by Ted Morgan
As the mass media would have it, Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was buoyed by “populist” anger from working class white folks, particularly in rural America and the South.
Public opinion polls have shown that the bulk of Trump’s support has come from middle-to-upper-middle class people, religious fundamentalists, traditional conservatives, gun advocates, and anti-Muslim, racist elements. Yet Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land provides rich case study histories of working class and rural folks in Louisiana long embittered by their marginalization in the American polity and economy –and their belief that the federal government was their enemy.
The latter provides a key to understanding how we got to this place. Indeed, despite his unique qualities as a narcissistic blowhard, Trump is the culmination of a long campaign that goes back into the 1960s era –a campaign dominated by both conservative and corporate forces of backlash, but one in which both Republican and Democratic parties have largely collaborated.
Mass media coverage of 60s-era social movements simultaneously helped to spread but ultimately contain the movements –a role the mass media still play. Typically, they provided ample visual coverage of the most extreme and seemingly threatening behaviors some protesters exhibited.
Politicians like Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and George Wallace used these images to stigmatize the social movements of the era. Often using racially coded claims, this political backlash drew support from formerly Democratic white Southerners and disgruntled “white ethnics,” thereby fracturing the coalition of voters that had produced the New Deal regime going all the way back to 1932.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s that corporate elites joined the fray. Corporate lawyer Lewis Powell sent a confidential 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce sounding the alarm against a “broadly based” attack on the “American economic system.” Four years later, at a time when corporate profits were falling and inflation and unemployment were both high, the Trilateral Commission, published The Crisis of Democracy.
Consisting of financial, corporate, and political leaders from the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan, the Trilateralists –who still collaborate to protect capitalism— singled out the 60s era as a time of “excess democracy,” in which the demands of “previously passive or unorganized groups” (namely “blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students and women”) were producing a “welfare shift” in American politics, away from the desired “defense shift” of the postwar era, thereby threatening capitalism itself.
In short, these reactions reveal the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and democracy.
The backlash produced a broad-based strategy for a “drastic overhaul” of what economic elites viewed as threatening policies and institutions. Mass media and universities were among the key targets for a systematic campaign to create a more acquiescent population. But a crucial element in the corporate strategy was to generate a lavishly funded effort to change the political discourse through what Alex Carey has called “tree-tops propaganda.
The right-wing Heritage Foundation was formed; Charles Koch established the libertarian Cato Institute. Together with foundations created by the accumulation of fabulous wealth –notably the Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation and the Olin Foundation—this corporate attack produced countless books and reports attacking the “failed” Great Society and heralding the marketplace as the solution to society’s problems. Law schools and universities were flooded with funding for chairs and faculty who would teach the virtues of the “free market” economy, and institutes were established to train a new generation of market-embracing professionals.
During the 1970s the simultaneously upward growth of both economic productivity and workers’ wages, began to divide as wages stagnated and productivity continued to grow. In effect, the wealth produced by workers was no longer shared with them, but was instead accumulated by wealthy investors as worker wages stagnated. This pattern has essentially persisted to our time.
These strategies laid the foundation for the neoliberal regime, formerly ushered in within the U. S. by the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s political “virtue” was the combination of conservative, government-blaming rhetoric with policies that followed the corporate playbook to a T: tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, deregulation and privatization, cuts in domestic programs, and a massive military build-up aimed at reasserting post-Vietnam war U.S. influence around the world.
On the one hand, Reagan’s rhetoric fed the anger and sense of victimization of those who felt marginalized, providing a kind of affective empowerment via voting for someone who sounds like “he’s on our side.” On the other hand, outside of Supreme Court battles reflecting hot button issues like abortion, guns, flag salutes, or prayer in schools Reagan’s policies helped to ensure that those populations remain economically and politically marginalized, and thus angry.
It is important to note, too, that leaders in the Democratic Party–Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, among others— formed the Democratic Leadership Council during the Reagan years in a successful effort to move the party into the corporate-friendly center so it would attract sufficient campaign support to win back the White House.
Thus we have been living in a neoliberal regime, in which the basic priorities of government are established by a coalition of interests that prevail regardless of which of the two political parties controls the presidency and Congress.
In the mid-1990s, Fox News was created to counter the so-called “liberal media.” It became a crucial propaganda source in the right wing echo chamber that has captured a significant portion of American voters.
The 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated how far along the neoliberal path we have traveled. Trump’s surprise victory revealed a number of things: how savage rhetoric against vulnerable populations like women, immigrants, and Muslims appeals to disaffected sectors of the population, much like waving raw meat in front of hungry wolves; how desperate the libertarian corporatists like the Koch brothers and Paul Ryan are to complete their take-over of U.S. politics; and how borrowing a populist pitch against so-called “free trade” from the Sanders campaign fooled enough of labor’s rank and file to make a difference.
Bernie Sanders’ campaign revealed how deeply and passionately opposition to inequality stirs in the post-Occupy public mind, particularly with younger people. It also exposed the lengths to which the corporate-centrist Democratic Party would go to ensure the nomination of their own preferred candidate, one who turned out to be the perfect foil for Trump’s faux populism. In effect, the 2016 election revealed both the potential and the limitations of electoral politics.
Along with the Republicans’ transparent policy objectives, Trump’s vicious rhetoric has aroused a broad-based surge of active opposition. We live in a moment of profound challenges requiring anti-imperial, ecological, and egalitarian activism, but also one that is brimming with potential. The danger posed by the oppositional fervor Trump aroused is that many, especially among middle-aged and older populations, are likely to believe their work is done if and when the Democrats regain power.
At the same time, the rise of younger cohorts thoroughly disillusioned with both political parties, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, from more radical ecologists to the current wave of student gun control advocacy is fertile ground for a rising and more potent left. Older activists on the left need to support and celebrate these younger cohorts, while simultaneously articulating a common ground that challenges contemporary capitalism–a kind of “Next System” meets Black Lives Matter.
As conditions worsen, the imperative for activism grows, as does the potential for recognizing systemic failings.
Ted Morgan is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University and a long-time Lehigh Valley activist. His most recent book is What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”