Republicans and billionaires are selling Americans a deadly caricature of "freedom"

For decades Republicans have owned the concept of "freedom." What they're really pushing is suffering and death

Published November 27, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis and Kristi Noem (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Queer people in America are not feeling "freedom," particularly after the most recent deadly attack on Club Q in Colorado Springs. As if to amplify the Republican message of hate and fear against this vulnerable group of our fellow Americans, it happened on Trans Remembrance Day, when we honor the memory of trans people who've been the victims of hate and violence. 

Nonetheless, Republicans continue to peddle LGBTQ+ hate as part of their "freedom agenda," with Ron DeSantis saying he's "saving" children from evil Florida teachers bent on "sexualizing children in kindergarten" and Gov. Kristi Noem proclaiming: "In South Dakota, only girls play girls' sports." 

Mike Pence, no friend to queer people or women, announced his very own "Freedom Agenda," telling reporters, "It really is an effort to put in one place the agenda that I think carried us to the White House in 2016, carried two Bush presidencies to the White House and carried Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980."

Republicans, however, have a weird definition of what it means to be "free."

Hali Burns, Ashley Banks, Jordyn McClain, Olivia Leal and Jessica Brown literally weren't free when the Etowah County, Alabama, district attorney held them in jail for months, separated from their families, to "protect their unborn children." That county, Pregnancy Justice notes, "has prosecuted more than 150 women on pregnancy-related charges in recent years." 

Stacey Freeman was arrested and imprisoned to protect her "unborn child" from the possibility of her using drugs or alcohol that might "endanger" the zygote or fetus. She vigorously objected, telling the police as she was handcuffed and shoved into a police car that she wasn't pregnant. 

Nonetheless, these "freedom" zealots threw her in jail because "pro-life" means "freedom" and county officials insisted she was lying. But she wasn't pregnant, and was finally released after being arrested, booked, photographed, fingerprinted, stripped and inspected, and then enduring 36 PTSD-inducing hours of hell in a jail cell.

For 40 years Republicans have owned the word "freedom," to the point of inserting it in the names of their organizations and splashing it all over their ads right next to the AR-15s they love to pose with. 

Which begs the question: What is freedom?

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Late in 2020, a group of "freedom fanatics" shut down the COVID vaccination operation at Dodger Stadium, slowing down the process for hundreds of people before the police stopped them.

They called it an "Anti-Lockdown Freedom Rally and March," saying, "We're not going to stop until we get our freedoms back."

They're the same type of folks who argued that lockdowns and mask mandates were unconstitutional violations of their freedom, and spent much of 2020 proudly refusing to wear masks because "freedom."

They even occupied the Michigan State Capitol with assault weapons in a preview of Jan. 6 because, they said, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's efforts to prevent Michiganders from dying of COVID were assaults on their "freedom."

As NBC reported, that invasion was preceded by months of events like one where: 

"Dozens of demonstrators took to the Michigan Capitol in Lansing for a rain-soaked protest Thursday — the third such event in the past month — demanding their 'freedom'…"

Billionaire-funded rightwing groups and the Republicans they own spent most of 2020 and early 2021 telling us that wearing masks, social distancing and closing some businesses to prevent spreading a deadly disease infringes on our "freedom."

A RedState headline referenced "Covid Tyranny," while over at Newsmax their headline was, "No Masking Biden's Disdain For Freedom."

But this isn't a recent phenomenon. 

Back in the 1930s, wealthy right-wingers similarly argued that Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed Social Security program was a "socialist plot" to destroy America's "freedom."

Ronald Reagan made a similar argument in the early 1960s against Lyndon Johnson's Great Society proposal to start a single-payer health care system for seniors called Medicare.

"If Medicare passes into law, the consequences will be dire beyond imagining," Reagan said. "One of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in America [before Medicare] when men were free."

For the last 40 years Republicans and their billionaire owners have used a massive media machine to tell us that Democratic "socialist" programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security and the minimum wage diminish Americans' "freedom."

They argued a decade ago that Obamacare was a direct assault on our freedom. The right-wing organization Freedomworks helped organize Tea Party protests back then, and, true to form, in 2020 and 2021 promoted "Open America" protests across the country against lockdowns and mask mandates.

For 40 years Republicans and their billionaire owners have used a massive media machine to tell us that "socialist" programs like unemployment insurance, Social Security and the minimum wage diminish "freedom."

Republicans in the Senate today have a plan to end "socialist" Social Security and Medicare within five years. They opposed most sorts of public health measures during the pandemic and continue to oppose paid sick time because, they say, they diminish American's "freedom" and discourage our "incentive" to get back to work making billionaires richer.

They've been selling this grotesque notion of freedom to us for decades, but Americans are finally starting to wake up to how bizarre and toxic this right-wing ideology actually is.

So, what is true freedom?

Back in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt, in his inaugural address, pointed out that "a necessitous man is not a free man."

  •  If you're unconscious and on a ventilator because the right-wing media machine told you getting vaccinated was for wimps, you're not free.
  • If you're hungry and can't buy food for your family, you're not free.
  • If you're afraid every day that your child may not come home from school because the GOP has saturated the nation with assault weapons, you're not free.
  • If your landlord threw you out on the street and you're homeless because you lost your job and can't afford to pay rent, you're not free.
  • If you're pregnant and afraid of being thrown in jail, you're not free.
  • If you're queer in an America where Republican politicians use hate as a political lever, you're not free.
  • If you're sick and afraid to go to the hospital because you know the bills will leave you broke and homeless, you're not free.
  • If you need to go to college or trade school to get a better life but can't afford it, you're not free.

When Dr. Marvin J. Farr of Kansas died in December of 2020, his family said he became infected because freedom-lovers like him "refuse to wear a piece of cloth on their face to protect one another." After all, getting a vaccine or wearing a mask infringes on freedom, right?

Farr's obituary read, in part: 

He died in a room not his own, being cared for by people dressed in confusing and frightening ways. He died with covid-19, and his final days were harder, scarier and lonelier than necessary. He was not surrounded by friends and family.

But, Republicans would argue, he was free!

The billionaires and their Republican puppets tell us that real freedom, in fact, means a small number of people being able to concentrate hundreds of billions of dollars in their own money bins while the children of one in seven American families today go to bed hungry.

America's billionaires and their Republican puppets tell us that the real meaning of freedom is bigger tax cuts for billionaires and more deregulation, environmental poison and poverty for everybody else.

It's literally been their governing philosophy since the Reagan Revolution, and everything from Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" that empowered polluters to Trump putting an oil lobbyist in charge of the EPA and a coal lobbyist in charge of our public lands at the Interior Department bears this out.

They've managed to convince millions of working-class Americans that freedom essentially means the "right" to die in debt, to remain uneducated and to be hungry and even homeless while working crappy jobs at $7.25 an hour to make the morbidly rich even richer.

But it's a lie.

The fact is, when people are economically insecure they're most vulnerable to messages of hate and fear. And red-state Republicans know and exploit it. 

Republicans have managed to convince millions of working-class Americans that freedom means the "right" to die in debt, to remain uneducated and to be hungry and even homeless while working for $7.25 an hour.

Real freedom requires a foundation that allows people to step away from struggling for survival and toward meaningful activities in life. It's the soil in which a functioning civil society and a healthy free enterprise system are rooted. It also fosters respect and tolerance for all members of society.

The experience of nations all over the world shows us that freedom grows most rapidly and best flourishes over the long term in societies with a strong middle class and a strong social safety net. Just take a look at northern Europe, Australia, South Korea or Taiwan.

That middle class grows with education, a job that pays a fair wage and access to health care that doesn't bankrupt you: things that are guaranteed as rights by virtually every developed nation in the world… except America. Economic security and good education promote tolerance and respect for all. 

The foundations of freedom are paid for by taxes: good schools and colleges, hospitals that aren't run on a for-profit basis to rip people off with "surprise billings" and jobs with pay and benefits that allow for a decent life. Economic security usually brings tolerance, extending freedom across the spectrum of humanity.

Right-wing billionaires and their Republican shills, on the other hand, want us to think that raising the top tax brackets on people who take in more than $400,000 a year (Biden's Inflation Reduction Act) will take away our freedom. In fact, raising those tax brackets is what built the American middle class between 1940 and 1980, when the top marginal rate paid by those in the top bracket was 74% to 91%.

America needs a healthy conversation — a debate, even — about freedom.

Will we continue to hold the notion that being free means getting lousy pay, no union, being broken by health care expenses and putting our kids to bed hungry? That "enforcing freedom" means LGBTQ people, racial and religious minorities and pregnant women live in fear? 

Or will we realize, as most of the developed world figured out decades ago, that for a society to be free its richest people must help fund the essentials of life for all those working people and consumers who turned them into billionaires?

Kris Kristofferson songs notwithstanding, freedom doesn't mean you "have nothing left to lose." 

It means standing tall on a foundation of essential security and safety: a home, job and freedom from fear of sickness bankrupting you. And embracing the entire spectrum of our nation's humanity, instead of hating and fearing minorities as we're told to do by cheap politicians looking for a few bigots' votes.

It means a political system that responds to the will of the majority of the people as it protects all people. It means the American dream that 40 years of Reaganism has left in shreds and tatters.

We must embrace real freedom. And FDR — whose picture now hangs in the Oval Office — has shown us how to get there.

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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