Here’s What The Trumpists Don’t Understand About American Greatness
Consider what the state of our nation would be without the accumulated protections over a century of progressive legislation.
The case for Donald Trump made by his supporters is that, whatever the man’s flaws, his presidency provides the only bulwark against the permanent liberal ascendancy a Clinton White House might well have locked in after eight years of Barack Obama. Such a prospect, in their view, threatened traditional values, free enterprise, individual rights, conservative culture and, perhaps, democracy itself. Therefore, the 2016 campaign was not simply an ordinary election but, as the historian Victor Davis Hanson declared on the anniversary of Trump’s victory, an “existential war for the soul of America.”
In such a war, adversaries are seen not simply as political opponents but mortal enemies in a winner-take-all struggle over the nation’s destiny. In this battle there is no room for compromise. Which is why Trump’s campaign is ongoing. The enemy must not only be defeated but crushed so that never again can it rise up to threaten America’s security, prosperity and identity. As Hanson wrote, “there is no alternative other than Trump to the new progressivism.”
The tocsin was sounded a year earlier in an essay by Michael Anton, writing under the pseudonym of Publius Decius Mus, who characterized the 2016 presidential campaign as “the Flight 93” election, evoking the hijacked 9/11 plane whose passengers heroically rushed their captors. Evoking the shade of a public-spirited Roman consul, Anton, who became a Trump national security official, urged the GOP base to “charge the cockpit or you die … There are no guarantees except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”
The message is clear: Democrats are likened to Arab terrorists and extreme measures are justified. What is at stake is national salvation from “our liberal-left present reality,” a dystopia of intrusive government, massive debt, rampant crime, illegitimacy and corruption that is not only wrong-headed but “incompatible with human nature.”
At the heart of this drum-beating is the myth of an American golden age which, under the misrule of liberalism, has been lost. But galloping to the rescue comes a White Knight who will “make America great again” — the “again” presuming a bygone moment that a Trump presidency would restore.
Exactly when this halcyon epoch occurred was left to the imagination of Trump enthusiasts. Fear of Hillary and national decline permitted Trump’s true believers to see virtue in his pratfalls, cheer his intemperance and rationalize his antics. Here was their last best chance to reverse the tide of “progressivism” manifested in a Government that did things to you, rather than for you. One that burdened entrepreneurs with taxes diverted to reward the unworthy and subsidize bureaucratic waste, income that could be better spent on productive efforts that would lift all boats.
In fact, this country had already conducted a long-term experiment dedicated to free-wheeling capitalism. It was called the Gilded Age, a period that lasted from the mid-1870’s to the late 1890’s, an era that enriched a limited few at the expense of the great many. Its excesses were not curbed until the first years of the 20th Century in the reform movement known as the Progressive Era. The goal of these reforms was to protect the public from the venality of corporate predators.
The Trumpist narrative is that the regulations built up over the 20th century — as America thrived! — were imposed from above on an unwary nation. In fact, they were instituted over time by state and federal legislatures in response to widespread public protest against the depredations and disparities inflicted on the majority of Americans by the wealthy, the powerful and their plutocratic allies.
Through the late 19th Century, tycoons were happy to work closely with their handmaidens in Congress and in the states houses as long as our representatives served their designs. It was only when legislatures – pressed by a growingly outraged and alienated electorate — shifted to righting the balance between the public good and corporate interests that the latter inveighed against Government as “intrusive.”
The country’s fabled railroads, a symbol of national progress during the Gilded Age, were also a landscape of American carnage. In 1893, more than 20,000 trainmen were injured in accidents, over 1,500 of them fatally. In response, Congress enacted the first national safety legislation that year. According to Richard White in “The Republic for Which It Stands,” his compelling history of the Gilded Age: “The unwillingness of employers to invest money in technologies or practices that would increase safety at the expense of profit was a constant source of contention between workers and management.”
From the mid-1870’s onward, as America entered the industrial age and the ideal of the entrepreneurial worker gave way to the reality of the wage laborer, the U.S. experienced a growing wave of labor conflict from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Great Upheaval of the 1880’s and beyond. Although most strikes concerned wages, many were about control over working conditions, often “a matter of life and death.”
As White tells us: “Miners, who could read the dangers of a badly ventilated mine, wanted to determine when, and how, they should work.” New technologies that, on the one hand made mining safer, also made it more hazardous, “allowing mines to go deeper into more and more risky places.” The dangers of work safety rose faster in the U.S. than in any other industrial country.
The grass-roots struggle for workers’ dignity — the end of child labor, the eight-hour day, work-place rules, safety regulations, health care and pension benefits — was an American phenomenon with wide public support. It was bitterly opposed by corporate titans who fought back using intimidation, violence and military force, with ensuing bloodshed. It was only the intervention of the government on the side of labor, which came in fits and starts over decades, that brought decent conditions to the American worker over the fierce resistance of management.
Left to its own devices, the market inflicted a series of rude blows on the American economy that were absorbed by those least able to sustain them. Although hailed as a time of innovation and growth, the Gilded Age was also marked by severe financial “panics” in 1873 and 1893, each lasting several years, leading to a trail of desolate farms, ruined businesses, mass unemployment and impoverished millions. We learn from White that bankruptcies grew from over 5,000 in 1873 to more than double that number before the depression subsided five years later. One in four of New York’s workers were unemployed that winter. It was one in three the next year, in what was described as “a winter of appalling misery.’’
Insulated from this were the robber barons and the machine bosses allied with them whose control of the nation’s finances and political levers enhanced their fortunes while the mass of Americans suffered from their venality. This was an era of massive corruption with the railroad trusts feeding at the public trough, Congressmen and state legislators routinely taking bribes, speculators cornering the market in commodities and business magnates snuffing the life out of competitors in a fever of monopolistic practices.
The goal of American business was not competition but monopolies, which combined into trusts—fixing prices, limiting wages and stifling innovation, except on their own terms. Corporate moguls maintained that they were entitled to their riches because they were risk-takers. In fact, they were risk averse. They were playing with other people’s money — often the government’s — in a rigged game where, as insiders, they were assured of the results.
It wasn’t until the Panic of 1907 that a movement to limit the damage of the boom-and-bust cycle gained traction under the aegis of Theodore Roosevelt and a Reform Republican wing led by Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. Combined with pressure from populist Democratic followers of William Jennings Bryan and the threat of a burgeoning Socialist movement under Norman Thomas, the Gilded Age gradually gave way to the Progressive Era culminating in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 under President Woodrow Wilson. It was Wilson who introduced the progressive income tax in 1917, an error corporate America and its latter-day apologists still hope to rectify.
Despite reforms, the U.S. was still vulnerable to the economic cycle which struck with a vengeance with the financial meltdown of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930’s. This brought Franklin Roosevelt to the White House and with him the New Deal whose seminal legislation ranged from Labor reform to Social Security, interventions by the Government designed to protect Americans from the vagaries of the market and the rapaciousness of its manipulators. Not least among the many agencies created under the New Deal was the Securities and Exchange Commission that regulated stock trading, which until then had been virtually out-of-control, contributing to the speculation that sparked the market crash leading to the Depression. Roosevelt’s efforts, while gaining him the devotion of the vast majority of Americans of his era, earned him the enmity of his own patrician class which never forgave his betrayal.
Before we embrace the platitude of “overregulation,” we might well consider the state of our nation without the accumulated protections instituted by more than 100 years of progressive legislation. Imagine, for instance, where we might be without the Food and Drug Act of 1906 that banned adulterated, decomposed, putrid food from the nation’s markets. Or the subsequent Food and Drug Administration created in 1938 that reviewed the safety of all drugs and prohibited quack medicines and false labeling. Which of these agencies, which standards, would conservatives do away with to appease their patrons?
The accretion of rules that they rail against are, in fact, a function of progress. The advances of the last 150 years, from the automobile to the airplane, brought both opportunity and hazard, requiring sensible regulation to protect the public.
The battle has been ongoing. Big Tobacco fought for years to deny links between cigarettes and cancer, using its considerable resources to cast doubt on medical studies overwhelmingly demonstrating the lethal results of their product. The same was true with the dangers of asbestos, refrigerants, pesticides, whose producers resisted the efforts of consumer, health and environmental advocates to alter their ways until the Government intervened in the public interest. As Lincoln Steffens wrote: “The commercial spirit is the spirit of profit, not patriotism.”
Like any regulatory system, ours has its flaws. The conservative playbook is to fasten on these defects not to improve the system but to dismantle it. Behind the cry of “overregulation’ is the goal of “no regulation.” In this view, the only proper use of federal funds is for defense and security. Exhibits A and B are the Republican budget priorities which privilege weapons and walls over social programs that shield Americans from the ravages of illness and age, that protect the environment, foster public education and safeguard the well-being of children, the infirm and the vulnerable.
Donald Trump’s rollback of regulations has heartened corporate America, which can now save on costs devoted to environmental and consumer protection. A measure of Trump’s concern for the public weal is the extent to which he has eviscerated agencies with the word “protection” in them, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, in the name of freeing business from red tape.
The myth of the lone entrepreneur overcoming the strictures of the state somehow overlooks that, historically, most of the major initiatives that advanced the individual and led to social prosperity emanated from Washington. During the Civil War, the Homestead Act staked thousands of families to a piece of America and the Morrill Act created land-grant colleges. The railroads were virtually government subsidized although the profits went to private hands. After World War II the G.I. Bill sent veterans (at least white ones) to college and offered them affordable housing in the suburbs; the dams, electrification and regional infrastructure of the New Deal, the national highways of the Eisenhower era stimulating commerce and travel, were all Federal projects that enriched and unified the country. All of this was paid for in taxes, much of it at a far higher rate than today with the country no worse off in terms of prosperity. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. famously observed: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.”
Perhaps that postwar era was the Golden Age to which Trump seeks to bring America back. It was a time of U.S. political and economic hegemony as the rest of the world struggled to recover from the ravages of global war. And it was roughly coincidental with Trump’s own youth and that of his older supporters, notwithstanding its hefty tax rate and plethora of liberal legislation. But the G.I. Bill had its own unforeseen consequences. By opening higher education to the lower orders in what was a more open postwar society, it created the conditions for a professoriate that, by the 60’s would, in conservative eyes, lead American youth astray. Enter the culture wars. While it is understandable that the 1 percent (or the 10 percent) would vote to protect its economic interests, what is remarkable is that they have enlisted a large chunk of the other 90 percent to vote against their own. They’ve done so by substituting class issues with social ones. A shell game in which Everyman is Superman, needless of federal support.
Whatever the excesses of political correctness and campus culture, the vast majority of students enrolling in higher education are devoted to the mundane pursuits of computer science, business, health, engineering and other prosaic fields whose goal is simply to earn a good living. It should be noted that the scions of the 1 percent take up an inordinate amount of the seats in the humanities at the elite colleges and it does not appear that they are prepared to surrender their privileges much less contribute the new-found savings on their inheritance taxes in the name of collectivism. While posing as defenders of academic freedom, conservatives have flirted with more than a whiff of anti-intellectualism in their assault on higher education, evolving in some quarters to an attack on public education and the respect for facts on which it rests.
Compare the influence of a few liberal campuses — throw in Hollywood and the few remaining independent news outlets — with the juggernaut of interlocking organizations, think tanks, business lobbies, “philanthropies,” legal groups, publishing houses, news media and yes, academic institutions, devoted exclusively to propagating right-wing ideology, described by Jane Mayer in “Dark Money.” These allies form a well-coordinated network financed by an array of deep-pocketed billionaires led by the Koch Brothers devoted to the beliefs “that taxes are a form of tyranny; that Government oversight is an assault on freedom.” They have succeeded in controlling 34 governorships and 32 state legislatures, not to mention gaining control of both houses of Congress, the Presidency and tipping the Supreme Court. Yet, their apologists are playing defense!
Hanson has sanctified Trump’s election as “a Rubicon moment.” Likening Trump to Julius Caesar, he writes that “the die has been cast,” and, enamored of his metaphor, declares that those who were fearful of the country’s direction “had no choice but to follow him through the river.” Comparing Julius Caesar with Donald Trump gives one pause. But allowing for Hanson’s enthusiasms, which may have carried him away for the moment, we might remember that Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon led to bloody civil war, the end of the Roman Republic and almost 200 years of tyranny and fratricide.
Be careful what you wish for.