The past few weeks have been hellish for Americans. With one assault after another on our Constitution and our rights, it has felt like an endless stream of slaps to the face and punches to the gut.
From the decision by Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai to end net neutrality to the unconscionable late-night vote Friday by Senate Republicans on a tax reform bill that had amendments scribbled in by hand to Donald Trump’s unprecedented undoing of national monument designations in Utah to the Supreme Court’s Muslim ban-affirming order on Monday, it feels as though the entire nation is under attack all at once.
No amount of controversy around special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s charges, Trump’s apparent obstruction of justice or the subpoena of his personal finances appears to derail the momentum of the radical Republican agenda.
While we are reeling in our efforts to make sense of what has transpired in the past few days, party members are already on to bigger and better things, such as cutting spending in the upcoming government budget negotiations, as if they realize that if they slow down for even a moment, we might catch our collective breath long enough to revolt.
It has been overwhelming, exhausting and traumatic. But that is because we are receiving each report in gut-wrenching isolation rather than as a single brick in a larger unified wall of injustice. Because there is little mainstream discussion of the broad outlines of the pro-corporate/conservative agenda, we are responding piecemeal to the assaults by our elected representatives. That is our greatest weakness. What we need is a Grand Unified Theory of politics to fuel our resistance.
Particle physicists have been in search of a Grand Unified Theory for years. But politics is easier than particle physics. If it isn’t immediately apparent what the GOP’s end goal was in passing a $1.5 trillion, deficit-causing, tax reform bill, it helps to step back and look at what the party’s overarching goal has been for decades: to undermine the power of government at every turn and make it subservient to corporations. Republicans are in it to break government from the inside out. So it should come as no surprise that the party’s next move is to deeply cut spending as a deadline for a government budget looms.
In fact, cutting spending was the Republican Party’s goal all along, which simply translates into cutting Social Security and Medicare, as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio recently admitted. The initial Republican argument about simplifying everyone’s taxes was a ruse. Rather than cutting spending first—which is unpopular—Republicans have passed a bill to cut revenue first by about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, so that spending cuts then appear as a reaction to a cash-strapped Treasury rather than a proactive attack on Americans. The big question is, will Americans fall for this con?
Republicans are very skilled manipulators, and their leader is the master of them all. Trump has risen to the top of the Republican ranks (despite some in the party who are loath to accept such an uncouth and vulgar king) because he uses language to sell people the exact opposite of what he is delivering. A prime example is his speech on Monday in Utah—one that should be lauded as a spectacular example of Orwellian doublespeak. Trump announced his unprecedented decision to roll back federal protections of lands designated national monuments by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. But he began by praising Utah’s stunning natural beauty, using the language of a conservationist rather than a conservative:
I know all of you feel blessed to be living among some of the most glorious natural wonders anywhere in the world. You cherish Utah’s gleaming rivers and sweeping valleys, you take inspiration from its majestic peaks and when you look upon its many winding canyons and glowing vistas you marvel at the beauty of God’s greatest creation.
Trump then quickly pivoted to the idea that the government is ruining the state’s natural beauty, saying, “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington,” which he then followed with a convincing argument to free the land from government’s clutches. Of course, he made no mention of the “small handful” of corporate elites who will then be free to plunder the oil and gas trapped beneath Utah’s mountains and valleys. He also repeatedly referred to the federal government’s “control,” rather than “protection,” of the land. National monuments are so designated precisely so that people can enjoy their public lands and protect them from devastation.
Trump and his party know full well that if they spell out what they really want to do to our commons, we will have none of it. Indeed, polls show that federal protection of our lands is hugely popular among ordinary Americans. “Your timeless bond with the outdoors should not be replaced with the whims of regulators,” Trump said, refusing to mention that the same bond would be at the whims of voracious extractive industries instead. Trump also made no mention of the outrage among five indigenous tribes that fought for national monument designation for years and have now launched a lawsuit against the president.
Cognitive linguists such as George Lakoff have explained how the right skillfully reframes issues, as Trump did in Utah, in order to appeal to its base. In recent months, psychologists have used a similar concept, called the moral foundations theory, to explain why rank-and-file conservatives respond to certain framing and language. Certainly, reframing right-wing rhetoric is crucial to a common understanding of the great heist that is underway. But even more important, once Republican talking points are reframed, is seeing every action as part of a pattern of plunder, especially the attacks on communities of color that have been facing immediate dangers to their safety and dignity over the past year.
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Indigenous Americans, along with African-Americans, undocumented immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ communities, have borne the brunt of Trump and the GOP’s cruelty.
Responding to the Supreme Court order on the latest version of Trump’s Muslim ban, Zahra Billoo of the Council on American-Islamic Relations told me in an interview that it is important to see the decision as linked to the attacks on various communities, the environment, the fallout from the tax bill, etc: “All of them are related and all of them are part of the Trump administration’s white supremacist and classist agenda.” She is right. The Muslim ban is part of a broad agenda of racial/religious intolerance and, even more broadly, the oppression of minority groups. That injustice goes hand in hand with the right-wing assault on our commons, our environment, our health and well-being and our ability to collectively organize and thrive.
The Movement for Black Lives (MBL) recognized this when it released a broad platform last year demanding an “end to the war on black people,” at the same time calling for economic justice, community control and political power. In a sense, the organization was expressing a Grand Unified Theory by articulating demands that are seemingly disparate and unifying them into a single platform.
Despite what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his technocratic ilk may say about supporting Black Lives Matter, and despite the support that the Democratic Party establishment expresses for people of color, in the end, wealthy liberal elites (yes, this is a favored phrase of the right, but one that actually does apply) refuse to swap profits for racial and gender justice. MBL and other groups have long understood that corporate elites won’t trade economic power for the common good because they equate market freedom with human freedoms.
Corporate elites are the problem, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of social politics. The folks who claim, “I’m a social liberal but a fiscal conservative,” are a part of same problem as those who are social and fiscal conservatives.
A prime example is the plunder of lands owned or considered sacred by indigenous groups, as the Utah story demonstrates—corporate entities put profits over the rights of this nation’s original inhabitants. Another example is the impunity of police and the disproportionate mass incarceration of black Americans: Private corporations stand to make huge amounts of money on government prison contracts and the militarization of police. A similar analysis can be made of the renewed crackdown on immigrants and the thriving immigrant detention industry. Or the promotion of wars against brown people in foreign nations that drive profits for weapons manufacturers and private mercenary firms.
The Grand Unified Theory of politics is that there is a small group of wealthy, corporate elites who have taken political power by means of the massive wealth they have amassed, and their goal is to amass even more wealth. Through a corporate profit-making lens, there is no profit value in addressing racial and gender justice. There is no value in universal health care, quality education, higher wages or pristine air, water and land, because funding such goals leaves less money for the wealthy elites.
Writing about precisely this issue is longtime writer, activist and academic Charles Derber, a sociology professor at Boston College. In an interview about his new book, “Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times,” Derber said that the idea of “intersectionality is very important”:
All of the various crises that we’re facing—climate change, predatory capitalism, militarism, extreme sexism and racism, anti-immigration and so forth—these issues are largely viewed in the media and for quite a few years on the left as relatively autonomous from each other. And the understanding that these issues are systemically intertwined, like DNA all wrapped up with each other, has been lost to a large degree.
Derber cited Martin Luther King Jr. near the end of his life as having made the crucial links between racism, militarism and capitalism in a way that made him a formidable enemy of the state. In fact, says the author, the 1960s was the last time masses of people in the U.S. “universalized” their resistance to power. It was no coincidence that it was also the last time so many Americans were politically educated and mobilized.
If we are to effectively take on Trumpism and the Republican Party agenda, we need to adopt a universal approach, or a Grand Unified Theory of political resistance and organizing. Indeed, the right has done precisely that, equating prosperity with morality to take political power and reshape the nation in its worldview. It is time for the rest of us to catch up. It is the only path to feeling powerful in the face of relentless assaults, as opposed to the powerlessness that is leaving many of us feeling paralyzed.