Flying home from a vacation largely free of politics, I read President Trump’s State of the Union text with a sense of obligation and dread.
In his opening remarks, Trump proclaimed his mission “righteous,” his progress “incredible” and his success “extraordinary.” He then demanded the pursuit of political common ground before proceeding to excoriate his opponents, later calling them treasonous for failing to stand and applaud him.
His speech got me thinking about the words Republicans always use — in Washington, D.C. and in Wisconsin — to divide us.
Let’s start with the concept of hard work.
In the first few minutes, Trump bragged of doubling the standard deduction in the GOP tax plan to help “hard-working Americans.” Minutes later, he heralded a welder from Ohio as a “hard-working” American who would invest the supposed windfall from the tax cut in his home and family. Moments later, Trump told his audience that “if you work hard” you can dream and “achieve anything” in his America.
Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP also presume to have a corner on the work ethic market.
“The real results from tax reform are already being felt statewide, with hard-working families keeping more of what they earn — on top of Wisconsin companies raising wages and handing out bonuses,” crowed a recent state GOP statement.
The screaming hypocrisy is that such GOP-speak conjures images of pickup trucks, tool boxes and time clocks. In truth, the GOP tax plan obscenely favors the already better-off — the owner and investor class, especially the mega-wealthy — while trickling a few nickels and dimes down to everyday workers.
When you think about it, though, this claim of being for those who “work hard” is a twofer for the GOP.
Working hard is what GOP political foes fail to do, at least according to stereotypes they perpetuate. Members of the professional and managerial classes who populate Madison do lots of their work at keyboards and in meetings. They are part of the “knowledge economy” about which the GOP loves to fuel resentment.
That same GOP narrative also portrays public school teachers and university professors as lazy, what with summers off and the hours-in the-classroom obsession of GOP lawmakers.
On a second, more sinister theme, the “hard-working” descriptor relates to the seldom-articulated but rampant GOP narrative that people of color in places like Milwaukee are less industrious, less productive and thus less deserving of government assistance.
A corollary to working hard in GOP-speak is how Republicans relentlessly invoke “common sense.” You know, just as GOP foes do not work hard, they also lack the common sense that Republicans possess. I infer some anti-intellectual roots to this claim, a sort of low-voltage populism. “Don’t bother me with the details of climate science or research about gun violence, my common sense tells me they are fabrications of the liberal elite. At least that’s what talk radio and Fox News tell me.”
And here’s another obnoxious euphemism — describing any proposal, no matter how repugnant, as a “reform.” The dictionary defines “reform” as a change in a social, political, or economic institution or practice to improve it. Now, the left is also guilty of using the word, but it strikes me as especially ludicrous that many in the media use “reform” to describe GOP proposals that actually vastly diminish or outright kill some programs.
It reminds me of how deer hunters euphemistically engage in a “harvest.” The Department of Natural Resources even publishes an annual “Wisconsin deer harvest summary.” To me, killing is killing, whether in public policy or shooting deer. Not judging, but call it what it is.
Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, admonished the media in a New Year’s op-ed in the Washington Post a few weeks ago: “I have a simple request to journalists, columnists, pundits, and others writing about forthcoming efforts of Republicans to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the anti-poverty programs that make up our safety net.
“Call such efforts ‘cuts.’ Do not call them ‘reforms,’ ‘changes,’ ‘overhauls,’ ‘fixes,’ ‘reshaping,’ ‘modernizing,’ or any other euphemism that could easily be misconstrued. At least, do not do so without also clearly defining what they really are, which is cuts.”
He writes that advocates of cutting programs have every right to make their case, but not to mislead by employing a “linguistic fog.”
As long as I am at it, there are two other pejorative terms that drive me nuts. One is “identity politics,” political alliances based on religion, race or social background rather than policy platforms like traditional political parties. Hillary Clinton and fellow Democrats were scolded mercilessly for allegedly practicing this in 2016.
It is the cousin of “political correctness,” a phrase sneeringly used by conservatives to refer to language or policies that they believe coddle other groups, usually those that aren’t straight, white and male.
Now, I am a straight white male whose ancestors arrived from Sweden and the Netherlands more than a century ago. They began as farmers and laborers, worked hard and were more or less smoothly assimilated. We never experienced the kind of hostility as have so many African-Americans, native Spanish speakers or members of the LGBTQ community.
Why is it that so many older white guys like me — who have always been at or near the front of any figurative line — are so quick to wail about a “PC culture” in politics? (Trump, even more than Walker, understands the political value of exploiting this and calls it authentic. What it really is, often, is racist.)
So, does all this language stuff matter?
Last month, the state GOP said this about Paul Soglin when the Madison mayor announced his gubernatorial bid: “Extreme Madison liberal Paul Soglin has a radical past. After nearly half a century spent pushing his extreme left-wing agenda — embracing higher taxes and more government — Soglin is too out of touch with hard-working Wisconsin families to be governor.”
In truth, Soglin through the decades has been at the center of transforming Madison into Wisconsin’s economic powerhouse, even if, to the GOP, he is a Communist fossil.
But hey, lacking a GOP-approved work ethic and any common sense, what do I know?
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