor Michael Tesler has a terrific piece at FiveThirtyEight, which includes survey data up through 2020, that explains how the Republican attacks on CRT are driven by white grievance politics.
In an echo of 2004’s attacks on LGBTQ equality, we’ve also seen a spate of laws being passed in red states that target trans folks, in particular young people, in various ways—including participation in sports, bathroom policies, and access to necessary health care. These laws are causing severe harm, as Melissa Gira Grant has laid out in a detailed review that appeared last month in The New Republic.
There’s also the Big Lie about the 2020 election, and nonexistent voter fraud more generally—lies that are fueling very real attacks on voter access (and even physical attacks on election workers) that will disproportionately affect voters of color and thus help Republicans win elections. One Republican member of Congress, Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, explicitly threatened violence if their lies about stolen elections don’t lead to results being overturned. That’s not how it’s supposed to work in a true democracy, last time I checked.
Then there’s the pandemic. There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that Republicans and their media allies are undermining and even directly attacking the very things we know will save lives: masks and vaccines. On vaccine mandates, the hypocrisy has been breathtaking. Try not to get whiplash from looking at Sen. Ted Cruz’s 180-degree turn on state vaccine mandates from 2016 to 2021, for one example.
But it’s not just vaccine mandates they hate—Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who represents the leading edge of Republican electoral strategy, actually said the vaccines themselves don’t work. She, along with Sen. Rand Paul, both claimed masks don’t work either. Overall, the Party of Trump collectively is going hard after Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control. Bear in mind that this is just some of the more recent dreck.
Additionally, they’ve sought to connect their COVID-19 lies to the Trumpiest of all demagogic tactics going back to the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, the same one from 2018 mentioned above: immigration. Among others, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been out front with the race-baiting horseshit—which also serves the purpose of deflecting blame for the current explosion of cases fueled by the delta variant away from Republicans’ own deliberate negligence. On Aug. 4, he attacked Biden, accusing him of having “imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border.” Gov. DeathSantis then sent out a fundraising email that included footage of him spewing more bile: “No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies.” We know this unprincipled sonofabitch wants to run for president, and obviously he thinks this is the way to get elected.
CNN did a fact check on these claims. Like I said: They’re horseshit. "To my knowledge there is no evidence that migrants are to blame for the spike in Florida or other southern states." That’s the response University of Michigan epidemiology professor Aubree Gordon gave CNN. Ron Waldman, George Washington University professor of global health, added, in more pointed comments, that “states that are not aggressively implementing public health interventions are suffering more than those that adopted policies that encourage and at times enforce those interventions, especially in regard to vaccination. … It should be obvious that the greatest risk of acquiring COVID is from neighbors, not from 'aliens' pouring across the 'wide-open southern" border.'”
Rightly, the Biden White House pushed back as well, with press secretary Jen Psaki stating: “If you're not interested in following the public health guidelines to protect the lives of people in your state, to give parents some comfort as they're sending their kids to school, then get out of the way and let public officials, let local officials, do their job to keep students safe.” I wonder what kind of horrible people convince themselves that feeding their political or professional ambitions—or even just owning the libs—is so important that it justifies statements and policies that kill Americans. If you think that’s a bit harsh, journalist Julia Ioffe relates a conversation she had that should disabuse you of such a notion:
About a month ago, I was talking to a pretty senior [Capitol] Hill aide on the Republican side. Vaccinated, everybody in his shop was vaccinated. I said, ‘What is the deal, why are you doing this? It's your own constituency you're killing.’
And he said they just want to make Biden look bad. They want the crisis to happen on Biden's watch so that he does not get the credit for the vaccine that they felt Trump should get the credit for. That's it. I mean, my jaw hit the floor and I had to really, you know, work to get it back up."
Democrats, whatever their flaws, don’t just make a bunch of shit up—some of which will cost people their lives, mind you—throw it against the wall to see which ones will stick, and then base a national campaign around them. Democrats run on health care and on creating jobs that pay a living wage and raising the national minimum wage to $15 over the next few years—something that most Americans support. They run on saving our planet from climate change (in case anyone forgot about its immediacy, Hurricane Ida has provided a brutal reminder all across our country), racial justice, and comprehensive immigration reform. They champion reproductive rights (especially after the unconscionable new Texas law that bans virtually all abortions—and let’s see Republicans run nationwide on that incredibly unpopular position), and more because these are real issues, ones that grow out of facts on the ground that affect actual people.
Our policy priorities derive from a desire to improve the lives of every American, and make our country a better, fairer, more equitable place to live for all of us. By contrast, although the Trump Republican policy agenda is neither serious nor fact-based, there is another word that all too accurately describes it: deadly.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)