When Trump first came to power, like most progressive, leftist, and liberal people I know, I was terrified. It seemed possible that we were on the verge of fascism. Could Trump unleash thugs onto the street to act with impunity against people from vulnerable groups, as Hitler’s Brown shirts did? Could the constitution be suspended? Could he maintain his power indefinitely as a dictator?
The first 6 months lulled me into a bit of optimism. The rule of law seemed to be holding steady. The courts were doing their job of checking and balancing executive power. And Trump was losing support, and being so incredibly stupid that it seemed like it would all fall apart. For a while it seemed likely to me that that this was going to be the beginning of the end of domination of the country by right wing extremists. And that might still end up being how this story goes.
But while some people were enjoying summer vacation, I was busy learning about the vast right wing conspiracy and how it functions. I read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, and Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean. And now I am more deeply afraid for our future than I have ever been in the past.
Neither book overstates its claims or veers into speculative conspiracy theory. The two books are very well researched, incredibly clear, and factual. Dark Money focuses on the network of organizations that have been funded by Koch and Scaife money. Democracy in Chains is a deep dive into the influence of James Buchannan, a Nobel Prize winning economist, who was one of the leading thinkers behind the Koch enterprise. The punch line of both books is that we are up against an unprecedented level of organization and funding by a right wing that is more extreme than anything seen in the modern period.
We are not up against the old, pro-capitalist business elite, which uses the constitution to ground its actions in the rule of law, and which seeks more than anything, a stable environment in which business can operate. The goals of this new extreme right wing are an end to taxation, which they see as an infringement of liberty; and end to the social welfare state; and a shrinking of any aspect of government that has to do with taking care of the environment and social needs. The Kochs are oil people and maintaining reliance on fossil fuels is crucial to their plan.
Charles Koch, the brains, and main funder, behind the operation, is an incredibly successful and ruthless businessman. And he has brought those skills to the political arena. The network he dominates is horizontally and vertically integrated, deeply strategic in is approach, extremist in its goals, and almost infinitely well-funded. And we ignore it at our peril.
As a radical, I have long seen mainstream politics in the US as being dominated by business and pro-business forces. Everything good we have in the country has come as a result of the hard work of social movements. Our elected politicians have rarely been drivers in getting us what we have. Roosevelt, for example, was not a social democrat. He was a member of the elite. But because of the incredible organizing, and the general level of social unrest in the country when he came to power, he formulated the New Deal as a compromise between labor and capital. That deal stabilized the country by making huge concessions to the working class, such as establishing social security.
I think of US politics as generally working that way: popular forces mobilize and sometime they win concessions from a largely pro-capitalist political system. In my narrative, the way this story plays out is that our social justice and anti-capitalist forces pressure the system and continue to get concessions, and in that way build a better world.
In that narrative, the Democratic Party is seen as largely dominated by pro-capitalist forces. But it is also seen as being vulnerable to pressure from our side. It relies for its electoral successes on giving the people civil rights, environmental protection, and a social safety net. The Republican Party, on the other hand has been even more beholden to pro-capitalist forces, and, ever since Nixon, has used coded racism to build popular support for policies which were in the interest of the wealthy.
What is new, in the present period is that the pro-capitalist, but stability seeking, Republican Party has now been taken over by a well-integrated machine. That machine has no interest in democracy, the constitution, or stable conditions in which business can operate, or even stability of the climate upon which all life depends. And it doesn’t play by the old rules.
The Koch machine helped put Pinochet into power in Chile, and rewrite its constitution. Rather than having checks and balances, to prevent power from accumulating, as our constitution does to some extent, the Chilean constitution has what Michelle Bachelet, who went on to become Chile’s president, calls locks and bolts, to make it impervious to popular interests. As an example, it forbade union leaders from participating in politics. Twenty seven years after the fall of the dictatorship in Chile, Chileans are still struggling with a constitution that gives tremendous power to a small conservative minority.
If the Republican Governors who control states with strong republican majorities in both of their houses wanted to call a constitutional convention to write some locks and bolts into our constitution, they are only two states away from being able to do so.
They have invested millions of dollars in paying for positions at universities for professors who support their views. They have set up powerful and well-funded think tanks to propagate their views, They founded the discipline of “law and economics” and established it in many law schools, to develop scholarship that looks at law through the lens of libertarian economics. By 1995, two fifths of all federal judges had been through a Koch sponsored curriculum that helped them understands the law that way.
They gave a start to James Buchannan who got a Nobel Prize in economics for taking the view of human beings as fundamentally self -interested that dominates the discipline of economics, and applying it to an understanding of how government bureaucracies operate. This has helped propagate the view, now widespread, that government programs are a problem in people’s lives as opposed to a means for solving problems. They funded the work of Charles Murray, who made the case that welfare makes its recipients psychologically dependent, and funded its propagation.
And they are the forces behind the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been spent propagating climate change denial. The academic and think tanks they support have flooded the intellectual sphere enough to have a tremendous impact.
Between 2010 and 2012 their non-profit legislative arm, ALEC, sponsored over 180 bills in forty-one states to restrict who could vote. The Kochs have funded “think and do” tanks in all fifty states which are networked through the State Policy Network. The Michigan affiliate, the Mackinac Center, proposed the policies that led to the disaster of the poisoning of the water of Flint Michigan.
This network is in it for the long game, and it actually used the ideas of Vladimir Lenin to ground its highly strategic approach to social change. But, until the election of Obama, they had tried and failed at achieving general popular support for their views. The move that changed that was the Tea Party. Their think tanks developed the propaganda and talking points used by that movement. And they paid huge sums of money to right wing media outlets and personalities, such as Bill O’Reilly, to whip up enthusiasm for their anti-government point of view.
Their next move is to come after public employee unions, as union political power is one of the strongest counterforces to the money of the “kochtopus.” And I know many people who will fall for that move, people who are resentful of the excellent pensions and medical benefits that those of us who work in the unionized public sector have. The politics of right wing populism is to prey on the resentments that can be mobilized to divide working class people from each other.
This network did not at first support Donald Trump. They saw him as too liberal and unreliable. And yet, his form of fact-free pseudo populism is exactly what the Koch people and their allies unleashed with their Tea Party movement. And so far he seems to be doing their work for them fairly well. But Trump is not who we should be focusing on. He is likely to be a passing symptom of a much larger and deeper disease.
If you have the stomach for more of this I suggest you watch the recent film, Get Me Roger Stone, and read The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton as well as Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, written by David Daly. Get Me Roger Stone focuses on one ruthless Republican operative who is the king of fake news, the brains behind the birther lie, and the one responsible for the relentless hammering into the minds of the public of the idea of Hilary Clinton as a criminal. The Anatomy of Fascism explains in detail how the Nazis were able to consolidate state power. Finally Ratf**ked, is a detailed examination of the gerrymandering of congressional seats in the recent past, which has led to it being very difficult for Democrats to win a majority in the house of representative.
Of course the deep pessimism I feel today could all be washed away in the 2018 midterm elections. It may be that these extremists have taken the Republicans too far. There seems to be about one third of the electorate that is addicted to the drug of self-flattery, who are willing to let any lie go by as long as it makes them feel like they are righteous people who are being milked by the government in the interest of undeserving others. That one third may never sway from supporting people like Trump.
But even with gerrymandering, support from that one third can only get you so far if, enough other people vote. That is the crux of what happened with the 2016 presidential election. It was not the case that more reactionary white people voted than in previous elections. What lost Clinton the election was that fewer low-frequency voters came out to vote for her.
And so the question for our electoral system is what would it take for the large number of progressive minded people who don’t vote to engage with the electoral system? But at this point it also looks as if the Democratic Party is not willing to give disenfranchised people enough of a reason to vote to get them engaged. And that scares me more than Trump does.