Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

democracy not oligarchy

"Until the oligarchs' coup, the trend in our nation was to expand the freedoms originally granted to white males only, to an ever-increasing number of people." (Photo: peoplesworld/flickr/cc)

Beyond Trump: How the US Went Off the Rails

Trump is a big problem. But he's not the cause of our problems.

John Atcheson

Trump is not the source of our problems; he’s the result of them.

Wait, you say, how can having a president with all the impulse control of an infant’s alimentary canal—a man with all the strategic sense of a six-year-old ADHD patient; a narcissistic, mendacious, sexist, bombastic, thug—not be the source of our problems?

Well, to be clear, Trump is a big problem. But he’s not the cause of our problems.

To understand why, we have to go back to the 70s, when conservatives and oligarchs launched a de facto coup that ultimately ushered in a New Dark Ages. Conservatives like Lewis Powell and Milton Friedman were mounting a counterattack on the progressive policies of the New Deal, in an attempt to make America more “business friendly.”

As I detail in my book WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back on Track, conservatives and corporations funded a network of endowed academic chairs, foundations, think tanks, and media outlets that allowed the rich to influence, and ultimately shape, the nation’s policy agenda, giving the cover of intellectual respectability to an ideology based on greed and self-interest, while creating a cadre of leaders and upcoming leaders who could and would, win elections. 

It wasn’t their intent to repeal the Enlightenment and push the U.S. into the Dark Ages, but along the way, their coup ran into an uncomfortable fact: Their ideology was simply not true. Greed wasn’t good. Their perversion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand—the notion that self-interest served the public good better than do-gooder government policies—simply didn’t work.

The evidence for this became too overwhelming to deny. Trickle down, supply side, tax cuts for the rich, government as the problem, markets as the solution—all the carefully structured arguments for cutting back government, deregulating the economy, and unloosing the corporate juggernaut—failed to deliver prosperity. Manifestly, and miserably. Except for the top 1 percent. For them, it delivered unparalleled wealth. For many of the oligarchs that was fine, and for some it was the whole point of the coup. 

Their schema didn’t fail once—it failed over and over again. It failed at the national level all three times it was tried; it is failing now in virtually every state where a radical right-wing governor has attempted to implement it.

Meanwhile, states like California, which raised taxes and regulated the economy, prospered. And then there was the uncomfortable fact that the New Deal, with its heavy regulatory hand and high taxes, ushered in the longest, most equitably shared period of prosperity in our nation’s history.

What’s a poor government hater to do?  

Step 1: Take control of the media. Gut the FCC; buy up all the stations; consolidate the newspapers. 

Step 2: Distract, deceive, dissemble and divide. Use sexism, racism, jingoism, hate, fear, greed, and any other “ism” you can think of to take the spotlight off your failure; to short-circuit reason; and to put the limbic lizard brain in charge. Meanwhile, use advanced rhetorical techniques to sell your snake oil through a multi-billion dollar network of think tanks, endowed university chairs, foundations, media outlets, and both bought-and-paid-for political parties. 

Step 3: Sabotage the democratic process. Use gerrymandering, voter exclusion, and suppression to keep the young, minorities, and the poor from voting. Make elections a contest for corporate money and buy both parties. Mess with the census. Alienate enough voters that a mere 27 percent of the passionately ignorant can decide the elections.

Step 4: Tell people that the market will deliver everything their hearts desire if we just get government off its back, and that the government is the problem, not the solution...then gut government with tax cuts and political appointments representing the oligarchy at the expense of the people so it can’t and won’t provide solutions any longer.

Step 5: Use the billions spent on the oligarchs’ coup to attack reason, facts, and critical thinking itself. Repeal the Enlightenment and usher in a Next Dark Age, where myth, revealed truths, decrees from on high, and counterfactual nonsense have equal standing with reality.

Once you’ve done all this, you can continue to walk away with most of the money, the power, and the spoils, and do it under cover of ignorance. For example, in 2012, North Carolina lawmakers passed legislation against sea level rise. A day later, the Virginia legislature required that references to global warming, climate change, and sea level rise be excised from a proposed study on sea level rise.

The year before these acts of abominable ignorance the Texas Department of Environmental Quality, which had commissioned a study on Galveston Bay, cut all references to sea level rise—the main point of the study. Meanwhile, Texan Republicans had opposed a proposal to make a course in critical thinking skills a requirement in the state’s curriculum. Don’t want people thinking clearly. 

The problem with all this is that the Enlightenment is what brought us untold wealth and health, and it was the basis of our constitution and the freedoms it confers upon us. It took us from one-horse carts to automobiles to airplanes. From leaches and phrenology to penicillin and monoclonal antibodies. From autocracies, kleptocracies, and plutocracies to democracy—or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. And until the oligarchs’ coup, the trend in our nation was to expand the freedoms originally granted to white males only, to an ever-increasing number of people.

Trump is simply the inevitable result of this divorce from reality. He is the bitter harvest of poisoned fruit we get from sowing seeds of ignorance.

And yes, this descent into the New Dark Ages is a bipartisan affair—one the Democrats seem intent on continuing, by backing centrist, corporate-friendly candidates in the mold of the Clintons.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson, 1948-2020, was a long-time Common Dreams contributor, climate activist and author of, "A Being Darkly Wise, and a book on our fractured political landscape entitled, "WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track". John was tragically killed in a California car accident in January 2020.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Massive Demonstration of Support for Lopez Obrador in Mexico City

AMLO was elected in 2018 and heralded as the Bernie Sanders of Mexico

Common Dreams staff ·


Scientists Revive ‘Zombie’ Virus After 50,000 Years Trapped in Siberian Permafrost

Researchers documented 13 never-before-seen viruses that have been lying dormant, frozen in thick ice, over tens of thousands of years.

Common Dreams staff ·


'Cleaner Air Is Coming' as London Expands Vehicle Pollution Fee to Entire Metro Area

"Around 4,000 Londoners die prematurely each year because of long-term exposure to air pollution, with the greatest number of deaths in outer London boroughs," noted Mayor Sadiq Khan in announcing the expansion.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Amazing News': Historic Shark Protections Approved at Global Wildlife Convention

Up to 90% of sharks targeted by the lucrative fin trade will now be protected, said one advocate.

Julia Conley ·


'The Nightmare Materializes': Far-Right Extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir to Be Israel's National Security Minister

The Foreign Affairs Ministry of the Palestinian Authority said Ben-Gvir's elevation to national security minister could have a "catastrophic impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo