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The Political Realignment From Hell

Trump’s coronavirus response stimulus package would bail out big oil. Biden-style Democrats will decry the cost. The planet will suffer.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Trump met with Republican senators to discuss policies to fight the economic shock of the coronavirus and dramatic fall in oil prices that’s accompanied it. Ahead of the meeting, CNN had reported paid sick leave, small business loans, payroll tax breaks, and hospitality industry bailouts might all be on the table. Coming out of the meeting, a Washington Post report focused on another possibility: federal aid for oil and natural gas companies like the one owned by Trump supporter and adviser Harold Hamm, who lost $2 billion in Monday’s price dive. At this point, there’s no telling which of these measures will materialize. Yet there’s a real possibility that Trump could turn Republicans into the party of industrial policy and social safety nets. Establishment Democrats, now on the march to nominating Joe Biden, will probably protest the expense. 

In theory, it’s hard to imagine a crisis better suited for Democratic policy: Containing disease requires the kind of big and active government response Trump’s inner circle has been incapable of mustering and will keep fumbling through whatever the stimulus looks like. The country’s biggest polluters are in crisis, and some massive stimulus package—one likely to require approval from the House of Representatives—could be the foundation for charting a path away from fossil fuels that prioritizes investing in public health infrastructure, raising living standards, and reducing emissions along a science-based timeline. Instead, both parties seem poised to make the worst of this crisis.

Since the last financial crash in 2007–2008, unconventional shale drilling has taken off in the United States. Most of that has been premised on a precarious mix of cheap debt, rapid growth, and reasonably high fuel prices. With the latter now off the table, thanks to coronavirus-related demand drop-off and a Saudi-Russian price war, some shale drillers—in a sector that carries the economy’s largest corporate debt load—have come begging to the White House for a bailout, per the Post’s Jeff Stein. Naturally, Trump seems more than happy to oblige. He may soon hand over billions, if not more, in low-interest loans (“targeted assistance”) to oil and gas companies as well as support for airlines and cruise lines, all hurting in their own way from a coronavirus-induced slowdown that’s grinding travel and tourism to a halt around the world.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in the shale fields will find their jobs at risk as more drillers declare bankruptcy, something that already looked likely before the COVID-19 outbreak picked up. That said, bailing out their bosses will probably do about as much for shale-field communities in West Texas as bailing out Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein did for people saddled with subprime mortgages. There’s a supply glut, so paying drillers to produce more could do more harm than good. And there’s little about shale fuel’s house-of-cards business model that seems built to last, with or without the proposed stimulus.

As rigs are decommissioned—whether now or later—magnates like Harold Hamm and Trump’s other wealthy friends will walk away unscathed as wildcatters are left to deal with layoffs, poisoned air and water, and an ever-warming world; coal miners know this dynamic all too well. What shale-field workers and communities almost certainly need—more than a temporary loan to oil barons—is investment to diversify their economies with well-paid work and industries that strengthen former boomtowns for the long haul, fully honoring the contributions that generations of workers have made to the country and transitioning into the future of American energy. All of that also needs to be bolstered by the kind of strong social safety net that’s helping some European countries weather the COVID-19 crisis: commonsense policies like universal health care and paid sick leave.

As of this week, neither Biden nor Trump seems likely to deliver that. With a history of boosting natural gas, a team of climate and energy advisers who’ve gotten millions from the fossil fuel industry, and a longtime distaste for deficit spending, Joe Biden isn’t likely to argue strongly for a big government investment package that pivots away from shale; former Biden adviser Jared Bernstein told the Post he might even support the idea of a shale bailout for Hamm and company. And in the absence of any meaningful alternative, Trump could become a hero of the shale and hospitality workers while the Democratic Party wags its finger at the price tag.

The fallout of the coronavirus, that is, could make the American right embrace big government and deficit spending more openly than ever before, however haphazard its approach. While bound to fail in the long run—or provide a meaningful answer to the COVID-19 crisis—it could pump temporary life into the industries where Trump’s closest friends are and lend short-term relief to families in need, boosting his chances in November. The Democratic establishment, meanwhile, looks ready to double down on partisan posturing and deficit hawkishness. The result could be a zombie realignment in American politics, propping up the revivified corpse of Joe Biden’s approach to policy and politics in a move that will be as big a disaster for the planet as it is for the Democratic Party.

The American right’s close ties to corporate America and the neoliberal project—pushing lower corporate taxes and an anemic social safety net—have kept it from adopting the same brand of right-wing populism that’s taken off in Europe. Aspiring authoritarians there like Marine Le Pen have married virulent xenophobia to generous social spending. In Poland, the ruling far-right Law and Justice Party has provided families a roughly $125 monthly stipend per child and pledged to double the minimum wage to $1,000 per month, with electoral wins to show for it. (It’s also eliminated the country’s independent judiciary and handed power over to a band of conspiracy theorists.) “The economy should benefit the whole society, instead of just one group and leaving the rest of the society in God’s good grace,” party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski told an interviewer  before citing the progressive economist Thomas Piketty as a major influence on his thinking. In their own ways, Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson have been pitching just such a fusion for years, to no avail. With a potential recession and pandemic looming, their luck may just be starting to change.

A Democratic Party that once championed full employment and the New Deal, meanwhile, has shifted right since Jimmy Carter, claiming amid the Reagan Revolution that New Deal ends could be achieved through neoliberal means. Take away bad-faith debates over the word “socialism,” and it’s easy to see Senator Bernie Sanders’s last two presidential runs as a bid to bring the party back to its modern roots in the ideas pushed by Walter Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, and Franklin Roosevelt—all pushed and informed by socialists who spent time in the Democratic Party’s orbit. With exceptions, Sanders has also spent his career advocating for policy positions that are relatively mundane throughout Western politics, where social democratic and labor parties have been an ordinary feature of public life for the last century.

A confirmed deficit hawk, Biden, by contrast, has long urged fiscal prudence via cuts to popular programs like Medicare and Social Security. So far this primary cycle, he’s wielded his calls for budgetary discipline against Sanders’s Green New Deal and Medicare for All, even telling Lawrence O’Donnell Monday night that he would veto the former out of cost concerns if it came to his desk. I want to know,” he said, “how did they find the $35 trillion? What is that doing? Is it going to significantly raise taxes on the middle class, which it will?” If his primary momentum keeps up, Biden may well find himself with the Democratic nomination this summer, turning those budget-hawk talons on Trump. 

Biden’s supporters are already treating Sanders’s losses across the South as evidence that voters dislike Sanders’s calls for an expanded social safety net—despite polling evidence to the contrary. By November 2020, it isn’t hard to picture the DNC taking out ads about how reckless Cheeto Mussolini’s spending habits are as Americans collect their paid leave and checks from oil companies kept afloat by the most fleeting of lifelines.

That’s probably a losing strategy for Biden and the Democratic Party—one that will see Trump reelected and another four years of disastrous fossil fuel boosterism, with the added twist of white nationalist welfare chauvinism that will enhance his popularity. But even if Biden does win, he seems poised to close ranks and stock his administration with former Obama- and Bush-era technocrats and Wall Street veterans, assuring them that Democrats aren’t the party of either Bernie Sanders or his ideas. As I pointed out earlier this week, Biden’s likely to hand the keys on climate and energy over to Obama alums, several of whom will rejoin after lucrative stints in the fossil fuel industry. The upshot would likely be a modest and wholly insufficient carbon tax that only ExxonMobil and a plurality of academic economists could love, coupled with the pre-2016 “all of the above” energy strategy that fueled the fracking boom in the first place. It’s hardly the sort of compelling vision needed to fend off the right, let alone tackle the climate crisis at scale. And before too long, New Democrat–style balanced budget orthodoxy would give way to a revived GOP pushing hardened borders and a welfare state for those it sees as worthy, promising protection as worsening storms and floods displace millions looking to the U.S. for a stable home. If the Obama era delivered Trump, a Biden era could bring something much darker.

This is all, of course, speculative. There is still a candidate in the race promising five years of full wage parity for workers in the fossil fuel sector and a Green New Deal to fend against economic and climate shocks alike, while raising Americans’ standards of living across the board. But people have to vote for that first.