Republicans Are the Real Extremists

April 2019, editorials

Republicans have demonized two new Democratic members of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Ilhan Omar.CreditSaul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Paul Krugman

All of Donald Trump’s major policies have failed substantively, politically, or both. His one big legislative achievement, the 2017 tax cut, remains unpopular. His attacks on Obamacare have only enhanced public approval of the program. His fearmongering has cemented majority opposition to his proposed border wall.

But while today’s G.O.P. can’t do policy, it commands a powerful propaganda machine. And this machine is now dedicated to a strategy of portraying

Democrats as extremists. It might work — but it shouldn’t, because Democrats aren’t extremists, but Republicans are.

The attack on Democrats has largely involved demonizing two new members of Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Omar is Muslim, and the usual suspects have gone all-out in using an out-of-context quotation to portray her, completely falsely, as sympathetic to terrorists. AOC, who calls herself a democratic socialist — although she’s really just a social democrat — has been the subject of obsessive coverage on the right. Over a six-week period, Fox News and Fox Business mentioned her more than 3,000 times, invariably portraying her as ignorant, radical, or both.

It’s surely not an accident that these two principal targets are both women of color; there’s a sense in which supposed concerns about extremism are just a cover for sexism and white nationalism. But it’s still worth pointing out that while both Omar and AOC are on the left of the Democratic Party, neither is staking out policy positions that are extreme compared with either expert views or public opinion.

Take AOC’s famous advocacy of a 70 percent tax rate on very high incomes. Economists who knew anything about public finance immediately recognized that number as coming from a widely cited paper by Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, two of the field’s leading figures. You don’t have to agree with their analysis to recognize that AOC, far from showing her ignorance, was actually drawing on solid research.

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Nor does the public find the idea outrageous. An overwhelming majority believe that people with high incomes pay too little in taxes, and polls show wide support for AOC’s proposal.

Is echoing leading experts and matching popular opinion extremist? Actually, what AOC’s position on the Democratic left tells us is that the party as a whole is, if anything, to the right of the general public on major policy issues.

Republicans, on the other hand, really are extremists. As Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein put it in 2012 — long before the rise of Trump — the modern G.O.P. is “ideologically extreme” and uninterested in “facts, evidence, and science.” For example, major figures in the party routinely dismiss global warming as a hoax perpetrated by a vast global conspiracy.

Or consider the views of Stephen Moore, who Trump is trying to put on the board of the Federal Reserve.

What you need to know about Moore, aside from his inability to get facts right, is that, unlike Herman Cain, Trump’s other Fed pick, he’s very much a part of the right-wing establishment. He’s a former editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, a former chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, a fixture at conferences like FreedomFest. Given this background, it may not be surprising that he’s a firm believer in failed economic doctrines, especially the insistence that tax cuts for the wealthy have magical effects.

What’s coming out only now, however, is the extent of Moore’s political extremism. Many of his past statements — like his assertion that “capitalism is a lot more important than democracy” — sound like a liberal caricature of conservatism. But it’s not a caricature; Moore shows us what the right actually thinks.

I mentioned that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the rich pay too little in taxes. Moore, on the other hand, wants to eliminate income taxes and replace them with sales taxes, which would dramatically shift the tax burden away from the rich and onto the middle class. And he has called the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax, “the most evil act that has passed in 100 years.”

He also wants to privatize Social Security, a program that is both hugely popular and the bedrock of retirement security for American workers. Moore would convert it into a 401(k)-type system. He is also fiercely hostile to Medicaid, which covers 65 million Americans.

Finally, Moore has proposed, in advance, a purge of the institution Trump wants him to join, calling for firing “hundreds” of Federal Reserve economists “who are worthless.” These would, presumably, be the economists who considered low interest rates and monetary expansion valuable tools in fighting the Great Recession, at the same time Moore was predicting that these policies would send inflation soaring. Guess who was right.

So even if you cherry-pick left-leaning Democrats, a look at their actual positions shows them to be not at all extreme. At the same time, pillars of the right-wing establishment hold views that are utterly at odds with both evidence and public opinion. Republicans are the real extremists.