The Heritage Foundation, where Donald Trump delivered a brief speech Tuesday night, has been called the birthplace of Paul Ryan, the Republican leader of the House. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. Steve Bannon, a key adviser to Trump and former chief strategist, once said that Ryan was born in a petri dish at Heritage and dismissed him as a “limp dick motherfucker.”
That kind of intraparty animosity would be surprising if we lived in a different political culture. Bannon and Ryan are both self-identified conservatives. Heritage, a D.C.-based think tank, is one of conservatism’s flagship institutions. It deserves much credit, or blame, for making the movement into a powerful force in contemporary U.S. politics. Its policy papers shaped the Reagan administration’s agenda in the early 1980s, and its fervor for tax cutting and deregulating helped move American society in a decisively neoliberal direction.
Those were simpler times. Trump’s appearance at Heritage revealed a right-wing movement — and a Republican Party — at the breaking point, being pulled apart by two very different kinds of lunacy, represented by Bannon and Heritage, with Trump right in the middle. No wonder he sounds so unhinged so much of the time.
Trump didn’t say anything newly outrageous in his Heritage speech. It was the blandness of the event that was revealing. Its primary purpose was to sell the Trump administration’s tax-cut plan, which Heritage “scholars” have helped craft, just as they did during the Reagan era.
Before addressing the tax cuts, Trump first gave a list of the accomplishments that “they” say dwarfs any previous administration in U.S. history, naturally. (He didn’t say who “they” are.) These include appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and repealing the Clean Power Act. Trump also listed a number of things that we all agree on, according to him, including the belief that freedom is a gift from God, that judges should interpret the Constitution as it’s written, that children should honor the flag and that strong nations have strong borders.
Once on the subject of taxes, Trump recited his prepared talking points: Tax cuts for working Americans means job growth. The tax burden on businesses is crushing them. Lower the rates and “you will see things happen like have never happened before.” And then he pivoted to how we’ll all be liberated to say “Merry Christmas” this holiday season.
All told, Trump actually said little about the tax cuts themselves, perhaps because it’s difficult to say very much without revealing what they actually are — a payoff to the wealthy right-wing philanthropists who bankroll institutions like the Heritage Foundation.
Founded in 1973 with seed money from the beer baron Joe Coors, Heritage exists largely to provide an intellectual gloss to an agenda of liberating rich people from taxes and unshackling corporations from regulations. Charles and David Koch, the oil industry moguls, have been among its major supporters, along with legions of similar corporate tycoons.
So it’s no accident that the “Blueprint for Reform” published by Heritage prior to the 2016 election recommended gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — a directive the Trump administration is now carrying out.
With the defanging of the EPA, the corporate donor class has seen a big payoff on the regulation side. Now they expect one on the tax side, which is exactly what they’ll get if anything like Trump’s outline of a tax bill passes. An analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that half of the benefits in the first year would go to the top one percent of taxpayers. Their after-tax income would increase by about 9 percent. The average tax cut for the top one tenth of one percent would be nearly $750,000. The plan is, above all, a thank you gift to the super rich.
Which brings us back to Bannon. Using the levers of government to enrich the wealthy isn’t exactly his thing. His own special brand of lunacy is a clash-of-civilizations fantasy that sees the foundations of “the West” as under assault by the forces of globalism, secularism and non-Christian religions.
“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict,” Bannon said in a speech at the Vatican in 2014. “If the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant — to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting — that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
Perhaps to his credit, Bannon sees Heritage and the GOP establishment for what they are — puppets of their donors, focused mainly on redistributing wealth upward. People, that is, who think pushing back against “happy holidays” is a meaningful act of cultural war. Bannon, meanwhile, sees war in terms of a literal, globe-encompassing battle for the survival of Western, Christian civilization.
Trump’s bland and meandering speech on Tuesday showed just how difficult it is for the GOP to balance these competing lunacies. Both factions are increasingly powerful. The rich represented by Heritage are only getting richer, and buying more politicians, while Bannon’s white Christian nationalists are becoming ever bolder.
Yet the policies that cater to these constituencies are unpopular with the broader public, which rejects both tax cuts for the wealthy and explicit racism. So the GOP is left with Trump’s strategy, on display in his Heritage speech, of peddling a toned down version of the clash-of-civilizations fantasy while selling regressive tax policy as an economic stimulus package.
Probably the most honest thing said at the Heritage event followed Trump’s speech, when the opening lines of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” began blaring as the president exited — a choice as surreal as appropriate.
Neither dominant faction of the conservative movement is getting what it wants from the GOP right now. Bannon is planning his own war against the party in the coming primary season, fielding fringe candidates like Roy Moore, the ex-judge in Alabama with a fetish for placing the Ten Commandments in public places. And big donors are threatening to close their wallets if major tax cuts are not enacted, the GOP having already failed them on Obamacare repeal.
A Republican crackup may not be imminent, at least not yet. But the fault lines are deepening and the contradictions are heightening, while the lunacy continues to spread.