By Trump-era standards, Ebenezer Scrooge was a nice guy.
It’s common, especially around this time of year, to describe conservative politicians who cut off aid to the poor as Scrooges; I’ve done it myself. But if you think about it, this is deeply unfair to Scrooge.
For while Dickens portrays Scrooge as a miser, he’s notably lacking in malice. True, he’s heartless until he’s visited by various ghosts. But his heartlessness consists merely of unwillingness to help those in need. He’s never shown taking pleasure in others’ suffering, or spending money to make the lives of the poor worse.
These are things you can’t say about the modern American right. In fact, many conservative politicians only pretend to be Scrooges, when they’re actually much worse — not mere misers, but actively cruel. This was true long before Donald Trump moved into the White House. What’s new about the Trump era is that the cruelty is more open, not just on Trump’s part, but throughout his party.
Now, the conventional wisdom about today’s Republicans is indeed that they are Scrooge-like. That is, the story is that they want to serve the interests of the rich (which is true), and that the reason they want to slash aid to the poor is to free up money for plutocrat-friendly tax cuts.
But is that really why the right is so determined to cut programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits?
After all, the explosion of the budget deficit under Trump shows that Republican claims to care about fiscal responsibility were always humbug, that they’re perfectly willing to slash taxes on the rich without offsetting spending cuts. Furthermore, because America spends relatively little money helping the poor, even harsh cuts — like the Trump administration’s new rules on food stamps, which will hurt hundreds of thousands — will at best save only tiny amounts compared with the cost of tax cuts.
And in important cases, the right is so eager to hurt low-income Americans that it’s willing to do so even if there are no budget savings at all.
Consider the case of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which a 2012 Supreme Court decision made optional: States could choose not to participate.
Why would any state make that choice? After all, the federal government will pay 90% of the cost, and experience shows that expanding Medicaid produces indirect cost savings — for example, by letting states reduce aid to hospitals for uncompensated costs.
Furthermore, the federal funds brought in by Medicaid expansion boost a state’s economy, which raises tax revenues. So expansion is, from a state fiscal point of view, neutral or even net positive. Why would any state turn it down?
Yet 14 Republican-controlled states, many among the nation’s poorest, are still refusing to expand Medicaid.
At the same time, a number of states are trying to limit access to Medicaid by imposing stringent work requirements. This may sound like a cost-saving measure, but it isn’t — trying to enforce work requirements, it turns out, costs a lot of money.
The point is that these state governments are only pretending to be penny pinchers. In reality, they’re actively trying to make peoples’ lives worse, and they’re willing to lose money to accomplish that goal. But why?
In 2018, The Atlantic published a memorable essay by Adam Serwer titled “The Cruelty Is the Point,” about the political importance of shared pleasure from other people’s suffering. Serwer was inspired to write that essay by photos of lynchings, which show groups of white men obviously enjoying the show. Indeed, in America, gratuitous cruelty has often been directed at people of color.
But as Serwer also noted, it’s not just about race. There are more people than we like to imagine who rejoice in the suffering of anyone they see as unlike themselves, especially anyone they perceive as weak.
In fact, I suspect that this mentality is part of the explanation for the seeming paradox of strong Republican support in places like eastern Kentucky where large numbers of poor whites depend on programs like food stamps: Those who aren’t receiving aid actually want to see their poorer neighbors hurt.
What Trump has brought to his party is a new willingness to be openly vicious.
I’m not saying that he’s honest about his motivations. He and his aides still go through the motions of pretending that actions like denying aid to storm-ravaged Puerto Ricans or cutting off food stamps for hundreds of thousands are about fighting corruption or enforcing fiscal responsibility.
But their attempts to justify cruelty as being somehow in the national interest are low energy, especially compared with the enthusiastic nastiness Trump exhibits at political rallies. Trump has celebrated and reportedly wants to campaign with servicemen he pardoned after our own military convicted them of or charged them with war crimes, clearly because he likes the idea of indiscriminate killing — and so do some of his supporters.
So I’m going to stop calling today’s Republicans Scrooges. We’d be in much better shape if Trump and company were merely heartless misers. What they really are is much, much worse.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., is winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Science and an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.