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May 12, 2021

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Marco Rubio’s ‘woke capital’ tantrum

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is extremely mad at corporations for “bending a knee to woke progressive craziness,” and he’s going to do, well, something about it.

On Sunday, in a fulminating New York Post opinion article, Rubio wrote that “corporate America eagerly dumps woke, toxic nonsense into our culture, and it’s only gotten more destructive with time. These campaigns will be met with the same strength that any other polluter should expect.”

This analogy is slightly confusing, because usually corporate polluters should expect no pushback whatsoever from Republicans. But Rubio wants us to assume that his party thinks dumping toxic waste is bad. Big business, in Rubio’s telling, used to be patriotic, but now these companies offshore jobs — a trend that well predates Rubio’s sudden anti-corporate anger — and protest restrictions on voting rights, which Rubio describes as parroting “woke talking points.” That means Republicans should no longer offer corporations reflexive deference.

“Lawmakers who have been asleep at the wheel for too long, especially within my own party, need to wake up,” Rubio wrote.

And then what? Rubio doesn’t say.

If Republicans want to scare corporations into quiescence on social issues, they have a bunch of policy options. They could, for example, support President Joe Biden’s plan to increase the corporate tax rate to 28%, from 21%, to help fund infrastructure. (It was 35% before former President Donald Trump’s tax cuts.) But Rubio’s not going to do that: He described Biden’s corporate tax proposal as part of “a radical agenda full of left-wing priorities.” When Senate Republicans unveiled their counterproposal on infrastructure, it called for “protecting against any corporate or international tax increases.”

The “international” part is telling. If Republicans wanted to stick it to the globalizers, they could back a proposal — from Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — that would make American companies pay higher taxes on profits earned overseas, prevent them from shielding their money in foreign tax havens and repeal a tax exemption for building overseas factories. So far, Wyden tells me, no Republican has shown any interest in working with them.

“The only unmovable policy priority Republicans have today is no taxes for megacorporations,” he said.

In his essay, Rubio pretends that Republicans have traditionally opposed unions because companies demonstrated that they had society’s best interests at heart. “Employer-friendly labor laws make sense in a world where corporate CEOs feel an obligation to their fellow countrymen and workers,” he wrote. “But the logic of resisting labor representation on behalf of corporate management falls apart if an American worker is no different to the corporation than any other input.”

If that logic has fallen apart, you might expect Rubio to back the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a pro-labor bill in Congress. It would impose penalties on companies that retaliate against workers trying to organize a union, weaken laws that stop unions from collecting mandatory dues, and force companies to classify some contractors as employees. Rubio, however, opposes the PRO Act, writing that it would compel “adversarial relations between labor and management.”

Last month, Rubio did support the union drive by some Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., framing it explicitly as payback for Amazon’s cultural liberalism. “If Amazon thinks that conservatives will automatically rally to do its bidding after proving itself to be such enthusiastic culture warriors, it is sorely mistaken,” he wrote in a USA Today essay.

But the union drive, which Amazon opposed ferociously, failed, and Rubio isn’t willing to back the kind of legislation that would make unionization easier. Too often, he wrote in USA Today, “the right to form a union has been, in practice, a requirement that business owners allow left-wing social organizers to take over their workplaces.” The most Rubio is willing to do is to make a temporary rhetorical alliance with workers driven by spite.

This is what most Republican populism looks like. (A possible exception is shameful insurrectionist Josh Hawley, who has a genuine trustbusting plan.) Rubio is following a model pioneered by Trump: Rail against big corporations, occasionally bully those that defy you, but ultimately put their profits and influence first.

On issues of race and sex, the disjunction between the values of the Republican Party and those of big corporations are a function of our counter-majoritarian politics.

Because of gerrymandering and the small-state bias in the Senate, Republicans can afford to antagonize young people, people in cities and most people of color. Consumer businesses cannot. The Republican Party doesn’t have to care what the majority of Americans think. Public-facing corporations largely do. This creates a tension between Republicans’ foundational economic interests and ideology and their cultural grievances.

Republicans no doubt find this incredibly frustrating, but not frustrating enough to ally even momentarily with Democrats. After all, Republicans are angry at corporations in the first place because they think corporations should be on their side in political fights. Democrats would love to have Republican support for reining in corporate power, even if Republicans were motivated by revenge.

But Republican threats are empty. No matter how much they hate what they call “woke capital,” they know they can’t own the libs by teaming up with them.

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.