The Davis ad is an important one because it strikes at the heart of what movement conservatism has made of the Republican party, which once was the party of the Pure Food and Drug Act, trust-busting, the Interstate Highway System, the Clean Water Act, and the EPA. Over the past three decades, however, beginning with that epochal moment when Ronald Reagan said, in his first inaugural, that government was the problem — not if you were a defense contractor, one thinks, or a mullah who wanted missiles — the Republican party has profited uniquely from a massive internal contradiction that would have given a less well-funded institution the blind staggers. And the party has doubled down on that contradiction year after year, decade after decade. Simply put, the Republican party deliberately has transformed itself from the Party of Lincoln to the Party of I’ve Got Mine, Jack. And it rarely, if ever, gets called to account for that. As a result, and without substantial notice or paying a substantial price, and on many issues, individual Republicans have been able to justify the benefits they’ve received from government activity that they now oppose in theory and in practice. This is not “hypocrisy.” That is too mild a word. This is the regulatory capture of the government for personal benefit. That it makes a lie, again and again, of the basic principles of modern conservatism — indeed, that it shows those principles to be a sham — is certainly worthy of notice and debate. It is certainly worthy of notice and debate that the conservative idea of the benefits of a political commonwealth means those benefits run only one way. Modern conservatism is not about making the government smaller. It’s about making the government exclusive. It’s not about streamlining the benefits of the political commonwealth. It’s about making sure those benefits flow only to those people who have proven through their ability to work all the other levers of power that they deserve those benefits.
One of the clearest demonstrations of the contradiction came during the Republican National Convention in 2012, when the party gave one night of speeches over to the theme, “We did build that,” a deliberate misinterpretation of something the president had said. Speaker after speaker spoke of how they pulled themselves up and built their success without interference from “government.” By the end of the night, the bootstraps has been pulled up so hard and so long that they must’ve extended from Tampa halfway through Alabama. But there was a curious thing about these speeches. A great many of them began with, “When my Dad got out of the Army…” There was the guy who built his business who never mentioned the small-business loans he’d obtained. There was Chris Christie, railing against the dead hand of big government while nearly sobbing over how important the GI Bill had been to his Dad. There was Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma who, against all history and logic, explained how her state had been built only through the sweat of Oklahomans. It was a night of organized bullshit so epic that it stands alone in my memory. It should have been all anybody talked about for a month. It should have defined the Republican party for a generation. Hell, if it weren’t for the New Deal, Ronald Reagan’s father would have been the town drunk. Government wasn’t The Problem then. Instead, it passed without conspicuous notice. If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, then a liberal is a conservative who was stupid enough to buy a Pinto. My son’s industrial accident must be avenged. Oh, and we should do away with OSHA as soon as that happens. Greg Abbott deserved that $10 million, but all the people taking advantage of the Americans With Disabilities Act don’t deserve wheelchair ramps or curb cuts. It’s monstrous.
Pulling Up the Ladder