Life Will Dramatically Change Under Brutal American Oligarchy

The stakes are higher than they’ve been since the 1860s and the 1930s; this may be our last chance to rescue democracy in this country.

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Want some racism, sexism, misogyny, blunt and angry nationalism, and good-old-fashioned corruption with your government?

We just had an example during the four years of the Trump presidency of how this could change everyday life in America, and the election to leadership of Trump acolyte Elise Stefanik shows how many in the Republican Party want to institutionalize it. It’s important to understand what it really means.

A lot of names have been bandied around to describe the form of government Donald Trump tried to impose on us during his administration. “Fascism” was used commonly, as were words like “little dictator,” and “cult of personality.”

But really what Donald Trump was proposing and trying to institute is a fairly common form of government, a variation of authoritarianism called oligarchy.

We are seeing it played out around the world in governments controlled by rich elites and run by authoritarians like Duterte, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, Erdoğan, Putin, Orban, Modi, and Duda. 

They seem like they are increasingly becoming one-man-rule governments, but authoritarianism is just the midpoint after oligarchs begin corrupting democratic governments that have not yet become full-blown fascist oligarchies.

Because they are rarely stable, these “midpoint” authoritarian governments usually are grown in, and rise up to seize control of, democracies, as has happened several times over the past 40 years in the Philippines, for example, where the biggest businesses are inextricably intertwined with the state, corruption is rampant, and the media, the courts and the legislature are all essentially under the control of the billionaire or oligarchic class.

Oligarchy is when the very rich rule a country largely for their own benefit. They typically bring along a charismatic but compliant leader at the top (often an oligarch himself, and if he doesn’t start out that way he certainly ends that way), and are supported at the bottom by “authoritarian followers” who feel insecure about their personal and economic prospects and want a “big daddy” who will soothe their anxieties, affirm their victimhood and outrage, and help them sleep at night.

Oligarchy is always the result of very wealthy people corrupting the political process, something the Founders thought they could control in America but that political philosopher Robert Michaels, with his “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in 1911, proposed was the inevitable result of every democracy that didn’t maintain strong guardrails to prevent the rich from rising up and corrupting the political process.

This corruption of politics is exactly what has happened in the United States since the late 1970s when the Supreme Court ruled (in their Buckley and Bellotti decisions in 1976/1978) that billionaires and corporations owning politicians was merely “First Amendment-protected free speech.” It brought us the Reagan Revolution.

The Court doubled down on this in 2010 with their Citizens United ruling, saying that if government prevented billionaires and giant corporations from overwhelming elections with their money and advertising, we were not just inhibiting their free speech. 

The conservative justices on the Court invented a bizarre new doctrine to justify Citizens United, saying that average people were being disadvantaged when billionaires and corporations couldn’t pour unlimited money into the political process because if they were stifled we’d lose our “right to hear” from some of the most “important” and “well-informed” players in the economic and political game. 

This “right to hear” is now, in our political process, the Supreme Court-created foundation of oligarchic control over the entire Republican Party, shrinking parts of the Democratic Party, and, increasingly, over that we refer to as “Red States.“ 

Authoritarian oligarchic movements, as the Republican Party has recently become, typically have a few predictable hallmarks. They include:

  • Crushing the rights of women while glorifying a “macho” ethic and aesthetic

  • Crony capitalism, making a few rich and screwing everybody else

  • Crushing union efforts and any sort of demands by workers for fair pay or treatment

  • The legalization and widespread promulgation of the surveillance state while political elites routinely get away with crimes that would have put average people into prison for years

  • Repression of religious minorities and weaponization of religion as an agent of state power

  • The marginalization and demonization of minorities, particularly racial and gender-based minorities

  • The suppression — typically starting with the demonization — of the press; in later stages, outright murder of members of the press

  • Selective enforcement of laws so that individuals never know when they will become the target of state violence (example: how America polices Black people)

  • Seizure of the courts so that selectively enforced laws and regulations are used to maintain the power of the oligarchs and assuage the insecurities of their followers 

  • A huge gap between the rich and poor (often accompanied by an explosion of homelessness), maintained and used by the oligarch class to provide victims their followers can feel superior to

  • Civilian paramilitaries who terrorize both the populace and the political opposition (Liz Cheney just said some of her peers refused to vote to impeach Trump because they feared for their lives)

  • The racialization of powerlessness and poverty

  • A brutal “grassroots” response to those who object to selective poverty, typically leading to the marginalization or even outright assassination of movement leaders (like Dr. Martin Luther King) 

  • A false form of nationalism that glorifies a mythical past, explicitly covers up past crimes and failings, and positions the now-oligarch-controlled country as the pinnacle of political evolution

  • The corruption of the political process, so that the agents of the oligarchs can ultimately decide who gets to vote and who doesn’t, and which votes get counted and which don’t

Countries typically begin the transition from democracy into oligarchy and sometimes even outright fascism when the oligarchs seize control of a large part of the political process, typically a major political party. 

This has happened in the United States over the past 40 years under the rubric of the Reagan Revolution. The Republican Party is now entirely controlled by the oligarch class, who also have functional control over as many as half of the individual members of the Democratic Party. 

Slowing down or even reversing America’s slide into oligarchy will require a number of things the Biden administration has put forward.

We must show that democratic government can actually still work, reducing the demand for a strongman “savior” like we saw with Trump, and the passage of the expansive American Rescue Plan was a good start.

If Biden can get both his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan enacted, rebuilding our physical, human and intellectual infrastructure, it will take a lot of wind out of the sails of the authoritarian movement in this country.

By proposing HR1, the For The People Act, the Democratic Party has chosen to explicitly repudiate oligarchy as a form of government. It requires transparency from “big money” and meaningfully reduces money’s influence, as well as ending minority-rule schemes like gerrymandering while establishing baseline minimum standards for elections in America.

By holding democracy high as a primary value, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act guarantees and expands democracy itself in America, which can rapidly and effectively kneecap oligarchy.

The success or failure of these initiatives — all fiercely opposed by the GOP and the oligarchs who own that Party — will determine whether America again embraces democracy, or picks back up on Donald Trump‘s nearly-successful move to push America into a full-blown fascistic form of oligarchy.

The stakes are higher than they’ve been since the 1860s and the 1930s; this may be our last chance to rescue democracy in this country.

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If you’d like to do a deeper dive on these topics, I’ve written a series of small, quickly-read books breaking them down.

The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment describes that Amendment’s roots in the Southern Slave Patrols and how American policing grew out of that and is used today as a violent system of control against marginalized people.

The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America lays out how a corruptly-stacked Supreme Court is the principal instrument that brought us here.

The Hidden History of the War on Voting describes the processes through which oligarchs corrupted the Republican Party and the American political system.

The Hidden History of Monopolies describes how the oligarchic class, exploiting weaknesses within our political system, managed to seize control of virtually our entire economy, giving them massive political power.

The Hidden History of American Oligarchy reveals the two previous times in this country when we almost tipped over into oligarchy [the Civil War era and the attempts to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt] and exposes oligarch efforts to pull it off again today and how we can stop them.

And The Hidden History of American Healthcare shows how the most important and central function of government — maintaining the health and well-being of its people — has been co-opted and seized by a small group of “healthcare oligarchs” and how a Medicare For All system can overthrow much of their power and end their plunder of the American middle class.

All are available through your favorite bookseller.