Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann
While many trace the beginning of the modern rightwing fascist-friendly MAGA-type movement to the 1954 Brown v Board decision and the way it put the John Birch Society on steroids, another interesting origin story for today’s GOP base is grounded in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In the years immediately leading up to the 1970 creation of the EPA, pollution in America had gotten so bad it was impossible to ignore and was quickly becoming a political issue.
Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in 1962, a book about how DDT was killing birds worldwide, that electrified Americans and launched the nation’s first real environmental movement. The following year, smog killed 400 New Yorkers, and Lake Erie had largely died because it was so polluted.
In 1969, a spark from a passing train lit the Cuyahoga river on fire, and that same year a massive oil spill off the California coast covered over 400 square miles of beach and coastline with oil, killing thousands of birds and other wildlife.
Car exhaust, scientists reported in 1969, was so severe it was causing birth defects and cancer. Major American cities like St. Louis smelled, as TIME magazine reported at the time, “like an old-fashioned drugstore on fire.”
Richard Nixon, a canny politician who’d always had a pretty good take on the pulse of America, stepped up in 1969, creating the Environmental Quality Council. That was well received but didn’t make a dent in the problem, so Nixon did what was probably the only good deed for America of his presidency and helped create the EPA in 1970.
The wealthy oligarchs of American industry—particularly fossil fuel and chemical industry oligarchs—hated the EPA from the get-go.
Environmental regulations cut into their profits, and they felt persecuted after generations of their predecessor fatcats had poured their poisons into our air and water without a peep from the government. It was almost as infuriating as having to pay a 74% income tax on everything they earned after their first $3 million (in today’s dollars).
In response to public opinion, the sentiments of the morbidly rich back then went along the lines of, “So what if kids got cancer? We didn’t live in the neighborhoods of our refineries and manufacturing facilities: screw them! They should be happy we keep them employed and shut up about all this hippy-dippy environment stuff!”
Regulating polluting industries and fossil fuel emissions was all the rage in the 1970s, and people loved it. But the billionaires hated it. As the EPA historian noted, by the time Russell Train had become the EPA Administrator in 1973, they were starting to get organized and active:
“During Train’s tenure at EPA, clean air issues continued to cause contention between environmentalists and industry representatives.
“‘The entire environmental program was under siege by the energy crowd. It was a major accomplishment that we were able to keep environmental programs on track,’ said Train.
“Many efforts to trim EPA’s authority—to kill requirements for tall stacks, to curtail efforts to prevent significant deterioration of air cleaner than national air quality standards, and the like—were beaten back.”
That was also the year that America’s industrialists got serious about taking tobacco lawyer Lewis Powell’s Memo’s advice: the rich needed to step up and start buying off politicians and judges, seize control of the media, and use their endowments to stock universities with rightwing professors while pushing out the old-line liberals.
They got a big boost in 1976 (Buckley) and 1978 (Bellotti) when five Republicans on the Supreme Court ruled that billionaires and corporations buying off politicians was no longer considered criminal bribery: from those years forward it was, instead, “Constitutionally protected First Amendment free speech” and corporations were no longer legal fictions but fully “persons” who could claim protections under the Bill of (Human) Rights.
Lewis Powell himself, in fact, wrote the 1978 Bellotti decision giving corporate “persons”—including foreign corporations—the right to pour unlimited amounts of “dark money” into political campaigns. (Five corrupt Republicans on the Court would double down on this in 2010 with Citizens United.)
The fossil fuel billionaires, however, were still groaning under what seemed like an unending regulatory assault. The EPA was demanding that they clean up refineries that were spewing tons of cancer-causing benzene into the air, stop dumping radioactive and arsenic-containing coal tailings and drilling waste into rivers, and limit the exposure of workers. It was all too much.
So the fossil fuel billionaires and their fellow travelers got organized. They set up and funded policy think-tanks in every state in the union, each one devoted to the two main goals of the billionaires who birthed them: deregulation and tax cuts.
The challenge was convincing Americans that regulations were bad things, and that rich people should have their taxes cut from the 74% rate. That top tax bracket, after all, was the main thing preventing billionaires from grabbing all the money that was instead, then, going into the homes and pockets of unionized working-class people.
The think tanks got to work, backstopping the GOP at every opportunity. Money flowed to Republican politicians, both state and federal. A small army of commentators was organized, some of them scientists and economists willing to go on-the-take, to convince Americans that regulations weren’t something that would protect average people but were, instead, instruments of socialism or communism.
Their factotum, Jude Wanniski, even came up with a bizarre new economic theory that included techno-sounding phrases like “trickle down” and “supply side” to justify massive tax cuts for the morbidly rich.
The agencies like the EPA that were doing the regulating would, henceforth, be known as the “deep state,” a designation so creepy that few would choose to defend them.
After Reagan stopped enforcing antitrust laws in 1983 and Clinton deregulated the media in 1996, an army of radio and TV hosts were added to the mix, with over 1,500 local rightwing radio stations and Fox “News” rising into prominence. By 2000, Republicans were openly campaigning on platforms promising deregulation along with giant tax cuts for the “job creator” billionaires.
Now sufficiently indoctrinated to believe up is down, Republican voters became the nation’s useful idiots.
The think tanks told them climate change was a hoax, and they believed them. Trump told them the economy during his tenure was “the best in the history of the world” (it was only mediocre before the pandemic hit) and they believed him. He said he needed to cut taxes on the morbidly rich by around $2 trillion, and Republican voters nodded their heads in agreement.
Alexander Hamilton is often quoted as saying, “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.” It’s become the motto of the brahmins of the GOP, who only stand for their own greed and that of their wealthy patrons.
The white Republican base has been so lied to and abused over the past forty or so years that they’ve become easy marks for the predators in both big business and the GOP.
They’ve ceased to stand for anything other than blind obedience to Republican politicians, who lie with impunity (The Washington Post has identified over 30,000 lies Trump told while in office, for example), and as a result they’re “falling for anything” right in front of God and the world:
- Democrats running child sex rings out of a DC pizza parlor? Sure! Let me bring an assault weapon!
- Teachers hate kids and are hell-bent on screwing up their lives. Of course: why else would they study for all those years for a job that pays squat?
- Treating a deadly new virus with horse de-wormer or a drug that kills the malaria parasite? Why not? Better than having to wear one of those terrible masks! How about injecting bleach? Sounds reasonable!
- There’s even been a recent explosion in followers of flat-earth theories and the antisemitic claim that Jews run the world and are intent on “replacing” white Americans with Black and Brown people.
- Even as never-before-seen violent weather is destroying Red state communities, they continue to vote for Republicans who refuse to do anything to slow down the ferocity of climate change.
- Republicans who claim Christianity bind themselves to a man who committed adultery with all three of his wives, repeatedly ran fraudulent businesses and charities, quotes Hitler, and tore babies from their nursing mothers and then sold them into fake adoption charities that trafficked over 1,000 of them to nobody-knows-where to this day.
The indoctrination of the Republican voter is so complete that when then-President Trump gutted over 100 environmental regulations—making it more toxic and dangerous to live or work in America and putting our children at risk of childhood cancers and birth defects—there wasn’t a peep. Most Republican voters don’t even know it happened, although The New York Times kept a list of the regulations he killed that you can read here.
And it’s not like America’s wealthiest oligarchs are having second thoughts. The Ford Foundation sponsored an investigative report by The Guardian into the political funding policies of our 100 richest billionaires. While most people know about Koch, Soros, and Gates, few have ever heard most of the others’ names.
But the majority of America’s morbidly rich are totally down with the GOP. As The Guardian reported:
“Our new, systematic study of the 100 wealthiest Americans indicates that Buffett, Gates, Bloomberg et al are not at all typical. Most of the wealthiest US billionaires—who are much less visible and less reported on—more closely resemble Charles Koch.
“They are extremely conservative on economic issues. Obsessed with cutting taxes, especially estate taxes—which apply only to the wealthiest Americans. Opposed to government regulation of the environment or big banks. Unenthusiastic about government programs to help with jobs, incomes, healthcare, or retirement pensions—programs supported by large majorities of Americans. Tempted to cut deficits and shrink government by cutting or privatizing guaranteed social security benefits.”
So why don’t Americans know who’s manipulating our political system and why? Again, from The Guardian:
“The answer is simple: billionaires who favor unpopular, ultraconservative economic policies, and work actively to advance them (that is, most politically active billionaires) stay almost entirely silent about those issues in public. This is a deliberate choice. Billionaires have plenty of media access, but most of them choose not to say anything at all about the policy issues of the day. They deliberately pursue a strategy of what we call ‘stealth politics.’”
So, here we are.
America’s billionaires got the tax cuts they wanted: instead of paying 74% like before Reagan, or even the high 50% range like most European billionaires, the average American billionaire pays around 3% in income taxes, which is probably a hell of a lot less than the average Republican voter.
The fossil fuel billionaires also got much of the deregulation they wanted (although Biden has reversed some of Trump’s worst excesses), and the Supreme Court justices they’ve bought off with million-dollar vacations and parental homes will soon debate whether to gut the Chevron deference and thus end the EPA’s ability to regulate the fossil fuel industry altogether.
As a result, over $50 trillion has been transferred from the paychecks and homes of working class people into the money bins of the top 1% while our environment continues to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress, relying on the largesse of the fossil fuel billionaires and their industry colleagues, fight every attempt by those concerned about our children’s environmental future.
This fifty-year-long plot executed by some of the richest men (with few exceptions, they’re almost all men) in America to gut income taxes and environmental regulations has been a stunning success. Without the burden of income taxes, they’re now richer than any humans ever before in the history of the Earth. Richer than the pharaohs, richer than the Caesars, richer than any king in European, African, or Asian history.
Do they care that they’re leaving the rest of us a dying planet? That their actions have created a toxic brew of paranoia and distrust—along with an obese orange-faced monster—that is on the verge of ending the American experiment? That Americans are dying every day from the pollution and climate change their products produce?
Apparently not, at least as long as they can keep their tax cuts and deregulation. Oxfam International, for example, “found that 125 billionaires create more emissions through their investments and lifestyle than all of France.”
Mission accomplished, America’s rightwing billionaires. And thanks for nothing.
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.