Historian Nancy MacLean on the right's ultimate goal: Rolling back the 20th century

Author of "Democracy in Chains" says Koch brothers and GOP want a new Gilded Age, where "property reigns supreme"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 13, 2017 4:59AM (EST)

Charles Koch; David Koch (CBS/AP/Photo montage by Salon)
Charles Koch; David Koch (CBS/AP/Photo montage by Salon)

The Republican Party's "tax reform" bill has passed both chambers of Congress. After differences between the House and Senate version are worked out, it will likely soon be signed by President Donald Trump. This legislation is more than a grotesque effort to take money from the poor and working class and give it to the very richest Americans and corporations. In reality, it is an effort to wholly remake American society by undoing the social progress of the New Deal, the Great Society and the civil rights movement.

This effort has been met with surprisingly little resistance from the American people.


Unlike the Republicans and movement conservatives, the Democratic Party is terrible at translating complex questions of public policy into simple narratives that evoke emotion and, in turn, action from the American people. Moreover, while the Republican Party systematically works to roll back the 20th century by eliminating programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act -- with the apparent goal of creating a Malthusian dystopia -- many prominent Democrats and other liberals are instead obsessed with enforcing purity tests for sexual harassment within their own party.

The mainstream news media has a very short attention span. The format of the 24/7 cable news cycle is also designed to avoid serious in-depth discussions of complex and important policy matters in favor of simple stories that generate ratings.

To a significant degree, the American people have been exhausted by Trump and the Republican Party's authoritarian and petit-fascist assaults on reality, truth and, yes, even the country's citizens. Many Americans have been driven into a sense of learned helplessness by Trump's presidential victory and the years of civic and cultural rot that enabled that outcome. Consequently, it has become difficult to imagine what a real and sustained resistance against the Republican Party, Donald Trump and the ascendant right would even look like.

Because there is a profound crisis of political imagination and moral leadership in America, massive resistance to the right-wing agenda is almost nonexistent. Perhaps the epitaph on American democracy in the age of Trump will read something this: "The American people lost their country to fascists and plutocrats, and didn't even bother to fight back."

How does the Republican tax bill fit into a larger strategy? Who are the "winners" and "losers"? What will the various factions in the right-wing coalition that forced through this bill receive for their machinations? In this radically revanchist effort to remake American society, how far back would the Republican Party and the Koch brothers like to take us? How can the American people fight back?

Ultimately, this assault on American democracy and society should not be a surprise. It has been operating both in the shadows and plain sight for decades. In an effort to understand the true goals and larger context for the Republican Party's tax reform legislation, I recently spoke with Nancy MacLean, the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. MacLean is also the author of the controversial new book "Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America," which was nominated for the 2017 National Book Award.

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

The Republican "tax reform" bill recently passed the Senate. It will be reconciled with the House version and signed by Donald Trump. This legislation can be described as a blueprint for changing American society in the vision of the most extreme elements of the right wing, including the Koch brothers, Christian fascists, plutocrats and others. You outlined their plan to undermine American society in "Democracy in Chains." How does it feel to be right?

I have a sinking feeling. I can see this thing happening and I can’t stop it. So it’s painful, actually, to be right.

Before we even get to the tax bill, let me point out that there are 30 states which are under the control of the Republican Party and the most extreme right-wing elements in the country. This tax bill, however one labels it, is intended to remake American society and government in order to push through an agenda that its advocates know is wholly unpopular and will only pass if they are dishonest about the goals involved. So instead, the Republican Party and right wing are operating by stealth. They’re moving with secrecy. They are planting things inside the bill that are like time bombs and the public does not seem to be paying any attention.

We have to help the American people understand the stealth dimensions of what the Republicans and the radical right have done with this tax bill, and also their efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act. This legislation is being pushed through at breakneck speed and in violation of normal procedures. There were no public hearings. They did not have cost assessments. They did not allow debate.

In terms of the dishonest approach used to push this bill through, there are many examples. For example, in the near term, people will see tax cuts, but in the long term, they will see tax increases. That is particularly true for people [making less than] $75,000 a year in income. These are people who are probably the most stressed, probably working two jobs, who are not paying a lot of attention to what’s happening in the Senate for those reasons. Yet they are going to be the most hurt by this. This is so much more than a big giveaway of money to the rich. There will be huge automatic cuts to Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid that will come directly from the Republican decision to run up the deficit with these tax cuts.

When you combine this with the push for a constitutional convention, at which the No. 1 agenda item will be a balanced budget amendment -- put those things together, and this is a long-term stealth project to privatize Social Security and Medicare.

The Republicans intentionally created a budget "crisis" with this tax bill and then will claim there is an emergency that necessitates destroying Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It is obvious and transparent. What role does conservative contempt for poor and working-class people play in the effort to subvert American democracy?

I think that’s crucial. Increasingly, I have started to think about this right-wing cause as being a type of economic eugenics. At the turn of the 20th century, eugenicists thought that you could breed better humans by paying attention to bloodlines, gene pools and the like.

Today they won't use such explicit language. But there are right-wing libertarians who obviously believe that people who have not succeeded in this society always have themselves to blame. As a historian, that conclusion is just astonishing given what we know about structures and how the rules have been rigged to benefit some people and harm others.

This is the ethical system that allows people like Paul Ryan to feel heroic and self-righteous as they inflict harm on other people. At its most basic, this libertarian moral system says that it would be better for people to die than to get health care financed by government from taxes paid for by others. You can die. Period.

What are the transactional politics involved in this tax bill? 

Well, I actually believe that Charles Koch is not in this just for the tax breaks and deregulation. I believe that he is utterly messianic, and that he believes, just as Ayn Rand did, that entrepreneurs and capitalists are the true heroes of the world. I have a feeling that Charles Koch seethes with rage that he does not get the adulation he believes that he deserves. He’s been at this now since the 1960s. That’s a very long time. He’s compared himself to Martin Luther. When Charles Koch launched this project in earnest in the late 1990s, he said, “I want to unleash the kind of force that propelled Columbus to his discoveries.”

He has that deep an ideological commitment. Others have relative degrees of that ideological commitment. Some are just operatives who understand that this is a really good gravy train to ride, that the pockets and the bank accounts are just endless or bottomless.

For the religious right they can get tax breaks for Christian home schooling and for Christian private schools. Ultimately, they can see their enemies humiliated.

Grover Norquist explains this strategy as "one fish, one hook." In other words, they don’t have to tell anybody the whole agenda that they are pushing for. So it is not even clear to me how many of even the upper-level operatives in this right-wing plot actually understand what the ultimate plan is.

How do we fight back against pure ideologues whose beliefs are their religion? The Democrats are a loose coalition of different interest groups. Frankly, they are not equipped to fight back against a Republican Party and broader right-wing movement that operates like a political cult.  

I agree with you in the broad outlines. But it is important to make some key distinctions.  For example, there is the Bernie [Sanders] wing of the Democratic Party. It is pretty astonishing that a Jewish socialist is now the most trusted and respected elected official in America.

There has also been a surge of grassroots activism in the past year in places such as Virginia. So I think there are definitely some places where you can see hope with how people are trying to both reinvent the Democratic Party and also renew the idea of democracy in America for the 21st century.

I can imagine a historian 20 or 30 or 50 years from now, looking back to this moment and coming up with two stories. I can imagine the story of how we didn’t stop this Koch network push to transform our democracy, even when it was so obvious. Instead we just pushed our society, our kids and grandkids, over a cliff.

But I also think on the more positive side. As a historian who studies social movements as being fundamental to significant historical change, I hope that someday people will look back on this moment and say that, right now, in this moment, in December of 2017, we were deep in the churning that was part of our beginning to figure our way out of this. There are people in all kinds of organizations and places who are feeling new urgency, who are coming together in creative ways, who can begin to turn the tide and to churn those larger gears of the sleepy, big organizations to make them change. But is that going to happen? I don’t really know. As you say, how we react to this Republican tax bill is going to be highly predictive of which way the story turns out.

America is an oligarchy, if not just a plutocracy. Could it be that Republicans and other members of the right wing don't really care how unpopular their ideas and policies are because in practice this country is not a functioning democracy? So what if there’s a mass movement? So what if there are new social movements that are birthed out of this moment? The Republicans have gamed the system to maintain power.

You just pointed out another element of the stealth nature of this tax plan. It is being pushed by people who say they are for limited government. But the Republicans and their allies are actually using the power of national government to prevent voters in more progressive localities and states from being able to choose more progressive policies without being penalized for it.

Consider [economist] Tyler Cowen at George Mason University, who has been working with Charles Koch for 25 years on the Mercatus Center, the main academic outpost of this Koch effort to leverage universities for their political project. Cowen said in a recent book that people on the left keep saying the masses are going to react to this. There’s going to be protest on the streets. There’s going to be revolution and the like. Cowen said, “Ah, I don’t see it. I think the people are pretty happy with their technology. They’re absorbed with Facebook and binge-watching Netflix.” You know what? I think there’s some truth to that. As a historian, I don’t think that’s going to continue forever, but I can see why the Kochs and their operatives have gotten brazen.

In plain terms, if you were speaking to the average American about the dangers posed by this tax bill and the Republican Party and right wing more generally, what year do they want to return the country to?

James McGill Buchanan, a Nobel-winning economist who devised the playbook that the Koch network is using, was very clear that he liked the constitutional rules of 1900. Consider that the constitutional rules of 1900 had us in a situation of chaos and ever-worsening depression because only the wealthy were doing well and everybody else was screwed.

That was also the period of the Lochner Court, as it was called, which issued a Supreme Court decision that was akin to the Citizens United of our day. That court basically said that workers had no right to organize together collectively, so corporations had all the power. It was a plutocracy. America had these roving battles between labor and capital. We had horrible, almost unimaginable levels of pollution. We had terrible problems with public health care. We had a country that you would not want to live in, and that’s a world that is idealized by the Republicans, the Kochs and the other elements of the extreme right who want to radically remake America in the worst way possible.

Do not forget that this was a period when the Constitution enabled mass voter suppression and racist decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson, which argued that "separate was equal."

So these people don't just want to get rid of Obama’s legacy. They want to reverse the whole 20th-century model of citizen-driven government and make it so that property reigns supreme. That’s the beginning and the end of it. The American people need to realize that we’re going to be in ever-deepening trouble.

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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