A few years back, former President Jimmy Carter told me that, because of Citizens United and its predecessors (like the Buckley decision in 1976), we’re no longer a democracy, but instead, “an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery.”
For proof that Carter was right, one need look no further than Mike Pompeo taking Rex Tillerson’s job, stepping into Thomas Jefferson’s shoes as Secretary of State.
While Pompeo has an impressive resume on paper, something endlessly mentioned on cable news and other corporate media, the one skill-set that has truly enabled his rise to power, first in Congress and now in the Executive Branch, is his fine-tuned ability to suck up to #MorbidlyRich billionaires.
Prior to Trump arriving, Pompeo was one of Congress’s single largest beneficiaries of money from the Koch brothers and groups associated with them. Forget Pompeo’s army service and Harvard law degree; you don’t get to be the favorite son of the morbidly rich if you don’t know how to suck up to them.
Billionaire Trump, like so many others of America’s billionaire oligarchs, doesn’t take kindly to people who have their own minds. He wants fealty and sycophancy, not brilliance or competence.
For example, Rex Tillerson, actually looking at facts and political realities, made the mistake of pointing out to Trump that tearing up the Iran no-nukes deal at the same time you’re trying to negotiate a brand-new no-nukes deal with North Korea was contradictory messaging. What country, after all, would want to cut a deal with a partner who kills agreements unilaterally without contractual justification?
Tillerson, of course, was right. But he wasn’t sucking up to Trump in the way the oligarch wanted (and apparently, needed). Tillerson even occasionally put our nation’s security ahead of his subservience to Trump. Big mistake.
Many members of today’s billionaire class think of themselves as “self-made,” and so have a sneering disregard for the working people of America who “merely” aspire to the American Dream of being in the middle class with a safe job, good benefits, and a secure retirement. These oligarchs are more concerned with their profits than with the impact of their products or services on our country.
And they only want people around them who share their vision of their own greatness; who, in other words, are pathetic suck-ups. Pompeo has developed this to an art form.
After years of sucking at the Koch teat, Pompeo apparently realized that Trump, too, wanted only to surround himself with people who eagerly agreed with him. Probably Trump is even needier than the Kochs, and so would only elevate people who tell him daily how brilliant and strong and noble he is.
Thus, Pompeo apparently saw a career opportunity to ingratiate himself with another billionaire oligarch.
To make it happen, Pompeo changed the normal daily routine by which the president is briefed by the CIA. Instead of it being done with clear, cold precision by a career intelligence officer, henceforth, Pompeo decreed, the Director of the CIA himself (Pompeo) would take hours out of his day to make the daily trek to the White House to hang out with Trump and give him a pleasant daily tongue-bath.
Trump loved it.
Just like when he was a shill for the Kochs, Pompeo is more than willing to take any position—regardless of how badly it may hurt America or risk war or environmental destruction—that’s being pushed by his new billionaire overlord.
One imagines Pompeo as a loyal dog, constantly eager to please his master.
On its surface, this seems like an indictment of Pompeo himself, but it’s really not. It’s an indictment of the entire political system in the United States, as it has been re-invented by a “conservative” Supreme Court that created a brand-new legal structure around the notion that “corporations are persons” and using money to buy politicians is First Amendment-protected “free speech.”
No legislature or president had ever advocated those radical, anti-democratic positions, and neither had any American political party other than the Libertarians. The 1974 campaign finance reforms after the Nixon scandals, struck down by SCOTUS in 1976 with the Buckley case, were scrupulously bipartisan.
But Lewis Powell reached out to the oligarchs who often hired his legal services, and in 1971 his infamous “Powell Memo” charted how corporations and billionaires should take over virtually all the institutions of America, from Congress and the courts to our schools and local governments.
Later that year, Richard Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court, where he dutifully made the Buckley case happen in 1976, throwing open the door to corruption of our political system by American oligarchs. Citizens United, in 2010, took it even further, allowing foreign governments and non-U.S. oligarchs to take a simple step through a U.S. corporation (like, for example, the NRA) to, themselves, own American politicians.
In a breathtaking power seizure not authorized by the Constitution, the Supreme Court singlehandedly created an entire new body of law, and thus began the process of turning America from a representative democracy into an oligarchy.
And now, predictably, we have a billionaire oligarch as president, multiple billionaire oligarchs in his Cabinet, and the billionaire oligarch Kochs committing hundreds of millions of dollars to oligarch-friendly Republicans in every election cycle.
In an oligarchic nation, there is one singular skill for political success: one must willingly, ably, and enthusiastically suck up to the rich and powerful, subordinating one’s ethics, reason, and even humanity.
This is a tragedy for both the USA and for democracies all over the world that emulate us.
Oligarchy (and its companion, strong-man pseudo-populism) is spreading rapidly, subsuming former liberal democracies like Turkey, the Philippines, and Hungary while nibbling away at other democratic countries. China is holding oligarchy up as the new model for the world.
We must reverse these disastrous Supreme Court decisions with a Constitutional Amendment, explicitly stating that corporations are not people and that money is not speech; otherwise, our rapid march to total oligarchy will continue to gather speed and power.
And suck-up politicians like Pompeo will continue to rise to the top, eager and willing to do the bidding of whichever oligarch will give them the most money, prestige and power.