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Republicans Lost Their Way Long Before Trump (But So Did the Democrats)

When the entire democratic system is off the rails, this is what you get

President Donald Trump is joined by the Congressional leadership and his family as he formally signs his cabinet nominations into law, in the President's Room of the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. From left behind Trump are, Ivanka Trump, Melania Trump, their son Barron Trump, Eric Trump, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, (R-WI), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, (D-CA), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi,(D-CA). (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty Images)

There's been a spate of articles about how Trump has "taken over" the Republican Party.  For example, New York Times columnist Charles Blow opened a recent column saying, "In one way, Donald Trump’s presidency has been a raging success: He stole a political party.” And former House Speaker John Bohner said, "There is no Republican Party. There's a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere."

The thing is, the Republican Party was taken over long ago, and Trump is merely the logical endpoint of that takeover. Moreover, the Democratic Party has also been taken over, and by the same cast of characters.

The fact that it took the election of a narcissistic reality show buffoon to get the media to acknowledge—albeit only reluctantly and tacitly—that the Republican Party is off the rails is one of the greatest stories never told. The fact that they think Trump is the one who did it is a sign of gross incompetence.

So is the media's tendency to tiptoe around the Democratic Party's sell out to the same suspects.

Both of these events are historic, important, and blatantly obvious. For the press to ignore them is tantamount to having two stark raving mad uncles hidden away in the national attic, screaming at the top of their lungs while we sit below, wondering why we can’t have a rational national conversation.

Let's examine each, in turn.

The Republican Party and the Oligarch’s Coup

While rich plutocrats had attempted an actual coup back in the early stages of Roosevelt’s administration, the blueprint for a far more subtle and sophisticated one appeared on August 23, 1971.  On that date, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who would soon become a Supreme Court Justice, gave a friend at the Chamber of Commerce a memo entitled, Attack On American Free Enterprise System. As with the previous coup, this one was issued in response to the popularity of the New Deal and the Great Society in general, and regulations limiting corporate power in particular.  Powell outlined a strategy to defend against the "attack" and to counter attack against "disquieting voices."  

The counter attack was a multi-billion dollar campaign funded by a few rich families and corporations who invested in this coup. They focused on: 1) creating a conservative infrastructure composed of foundations, think tanks, academic chairs, and media outlets; 2) discrediting government in general and regulations in particular, while glorifying free markets; and 3) developing sophisticated messaging to equip candidates and influence the public. In short, they set up to shape polls, change the national political dialogue, and virtually take the country over.

There may have been a few true-believers among the "government-is-bad, free-markets-are-good" gang, but it’s hard to see how. After all, the New Deal and the Great Society policies they railed against, had just delivered the longest, most equitably shared period of prosperity in our nation's history. One has to wonder if it was that "equitably shared" aspect that rankled them.

A measure of their success is that we are now in the midst of the second longest period of economic growth in US history, but it features the least equitable distribution of economic gains in our nation's history. 

So, from the beginning, the coup sought to divide, distract, deceive, and dissemble in the interests of gaining an ever-larger share of wealth and power. A key component of their coup was to appeal to prejudice, racism, jingoism, sexism, and a host of other "isms" to keep folks from realizing that wealth wasn't trickling down; supply side strategies were merely enriching the rich; and that deregulating the financial community and the media, while gutting regulations protecting the environment, worker safety, food safety, and drug safety was hurting the vast majority of Americans while benefiting corporations and rich stockholders.

But this divide-and-conquer effort isn't new.  It began in earnest with Reagan, when he kicked off his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi—the site of three racially motivated murders by the KKK—with a speech on state’s rights, no less.  This should have been the dog whistle heard round the world.

The party continued in this divide and conquer strategy, while they simultaneously ignited an all-out war on government.  Again, Reagan was the ideal spokesman.  In his first speech as president, he said, "…government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem"—launching a relentless assault on governance that Republicans continue to this day.

While he worked diligently to discredit government, he extolled the virtues of the free market, claiming that it would deliver all good things by pure serendipity, if we could just get government out of the way. He also rolled back FCC rules, implemented a tax cut that benefited the rich, and railed against deficits, even as he chalked up record breaking deficits.

Over the years, the conservative agenda has failed virtually every time it's been attempted. In fact, nationally, our three attempts to run our economy on their laissez-faire policies has presaged the three biggest economic downturns in our nation's history. Meanwhile, at the state level, economies in states like Kansas and Louisiana, which adopted the conservative playbook, are tanking, while in those like New York and California—which raised taxes and increased regulations—are thriving.

But rather than acknowledging that their prescription wasn't working, they doubled down on the lies, the divisiveness, the deceptions and the distractions—not surprising when you realize the whole point of the coup was to disable government for the purpose of concentrating power and wealth among the wealthy.

Again, these are hallmarks of the Republican Party today, and more to the point, they presage Trump's assault on governance, his appointment of industry cronies while promising to drain the swamp, and his deficit-exploding tax cuts for the rich.  But most of all, they were part and parcel of the science-denying, fact-free, lying, truth-shredding GOP since Reagan. 

The press—abandoning truth and accuracy as its polestar and replacing them with balance—enabled this whole charade until Trump's election.

But the only difference between Trump and the traditional Republican Party was that he made explicit, what had been implicit, exposing the rotten, hate-filled, blame-fueled, anti-science core of the Party to sunlight.  Republicans initially recoiled at this exposure, but when they saw it didn't seem to matter in elections, they condoned it, even if they didn't fully embrace it.

Which brings us to the Democrats

The only way Republicans could have gotten away with such an epic con, is if there were no one calling them on it.  And in fact, that's the case.  As noted, what little of the press hadn't been purchased outright by big corporations, neutered itself by a commitment to being "balanced"—as if fact and fiction could somehow be compromised into truth.

Not only did Democrats fail to take on the very obvious failings of the trickle-down, supply-side con, they embraced much of the right's agenda, beginning with the DLC sellout under Clinton.  As Thomas Frank has pointed out:

Clinton had five major achievements as president: NAFTA, the Crime Bill of 1994, welfare reform, the deregulation of banks and telecoms, and the balanced budget. All of them—every single one—were  longstanding Republican objectives.

Democrats did this because they’d become dependent upon campaign contributions from the ultra-rich and corporations.  In short, the coup captured both of the major parties.

The present moment

Public attitude towards politicians, politics and government ranges from indifference to contempt to rage.  Anger and apathy are the reasons a small minority—just 27 percent—of passionately ignorant voters were able to elect Trump.  But as we approach the 2018 mid-terms there is a strong progressive wave playing out throughout the country.  Polls show that issues like health care (especially single payer strategies like Medicare for All), gun control, and a backlash on tax cuts for the rich are at the top of people's concerns among Democrats, Independents and even many conservatives, and Republicans are on the wrong side of all these issues.

But the 2018 election will be about turnout.  Trump's small minority of enraged voters will go to the polls.  If the Democratic Party were to adopt a national progressive agenda, turnout would remain high, as it has been in the recent off-year elections, when Democratic candidates ran to the left of center, and the party would win the House and quite possibly the Senate.

But astonishingly, Pelosi and Schumer just announced that their big idea for the 2018 election is a Pay-Go rule, and they've refused to embrace Medicare for All and other bold progressive ideas that are supported by a majority of Democrats and Independents.

For decades, Republicans have been holding Democrats hostage when they controlled the White House or Congress by screaming about deficits, all but crippling their ability to do anything bold to address the very real problems of middle class and working class Americans, then exploding the deficit when they got into office to give giant tax cuts to the rich and corporations.  Now, the Democrats seem to think it's a great idea to spare the Republicans the trouble, by preemptively hamstringing themselves with this albatross.

Such gross incompetence would be funny if there weren't so much at stake.

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John Atcheson

John Atcheson

screen_shot_2017-07-26_at_9.09.47_pm.pngJohn Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, and he has just completed a book on the 2016 elections titled, WTF, America? How the US Went Off the Rails and How to Get It Back On Track, available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter @john_atcheson

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