Yet Trump is telling GOP voters that this support for spending on crumbling roads and bridges constituted a profound betrayal. Why is it a betrayal? Because Trump decreed that this is the case, and thus it must be so.
This contest serves as more than a test of Trump’s influence over GOP voters. It will also show how hollowed out Trumpism as an ideology has truly become. Infrastructure spending was once central to distinguishing Trumpist pro-worker economics from standard GOP plutocracy. Yet here it’s been reduced to something akin to a signifier of whether you are for or against Trump.
Due to redistricting, this primary pits two sitting members of Congress against each other in the battle for a newly-created seat. Trump has endorsed Rep. Alex Mooney against Rep. David B. McKinley, who is backed by the state’s GOP establishment, including Gov. Jim Justice.
For Trump, McKinley’s sins are his votes for the infrastructure bill and for the initial bipartisan commission to examine the violent insurrection attempt incited by Trump (though McKinley voted against creating the current House select committee). Trump backed Mooney in part as punishment for McKinley’s infrastructure vote.
That vote is central to this campaign. In a radio ad, Trump rips into McKinley as a Republican In Name Only (RINO) “who supported the fake infrastructure bill that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on the Green New Deal.”
It’s hard to overstate the level of contempt that Trump is displaying for his voters by describing infrastructure spending as a betrayal. Theoretically, of course, Trump could harbor genuine substantive objections to such spending. But we all know he has no such meaningful objections.
Indeed, Trump has mainly bashed it as a way to take out his rage against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over other matters, and as needlessly helpful to Democrats. That’s absurd, as it will also help Republicans who support it.
What’s more, Trump’s declaration that only “RINOs” back the measure is stated as self-evident fact that doesn’t require justification. It’s as if this can be magically made true simply by virtue of him saying it.
Yet Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has touted the bill’s enormous benefits for her state of West Virginia: Hundreds of millions of dollars to fix bridges that rate among the worst in the nation, and billions for other infrastructure such as roads and water works, which scores a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Does that make Capito a RINO? For Trump it does. And for him, the House candidate who is truly fighting for West Virginia is the one who opposed even a bipartisan examination of his coup attempt. Trump is asking his voters to prioritize that vote over the condition of the infrastructure that they rely upon to safely go about their daily lives.
Meanwhile, Trump’s tarring of the infrastructure bill with the Green New Deal is misdirection. Its climate spending is less focused on curbing carbon emissions than it is on climate resilience measures shoring up communities against climate change’s impacts (which are also hitting West Virginia hard). It’s mainly spending on infrastructure. Trump tries to dupe voters into seeing this as scary leftism.
Imagine that! McKinley is campaigning on the idea that improving the state should matter more than slavishly ministering to whatever Trump’s passing preoccupations are at any given moment! A RINO, indeed!
Which brings us to the bigger story here: The strange, sad collapse of infrastructure as a key priority for Trump, and what that says about Trumpism writ large.
It’s largely forgotten today, but just after Trump was elected president, adviser Stephen K. Bannon vowed trillions in infrastructure spending. This, he enthused, would usher in a new economic nationalism that would break with traditional GOP plutocratic hostility toward large social expenditures, realigning the working class behind Trumpism.
But then Trump stocked his cabinet with plutocrats and delivered a multi-trillion-dollar tax cut to corporations and the rich. Joshua Green reports that Bannon, the keeper of the flame of Trumpism, lost interest in the economic side of that nationalist agenda, instead focusing on keeping out desperate migrants. The infrastructure dreams quietly expired.
The final insult is Trump’s conversion of the infrastructure debate into little more than a proxy for whether his voters will remain loyal to Trump the man himself.
Other hot-button issues are at play in West Virginia: Trump’s candidate Mooney’s campaign has accused the apostate McKinley of being soft on guns and abortion as well. But to some extent, the infrastructure debate in this race will test whether sheer cultish loyalty to Trump can triumph over a promise to voters of improved day-to-day well being.
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