Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann
Now that Donald Trump is openly calling for fascism in the United States, complete with concentration camps “for millions” including “Democrats” and “the media,” it’s a good time to look at how the GOP became so badly corrupted. Understanding how they got here—and dragged the rest of us with them—may give us some clues to how to get out of this mess.
I was thirteen years old in 1964 when my dad, a Republican activist, gave me a copy of John Stormer’s book “None Dare Call It Treason.” The Goldwater campaign had sent it to him, and its claim that the State Department was filled with communists intent on handing America over to the USSR had his friends buzzing.
Ironically, Stormer’s book and the movement it ignited within the GOP is largely responsible for that party today standing on the precipice of fully endorsing fascism as an alternative to democracy in the US.
And it was started by morbidly rich men (it was all men back then) who wanted to use the threat of a “communist menace” to gut the union movement to increase their own corporate profits and CEO pay.
The founding premise of the modern conservative movement tracks back a generation before Stormer’s book to a Republican thought leader named Russell Kirk. He laid it out in his 1951 book The Conservative Mind that I detail in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.
Kirk argued that the middle-class was becoming a threat to America; without clearly defined classes and power structures—essentially without the morbidly rich in complete control of everything—society would devolve into chaos.
The opening chapter of his book was about Edmund Burke, the British conservative who said, in 1790, that hairdressers and candlemakers should not be allowed to run for political office or even to vote:
“The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with nature…”
Kirk and his followers essentially predicted in 1951 that if today’s “hairdressers and working tallow-chandlers”—college students, women, working-class people, and people of color—ever got even close to social and political power at the same level as wealthy white men, there would essentially be a communist revolution in the US, handing us over to Stalin and his Politburo.
(Keep in mind, this was when racial segregation was legal and brutally enforced, the voting age was 21, campuses were almost entirely all-male, and women couldn’t open checking accounts or get credit cards without a husband or father’s signature.)
Throughout the 1950s, Kirk and his warnings of the dangers of an activist middle-class developed a small following; the most prominent of his proponents were William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater. Most Republicans, though, considered him a crackpot.
But when the birth-control pill was legalized in 1961 and the Vietnam War heated up a few years later, those marginalized groups Kirk had warned his wealthy white male followers about began to rise up in protest.
Kids were burning draft cards, women were burning bras, and Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a movement for racial justice that the white power structure blamed for American cities burning. Gay liberation was having a moment.
Meanwhile, the Arab Oil Embargos of the 1970s had lit the flame of inflation, and unionized workers were striking all over America for wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Wealthy white conservatives freaked out as the morbidly rich promoted the idea that America was experiencing a “moral decline” that could only be fixed by ending the union movement and other “liberal” causes that shared the union movements’ populist goals.
They became convinced that they were seeing Kirk’s prophecy play out in real time on their television screens every night: the “communists”—those uppity minorities, women who’d forgotten their “rightful place in society,” students who objected to Vietnam, unionized workers, and gender minorities—were on the verge of “taking over” America.
These five movements all hitting America at the same time got the attention of conservatives and Republicans who had previously ignored or even ridiculed Kirk back in the 1950s. Suddenly, America’s richest conservative commentators (like William F. Buckley Jr.) were telling Republicans that Russell Kirk was, indeed, a prophet.
They’d finally found a politically acceptable “hook” to destroy the wealth of working-class people and transfer trillions into their own money bins: fear of communism and social decay caused by an activist middle class.
The Republican/Conservative “solution” to the “crisis” these five movements represented was put into place in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was sworn into office: the explicit goal of the morbidly rich white men funding the so-called Reagan Revolution was to take the middle class down a peg to end the protests and restore “social stability”—and increase corporate profitability.
Their plan was to declare war on labor unions so wages could slide back down again, end free college across the nation so students would live in fear rather than be willing to protest, and increase the penalties Nixon had already put on drugs so they could use those laws against their scapegoats: hippy antiwar protesters and Black people.
Thus, Reagan massively cut taxes on rich people, and raised taxes on working-class people 11 times. For example, he put a tax on Social Security income and unemployment income, and put in a mechanism to track and tax tips income, all of which had previously been tax-free but were exclusively needed and used by middle-class people.
He ended the tax deductibility of credit-card, car-loan, and student-debt interest, overwhelmingly claimed by working-class people. At the same time, he cut the top tax bracket for millionaires and billionaires from 74% to 25%. (There were only a handful billionaires in America then, in large part because of previous tax policies; the explosion of billionaires followed Reagan’s, Bush’s, and Trump’s massive tax cuts on the rich.)
Reagan declared war on labor unions, crushed PATCO in less than a week, and over the next decade the result of his war on labor was that union membership went from about a third of the American workforce when he came into office to around 10% at the end of the Reagan/Bush presidencies. It’s just now beginning to recover from its low of 6% of the private workforce.
He and Bush also husbanded the moribund 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT, which let Clinton help create the WTO) and NAFTA, which Clinton signed and thus opened a floodgate for American companies to move manufacturing overseas, leaving American workers underemployed while radically cutting corporate labor costs and union membership.
And, sure enough, Reagan’s War on Labor cut average inflation-adjusted minimum and median wages by more, over a couple of decades, than anybody had seen since the Republican Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s.
The billionaire’s investment in taking the middle-class down a peg was paying off by orders of magnitude.
Had Reagan not destroyed the nation’s unions, the median American income today would be well over $100,000 a year, minimum-wage households would have a family income of $86,000, and a single wage-earner would still be able to buy a house, a car, send the kids to college, and have a decent retirement (as my dad did, working a union job in a tool-and-die shop).
Instead, CEOs today keep all that money for themselves and their investors.
And his War on Colleges jacked up the cost of education so high that an entire generation is today saddled with more than $1.5 trillion in student debt: as predicted, many aren’t willing to jeopardize it all by “acting up” on campuses.
The key to selling all this campaign of impoverishment to the American people to help out the billionaire class was the idea that the US shouldn’t protect the rights of workers, subsidize education, or enforce Civil Rights laws because, conservatives said, all of those things were aspects of “socialism.” And if America embraced socialism, we may as well simply be ruled by Russia.
As Reagan told us in his first inaugural, government “socialist” programs were not the solution to our problems, but instead were the problem itself.
He ridiculed the formerly-noble idea of service to one’s country and joked that there were really no good people left in government because if they were smart or competent they’d be working in the private sector for a lot more money.
He told us that the nine most frightening words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, billionaires associated with the Republicans built a massive infrastructure of think tanks and media outlets to promote and amplify this message that government supports of any sort for poor or working-class people were simply gateway drugs to socialism and, inevitably, communism.
It so completely swept America that by the 1990s even President Bill Clinton was saying things like, “The era of big government is over,” and “This is the end of welfare as we know it.” Limbaugh, Hannity and other right-wing radio talkers were getting millions a year in subsidies from billionaire-funded groups like the Heritage Foundation. Billionaire-owned Fox “News” today carries on the tradition.
It had been a pretty good scam for the billionaires who owned the GOP and wanted, back in the 1950s, to stop the union movement that was forcing them to share their profits with their workers.
First, they terrified Americans about communism and socialism, then convinced about half of us that those things came straight out of “liberal” social and economic movements.
Unions, feminism, acceptance of the queer community, civil rights, minimum wage increases, and even regulation of corporate behavior would, they told us, all lead to a Soviet-style tyranny.
So, to save America from herself, Reagan gutted the American middle class, transferring over $50 trillion in wealth from working class people into the money bins of the morbidly rich.
By 2016, Americans were starting to figure out that they’d been screwed—and that Hillary Clinton’s husband had been in on it by continuing Reagan’s policies and doubling-down on free trade—and were loudly demanding change.
Into this maelstrom walked Donald Trump, proclaiming himself the savior of the country. In the GOP primary he pointed out how corrupt his opponents were, particularly Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and destroyed them, one after the other.
For the general election in 2016, he changed his tune and ran as a Democrat, saying he was going to bring jobs home, end so-called “free trade” policies, raise taxes on the rich so much that “my friends won’t talk to me anymore,” and make sure every American had free or low-cost healthcare and access to an affordable college education.
They were all lies—something Trump had become adept at during his business career—but they worked and sucked in disaffected workers who knew they’d been screwed but weren’t sure who did it to them or why.
In the background, though, Trump’s secret weapon in 2016 was his relationship with Vladimir Putin; the Russians had owned Trump since the 1980s when—following a vacation in Russia with his first wife, a Czech immigrant whose father was a KGB informer—he first published newspaper ads calling for the US to pull out of NATO and abandon Japan as an ally.
The KGB’s psychological profile of Trump had determined he was vulnerable to flattery and not much of a deep thinker, so when he and Ivana visited Moscow in 1987 they told him repeatedly how brilliant he was and that he should run for president in the US.
Much to the astonishment and jubilation of the KGB, Trump returned from Moscow to the US to give a Republican presidential campaign speech that fall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
He then purchased a large ad in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe on September 1, 1987 that questioned America’s ongoing support of Japan and NATO, both thorns in the side of the USSR and their Chinese allies.
Trump’s ad laid it on the line:
″Why are these nations not paying the United States for the human lives and billions of dollars we are losing to protect their interests? … The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help.″
As The Guardian reported in 2021, Putin’s people looked back at that moment and realized it led straight to Trump’s election in 2016:
“The bizarre intervention was cause for astonishment and jubilation in Russia. A few days later Shvets, who had returned home by now, was at the headquarters of the KGB’s first chief directorate in Yasenevo when he received a cable celebrating the ad as a successful ‘active measure’ executed by a new KGB asset [Donald Trump].
“‘It was unprecedented,’ [Shvets said.] … It was hard to believe that somebody would publish it under his name and that it will impress real serious people in the west but it did and, finally, this guy became the president.’”
So here we are.
We have an open fascist and agent of authoritarian Russia running for the GOP nomination for president at the same time he’s facing 91 felony charges in our court system, having already been convicted in our courts of rape and fraud.
He’s promised to turn America into an authoritarian nation like Russia or Hungary, and wants to re-align the United States away from NATO and the EU and toward Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.
We are literally facing the authoritarian future that John Stormer was warning us against back in 1964. Only instead of “communists” in the State Department, it’s a billionaire coming into the presidency with the avowed goal of ending union rights and locking up or using the Army with live ammunition against those who protest his policies.
And it all tracks back to wealthy conservatives funding a project in the 1960s to scare Americans about socialism and communism so they could stop the union-fueled growth of wages that were cutting into their profits.
Perhaps none dare call it treason. But I do.
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.