Plutocracy v Democracy: A showdown of existential significance

Bob Sheak – August 23, 2020

The “leader”

We all know by this time that Trump is unstable, maliciously narcissistic, and vengeful, that he spews hate and lies continuously, and that his own take on issues can change from day to day, confusing the public about what to expect from the government. We know that he will do anything to stay in power, encouraging voter suppression of the democratic majority, undermining the US postal service through his appointments and false rhetoric, and failing, out of incompetence and caprice, to address the society’s major crises, from the pandemic and economic depression, to levels of rising inequality that have not been seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, to an existentially-threatening climate crisis, to systemic racism, and more.

He is not alone in such misbegotten endeavors. He promotes a hyper partisan pro-corporate, pro-rich agenda that has little concern for protecting the environment or workers or the poor or social justice, while also encouraging and performing for a broad “populous” base on non-economic issues. Political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argue that there is a plutocratic-populous alliance that underlies the power of Trump and that is cultivated and nourished by the president (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality).

There are fascist tendencies reflected in Trump’s governance that are not challenged by the plutocratic-alliance. Federico Finchelstein, professor of history at the New School of Social Research, posits that the leader in a fascist movement or state represents what many people at a given time and place yearn for. He writes in his book A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “the reality that their fundamentally authoritarian lies and racist fantasies about the world become constantly normalized and supported by a wide segment of the population, as well as major party figures. Most pointedly, Finchelstein writes the following about Trump: “He does not lie because he is a crazy cheater; he lies because he belongs to a political tradition that proposes an alternative notion of truth that emanates from the sacred infallibility of the leader” (p. 104). He continues: “…Trumpism represents an extreme form of… antiliberal, and often anti-constitutional, authoritarian democracy with a political rationale of its own. This is a political formation with a mythical notion of the truth,” so he replaces “historical truth with fake ideas about the glorious past that their leaders promise to revive,” with expressions such as “Make America Great Again.” For his tens of millions of followers, he promises to restore to life “a past that never existed” (p. 105). But it must be added, Trump also behaves as he does so as to advance a relatively unfettered, neoliberal-oriented capitalist system and to protect the interests of the mega-corporations, the rich, and his own family’s wealth.

There is little doubt that Trump and the Republicans must be defeated at the polls in November if any semblance of authentic democracy is to be saved. This will take a massive outpouring of democratic voters and a margin of victory that cannot be fuddled with or contested. However, given the corporate-dominated economy, the huge political clout of economic elites and the plethora of radical-right groups, some very extreme in their goals and willing to use violent tactics to achieve their ends, the US political system is unlikely to be without serious tensions and conflict whatever the outcome of the elections. The worst-case outcome, though, occurs if Trump wins, in which the fragile democracy that exists may further wither away.

The plutocratic-populous alliance

Hacker and Pierson describe “plutocratic populism” as the Republican Party’s “bitter brew of reactionary economic priorities and right-wing cultural and racial appeals,” a “hybrid” that “emerged after 1980” with the election of Ronald Reagan (p. 5). Trump is the public face of this alliance, its cheerleader, and, with his hand-picked advisers and officials, its facilitator. The Alliance has three parts.

The Plutocracy

One part is represented by the increasing economic, financial and political power of the mega corporations and the rich and their interests to maximize profits with little taxation or regulation. Another is represented by the Republican Party and by the ascendance of Trump and his domination of the party. The principal agendas of Trump and the Republican Party are to protect and advance the interests of the corporate elites and the super-rich. Together they constitute a plutocracy, which political scientists Jacob S. Hacker define as “government of, by, and for the rich” (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 1). The third part is the “populous,” or the multifaceted base of the party, where the interests of right-wing groups are advanced. I’ll discuss this populous base later in the article.

The benefits to the powerful and rich from supporting a right-wing government

Higher Incomes

Hacker and Pierson give the following examples. From 1980 to 2016, “the share of income accruing to the richest 1 percent doubled, increasing from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the same period, the share of national income accruing to the bottom half of households declined by half, from (roughly) 20 percent to 10 percent.’ “Most of the top 1 percent’s rising share has in fact accrued to those in the top 0.1 percent (the richest 1 in 1,000 Americans)” and most are corporate and financial executives (p. 45) – “Over the four decades between 1979 and 2016, the share of national wealth held by the richest 0.1 percent of Americans increased from 7 percent to roughly 20 percent…. the top 0.1 percent (fewer than 200,000 families) now holds almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined (about 110 million households)” (p. 57). And more evidence:

From 1980 to 2016, “the share of income accruing to the richest 1 percent doubled, increasing from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Over the same period, the share of national income accruing to the bottom half of households declined by half, from (roughly) 20 percent to 10 percent.’ – “Most of the top 1 percent’s rising share has in fact accrued to those in the top 0.1 percent (the richest 1 in 1,000 Americans)” – most are corporate and financial executives (p. 45) – “Over the four decades between 1979 and 2016, the share of national wealth held by the richest 0.1 percent of Americans increased from 7 percent to roughly 20 percent…. the top 0.1 percent (fewer than 200,000 families) now holds almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of Americans combined (about 110 million households)” (p. 57).

Lower Taxes

Hacker and Pierson point out that the 2001 Bush tax cuts “gave 40 percent of their benefits to the richest 1 percent” (p.3). Trump delivered an even bigger tax reward. The “tax cuts of 2017…delivered more than 80 percent of their largess to the top 1 percent” (p. 4). Overall, the trend in tax cuts for the powerful and rich has fallen steadily, even before Trump.

They write: “For the richest 400 households, local, state, and federal taxes were over 70 percent of income at the end of World War II and still more than 50 percent as late as 1970. They fell to 40 percent by 1995 and again to 30 percent by 2005. (By 2018, the effective tax rate of the top 400 families was 23 percent)” (p 65).

Wealth

The richest 0.1 percent of Americans saw their share of national wealth increase from 7 percent in 1979 to “roughly 20 percent” in 2016 (Hacker and Pierson, pp. 56-57).

Deregulation

Fossil fuel companies benefit as well from the anti-environmental and policies of the administration, along with policies that open up public land to drilling and support the extension of oil and natural pipelines. The big auto companies benefit from low federal fuel standards, the government’s purchase of gas-guzzling vehicles, and from the massive inter-state infrastructure of roads and bridges across the country. Companies in the military arms industry benefit from the huge increases of the military budget and the administration’s support of the industry’s export of weapons. Pharmaceutical companies benefit from government research on new drugs, the virtual absence of price controls, and the failure to create public companies that produce and distribute drugs as well as create them. Wall Street banks benefit from the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary support of low-interest rates and government low-interest lending policies. Agribusiness benefits from subsidies and little regulation of practices that devastate the soil or prevent toxic runoff of fertilizer and herbicides into groundwater and other waterways. 

Corporations and the private-sector generally have additionally benefitted from weak or non-enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act that have eviscerated unions and failed to enforce OSHA regulations. On top of all this, Trump and the Republican Party have carried on the right-wing tradition of opposition to social-welfare programs designed to assist those who experience poverty, the working class, students, the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled, and others who don’t have the resources at points in their lives to acquire the basic necessities of life. Trump threatens to support steps that would lead to the bankruptcy of Social Security and to the partial or total privatization of this essential, very popular, social insurance program, a program that has lifted or kept millions of elderly, disabled, and survivors out of poverty since the 1940s. From the perspective of the White House and Wall Street, such an eventuality would open up vast opportunities for Wall Street, increasing costs to recipients and making them vulnerable to the machinations and volatility of the market. As Hacker and Pierson put it, “Wall Street saw the prospect of managing millions of new retirement accounts,” a prospect that, by the way, the public opposes (p. 66).

Recent examples of the Trump government “letting big corporations get away with whatever they want.”

This is the title of an article by Ralph Nader (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/05/16/trump-letting-big-corporations-get-away-whatever-they-want). He makes his basic argument as follows. “Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has allowed large corporations to run rampant, exploit people, and get away with it. Trump considers himself above the law, boldly claiming, ‘I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.’” Nader views Trump’s presidential record as one that “embraces American-style fascism and nepotism.” He makes five points in documenting his argument.

One: “In 2017, Trump betrayed his own voters by giving the corporate rich a nearly two trillion-dollar tax cut instead of fulfilling his promise to invest in repairing infrastructure and expanding well-paid-job opportunities.” As widely reported, the “tax cuts for the rich and big corporations, which benefited the Trump family, ran up the deficit for our children and were largely used to give executives bonuses and let CEOs waste money on stock buybacks. In short, the corporate bosses lied to the Congress, saying they wanted these tax cuts to invest and create jobs, but actually used them to enrich themselves.”

Two: Trump has gone a spree of gutting health and safety law enforcement, with resultant “harm to workers, consumers, and defenseless communities. He refers in documentation of this point to a New York Times article that  reported 98 lifesaving regulations were revoked, suspended, or simply replaced with weaker versions. What remains on the books is not enforced.” He notes, further, that “Trump has worked to further punish student borrowers; diminish workplace and auto safety; and remove safeguards against banking, credit, and payday loan rackets.” And: “With vicious madness, Trump pushes for federal deregulation of nursing homes where residents are dying from Covid-19. He pursues court cases in attempts to end Obamacare, the result of which would be throwing 20 million Americans off their insurance during a lethal pandemic. He is cravenly freeing corporate emitters of life-destroying mercury and coal ash in our air, condemned pesticides and toxins in drinking water, and whatever else is on the deadly wish list given to him by his corporate paymasters.”

Three: Trump has given his corporate allies “more loopholes for tax escapes ($170 billion buried in the $2.2 trillion relief/bailout legislation).” He elaborates: “Big companies such as banks, insurance companies, real estate behemoths, and Silicon Valley giants have so many tax escapes and cuts that they’re moving toward tax-exempt status.”

Four: Trump and his Republican allies in the Congress want legislation “giving big companies immunity from lawsuits by victims for their negligently harmful products and services.” For example, Nader writes: “Trump’s agencies actually announced that they’re putting their law enforcers on the shelf. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) astonishingly told foreign importers of food and medicine that inspections overseas are suspended. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signaled similar retreats, as have other enforcement agencies. Why would the Trumpsters signal green lights for corporate crooks? Especially since corporate scams and other corporate crimes—some crude, others sophisticated—are exploding as trillions pour out of Washington.”

Five: There has been under Trump a steep decline in the number of corporate prosecutions and fines. Nader writes: “A year ago, Public Citizen reported a steep decline in corporate prosecutions and fines under Trump. Now, compared to the size of the previous corporate crime wave, they’ve fallen off a cliff. You can ignore the stern warnings by Attorney General William Barr. He is a phony. He has neither allocated nor asked Congress for a budget that will provide the Department of Justice the capacity to crackdown.”

Removing federal government regulations on businesses

There is now wholesale deregulation under the Trump administration. Jake Johnson reports on how “Trump’s corporate-friendly executive orders aimed at rolling back even more regulations that protect the public is just the latest sign that his solution to the pandemic is the opposite of what the public needs”  (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/05/20/corruption-full-display-trumps-executive-order-directs-all-agencies-gut-business).

On Tuesday, May 20, Trump “signed an executive order directing the heads of every federal agency to ‘waive, suspend, and eliminate’ all regulations that they consider unnecessary obstacles to economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.” This means more pollution from fossil fuel corporations, more drilling on public land, less regulation of toxic chemicals, less safety on the job for American workers, less protection for consumers, fewer drug regulations. Johnson quotes Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen to capture the essential thrust of Trump’s executive order, namely: that “instead of real, direct help for the tens of millions of Americans struggling financially due to the pandemic, or a real plan to reopen the economy safely based on the best public health expertise, Trump wants to keep giving handouts to corporate interests.”

Not all corporate oligarchs and the rich are on the plutocratic bandwagon, but most are

Not all the rich and corporate oligarchs are supporters of the plutocratic policies of Trump and the Republican Party. Hacker and Pierson put it this way: “neither Trump’s tariffs or his immigration policies are popular in moneyed circles.” They continue: “It is also true that precincts of the business community, such as Silicon Valley, find the president downright detestable, and that plenty of very wealthy people support the Democratic Party and style themselves progressives.”

At the same time, they write: “most of the superrich are broadly aligned with the core Republican economic agenda. Few among the fabulously wealthy speak openly about these priorities, and many of the most public plutocrats (think Tom Steyer and George Soros). But in those rare instances when political scientists successfully survey the views of the very wealthy, those views turn out to be much more conservative than commonly believed. For example, a 2011 poll of rich Americans – average wealth of respondents: $14 million – found that just 17 percent of those wealthy citizens said they’d support high taxes on the rich to reduce inequality, a position endorsed by over half of the general public” (p. 8). Overall, Hacker and Pierson find that “The wealthy are much more conservative on average: more anti-tax, more anti-regulation, more opposed to unions, more concerned about deficits, and less supportive of programs like Social Security” (p. 58).

Hacker and Pierson also refer to other evidence to substantiate the view the powerful and rich are supportive of plutocratic government. Consider the following examples. “Of the 100 richest Americans on the Forbes’ famous wealth list, according to a recent study, roughly two-thirds contributed mainly or exclusively to Republicans or conservative causes, and their spending outweighed the spending of those in the top 100 who gave to Democrats or liberal causes by a ratio of three to one” (p. 57). “When you look at the ultra-wealthy activists who are spending fortunes to remake American politics – especially through their huge outlays of ‘dark money’ encouraged by the ongoing decimation of campaign finance limits – you see one that’s even more conservative.’ “In 1982, less than 10 percent of campaign dollars came from the top 0.1 percent of donors. By 2018, nearly half (46 percent) did, with almost (22 percent) coming from just 400 mega-donors.” Furthermore: “Much of the money is channeled through nonprofit ‘trade’ or ‘social welfare’ associations – tax-exempt organizations empowered by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the 2010 Citizens’ United decision. Those groups are not required to disclose their donors and most don’t” (p. 68; also see examples of dark money donors on p 68).

They additionally substantiate their analysis as follows. “When you look at the stances and investments of the political organizations that magnify the influence of corporations and the superrich, you see one that’s more conservative still. The most effective groups representing economic elites – the Koch Network, the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Legislative Exchange Council – range from the hard right to the even harder right” (p.8). “Charles and his brother David (who died in 2019) had long supported conservative think tanks and public intellectuals. In the 2000s, however, they emerged as the nation’s leading benefactors and coordinators of organizations and donors espousing a hard-right philosophy” (p 67). The Kochs had two key goals: “ramping up political spending by the conservative wealthy and building organizations to push the GOP further to the right (and, after 2008, to fight President Obama)” (p. 67). The central hub of the Kochs’ political efforts is the Americans for Prosperity, with an “annual budget of $150 million, more than 500 paid directors, and nearly 3 million activists,” and drawing heavily on Tea Party volunteers (p. 70).

Would Trump, the plutocrats, corporate elites and the rich rather see the end of democracy than to give up power and wealth?

In an email I wrote to Jacob Hacker on August 13, I posed the following questions. “Are US plutocrats so obsessed with maintaining their power and wealth that they would rather be dead – have civilization collapse from the accelerating ravages of climate change – than give up any power and wealth? Or are they in the grip of larger forces over which they have little control?” Jacob answered: “Unfortunately, I think the answer is mostly yes to your first question – at least with regard the (large) portion of the plutocracy aligned with the GOP. As Paul and I point out in our book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” the GOP is far and away the most climate-change-denying major party in the world, and it’s hard to believe it would be so if there wasn’t so much money on the side of denialism.”

Trump and the Republican Party have done their best to subvert our democracy, obstruct Democratic legislative initiatives in the US Senate, advance a neoliberal agenda designed to benefit the mega-corporations and the rich, and also rallied an electoral base of right-wing and extreme groups that includes fundamentalist evangelicals, gun rights absolutists, anti-immigration advocates, white supremacists and racists, those who distrust the federal government, and those who espouse a variety of conspiracy theories (e.g., see Jeet Heer’s article on the QAnon movement and its influence in the Republican Party at: https://thenation.com/article/poltics/ganon-future-republican-party). The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of far-right groups. In an email sent out to supporters on August 22, the organization refers to its new report (August 10, 2020) that “documented 125 rallies, marches, and protests organized and attended by far-right extremists, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the ‘alt-right,’ and right-wing reactionaries during” the last three years (https://splcenter.org). Many do not support Trump because they find his policies insufficiently radical. The SPLC’s report includes the following observation.

“The overwhelming emotion among white supremacists now is rage. Many of these white supremacists feel cheated by a president whom they see as failing to fulfill his most authoritarian promises. They face intense scrutiny and resistance whey they try to organized in the streets and find themselves being deplatformed from online spaces that initially helped them amplify their messages.”

It is important to note that Trump does little or nothing to discourage the populous base that is so important to his power, and avoids criticizing the far right generally. He saves his venom for protest movements on the left.

The Conservative (plutocratic) dilemma

Hacker and Pierson refer to Daniel Ziblatt’s concept “the conservative dilemma,” which means: “To participate in democratic politics, conservative politicians had to get and maintain voters’ backing even as their elite allies sought, in Ziblatt’s words, ‘to preserve their world, their interests and power” (p. 21). However, the Republican Party, Trump and their corporate allies and benefactors are faced with a political dilemma. Their economic and regulatory policies that favor the powerful and rich alienate and/or do harm to the majority of the electorate. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and resultant economic disruptions makes the challenge of prioritizing the interests of  plutocracy even greater than before.

To retain power, Trump, the Republican Party and their power and rich allies must not only find ways to keep both the corporate and populist wings of the coalition together and politically engaged, but also, even then, to find ways to win elections with less than a majority of the votes. Plutocratic populism brings together two forces that share little in common except their distrust of democracy and their investment in the GOP. Plutocrats fear democracy because they see it as imperiling their economic standing and narrowly defined priorities. Right-wing populists fear democracy because they see it as imperiling their electoral standing and their narrowly defined community” (p. 12).

There are two keys to their possible success. One, they need to hold onto the “populous” electoral base. Two, they need to suppress the vote of those, representing a majority of the electorate, who are opposed to the policies of Trump and the Republican Party. Given how states have been gerrymandered by Republican Parties, Trump could lose the popular vote, as he did in 2016, and still win in the Electoral College.

If in November the right-wing alliance is successful, they will likely only win if they succeed in suppressing or discouraging democratic party supporters from voting or, as in 2016, winning in the un-democratic Electoral College. If that should happen, Trump and the Republican Party will little or no interest in seriously addressing the major crises besetting society.

The populous base

The third part of the right-wing plutocratic-populous alliance is the multifaceted “populous” base, comprising perhaps 60 million voters, or about 40 percent of those intending to vote in November 2020. Hacker and Pierson emphasize that “America’s version of right-wing populism began to surface well before Trump – in fact, well before the financial crisis.” The appeals for the populous base are in many cases “racially tinged, involve strong identities and strong emotions… that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and “them” (p. 22) and are ‘best suited to single-issue groups, cultural institutions such as churches, and certain kinds of media” (p. 23).

The power of the president and the Republican party hinges on an electoral base of support as well as support for their plutocratic agenda. Hence, support has been garnered over time from a variety of right-wing groups, including, those who want unlimited gun ownership, evangelical groups that favor the end of reproductive rights for women and an end to the separation of religion and the state, groups that want a virtual end to most or all categories of immigration, groups that want to preserve white supremacy and reject as myth the racist and discriminatory history that is so central to the dark side of American history. Trump has a friendly relationship with far-right, sometimes armed, groups support the reopening of the economy, who demonstrate for white supremacists’ values or a reactionary concept of “freedom.” But beyond the particular interests, Trump is also viewed by these supporters as having the ability to transform the government in a way that will make “America Great Again,” put an end to the intrusion of government bureaucrats in their lives, and protect their communities from a secular culture.

Fundamentalist evangelicals see support in the plutocracy for their opposition to women’s reproductive rights and to LBGTQ interests and want the plutocrats to select “conservative” judges to the Supreme Court and federal judiciary that favor “the traditional family” and support for white Christian institutions. The National Rifle Association likes the plutocrat’s opposition to any meaningful gun regulation. Among other – or most – right-wing populists, the anti-immigration policies of Trump and his administration are strongly supported. Cutting across such issues is the desire of the right-wing populous base to maintain their “superior” white status at a time when demographic changes threaten their majority position in society. Hacker and Pierson say that “the racism-focused narrative takes various forms.

“Some emphasize contemporary forces: the incessant race-baiting of Donald Trump; white backlash against the nation’s first black president; the anxiety generated by the ongoing shift toward a ‘majority-minority’ nation. Others emphasize the deeper historical roots of white identity. Yet all these accounts suggest that race is the cleavage that defines American politics.” They also emphasize, too, that this cleavage reflects “deep psychological attachments that are easily triggered and highly resistant to change. In this respect, they present a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, emphasizing the underlying resistance of key parts of the white electorate to the shifts in status and power that demographic change entails” (p. 9).

There is a certain antagonism in the right-wing populous base toward government, not because of its economic policies, but because of policies that constrain their non-economic “rights” and/or reduce the advantages of their “whiteness.” There are a host of organizations that represent the various segments of the right-wing populous base and they are major players in educating, mobilizing, and engaging voters in the base to support the Republican Party. On this point, Hacker and Pierson write: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media.

According to Hacker and Pierson, Trump is “a consequence and recent enabler of the GOP’s long, steady march to the right” (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 7). The policies of the Republican Party have been unabashedly plutocratic since the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan. That is, their principal political commitments are to consolidate and advance the interests of the mega-corporations and the business community generally and the rich, especially the super-rich. Most of the rich are connected to the corporations as executive officers or as consultants, or they have investments in corporations of one kind or another. In addition to making tax cuts the centerpiece of their agenda, they have retained their power by loosening regulations and pursuing full-blown deregulation in the economy, by supporting expenditures that benefit the military arms makers, by subsidizing industries and corporations the support the party, by filling policy-making positions in the administration with wealthy corporate backers and executives, by ignoring anti-trust laws, and by reducing funding for programs that benefit or potentially benefit a growing majority of Americans (p. 3).

Examples of the right-wing base

Rural America has been, by and large, for Trump and the Republicans

Robert Wuthnow, professor of social sciences at Princeton University, has studied rural communities in America, one of Trump’s sources of support. He and his assistants have visited hundreds of these communities, “studied their histories, and collected information about them from surveys, election results, exit polls, censuses business statistics, and municipal records” (The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America, p. 3). He points out that “30 million Americans live in small towns with populations of fewer than 25,000 residents.” The US Census tallies 44 to 50 million people in what it labels “rural communities.” Exit polls in the 2016 election “showed that 62 percent of the rural vote went to Donald Trump” (p. 1).

Wuthnow finds that the “moral outrage of rural America is at the basis of support for Trump – and involves a mixture of fear and anger. The fear is that small-town ways of life are disappearing. The anger that they are under siege. The outrage cannot be understood apart from the loyalties that rural Americas feel toward their communities” (p.6). They are concerned about declining populations, school closings, businesses leaving, and jobs disappearing. But it is more importantly about cultural issues. They are angry about government bureaucrats who promote diversity, about “moral decline” reflected in the bank bailouts, the sexual promiscuity available on the Internet, the prevalence of crude language on television, about their opposition to reproductive and LBGTQ rights and immigration. Withal, they will vote for Trump again because they like his patriotic slogans, his militaristic foreign policy, his denigration of the media and liberal elites, his anti-immigrant policies, his Christian/evangelical connections, and the misperception of him as a political outsider. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic, now increasingly affecting rural communities, will change their minds about Trump.

Reactionary Populism gains new life under Trump

Along with all the rest, Trump and the right-wing political forces supporting him have gained strength from the growth of a reactionary populism since the 1990s, including “local militias, Christian fundamentalists, and the Tea Party among them.” Carl Boggs, professor of social sciences at National University in Los Angeles, points to how Trump benefited, as 35 percent of his presidential vote come from evangelical constituencies (Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads, pp. 12-13). His presidency has “apparently lent new legitimacy to the evangelical movement, especially the selection of Mike Pence as vice-president and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As American society moves ever rightward,” Boggs writes, “evangelicals have grown in numbers, organizations, media presence, and general influence. They work indefatigably through state legislatures, PACs, think tanks, conferences, and medical outlets to carry out ‘God’s work, hoping to Christianize secular institutions, beginning with education, bringing ‘family values’ and patriotism to the forefront.” Boggs thinks that they “could help to solidify a social bloc behind fascistic tendencies….” (p. 13).

Historian Kathleen Belew documents the growth of another source of Trump’s “popular” appeal in the American white power movement in her book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Here is some of what she found.

“While white power featured a diversity of views and an array of competing leaders, all corners of the movement were inspired by feelings of defeat, emasculation, and betrayal after the Vietnam War and by social and economic changes that seemed to threaten and victimize white men. White power also qualifies as a movement through its central features: the contiguous activity of an inner circle of key figures over two decades, frequent public displays, and development of a wide-reaching social network.

“White power activists used a shared repertoire of actions to assert collectivity. Public displays of uniformed activists chanting slogans and marching in formation aimed to demonstrate worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment to both members and observers. Activists encouraged dress codes and rules about comportment and featured the presence of mothers with children, Vietnam veterans, and active-duty military personnel. Members showed unity by donning uniforms and by marching and chanting in formation. They made claims about their numbers. They underscored their commitment with pledges to die rather than abandon the fight; preparing to risk their lives for white power; and undertaking acts that put them at legal and physical risk. A regular circulation of people, weapons, funds, images, and rhetoric – as well as intermarriages and other social relationships – bound activists together” (pp. 10-11).

And they thrive.

“The state and public opinion have failed to sufficiently halt white power violence or refute white power belief systems, and failed to present a vision of the future that might address some of their concerns that lie behind the more diffuse, coded, and mainstream manifestations” (p. 239).

The white power movement, ultra-nationalistic, racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, armed, opposed to progressive values and ideas, poses no threat to the power elite. They represent the potential street fighters against those who criticize the existing power structure from progressive and leftist points of view.

Staying in power undemocratically?

The Trump/Republican strategy

Faced with the prospect that a majority of voters will vote for Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket in the November election, Trump, the Republicans, and their allies are pouring money into the president’s campaign, organizing a massive mobilization of their base, spreading disinformation and attacking their Democratic opponents on right-wing media, expecting Republicans running for the US Congress to win in their gerrymandered states, and escalating their efforts to suppress the vote, not the least of which is to subvert the option of mail-in voting by withdrawing resources from an already strapped US Postal Service.

Trump and the plutocratic alliance cannot stay in power and win the elections in November unless they have the support of the “populous” base and unless they can limit the votes of those supporting the Democratic Party, that is, rigging the elections. Much of the corporate community and the populous base appear to be unyielding in their support of Trump and the Republicans. Therefore, the Republican Party has over the years devoted time and vast resources at the state level to gerrymandering congressional districts and to suppressing the Democratic vote, through purges of the voting rolls, limiting early voting, requiring voter IDs that many potential voters don’t have, limiting the number of polling places, changing the location of polling places, sending out false information about when and where to vote, hiring poll watchers to intimidate voters, making it illegal or difficult for those with felony records to vote, discarding some ballots. Additionally, Trump has being doing his utmost to subvert the voting-by-mail option during this pandemic by reducing the resources of the US Postal Service.

The prospects of the Democrats

Despite these un-democratic obstacles, Joe Biden has a lead over Trump in the polls. Kamala Harris brings diversity and a strong black woman to the ticket. The two major wings of the Democratic Party, the moderates and the progressives, have seemingly united in their goal of defeating Trump. E. J. Dionne’s book, Code Red: How Progressives and Moderates Can Unite to Save Our Country, analyzes how they can be facilitated. The Democrats are running strong candidates for the Senate that give them a chance of winning control of it. The party is well funded. Large numbers of people have already been organized around state and local Democratic parties and around progressive movements like Blacks Lives Matter. There are major voter registration drives. Trump’s efforts to subvert the US Postal Service are being contested in the courts and challenged by Democrats in the US Congress.

There are many proposals that now and in the future identify and challenge the voter-suppression tactics of the Trump-plutocratic-populous alliance. At the end of his book, How Trump Stole 2020, renown investigative journalist Greg Palast ten goals for making the voting process fair and inclusive: no more purges; no more push-and-pray [paperless voting] machines; no registration, or second best, make same day registration universal; no ID requirement; make early voting a right; no gerrymandering of polling stations; restore and expand the Voting Rights Act; enforce Section 2A of the 14the Amendment [Equal Protection Clause]; ban required proof of citizenship to vote; let voter intent rule [when counting ballots]; mail-in voting; end open primaries; imprison fraudulent voters; hack-free elections [ban elected partisans from the office of Secretary of State and from election boards].

In his new book, Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party, political scientist Andrew Hacker is optimist about the prospects of the Democrats. He writes: “This November’s ballots will show how the nation assesses the president’s postures on economics and immigration, the state of the planet and social policy, and his hostility to alliances and interventions abroad. His rallies vouch [or did vouch] that his stalwarts are still on his side. November will hear from less boisterous Americans.” Still: “All told, the Republicans’ candidates have placed second in six of the last seven presidential races Indeed, the most recent year that their choice won in 2004, when George W. Bush attained a second term. (Two years later, he completely lost the House and the Senate.) In politics, a lot is possible. Two upsets were Harry Truman reelection and Donald Trump’s bombshell four years ago. The prime reason for the latter was so many Democrats stayed home. If 2018 signaled anything, it was their remorse. They showed up for those midterms in numbers only matched back in 1932. This November, they’ll be out in force again, no matter who their party nominees. Indeed, the margins will be so high that even an Electoral College end-run won’t work. Every indicator in this book shows…that there aren’t enough Americans two give Donald John Trump a second term” (p. 176). Here’s a sample of why Hacker is optimist about the prospects of Democrats in November.

“To win again, Donald Trump will have to add to the 62,692,411 total he attained in 2016. The reason is that this time, any Democrat will finish with considerably more than Hillary Clinton’s 65,666,168. Up upward 70 million is not implausible. This add-on will obviate an Electoral College debacle. The president’s difficulty is his combined unwillingness and incapacity to appeal to citizens outside his immediate orbit.”

“Gauged by Republican votes in 2018’s House races, his following was down to 50,467,181. Earlier chapters, on midterms and special elections, showed that large numbers of his 2016 supporters were staying home. In 2020, he will need to bring out at least every single one of the 12,225,230 who skipped 2018.

“That said, his challenge will be finding additional supporters. It strains the mind to wonder where they might come from. Unlike other presidents, Trump has no sought to construe his constituency as nationwide.” Rather he fires up his base through Twitter – “by casting his opponents in the grossest of terms” (pp. 174-175).

Trump may try to disregard or postpone the election

However strong and successful the Democratic electoral efforts, there is a dark shadow that threatens our democracy. Trump has said that he may stay in office regardless of the will of the majority. If many mail-in votes have not been counted on election day and if the final tally may take some days or weeks to be completed, Trump may assert that this means that the election process is broken and, to avoid chaos, he must remain in power until there is some solution. He may declare that the election is rigged and decided with fraudulent mail-in ballots.

Even if the tally of votes is completed efficiently, he may still declare that many of the ballots are fraudulent and that the election is rigged against him, using such claims as a justification for remaining in the White House. Then there is recourse for him to declare a national emergency. He and his administration could precipitate a war with, say, Iran, and postpone or call off the election. He could do the same if there was a major terrorist attack in the US, or if a combination of the pandemic and a down economy required, in his estimation, necessitated an authoritarian response. The main point is that we can’t trust Trump not to find a way to stay in office even if he loses the election or is about to lose it.

Concluding thoughts.

Trump and the plutocratic-populous alliance pose an unprecedented challenge to US democracy. Trump has a chance of winning the 2020 election with a minority of the electorate, though the Democrats appear unified and strong in their goal of unseating him. It all hinges on some unknowns. Electorally, it depends on whether the Democrats can overcome the voter suppression tactics of the Trump and his right-wing allies and bring a huge number of their supporters to the polls. It is unlikely that the Democrats have much hope of taking votes from the right’s populous base. An electoral victory by Trump and the plutocratic-populous alliance would mean a further evisceration of American democracy and perhaps, in the worst case, the onset of a authoritarian, if not a fascist, administration and social-political order?

Faced with the prospect that a majority of voters will vote for Joe Biden and the Democratic ticket in the November election, Trump, the Republicans, and their allies are pouring money into the president’s campaign, organizing a massive mobilization of their base, spreading disinformation and attacking their Democratic opponents on right-wing media, expecting Republicans running for the US Congress to win in their gerrymandered states, and escalating their efforts to suppress the vote, not the least of which is to subvert the option of mail-in voting by withdrawing resources from an already strapped US Postal Service. 

Nonetheless, the Biden/Harris ticket has a chance of winning the election if not being subverted. It is likely they will do so without the support of the corporate/rich wings of the plutocracy. In such a likely eventuality, this could make it challenging for a Democratic administration, even with majorities in the House and Senate (where the filibuster may be misused], to raise taxes on the corporate and the rich, to support meaningful regulations, or gain the support in Congress for a sustainable energy alternative while phasing out fossil fuels, or expand the Affordable Health Care Act, or attempting to increase funding for education, housing, social justice, science and research, public health, and other programs that are essential to the well-being and fairness of the American people.

Would the mega-corporations and the rich go along with such policies, or would they – could they – use their vast power to stifle such action? In other words, what are the limits of reform in our corporate-dominated, neo-liberal-oriented capitalist system, in which there are deep partisan divisions in the population? But then these are unprecedented times. What difference does it make, for example, that there are growing existential crises (e.g., the climate crisis) that threaten to steadily destroy the ecosystem and any semblance of “civilization” as we have known it? Check out Ian Angus’s book, facing the anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the earth system, for documentation of the accelerating and increasingly cataclysmic climate crisis. Will greed and a flight from reality take precedence over survival or will we as a society find the will and imagination to surmount these dark times?

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