by Bruce Thornton
The most important issue the new president will face continues to be sidelined.
The Republican caterwauling over Donald Trump reminds me of the lyric from “That’s Entertainment”: “There’s no ordeal/like the end of Camille.” Jeb Bush, Lyndsey Graham, and Mitt Romney have announced that they will snub the GOP convention. GOP big donors are closing their wallets. Some pundits and politicians are contemplating a third-party candidate to prove the purity of their conservative principles, even if it means Hillary Clinton will end up appointing 2-3 Supreme Court Justices. The litany of Trump’s sins is recited over and over, with the implication that such a vulgar blowhard is an unprecedented blot on American history.
Meanwhile, the country’s looming fiscal disaster, the most important issue the new president will face, continues to be sidelined.
But first I can’t resist one last reminder to the angry Republicans about how they played a role in creating Donald Trump. Why weren’t the party pundits and politicians as aggressive and vociferous when Barack Obama burst on the scene? I wish the McCain campaign had as loudly hounded Obama over the gaps in his biography, the fictions in his “memoirs,” his obvious lack of experience and achievements, his pastor Jeremiah “Goddam America” Wright, his terrorist buddy Bill “free as a bird” Ayres, and his jail-bird real-estate facilitator Tony Rezko. I wish the Republicans had exposed, emphasized, and publicized, as relentlessly as they did Donald’s coarse bluster and policy incoherence, Obama’s long record of leftist ideology. Instead they were buffaloed by Obama’s “unifier” rhetoric during the campaign. Sure, all those troubling connections were mentioned and tut-tutted, but then were quickly buried in policy sound-bites coupled with obligatory encomia to Obama’s brilliant oratory, his “gifted” writing, his lovely family, exotic upbringing, and the perfect crease in his trousers.
Why? We all know why. Because Obama is “black.” Fearful of being branded racist, the Republicans pulled their punches. They ignored the Jeremiah Wright scandal and Obama’s blatant lies about his relationship to the racist pastor, pretending they were too high-minded for such bare-knuckle politics. They weakened themselves by accepting the Democrats’ old double standard that allowed them to demonize Republicans as racist for raising concerns that would have buried a Republican. The McCain campaign should have known that the “post-racial” rhetoric was a lie, and that no matter how faithfully they played by the Dems’ rules, they would get bludgeoned by accusations of racism anyway. And so it went in 2012 too, when Romney allowed the Dems to portray him as a heartless capitalist pirate, even as Obama lived it up in 1% splendor, far from the mayhem and disorder millions of blacks have to endure every day. This caving in to political correctness helped make Trump’s attack on it so successful.
But Obama enjoyed another advantage that Trump lacks. He graduated from Harvard Law School, which gives him a cachet that appeals to many similarly credentialed Republicans. Also, Obama’s only real job outside government was as a lawyer, a profession much more prestigious and high-toned than New York real-estate mogul, casino developer, and reality television star. Many people automatically attribute to an individual the prestige of an institution he is associated with, whether he’s actually earned it or not. In politics, this bias toward prestigious credentials feeds the essentially progressive illusion that government leadership requires academic training and technical skills. But of course, that assumption is as fallacious as assuming that a successful businessman will make a good president. Let’s not forget that the greatest president since World War II graduated from tiny Eureka College.
These perceptions that Republican elites were playing by the other side’s rules suggested to many people that their leaders had more in common with the other denizens of the Acela corridor than they did with the millions living in fly-over country. Notice the way some Republican critics are using the word “nationalist” when denigrating Trump and his followers. By doing so they are accepting the progressive interpretation of fervent pride in one’s nation as something dangerous and always one step away from fascist tyranny. Thus they denigrate a natural response to decades of anti-Americanism and E.U. internationalism on the part of many Democrats. So Trump just doubles down on his “making America great” bromides to gratify his aggrieved supporters.
But the time for such recriminations is past. The primary drama between Trump and the Republicans obscures the important issue that has been mostly ignored this election year, and that transcends Trump’s bad manners, the Republican establishment’s angst, or even Hillary’s FBI problems. No one has been seriously talking about the impending financial disaster being created by metastasizing entitlement spending, a $20 trillion debt, and yearly deficit spending.
As reported by the Heritage Foundation, the bare facts of this crisis should frighten all of us. Every child born in America today will leave college with a $142,000 share of the federal debt. If we stick to the current path, by 2028 publicly held debt will reach 100% of GDD, surpassing the record set in 1946 after four years of world war. By 2039 it will nearly double GDP. But servicing that debt will be more expensive when today’s low interest rates return to historical norms. As Kevin Williams explains, “If interest rates on the federal debt should return to their level in 1995 — not some weird exotic point in the past but back in the Clinton years — then we’re going to be paying $1.4 trillion a year just in interest on the existing debt; which is to say, interest payments alone will account for 45 percent of all federal taxes that will be collected in 2015.”
Deficits have retreated recently from Obama’s trillion-dollar binge spending, mostly on the back of defense spending, which contributed half the cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act. But deficits are projected to start rising again even without Williamson’s scenario. Between 1962 and 2008, deficits averaged 2.1% of GDP. In 2009 the deficit reached its high of 9.8%. By around 2025 they will match the 2008 high, and then go up steadily until they reach 18% un 2050. That means deficits will match total federal tax revenue.
Those ghastly numbers, of course, are created mostly by entitlement spending. Unless there is serious reform of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (including the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Obamacare), spending on these programs–– currently taking over half of the 18% of GDP collected by the government in taxes––will take it all by 2031. That means there will be no money for everything else the federal government does, including defense. Social Security, which ran a nearly $80 billion deficit in 2014, will see that deficit balloon to $337 billion in 2032. And these projections of the costs of unsustainable entitlement do not count the $365 billion spent in 2015 on “safety net” programs such as food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
So how many specific, serious proposals for forestalling this urgent disaster have we heard during the primaries? Not many. Just vague proposals for “growing the economy” or “taxing the rich,” politically convenient nostrums that don’t require sacrifice from the majority of people. And don’t expect anything better come November. Nobody wants to talk about it, and no one wants to listen to the painful prescriptions necessary to change course. That fact is the real scandal of this year’s presidential campaign.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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