This week, Senator David Perdue, spoke to a New York Times reporter about Donald Trump. “This guy got $2 billion of earned media in the primary, and he won an election that nobody thought he was going to win,” he said. “This is a guy who is doing things that are totally unprecedented. He’s nobody’s choir boy, but neither were people like Winston Churchill, for example. This guy, I think, is a historic person of destiny at a time and place in America where we’ve got to make a right-hand turn here.” Unfortunately, Perdue may be closer to the truth than the legions of liberal politicians, commentators and activists who continue to talk as if the Trump Administration simply can’t be happening. The tide of history is running in the wrong direction, but it is Trump who is taking advantage of it.
It is now commonly accepted among the liberal political and media elite—and with good reason—that inequality is a pressing problem in America. Yet the tax bill that the Senate is likely to pass in the next 48 hours has been designed to increase inequality, not to reduce it. That is because it has evidently been written by the intellectual shock troops of the billionaire donors, led by the Koch brothers, who now own the Republican Party, and who have been waging a slow, steady campaign for 40 years to undo the achievements of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Intellectually Donald Trump has contributed nothing to this effort. In no way can he be regarded as the architect of our new era, like Abraham Lincoln or Frankly Roosevelt. Nor was he originally recruited by the Kochs. Yet because he was a television celebrity, he managed, barely, to do what John McCain and Mitt Romney could not do: to defeat a liberal Democratic candidate by making inroads into the traditional Democratic base in industrial states. Once in office, he filled the federal government with acolytes of the Kochs and is now poised to make some of their dreams come true.
The spirit of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century combined the principles of the Enlightenment—the idea that human reason could create a better and fairer world—with the healthy nationalism that played such a big role in the politics of all the major nations. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and even Richard Nixon believed that the government of the United States had a mission to create a fairer and more just society. Meanwhile, the enormous international conflicts of that era—the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War—required enormous economic resources to fight, and the country expected its wealthiest citizens, the beneficiaries of the earlier Gilded Age, to make the largest contribution. That is now the top marginal tax rate went to 91% during the Second World War and stayed there until 1964. Meanwhile, the estate tax—introduced along with the income tax in 1916—reached 77% on the excess over $10 million. Those rates undoubtedly did more than any campaign finance legislation ever did to limit the influence of big money in politics.
Over the past two years, two remarkable books have traced the growth of the political movement that undid our relatively healthy and equal political economy. Dark Money by Jane Mayer focused on the Kochs and their allies—including the Scaife, Bradley, Olin and DeVos families—who built a network of foundations, other nonprofits, academic centers and donors that has now taken over the Republican Party. Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean, showed how an obscure economist named James Buchanan had managed, starting in the mid-1950, to develop a new, opposing ideology that combined the wealthiest Americans’ resentment of taxation and white southern resentment of integration. That, of course, is the coalition that defines the Republican Party today.
While much of the public now understands how much power the Koch brothers wield, the origins and nature of the new ideology developed over decades by Buchanan is much less understood—and that has made it much more influential. Their main thrust—and a very successful one—has been to develop cynicism about institutions that claim to help large numbers of people, by arguing that everyone is in fact ruled by nothing but self-interest—including, or especially, bureaucrats who administer federal programs, politicians who create and defend them, and labor leaders. In recent years this view has fueled campaigns against public employee unions, for instance, on the grounds that these employees have no right to health and pension benefits which ordinary workers do not enjoy. Social security has long been a target of the extreme right, not because its burdens fall upon the wealthy—they don’t—but because it works, and thereby undermines their argument that federal programs cannot benefit a broad mass of people. The strategy that developed over the years promised that today’s retirees and those close to retirement will get their promised benefits, but argued that the system was a bankrupt “Ponzi scheme” that would never be able to pay off younger people anyway, and therefore had to be altered. That view, let it be remembered, had won over no less a figure than George W. Bush by 2005, although he was unable to get Congress interested in it. Now, however, it is the view of Paul Ryan, and it may become the basis for the next big Republican offensive. Readers might ask themselves how often they have heard that Social Security is doomed to bankruptcy, and to what extent they themselves have come to believe that federal bureaucrats are self-interested tyrants with no concern for others. The popularity of these views is a tribute to Buchanan, the donors who funded him, and the army of think tanks and journalists who have relentlessly spread these ideas.
Democrats, meanwhile, have paid the price of success. Because the world of the late twentieth century was built upon sound ideas, they assumed that no one would question them and that they no longer needed a vigilant and noisy defense. They turned their attention largely to social issues. Now they watch, horrified, as their whole legacy is undone step by step, thanks to the election of a reality tv star with a very intermittent grasp on reality. How much can be done at least to halt this process
remains an open question. Pretending that it cannot be happening does not help.