Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to the La Mesa-Foothills Democratic Club about the Lincoln Club and the history of the American Right. In that presentation, I noted how the ultimate aim of the Right was to dishonestly promote deeply unpopular policies through stealth politics that take advantage of the general public’s naiveté about their agenda.
Locally, groups like the Lincoln Club do their best to intervene in Democratic primaries and shift the landscape in their favor so they can win elections and promote policies that further enrich the elite. As I have written in this space, that’s how San Diego’s “shadow government” has rolled for decades.
At the national level, the Lincoln Club was a key player in bringing us the Citizens United case which helped further stack the deck of national politics in favor of the rich and corporate interests. To really understand the big picture, however (as I told the audience), you need to understand the entire history of the Right’s long war to, as historian Nancy MacLean puts it, “save capitalism from democracy permanently.”
Their idea is to incrementally crabwalk the public toward a radical revolution in American social and political affairs, a kind of libertarian Social Darwinist utopia where the government has been shrunk down to the size it can be drowned in a bathtub á la Grover Norquist.
In such a brave new world, the rights of the economic elite would be protected from the “collective gangsterism” of labor, civil rights activists, environmentalists, and all others who might seek to redistribute wealth through taxation or impose on the prerogatives of the privileged with onerous regulations or legal restrictions of any kind.
Sometimes, even when we are winning the superficial battles, we might still be losing when it comes to the ultimate end game.
Hence progressives need to be wary of focusing on the immediate battle (“boy did Trump have a bad week!” and “our poll numbers look great for the midterms!”) to the exclusion of developing a strategy for winning the long war ideologically, politically, and economically. Sometimes, even when we are winning the superficial battles, we might still be losing when it comes to the ultimate end game. In sum, progressives need to begin thinking about the deeper problem of how to dramatically shift the terrain of American politics back in their favor.
So, ended my cheery lecture.
Interestingly, the very next day, Thomas Edsall penned a fantastic editorial in the New York Times about the same issue I had focused on during my visit to La Mesa. In “Trump and the Koch Brothers are Working in Concert”, Edsall points out that despite their real dislike of one another and disagreements on trade and immigration, the President and the Lords of Dark Money are functioning like a well-oiled machine when it comes to fighting the long war. Thus, while Trump might Tweet bad stuff about them, the Kochtopus is getting fed like a king.
As Edsall observes, in spite of the acrimonious Trump media circus and the President’s sinking approval ratings:
The Kochs’ policy objectives that have been realized since Trump took office are legion: enactment of the $1.5 trillion tax cut; the opening of public lands to mining; the appointment of men and women with industry ties to key regulatory posts; weakened enforcement of worker safety rules; the proposed elimination or rollback of numerous environmental regulations; the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, along with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, and the appointment of judges favored by the Kochs to all levels of the federal bench.
…despite the Kochs’ distaste for Trump, they would not have been so successful without his nationalist populist bombast. He was just the kind of frontman they required
In this context, the public disagreement between Trump and Koch over trade, tariffs and even immigration clearly diminishes in importance.
In fact, despite the Kochs’ distaste for Trump, they would not have been so successful without his nationalist populist bombast. He was just the kind of frontman they required. His salesmanship, Edsall points out, is what the Kochs’ soulless program needed to slip by the American public:
Trump and the Kochs are not just complementary; they are symbiotic. Trump is essential to marketing the Kochs’ vision. Without him, the Koch agenda would fail.
Any realistic assessment of the policy victories achieved by the Kochs shows that the public is firmly opposed to much of what the Kochs have gained from the Trump administration and a pliant Congress — and the public is opposed to much of what the Kochs still want and have not yet achieved . . . If public opinion were the guiding force, key elements of the Kochs’ policy goals would be dead in the water. And without Trump’s ethnonationalist appeal, these proposals (for the most part) would not survive either on their merits or on popular support.
So as progressives revel in Trump’s implosion of late—legal problems, internal strife, Nixonian paranoia, and public humiliation—it’s important to realize that the Kochtopus is still winning. Achieving, as Harvard Government Professor Theda Skocpol notes in the Edsall piece, “85 percent of what it has always wanted,” from stacking the Supreme Court with libertarian ideologues and getting obscene tax cuts to gutting the EPA, weakening labor unions, and limiting the capacity of the government to regulate.
In sum, Trump’s skillful harnessing of white resentment and economic anxiety has enabled a nearly complete take-over of the G.O.P by the vast network of Rightwing forces who (mostly anonymously) fund Republican campaigns and act as puppet-masters when it’s time to govern. That’s why, despite public sentiment, the Republicans are racing to deliver a second round of tax cuts for the rich before the possibility of a disastrous midterm election. As the Washington Post reported last week:
House Republicans bracing for November’s midterm elections unveiled a second round of tax cuts on Monday that could add more than $2 trillion to the federal deficit over a decade. They hope to cement the steep cuts they passed last fall despite criticisms of fiscal profligacy and tailoring their policies to help the rich.
The GOP’s “tax reform 2.0” aims to make permanent the tax cuts for individuals that President Donald Trump signed into law in December 2017. Those include the law’s temporary reductions in individual filers’ rates, a doubling of the Child Tax Credit and cuts to the estate tax paid by a small fraction of the wealthiest families.
Thus even if the Democrats succeed in riding a blue wave to a Congressional take-over, the wrecking crew will have done so much damage over the past two years, that it will take a long, determined strategy to defeat the Right in 2020 (Trump or no Trump) and begin to turn the tide and start building a democracy that serves the interests of the majority of the American people.
It won’t be easy.