While we’ve always had wealthy people influencing politics to their own benefit, what’s happening today is something altogether new, as documented by Jane Mayer in Dark Money and Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains.
It mostly started back in 1971, when Lewis Powell wrote a call to arms to his friend and neighbor, Eugene Sydnor Jr., who was at the time a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The “Powell memo” called for wealthy industrialists and companies themselves to fund a giant machine that could capture the U.S. government and turn it away from the protections for citizens and the environment that were being championed by Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader (named in the document) and toward a system that was, essentially, an oligarchy.
A small but incredibly wealthy number of what we’d today call billionaires or oligarchs were energized by Powell’s call to arms; they quickly stepped up and funded an entire right-wing infrastructure to bring this about.
Some started think tanks to influence public discussion and reframe issues of power and wealth along oligarchic Libertarian lines. Others funded a society for lawyers that could be a feeder system for getting reliably oligarch-friendly judges into state and federal courts. Another started a network of billionaires to pool their money to flip elections. And one even kicked off a 24/7 right-wing “news” channel to influence American public opinion in a way that would show up at the ballot box.
Richard Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court in 1972, and Powell then championed the “right” of oligarchs to own politicians in the 1976 Buckley v Valeo Supreme Court decision, blowing up campaign finance limits by ruling that when billionaires want to spend their own money to elect or destroy politicians, that spending of money was protected under the First Amendment as “free speech.” (Citizens United vastly expanded this power in 2010.)
It was a long slog for the oligarchy. In 1980, when billionaire David Koch ran for vice president of the United States on the Libertarian ticket, most Americans looked at his platform and laughed. It said, in part:
“We urge the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission.
“We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.
“We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services, including those which finance abortion services.
“We also favor the deregulation of the medical insurance industry.
“We favor the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system. Pending that repeal, participation in Social Security should be made voluntary.
“We propose the abolition of the governmental Postal Service. The present system, in addition to being inefficient, encourages governmental surveillance of private correspondence. Pending abolition, we call for an end to the monopoly system and for allowing free competition in all aspects of postal service.
“We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.
“We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.
“As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.
“We support repeal of all laws which impede the ability of any person to find employment, such as minimum wage laws.
“We advocate the complete separation of education and State. Government schools lead to the indoctrination of children and interfere with the free choice of individuals. Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended.
“We condemn compulsory education laws … and we call for the immediate repeal of such laws.
“We support the repeal of all taxes on the income or property of private schools, whether profit or non-profit.
“We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We support abolition of the Department of Energy.
“We call for the dissolution of all government agencies concerned with transportation, including the Department of Transportation.
“We demand the return of America’s railroad system to private ownership. We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system.
“We specifically oppose laws requiring an individual to buy or use so-called ‘self-protection’ equipment such as safety belts, air bags, or crash helmets.
“We advocate the abolition of the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration.
“We support an end to all subsidies for child-bearing built into our present laws, including all welfare plans and the provision of tax-supported services for children.
“We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and ‘aid to the poor’ programs. All these government programs are privacy-invading, paternalistic, demeaning, and inefficient. The proper source of help for such persons is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.
“We call for the privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.
“We call for the repeal of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
“We call for the abolition of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
“We support the repeal of all state usury laws.”*
* Notice what’s lacking from Koch’s list: abortion, prayer in schools, the Ten Commandments, Israel, or bans on gay marriage. All of these issues were added, in part at the suggestion of multimillionaire Jerry Falwell and billionaire Pat Robertson, to bring the rubes from the White Evangelical movement into the fold. Adding in guns brought in big money from the NRA. Combining these two factions with the Koch’s billionaire buddies produced the modern Republican coalition. David Koch’s Libertarian vision was definitely not how most Americans thought our government should look.
Just a quarter-century earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower had weighed in on these Libertarians and John Birchers (Fred Koch, David’s father, as a big fan of the John Birch Society) and the Koch brothers’ spiritual forbearers, the oil-rich Texan Hunt brothers, in a letter to his ultra-conservative brother, Edgar. He wrote:
“[I]t is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything—even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon ‘moderation’ in government.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.
“There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
But this wasn’t an effort of a single generation, as Eisenhower had imagined and as Hamilton figured would always be the case. And it wasn’t modestly financed by a few insider bankers and industrialists like Harding’s campaign. It was, rather, a multigenerational program, funded over the decades with billions of dollars, and with a national presence so large that the Kochs’ vast network now is better funded, is better staffed, and has more offices than either the Republican or Democratic parties.
Most of the original funders of Powell’s plan to turn America into an oligarchy are dead, but their multigenerational plan continues to roll along. And now many of the goals that Powell and the 1980 Libertarians first articulated—and Hamilton had nightmares about—are near completion.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of 5-4 decisions, has handed the power to alter elections to a few hundred billionaires and well-funded organizations (including foreign governments), and billionaire oligarch Trump has taken the White House with the help of billionaire oligarch Murdoch, Hamilton’s nightmare is nearly realized.
The question now is whether enough Americans have awakened to this reality to show up in November to defy the wealthy purveyors of fear and discontent who want complete and final control over our nation.
Presidential economic adviser Larry Kudlow suggested to the Economic Club of New York, after the elections, Republicans will target “spending” on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid with “reforms” (cuts) to help pay for the massive deficits created by Trump’s $1.5 trillion tax cut for billionaires.
Conservatives have controlled our government for three definable periods in recent history—the Gilded Age of the last three decades of the 1800s (progressives followed from 1901 to 1920), the Roaring ’20s (progressives followed from 1933 to 1980), and the Reagan Era that started in 1981 and continues to this day.
Each conservative era has led to terrible suffering among working people, each ended in a wipeout financial disaster, and this one will probably be no different. Republicans have already radically cut long-term unemployment insurance, killed “welfare as we know it” (with the help of Bill Clinton), and cut the budgets of Social Security and Medicare to the point where it’s hard to get anybody on the phone. They’ve deregulated much of the fossil fuel industry, sold off public lands to mining and drilling interests, and slashed away at the EPA.
This time, there’s a larger concern than the survival of the economy, the environment, and the middle class. This time, democracy itself may well be at stake.
The 2016 takeover of our government by Trump and his billionaire oligarch cronies could be the nightmare that Alexander Hamilton identified, warned us about, and then refused to believe could ever come to pass.
A little history is in order.
In the largest sense, today’s right-wing insanity started with the corporate and wealthy “conservative” backlash to the progressive and trust-busting policies of Teddy Roosevelt, William H. Taft, and Woodrow Wilson from 1901 to 1920.
In the spring of 1920, a presidential election year, Republican Warren G. Harding, famously corrupt and horny (he had an out-of-wedlock child the year before the election, and the rumor persists to this day that his wife poisoned the 57-year-old president four years later for refusing to stop his affairs), had secured his party’s nomination for president.
He ran on a platform that sounded populist, although his major goal was to return the oligarchs who financed him to power after they’d taken a hit from three previous progressive administrations. Harding’s main slogan was that era’s more modest version ofmake America great again: “A Return to Normalcy.”
The other slogan of his campaign, and, indeed, of his presidency, was privatization and deregulation: “More business in government, less government in business” was his personal favorite slogan, used also on the campaign trail.
Harding’s goal was to deregulate business, while outsourcing government functions whenever possible. And he did it, particularly the deregulation part, including “freeing” the bankers and stockbrokers.
Well-informed Americans of the time saw Harding’s policies as a recipe for disaster; we’d been through all this with the takeover of American government in the last 30 years of the 1800s, referred to by then as the Gilded Age, which ended with the “Great Panic” of 1893-1897. The robber barons of that era treated everybody except the morbidly rich as serfs, right down to fomenting murder and police violence to disrupt workers agitating for unions, better pay, or decent working hours.
Thus, during the 1920 Harding campaign came H.L. Mencken’s famous quote about the willingness of the American electorate to follow hustlers, con men, and downright demagogues like Harding. On July 26, 1920, Mencken published an essay in the Baltimore Evening Sun that included:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
Of President Harding’s rhetoric, as if foreshadowing Trump, Mencken wrote in 1921:
“It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
And were Harding’s followers similarly like Trump’s, and were his speeches like Trump’s rallies? Mencken wrote:
“When Dr. Harding prepares a speech he does not think of it in terms of an educated reader locked up in jail, but in terms of a great horde of stoneheads gathered around a stand. That is to say, the thing is always a stump speech; it is conceived as a stump speech and written as a stump speech. More, it is a stump speech addressed to the sort of audience that the speaker has been used to all of his life, to wit, an audience of small town yokels, of low political serfs, or morons scarcely able to understand a word of more than two syllables, and wholly able to pursue a logical idea for more than two centimeters.
“Such imbeciles do not want ideas—that is, new ideas, ideas that are unfamiliar, ideas that challenge their attention. What they want is simply a gaudy series of platitudes, of sonorous nonsense driven home with gestures. … The roll of incomprehensible polysyllables enchants them.”
Mencken and the educated of his day saw great danger in Harding’s simplistic sales pitch that if we only let the very, very wealthy have free reign, they’d make everything right in America.
And Mencken was right. Harding’s election ushered in 12 moronic years of Republican rule, and along with it came massive deficit spending, widespread corruption and cronyism, a declining standard of living for working people, and a stock market fueled by deregulated speculation that was so on fire the era was called “the Roaring 20s.” And then, of course, came the inevitable crash that always follows “conservative” overreach on behalf of the rich.
But as corrupt as Harding was, both personally and politically, he wouldn’t have been bad enough to frighten the people who founded our republic. That distinction has to go to Donald Trump alone.
Alexander Hamilton—himself an advocate for a soft oligarchy in America, and one of the founders who helped write the Constitution—had a nightmare about a group of hyper-wealthy people launching a multigenerational assault on the Enlightenment ideals of America, leading to the election of a wealthy con man as president. And it sure looks like his nightmare is all about Trump and his Fox News followers.
On August 18, 1792, when Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury for George Washington, he wrote a rebuttal to those who were skeptical that an American democratic republic could survive over time, when buffeted by the winds and forces of accumulated wealth and the love of some people for aristocracy.
Titled, “Objections and Answers respecting the Administration of the Government,” Hamilton started out by suggesting that as long as we continued to have regular elections, the oligarchs wouldn’t be able to gain a toehold in government:
“The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.
“If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it.”
He then pointed out that in 1792 we had a broad, diverse, and local press all across the nation and the highest literacy rate in the developed world; such well-informed people wouldn’t be vulnerable to despotism, unless there was some sort of serious chaos—what he called “convulsions and disorders” that would be caused or exploited by “popular demagogues.”
“To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical,” Hamilton wrote. “A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.”
But if a group could take over the government and turn it against itself, deprive it of its protective function for the people and instead leave citizens to their own devices, Hamilton was somewhat concerned that a despot could take advantage of the ensuing chaos:
“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.”
So, Hamilton reasoned, it wasn’t the politicians who may step into the fray with an oligarchic message who were the “true artificers of monarchy”—it was the uber-rich who promoted the destruction of a state devoted to the “general welfare” of “We, the People”:
“Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy…”
These usurpers of the democratic order in America, then, would prepare the way for a true despot to rise to power, even in America. Hamilton may have had some concerns about men from his generation attempting such a thing; his next sentence was, “Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected.”
But it was unlikely anybody in 1789 had that kind of wealth or power; John Hancock, the wealthiest of the founders, had a net worth of only about $700,000 in today’s dollars. The first millionaire in America—in today’s dollars—was a shipping magnate who hit that level in the 1790s.
If such a thing were to actually happen, Hamilton wrote, it would be through somebody like the uber-wealthy, ultra-conservative Cato, who was a “harsh ruler” of his wife and slaves, and deplored the liberal Greek literature and sexuality that was all the rage.
“It has aptly been observed that Cato was the Tory-Cæsar, the whig of his day,” Hamilton wrote.
So, if a Cato-like man or group of people with massive riches were to succeed in taking over most of the levers of power in American government, Hamilton believed, our nation then would, actually, be vulnerable to a despot rising to the presidency.
Because that office of president includes “Commander in Chief,” the man would have to heavily flog his support for the military while, in secret, scoffing at the very idea of the liberty that would otherwise be insured by a truly democratic government.
This wealthy hustler’s main method to seize power would be to bring the government of the United States “under suspicion” while building a base of the “zealots of the day.”
“When a man unprincipled in private life, desperate [hugely wealthy] in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
Hamilton knew that the uber-wealthy Roman senator Catiline tried twice to overthrow the Roman republic by a broad conspiracy of the rich combined with populist rhetoric, and the wealthiest men of Roman society put together his second conspiracy. Similarly, the later Caesars held power through similar means, splitting the populace against itself in a way that eventually led to the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Thus, Hamilton’s next paragraph was a simple and stunning warning to those who were entrusted with the “popular Government” of the United States:
“No popular Government was ever without its Catilines & its Cæsars. These are its true enemies.”
The Catilines and Caesars of our era are the morbidly rich billionaires who have set out to seize control of every aspect of the political life of America, just as they tried so disastrously in 1920.