Ronald Reagan, considered a secular saint before, during and after his two presidential terms by many in the Republican Party, an actor-turned-politician who also served as California’s governor, was famous for his stated disdain of the thing he spent much of his life doing: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
Of course, his administration’s tax cuts were plenty helpful for high earners, but it certainly made for a catchy sound bite. And it became a guiding philosophy for his, and now Trump’s, Republican Party.
And that brings us to the culmination of the effort to paint any government acting competently with a dash of compassion as evil — Texas, the Lone Star State that went it alone. We all saw how that worked out. When a cold snap broke the state, exposing glaring failures in everything from its independent energy grid to its power and water systems, the state’s leaders were either ghosts — escaping to Mexico for a vacation, in the case of Sen. Ted Cruz, or to Utah, where state Attorney General Ken Paxton traveled — or defiant apologists.
Colorado City, Texas, Mayor Tim Boyd resigned after his survival-of-the-fittest Facebook take: “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this!” he wrote. “Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!”
I’m sure Texans would have gotten the message without the capital letters and exclamation points, if they had not been busy busting up and burning furniture to keep warm.
Former Texas governor and Trump Energy Secretary Rick Perry was quoted as saying: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” People died. Current Gov. Greg Abbott rushed to Fox News to blame Green New Deal policies that, unless I missed it, have not been implemented in his state.
Some, like Cruz and Paxton, had time to challenge the votes of other states in a fruitless effort to stop democracy in its tracks and prevent President Joe Biden from assuming the office he fairly won, but none to prepare Texans for the cold.
It’s ironic, though not surprising, that those the right reflexively props up as villains were picking up the slack with the private and personal philanthropy often offered up as a replacement for official aid. Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who gave Cruz a close run in his last Senate race, has harnessed a massive volunteer effort and distributed water and provisions. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., raised nearly $5 million for those affected by the storm. She traveled to Texas.
Private citizens pitched in, like Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who opened his furniture store as a makeshift shelter, as he had done in crises past.
But if state leaders pass the buck when a crisis hits, it’s fair for voters to start asking questions, of those leaders and themselves.
How did we get here?
It didn’t start with Reagan, though if you wanted an affable symbol of rugged individualism, you couldn’t do better than the former actor turned union leader turned conservative icon. He may not have been a Henry Fonda or a James Stewart, to name a couple of his more lauded cinematic contemporaries; but he knew how to sell. His 1960s warning about creeping socialism in proposed Medicare legislation sounds startling today: “You and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” But it echoed his presidential hard line.
Once in the White House, Reagan hedged, signing an expansion of that once demonized medical insurance program that had become widely popular. But he knew how to make his party’s limited-government mantra palatable — wrap the all-American vision with an “I got mine and some folks don’t deserve it” color-coded bigotry.
Sadly, research indicates that when government assistance is seen as benefiting Americans of color, support for it drops, even when it would help everyone, whites most of all. Reagan’s evocation of the “welfare queen” and “strapping young buck” buying steaks with food stamps worked to pump up the idea that the only Americans who need government help are undeserving moochers.
Without batting an eye, conservative politicians speak movingly about parents who achieved the American Dream with a boost from the G.I. Bill or Social Security, government programs that have histories of discrimination against deserving Black citizens, and then preach austerity and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
But a storm that paralyzes a state lays bare the hypocrisy, with state leaders who complained about money for “blue-state bailouts” now eager for emergency declarations that bring federal cash. It was Cruz, remember, who complained that Hurricane Sandy relief benefiting the East Coast was filled with “pork.”
It all depends on who’s getting help, the view changing when needs grow close, when you or a family member needs rental or food assistance, a decent minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, energy bill supplements or a vaccine to protect against a deadly virus.
A politician who runs for office, then scoffs at lawmaking to score points with a weapons-packed Zoom background or a cold-hearted culture war tweet, looks foolish and, worst of all, ineffective.
Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 with support from Reagan, famously said: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Just last week, a lot of Texans did not have enough clean water to fill one.
It’s not government that’s the problem, it’s government that doesn’t work.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.