The massive pandemic-relief and economic-stimulus bill that U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law on Thursday passed the Congress exclusively on Democratic votes. The Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the bill as “a multi-trillion-dollar Trojan horse full of bad old liberal ideas.” But Republicans and right-wing media were hardly focused on the legislation in the days before its passage—devoting most of their attention to unrelated culture-war controversies, including whether Dr. Seuss had been “canceled” after the late author’s estate decided to stop selling six of his children’s books that contain racist illustrations. What explains this—and what does it all indicate about where the American right is going?

According to Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, “The whole point is to try to suggest that Democrats are responsible for a ’cancel culture’ and … that before long they’ll be going after all of us.” As Ornstein sees it, Republicans may act like “born-again fiscal conservatives” in their opposition to Biden’s government spending, but the party of Donald Trump is likely to bear down on cultural conflict as it seeks to win back power in the coming years.


Graham Vyse: In Michael Bluhm’s conversation on the stimulus with Dean Baker here at The Signal yesterday, they briefly discussed how Republicans and right-wing media seemed more focused on culture-war issues like the supposed “canceling” of Dr. Seuss than on the substance of this economic relief. What do you make of that?

Norm Ornstein: I did see some interesting reactions from Republicans in the aftermath of this passage. Of course, we had Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying it was one of the worst pieces of legislation he had ever seen. We’ve had plenty of other Republicans, not surprisingly, crap all over it. But I was also struck that Senator Roger Wicker was already crowing about provisions in the bill.

My guess is you’re going to see a lot of Republicans try to have it both ways with this—appeal to their base by noting that they stood firm against those evil Democrats while understanding that a lot of what’s in this bill is going to be very popular and trying to take credit for it. You could say that’s outrageous. It’s also not untypical politics. But it’s awfully hypocritical.

Republicans now are born-again fiscal conservatives—something that was completely absent during the Trump years. Whenever Trump was for big spending, they went for big spending. They did whatever Trump wanted. The [Trump] tax cut, of course, was an enormous deficit-and-debt-busting bill. It was predictable that as soon as there was a Democratic president, they would turn around and become champions of fiscal austerity.

Vyse: So you think Republicans will now turn back to the rhetoric of small government, responsible budgeting, and concern over deficits and the debt, even though they didn’t care about those issues under Trump?

Ornstein: Absolutely. I’d be stunned if they don’t. We’re already seeing signs of that. We’ve seen it before. These are tried-and-true tactics over the last two decades.

For our subscribers

The Signal is an independent digital magazine, supported exclusively by readers. Join to continue reading this article and for full access to everything we publish.

Subscribe now Already have an account? Sign in