Give Donald Trump credit: the Freedom caucus really is terrible | Ross Barkan

Ross Barkan
‘Paul Ryan is a veritable rightwing radical by any historical standard.’ Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

When Donald Trump goes to war with anyone, the natural reaction is to side with anyone. But, in his fight against the House Freedom Caucus – the band of ultra rightwing Republicans who doomed his effort to repeal Obamacare – he is on the right side, for once.

After the embarrassing healthcare setback, Trump tweeted that the Freedom Caucus should “get on the team” – or else. Watching Republican infighting is always fun. But progressives shouldn’t empathize with this new crew of Trump opponents. In a war between Trump and the caucus, the mercurial strongman, with all his attendant absurdities, is the lesser of the two evils.

Consider that Trump actually believes in government. Trumpism is elastic – its lodestar remains some cocktail of punishing undocumented immigrants and pursuing protectionism – but it’s not nihilistic.

It doesn’t invalidate the role of government in offering a form of protection against the vagaries of the free market and the cruelness of fate. Though Trump ended up supporting a disastrous healthcare bill that would have thrown 24 million people off their insurance and increased costs for the oldest and sickest, he also expressed interest, at one time, in a single-payer system.

Unlike Paul Ryan, who is construed in the press as a moderate but holds beliefs that make him a veritable rightwing radical by any historical standard, Trump does not want to privatize or erode social security and Medicare. He wants to spend money on infrastructure. As the self-styled “king of debt”, he even understands that deficit spending doesn’t cripple an economy and is sometimes necessary.

This is not to dismiss all the ways Trump is loathsome. It’s more to put the House Freedom Caucus in context.

Founded in 2015 as a way to battle for a threadbare federal government, the caucus has about three dozen members, though it doesn’t disclose a member list. Its greatest accomplishment before torpedoing the AHCA was forcing John Boehner, the previous speaker and a very conservative but conventional Republican, to resign.

As a successor to the Tea Party movement, the caucus embraces an uncompromising brand of fiscal and social conservatism that offers no tangible blueprint for governing a vast and diverse 21st-century nation.

But that’s kind of the point. There’s nothing quite like the Freedom Caucus in other countries because even the most radical and racist of far-right movements elsewhere make a concession to the need to fund a functional governing structure. Lost in the maelstrom over the AHCA’s failure was just how implausible and downright sadistic the Freedom Caucus’s vision of healthcare was.

The members demanded a repeal of Obamacare’s ban on imposing lifetime limits on healthcare spending. They hated that Obamacare required insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions. They insisted essential benefits such as maternity, mental health and prescriptions drugs not be included in the bill.

Obamacare has created a flawed healthcare system where more people have coverage but premiums remain too high. Fixes, even Democrats would concede, are needed.

But the Freedom Caucus’s vision for healthcare is terrifying. It amounts to anti-care, stripping away so many regulations that Americans would have to devote almost their entire material livelihoods to healthcare. It guarantees nothing but the sick to stay sick and pay up.

It’s a vision that even Trump, in all his apocalyptic vigor, balks at.

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