Admit it. You’re drawn to him because he’s a mean SOB. He seeks to humble an entire country, our neighbor to the south with his rallying taunt that Mexico will pay for “the wall.” His political events are exhibitions of thuggery. He proposes torturing terrorists in custody. He associates with goons, hiring Steve Bannon and David Bossie; and has earned the support of David Duke and Ann Coulter, who during an August television interview said: “It wasn’t until that Mexican rapist speech that he won my heart forever.” 

But for some conservatives his vulgarity, beyond caricature, repels. Meanness needs to be better packaged so that support can be otherwise “explained.” But there’s another problem for conservatives. 

What is ultimately sought is meanness that is substantive, not merely stylistic. Meanness reflected in public policy and jurisprudence. So the question arises, is he just too erratic to deliver, too yoked to ego instead of to ideology? After all, he expressed support for safeguarding Social Security and Medicare, a surprisingly heterodox utterance for a GOP debate. And what is to be made of another debate moment when he said “we just can’t let them die in the streets”? 

What is substantive “meanness” in a civic context? Simple, it’s the advocacy of public policy and jurisprudential outcomes that maximize inequality. Years ago, a favorite professor succinctly observed that “conservatives put property before people.” Taking the liberty to elaborate: obscene concentrations of wealth insufficiently taxed to support programs that help others in need, deregulating protections of people and environment, underfunding medical delivery and research, underfunding public education, privatizing enterprises with missions incompatible with the profit motive, and Supreme Court decisions, such as Rodriguez (1973) and Citizens United (2010). 

One might protest: “I don’t hear anyone expressly advocating inequality. Paul Ryan wants to lift people out of poverty.” But for electoral success, a precondition for successful implementation, the callous inequality agenda needs to be disguised, however thinly (as in “trickle-down economics”). 

Capitalism, in its rawest form, is the system that extends its greatest rewards to those individuals who are luckily good at wealth acquisition. Inequality measures how close our capitalistic system approximates its original design. If a public policy reduces inequality, then conservatives can be counted on to oppose, as Ronald Reagan did in apocalyptic terms with Medicare or when he pronounced “government is the problem.” 

Government eventually ended slavery and gave us women’s suffrage and further advances much later; child labor laws and other worker protections; environmental and consumer protections; various social safety net programs; progress in racial integration; gay rights; financial regulations to avoid economic calamity; and on and on. A liberal sensibility fueled these achievements, all tending to reduce inequality, resisted intensely by those who believe “government is the problem.” 

Take the Affordable Care Act: Neither the mass support nor opposition was grounded in an understanding of health care financing. But both sides understood that this was another government program expected to help people access medical care. The very idea enraged conservatives, whether they were living in aristocratic spender or at the lower margins.

This antagonism was genteelly expressed by Romney in his private 47% comment in 2012. The novelist Ayn Rand — who inspired Paul Ryan — dispensed with pretense. In her earlier version of Romney’s 47% comment, Rand described those receiving government benefits as “Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs.” Undisguised (Trumpian) meanness. 

Whether by stealth or expressed intent, conservatives seek to prevent and reverse measures of greater equality and, with that, drain this country of its very decency. Meanness is ideological and jurisprudential. 

So is civic kindness.

Gregg Mumm has been a resident of Oak Park since 1992.

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