WASHINGTON — When I was a kid, rich people were just, well, rich people. They weren’t endowed with superhuman traits or placed on pedestals to be worshipped by the lumpenproletariat. They weren’t believed to hold special keys that turned the universe.
They were properly viewed as individuals who had acquired their wealth in different ways and deployed it to different ends. We understood that some among the wealthy were like Bill Gates and others were like Donald Trump.
Always suckers for Horatio Alger stories, we reserved unabashed admiration for those who rose to riches through sheer resolve and hard work. We respected those who used their money to help the needy, to endow local charities, to build schools, libraries and playgrounds.
And we whispered about those scions of privilege who found no wholesome outlet for that priceless inheritance, but who burned through it with their relentless consumption of everything bigger, faster, more intoxicating. Theirs were cautionary tales, examples of the old cliché that “money can’t buy happiness.”
That was a while back, before Republicans — always protectors of the wealthy and powerful — hit upon a strategy for re-branding the rich as the people who make the world go ‘round. Now, we are told, the wealthy are to be revered as “job creators” — no matter whether they use their money to create jobs or havoc. And if President Obama raises their taxes, the world will spin wildly off its axis and the apocalypse will follow.
That means the Hollywood Kardashians, the family who give new meaning to the word “infamous,” are to be treated as economic saints who cannot be asked to contribute a penny more to the nation that has made them so fabulously rich. The same goes for all the celebutants, trust fund babies and other members of the Lucky Sperm Club who have given little but received a lot.
You gotta give credit to the modern-day GOP. Since Newt Gingrich and consultant Frank Luntz rose to power, the Republicans have excelled at propaganda, twisting words beyond recognition in pursuit of political ends. They’ve been remarkably successful at selling bad ideas in bright packaging, peddling snake oil in shiny foil paper.
Among my favorites is the phrase “death tax,” which Republicans deployed against the estate tax in the 1990s. They succeeded in persuading average working folk that the “death tax” was a greedy grab for the savings they had scraped together to leave for their heirs. (Some seemed to believe it was actually a tax on the dying.) In fact, the estate tax — then and now — is paid by a tiny group of the richest Americans. That includes very few family farms or businesses.
Last week, GOP pols dutifully pulled out the tried-and-true “class warfare” to criticize President Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on the rich. That canard has been around since at least the 1930s, when the wealthy and powerful used it to pummel Franklin Roosevelt over his New Deal.
(It’s funny how the phrase is never used to describe any number of proposals that would shortchange working stiffs. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, for example, have both suggested that working-class households ought to pay more in federal income taxes. Why isn’t that “class warfare”?)
According to House Speaker John Boehner, Obama has aimed his plan squarely at the nation’s vaunted “job creators,” who can’t be expected to restore the economy if their taxes are raised even a little. So Kim Kardashian would lay off her team of hairstylists and personal shoppers?
Of course, that’s just nonsense. If there were any connection between higher taxes for the wealthy and job creation, the Clinton years would have seen high unemployment while the Bush years would have produced widespread prosperity. In fact, as we all remember, the opposite was true.
And, so far, most Americans remember that. Polls show that voters overwhelmingly favor Obama’s plans to call for a bit more sacrifice by the richest among us, who have profited most from what this country has to offer.
But don’t think the GOP will give up on a bad product. They will keep peddling their voodoo economics, hoping to find more takers. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve grown powerful defending the interests of the powerful, so they’re not likely to stop.
Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.