Former President Donald Trump returned to Washington this week for what was billed as “a policy speech” at the America First Policy Institute, an advocacy group friendly to Trump staffed by multiple people who served in his administration. Not surprisingly, the policies he touted are just like the ones he backed when he was president and which Republicans are increasingly embracing in state legislatures around the country: punitive, authoritarian and mean.
Cruelty toward vulnerable Americans, such as people who are experiencing homelessness, is becoming the norm in Republican politics.
There were Trump’s usual calls for executing drug dealers, bringing back “stop-and-frisk policies in cities,” and deploying the National Guard in urban areas with high crime rates. But one policy idea was new: Trump called for removing thousands of homeless people from American cities and making them live in tents on “large parcels of inexpensive land in the outer reaches of the cities.”
It’s a policy prescription most accurately described as “out of sight, out of mind.” And given that as president, he had infant migrant children forcibly separated from their parents, it’s disturbingly consistent.
But, it’s not just Trump. Cruelty toward vulnerable Americans, such as people who are experiencing homelessness, is becoming the norm in Republican politics. Last month, Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons, a Republican, signed legislation that includes some of the punitive measures Trump promoted this week. The bill Parsons signed, which sailed through the GOP-controlled state legislature, directly targets the homeless population by making it a crime to sleep on state-owned lands, such as under highway overpasses and bridges. Violators can be fined up to $750 or sentenced up to 15 days in prison.
The law gives the Missouri attorney general the power to sue cities that don’t enforce the ban and it allows for funding to address homelessness to be taken away from cities where the homelessness rate exceeds the state average. The new law also prevents cities and nonprofit groups from using state grants or federal grants to construct permanent housing. Local governments would instead be required to use the money to build the type of temporary camps described by Trump – and those in such camps would first have to submit to mental health evaluations and drug testing. This goes against federal policy, which bans such requirements.
The legislation, in effect, criminalizes homelessness and makes it more difficult for the homeless to find permanent housing. The law is so onerous that Valerie Huhn, the director of Missouri’s Department of Mental Health and a member of the governor’s cabinet, told Parsons the law would harm the homeless population and advised him not to sign it because it would make their problems worse. To no avail.
Republicans at least used to mouth the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism.
According to research from the news organization Stateline, six Republican-controlled states have introduced legislation with language remarkably similar to the law targeting the homeless population in Missouri. Tennessee and Texas are among the most recent states to ban camping on state property. (It should be noted that measures that include warehousing America’s homeless population have also been embraced by a handful of Democratic politicians, including Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso and New York Mayor Eric Adams).
But even more consistent than the language in these bills is their meanness. Cruelty has become the defining characteristic of modern Republican policy-making. Whether it’s abortion bans that force 10-year-olds to cross state lines to terminate a pregnancy, anti-LGBTQ legislation that makes it more difficult for trans kids to access gender-affirming health care or House Republicans refusing to support legislation codifying same-sex marriage, punitive and mean-spirited policies directed at the most vulnerable have become increasingly prevalent.
Indeed, the states with the most restrictive abortion bans are the most likely to offer the most meager social services. Mississippi, which is preparing to outlaw abortion, has some of the highest infant-mortality rates and maternal mortality rates in the country. Yet, the state still refuses to extend Medicaid to new mothers, and cash assistance for a poor mother raising two children is, at most, $260 a month, one of the lowest amounts in the country.
None of this is exactly new. Red-state Republicans have been short-changing safety net programs for decades, and a handful of red states still refuse to expand Medicaid more than 12 years after it was signed into law. But while Republicans at least used to mouth the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism, today they seem to revel in doing the opposite.
Increasingly, GOP cruelty goes beyond policy. During a recent Jan. 6 hearing, the House GOP Twitter feed attacked former Trump aide Sarah Matthews, who testified to the Jan. 6 committee, as a “pawn” and a “liar,” even though she works for the House Republican Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. (Those tweets were soon deleted.)
Trump derided Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and a witness to the Jan. 6 committee, as a “girl” with “serious … mental problems.” Men who have testified before the committee including former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, who sat next to Matthews during a public appearance before the committee, have mostly gone unmentioned.
Rep. Matt Gaetz used his speaking slot at a conservative conference to call women who support abortion rights “disgusting.”
Last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used his speaking slot at a conservative conference to call women who support abortion rights “disgusting” and too unattractive for anybody to want to have sex with them. He even singled out and body-shamed a 19-year old abortion rights supporter.
Mainstream Republicans now regularly deride Democrats as communists and Marxists. They label as “pedophiles” and “groomers” those pushing for acceptance of LGBTQ children. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that a party that embraces a man who once bragged about grabbing women by the “p—” and insulted a Gold Star mother would make such a heel turn, but it doesn’t make it any less disturbing.
There’s a meanness in the GOP’s attitude toward their perceived rivals that is defining the way Republicans approach the job of governing the country. And if Trump’s speech this week is any indication, if he returns to the White House, the meanness will only get meaner.