Historian Nancy MacLean: We're under attack "by a right-wing machine"

Nancy MacLean on her hot book "Democracy in Chains" and the evil genius of the Koch brothers' donor network

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published October 10, 2017 5:00AM (EDT)

Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean (Penguin Random House)
Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean (Penguin Random House)

American democracy is in crisis. Across almost every issue, from the environment to the economy to gun control, the policies advocated by Donald Trump and the Republican Party are widely unpopular with the American people.

Yet Republicans now enjoy a near-monopoly on political power, with control of the White House, both houses of Congress and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships. How did this happen?

One part of the answer is that Republican voters are very obedient. Today's version of conservatism functions almost as a religion, offering simple solutions to complex problems. There is a right-wing media machine that is without peer in its ability to distort reality by disseminating lies and disinformation. The Republican Party has used gerrymandering, voter suppression, and -- now, apparently -- aid from a hostile foreign country to manipulate the outcome of elections. By comparison, the Democratic Party in particular, and liberals and progressives more generally, possess no such competitive advantages.

There is another explanation as to why the Republican Party and movement conservatives have been able to sustain and expand their power. An extremely well-funded and highly organized network of right-wing interest groups, financiers, think tanks, lobbyists, media personalities, journalists, educators, activists, public relations firms and politicians has been working for decades to undermine American democracy.

What does this network look like? Who are the personalities and groups involved in this plan? In what ways has this extreme right-wing ideology influenced the Republican Party and Trump's administration? What are the origins of this political and intellectual tradition? How have Charles and David Koch, and other leaders on the radical right, twisted the country's laws and regulations to their advantage while hurting the American people? What can be done to stop this onslaught?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Nancy MacLean. She is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Last year she published the explosive and controversial book "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America," which is now a nominee for the National Book Award. It has come under sustained criticism from libertarian academics and intellectuals, many of them funded by the right-wing network MacLean discusses in the book.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

As a historian who has studied the philosophy and origins of the radical right in today's America, how do you explain Donald Trump's election?

There are many elements to his victory. One very important element is how Trump was the only Republican front-runner in the primaries who appeared to not be carrying the Koch brothers' agenda. Every other front-runner had signed off on the Koch demands, in terms of radical changes to Social Security and Medicare. Trump, in contrast to the other Republican candidates, said that he would defend Social Security. He called the other front-runners puppets of the Kochs and said he didn't need the money of these donors. Trump seemed like the only way for the Republican voters who would never vote for a Democrat. He was the only way they could vote for the Republican Party and not swallow the Koch agenda.

And of course, obviously the racism and so much of the ugliness that we're seeing now were there before. It's not like it came out of thin air. But Trump is channeling that behavior in ways that we have not seen before from a mainstream politician in recent history.

 You have also studied and written extensively about white supremacy in America. How does the color line factor into Trump's election?

I would take it back to Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. There's no way that Barry Goldwater gets to be the candidate without the architects of that campaign making a conscious pivot to the white segregationist South to get voters who were enraged by the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. There were bitter fights between moderate and liberal Republicans on the Republican National Committee and these newcomers from the South who were really, really aggressively racist and pro-states' rights. So the idea that Trump is bringing something fundamentally new to the Republican Party is, I think, at the very least an overstatement and really misleading in some other ways.

Who are some of the key figures in the story about how the Koch brothers and other elements of the radical right are working to undermine American democracy?

Some people that we know from earlier political history appear in a new light in my story, through their connection to this history.

For example, [former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey -- of the so-called Republican revolution -- is a crucial player in the Koch brothers' assault on American democracy. Phil Gramm [a former Texas senator] as well. He is an economist from Texas who ended up in the Senate and first betrayed his Democratic colleagues by assisting Ronald Reagan, then changed parties and became a loyalist of the radical right's effort to change the country. It is worth pointing out it was Gramm who helped push through financial deregulation, which would prove to be disastrous later on.

Grover Norquist would certainly be one of these individuals as well. Then there are people who are more connected to the academic and the intellectual wing of the extreme right-wing libertarian effort to subvert American democracy.

Tyler Cowen of George Mason University is one. Charles Koch has been directing an academic operation at George Mason called the Mercatus Center. And then there are all the people who come out of the Koch operations who are staffing up the Trump administration. The key senior figures include Mike Pence, Scott Pruitt, Mike Pompeo, Mick Mulvaney and Betsy DeVos. I would say it’s almost impossible to overstate how much the Kochs have gotten from this Trump administration and expect to get in the future.

What is the radical right's vision for America?  

The Koch network and their allies claim they want "liberty." They actually call themselves "the liberty movement" or sometimes "the freedom movement," and speak in this very anodyne language about how they want to have limited government and freedom and lower taxes. For older white conservatives this language is very appealing. But what really bothered me in writing "Democracy in Chains" is that they’re not being honest. As libertarians they believe that there are only three functions for a legitimate government: To provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law and to maintain social order. Other than that, everything is illegitimate because other functions of government depend on taxing people -- and particularly better-off people, in a system with progressive taxation. For this type of libertarian thinking, taxing people to provide for programs, services and resources with which they may not agree is illegitimate coercion and therefore must stop.

In this Koch-donor dream, we are all responsible for ourselves from the cradle to the grave, unless there is a charity that happens to take an interest in us. We do not have federal laws to outlaw pollution or to prevent discrimination. Instead we trust everything to the free market and private property. This cause has pitted itself against the whole American model of 20th-century government. Regulation of food and drugs, the New Deal's federal support for workers to organize and hold corporations accountable, the civil rights movement, the women’s and the environmental movements, all of these things are illegitimate in the eyes of these people on the right.

In the present, this takes the form of the extreme gangster capitalism that the Republican Party advocates for and is literally embodied by Donald Trump.

One of the key thinkers in this type of extreme right-wing thought is the economist James Buchanan. I detail in my book how he preached, from the late 1960s forward, that it was time to stop focusing on who rules and start to focus laser-like on the rules. So he said, in a sense, that it doesn’t really matter who is elected, right? The question is, "What are the rules that are going to constrain their behavior?"

This is something that the Koch donor network is applying with a vengeance. They did not care who among those empty suits was going to be the Republican candidate in 2016, as long as they followed the Koch agenda.

They’re so much smarter than liberals and progressives in that way. The Koch brothers and their allies are thinking in really strategic ways about how to rig the game so it benefits capital and corporations and it restricts the rights and powers of labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, women and retirees.

The radical right-wing movement has to operate in this stealth manner because they fully understand that they are a permanent minority who will never persuade a majority. I don’t think that these Koch-type libertarian thinkers could ever get above 10 percent of the American people to agree to their ideas, if the public actually knew what they were really advocating and working towards.

This also speaks to how many Americans confuse democracy with capitalism, as if they were one and the same thing. In reality, unregulated capitalism results in extreme wealth and income inequality, which in turn undermines democracy.

Actually, I think that more people are increasingly aware how America is an oligarchy where capitalism is swallowing up our democratic institutions. Bernie Sanders and his surprising success point to the fact that the American people no longer see a direct link between capitalism and democracy.

Conservatives, especially right-wing libertarians, have been enraged by your book. 

Well, I clearly have agitated some libertarians on the right, many of whom are affiliated with the organizations about which I’ve written in the book. They have made various charges against "Democracy in Chains," most of which have been refuted by people who’ve actually read it.

These critics don’t read very closely. Most of them are either economists by training or legal scholars or just libertarian journalists. They do not seem to understand what historians actually do, which is close reading of documents and interpreting them in context with what we know about the author.

What is really impressive to me is the number of historians in particular who have taken on these allegations and refuted them brilliantly point by point. I do not know those people. But what’s been interesting to see is that those refutations make absolutely no difference to the people living the charges.

Ultimately, I think the attack on my work is also part of a larger effort to undermine the legitimacy of higher education more generally, and scholarly research in particular, that might disapprove or stand against the policies and ideas advocated for by the radical right wing. I do not think it’s coincidental that these critics are getting so frenzied at a time when the Koch donor network is expanding the number of implants it has around in schools around the country.

To them, it seems like you have violated the tenets of their political religion.

They’ve certainly never had an outsider research and write about their movement. So what I have done, in effect, is create a mirror to this cause and its history, and I believe these critics are looking at that mirror and they don’t like what they’re seeing. It’s deeply disturbing to them. Emotion is a huge part of what is driving the response.

The right wing's effort to subvert democracy by rigging the system and working against the common good and the American people is so well-funded and expansive, as you have documented. I can imagine readers of "Democracy in Chains" feeling powerless when they finish it. What has the reaction by readers been like so far?

What you’re describing was part of my fear as I was writing the book because, frankly, I too was getting nauseated by what I discovered. As I started to put some of these pieces together and see how big and well-funded it was, yes, I did fear that reaction.

I am really gratified by the people who are writing to me about my book. It is amazing. What they’re feeling empowered by, and what they’re saying to me, is that they felt like they knew something was going really wrong in the country. That there were all these different ways in which things had gone haywire -- the phrase they keep using is that my book is connecting the dots for them in a way, and in helping them to see, to understand. Almost like an X-ray.

What are some concrete things that the American people can do to resist the Koch brothers, as well as the radical right more generally?

Rebuild civil society. Protect our existing organizations such as labor unions, public teachers unions and other groups that defend American democracy. Stand up for civil rights groups. Fight voter suppression.

It is also important to get out of the silos that we’ve been in for a long time. For example, it is crucial for the AARP to understand that they need to care about what’s happening to African-Americans, whether it's voter suppression or police brutality.

It’s crucial for environmentalists to understand that these attacks on Planned Parenthood are also an attack on the model of government on which environmentalists depend. We’re finally in a position where the connections between all these progressive causes are becoming clear -- and they’re becoming clear because we’re all being attacked by a right-wing machine that wants to destroy everything.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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