Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If there’s anyone out there who still thinks Donald Trump is a “populist,” the two big things he’s dealing with the U.S. Congress about right now — his sweeping “America First” budget proposal and the Paul Ryan “American Health Care Act” he enthusiastically endorsed, only to see it ignominiously pulled on March 24 from a floor vote it was certain to lose — provide the definitive evidence that he isn’t. Indeed, Trump is exactly the sort of politician the original Populists of the 1890’s were fighting against: a super-rich man who bought his way into office and is running the government for the direct financial benefit of himself and his super-rich friends.
Trump’s identification with “populism” has somehow survived his actions in office. His very first executive order reversed an Obama-administration interest rate cut at the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) — meaning that Obama was trying to make it easier for people to buy homes and Trump made it harder again. Then Trump reversed a rule that would have forced managers of retirement funds to run them for the retirees instead of for their own benefit, a clear message to people in the financial industry that Trump plan to let them rip off their clients as much as they want. Some “populist”!
It got even worse when Trump started picking his Cabinet officials and the people he was going to have run the various federal agencies. Despite his much-ballyhooed promise that he would leave Social Security and Medicare alone, he appointed as Secretary of Health and Human Services Congressmember Tom Price, a long-time advocate of privatizing both. He put Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a disbeliever in human-caused climate change fond of suing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cutting and pasting his lawsuits from oil industry documents, in charge of the EPA. Indeed, Trump emphasized his fealty to the oil and gas industry, and to fossil fuels in general, by appointing former Exxon/Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State and former Texas Governor Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy.
Trump picked Wall Street attorney Jay Clayton to run the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is supposed to protect individual investors from market rip-offs, and he said he got advice on the appointment from Jamie Dimon, CEO of Citibank. To run the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Trump picked Scott Gottlieb, former consultant to Vertex and other drug companies whose products he’s supposed to be regulating. Who knew that when Trump promised to “drain the swamp,” he’d be packing his administration with the dregs?
Trump’s basic hostility to most of what the government does is widely shared by his party — which is why, despite exaggerated reports of hostility between him and Congressional Republicans, most of what they’ve done has been in lock-step. Quite simply, Trump has adopted whole-hog the extreme economic Libertarianism of the current Republican Party. His actions since he took office have answered the question, much asked during his campaign, of just when he thought America was “great” and what was the era to which he wanted to return to “make America great again.”
It’s the 1880’s, the time just before the Populist movement emerged, in which offices in the U.S. government (especially the Senate, which was still elected by state legislators instead of directly by voters) were openly bought and sold, financial and industrial capitalist “robber barons” ran amok, wages and farm prices were relentlessly driven down, workers had no health or safety protections, the economy regularly collapsed in what were then called “panics” (later “depressions” or “recessions”), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations were “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment and declared minimum-wage laws and organized labor illegal, African-Americans who had been enfranchised by Reconstruction were pushed back into second-class citizenship, and the environment wasn’t even considered a political or social issue.
The original Populists emerged in the 1890’s precisely to oppose at least some of those policies. They were wildly split on race — some white Populists wanted to enlist Blacks and other U.S.-born people of color as partners in the movement, while others were racist and regarded them as a threat — and they pretty generally opposed immigration for the same reason Trump and his voters do: they regarded immigrants as a workforce that would take their jobs away. (Trump’s idea of America’s golden age on immigration is considerably later than the 1880’s: the period from 1924 to 1965, in which a restrictive quota system ensured that most documented immigrants to the U.S. would be European and therefore the U.S. would remain a white-majority country.)
But on most of the economic issues, the 1890’s Populists took positions diametrically opposed to Trump’s, his party’s and his voters’ today. They wanted more government regulation of private business, not less. They wanted education, utilities, transportation and other basic services to be publicly owned, not privatized. They wanted an aggressive government that would look out for the interests of the ordinary people and rein in the power of the giant corporations who were combining into huge trusts and grabbing virtually absolute economic power.
And they got at least part of what they wanted under a Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, who served from 1901 to 1909 and had his faults — he was an imperialist in foreign policy and was personally racist — but was a stronger opponent of corporate power than anyone who’d been in the White House before him. In 1903, Roosevelt mediated a labor battle between coal companies and the United Mine Workers and tried to broker a fair settlement instead of automatically taking the side of the owners against the workers. He launched the first serious efforts by the U.S. government to protect public lands and restrict corporate devastation of the environment. And in 1908, he signed into law the Railway Act, which not only established government regulation of interstate railroads but also created the system of “rule-making” by which executive regulatory agencies are granted the power to create “rules” that enable them to do their jobs without constantly having to run to Congress for new authority.
Undoing 130 Years of Protecting Ordinary People
This history lesson is important to understand both the breadth and the longevity of the worker, consumer and environmental protections President Trump and the Republicans in Congress and his administration plan to undo. Their program is based, not on the actually lived experience of America in the era of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, but on a fanatically held ideology that believes that the rich are inherently superior to the rest of humanity; that they are therefore entitled to most of the wealth and income of a society; and that attempts to tax or regulate them are thus not only bad public policy but downright immoral.
This ideology, which today is generally known as Libertarianism, can be traced at least as far back as John Calvin, the religious leader who founded Puritanism. Calvin preached that only certain individuals were worthy of going to Heaven, and God’s way of revealing who was “predestined” for Heaven and who was condemned to hell was their material success (or lack thereof) in this world. In 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published the theory of evolution in his book The Origin of Species, British philosopher Herbert Spencer put out a book called Social Statics that, along with his later writings, outlined a philosophy that came to be known as “Social Darwinism.” Social Darwinism held that the evolution of the human race was still going on, and by their skill at making more money than their fellows the newly rich of the late 19th century were showing their superiority as a species.
But Libertarianism as we know it today is basically the product of three people from the mid-20th century: economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek and novelist and essayist Ayn Rand. They saw the Soviet Union degenerate into tyranny following the 1917 Russian Revolution and reached the conclusion that any attempt to interfere with the freedom of capitalists to do whatever they wanted would produce a similar result. When the Soviet Union emerged as U.S.’s principal enemy following the end of World War II, their ideas became popular with many Americans. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1948) and Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) became best-sellers and foundational texts for the U.S. conservative movement.
The basic tenet of Libertarianism is that the individual reigns supreme and that no one has any responsibility to help or care for anyone else. As Rand put it in what has become the Libertarian creed, “I will not live my life for any other person, nor ask any other person to live his life for mine.” Libertarians also believe that all socially created value comes not from workers, but from the entrepreneurs (the “makers,” Rand called them) who create the industries in which they work — and therefore the “makers” are entitled to the full value of what those industries produce. Much of Libertarianism was developed as a spit-in-the-eye response to the theories of Karl Marx, who among other things lamented that left alone, without any government or social control, capitalists would inevitably drive workers’ wages to subsistence levels — i.e., they would pay their employees the bare minimum they needed to survive.
Libertarians believe that driving workers’ wages to subsistence levels is a good thing. While progressives, liberals and even some more traditional conservatives lament the increasing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, Libertarians believe that the more economically unequal a society is, the better, because it means the “makers” are getting the lion’s share of what their genius produces and all others, slammed by Rand as “moochers” or “takers,” are getting the pittances they deserve.
Thus, Libertarians believe that programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the subsidies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”) to help lower-income people buy health insurance are not only bad public policy, but are downright immoral. That’s because they believe that taxation is theft, and taxing the rich to redistribute money to the not-rich is particularly evil. Libertarians say that if rich people choose voluntarily to help not-rich people through private charity, that’s morally O.K. (though Rand made it clear in the plots of her novels that the rich people she liked best were the ones who didn’t do that), but they believe that when government taxes the rich to pay for social programs for the not-rich, it is literally enslaving the rich to the not-rich.
Libertarians believe there are only three legitimate functions for government: 1) To maintain a military so the nation can defend itself against foreign enemies. 2) To maintain a criminal-justice system so individuals and corporations can be defended against threats to their lives, liberties and properties. 3) To maintain a civil-justice system so conflicts between individuals — including corporations, which like the U.S. Supreme Court in 1886 they regard as the moral equivalents of flesh-and-blood human beings — can be resolved peaceably through legal process instead of violence.
Another aspect of Libertarianism is its intense reverence for “The Market” as the sole determinant not only of commercial but intrinsic worth. Libertarians believe that if something can’t prove its worth in the commercial marketplace — if it can’t be sold for more money than it costs to make, and in the process enrich the capitalist who bankrolled its production — it simply doesn’t deserve to exist. That, along with their idea that taxation is theft and taxing the rich turns them into slaves to the not-rich, is why Libertarians oppose public broadcasting and government funding for the arts and humanities.
This reverence for “The Market” also shapes the Libertarian attitude towards health care. They regard health as an industry like any other, selling a product that people ought to be able to access only if they can afford to pay for it. That’s why the “American Health Care Act,” the Republican alternative to the Affordable Care Act, which recently flopped so badly House Speaker Paul Ryan didn’t dare bring it to a vote, included eliminating the requirements that health insurance plans cover such basics as preventive health screening and maternity care.
It contained a plan for so-called “Health Savings Accounts” that would have given individuals a tax break if they funded their own health care — something that, as opponents of the bill pointed out, would be far easier for rich than non-rich people to do. And it would have allowed insurance companies to sell policies across state lines, which critics pointed out would lead to low-ball so-called “health insurance” policies that had lower price tags than current ones but would have so many exclusions and such high deductibles they would be virtually useless if you got sick.
One other aspect of Libertarianism that is strongly influencing the policies of President Trump and the Republicans in Congress is its visceral hatred for any laws that attempt to protect the environment. Not only do Libertarians reject the idea that government has a legitimate role in protecting workers from abusive employers — if your job threatens your health or safety, they say, you should just quit — they regard laws to protect the environment as yet more attempts by “moochers” and “takers” to get in the way of the genius of capitalist entrepreneurs. Ayn Rand believed that capitalists were so powerful they could literally change the laws of physics; John Galt, the mystery hero of Atlas Shrugged whose disappearance powers the book’s plot, turns out to have invented a motor that runs on air.
Perhaps the strongest statement of the Libertarian credo from a Presidential candidate came from the last Republican nominee before Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, on May 17, 2012. Speaking at a private fundraiser in Florida among some of his fellow 0.01-percenters, Romney said, “In every stump speech I give, I speak about the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer — they make us better off. And the Republican audience that I typically speak to applauds.” Then, in the part that was quoted most when the secret recording of it was made public in September 2012, he showed his Libertarian contempt for the less fortunate people who were supporting his opponent, then-President Obama.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said. “[T]here are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That — that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
A Philosophy for Bullies
The influence of Libertarian ideas on the current Republican Party is a well-documented fact. When House Speaker Paul Ryan ran for Vice-President on Mitt Romney’s ticket in 2012, it was widely reported that when he hired anyone for his Congressional staff, he gave them a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and told them to read it so they would know what he expected of them. David Koch, who along with his brother Charles funds groups like the Americans for Prosperity that enforce Libertarian discipline on the Republican Party by choosing which candidates to fund, actually bought his way onto the Libertarian Party ticket for Vice-President in 1972. He offered the party a large contribution if they put him on the ticket — and the party accepted because they realized he was just following Libertarian principles by treating political office as a commodity to be purchased like any other.
Donald Trump wasn’t especially known as a Libertarian before he ran for President in 2016, but the Libertarian philosophy is congenial to him both politically and personally. Trump is neither a self-made man nor a trust-fund baby; he inherited a substantial fortune from his father but built it through his own efforts into a much larger one. At the same time he and his family were looked down on by the business establishment of New York City because they had started in the city’s outer boroughs and, until Trump took over, had never cracked the sacred precincts of Manhattan. Much of Trump’s fabled truculence, his insistence that if anyone hits you, you should hit them back 10 times as hard, comes from the status anxiety he felt growing up, the sense that other people with money didn’t accept him as being a legitimate part of their club.
Libertarianism fits Donald Trump personally because it allows him to regard himself as a superior being, entitled to make all the money he wants no matter how many lesser individuals he has to screw over in the process. And it fits him politically because it reinforces his instinctive bias that the purpose of government is to protect rich and super-rich people like himself against the demands of everyone else. Trump is and always has been a bully, and Libertarianism is a philosophy that exalts bullying and tells the already powerful that they have a right to their power, and that includes the right to lash out at, and if necessary utterly destroy, anyone who stands in their way.
Donald Trump didn’t run for President as a Libertarian, but he’s certainly governing as one. His endorsement of Paul Ryan’s Libertarian health care plan — which Ryan and his fellow Libertarians in Congress saw as just step one in dismantling the entire social welfare state, starting with the Affordable Care Act and working through Medicaid, then Medicare and finally the last and biggest target, Social Security — showed that. So did his Cabinet appointments, which have come almost exclusively from ideologically Libertarian Republican Congressmembers, corporate officials and military leaders. And so did the draft budget he presented in mid-March, which increased spending for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, left alone Social Security and Medicare (for now) and took a meat ax to just about everything else the federal government does.
It slashed funding for the National Institutes of Health — because Libertarians believe that private capital, not tax money, should fund scientific research. It zeroed out the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Those were easy targets not only because the religious Right, who have been junior partners to the Libertarian Right in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, hates them because they provide alternatives to their narrow “moral” view of the world, but because the Libertarian philosophy holds that it’s no damned business of government to improve access to arts, culture and knowledge for people who can’t afford to pay the full market cost of them.
Trump’s budget also specifically attacked any program by which the federal government might document the existence of human-caused climate change or develop and implement renewable energy. Trump’s visceral denial of humans’ role in climate change seems to have a lot of roots in his personality, specifically in his exaggerated sense of machismo. Part of the American Right’s opposition to environmental protection and renewable energy seems to come from a perception that “real men” get their energy from inside the ground, either drilling for oil or digging for coal. It’s only useless, feminized wimps who get their energy from ground level or above — from solar, wind, geothermal or hydropower.
But it also is supported by the radical religious Right, who regard it literally as blasphemous that humans could do anything that could threaten the survival of their species on earth — only God can do that, they claim. And it’s also part of the Libertarian creed that environmental regulations, like regulations in general, just get in the way of the heroic capitalists who create all value and without whom we’d still be living in the Dark Ages. (This aggressive anti-environmentalism seems unique to American Right-wingers; elsewhere in the world the Right seems to be aware that the words “conservative” and “conservation” come from the same root and capitalists aren’t going to be able to make any money if humans destroy the earth environment that sustains them.)
Trump’s budget not only slashes funding for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds research in clean-energy alternatives to fossil fuels, he also cut the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). What’s more, he cut NASA in a specific way, leaving its space flight programs in place but cutting way back on its research into climate. One fear climate scientists have toward the Trump administration is it may simply have NASA stop launching weather satellites, which have produced much of the information that has documented that human activity is indeed changing the earth’s climate.
Also, despite Trump’s phony “populist” rhetoric during the campaign, much of his budget directly targets programs helping the people who voted for him and gave him his unlikely victory. As John Cassidy noted in a New Yorker post on March 16 (http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/donald-trumps-voldemort-budget?intcid=mod-latest), “While Trump would leave in place the subsidies that the Department of Agriculture provides to ‘Big Agra,’ he would scale back programs aimed at small farmers and workers, such as the , which promotes rural development and the spread of co-operatives. The budget would also eliminate a number of federal agencies charged with spurring development in specific deprived areas of the country, many of which voted for Trump. The Appalachian Regional Commission would be killed; so would the Mississippi River region’s Delta Regional Authority.”
Trump’s budget also implements his Libertarian agenda by directly targeting social services lower-income people rely on. “At the Department of Housing, for example, Trump would eliminate the three-billion-dollar Community Development Block Grant program, which helps big cities pay for affordable housing, slum clearance, and many other things, including the delivery of hot meals to home-bound seniors,” Cassidy wrote. “At the Department of Education, cuts would be made to two programs designed to prepare low-income students for college, and to a work-study program that helps those students pay their way through school once they’re there.”
Throughout Trump’s budget, his personal definition of power as the ability to throw his weight around and boss the rest of the world interacts with the Libertarian concept of government as a force to protect the powerful and screw over everyone else. On foreign policy, Cassidy wrote, “Someone in the Trump Administration appears to have gone through the entire budget looking to eliminate funding for small entities that try to do some good.
“These include the Africa Development Foundation, an independent organization that provides grants to small businesses and community groups in some of the world’s poorest countries, and the Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan organization, founded in 1984, that supports efforts to resolve violent conflict, promote gender equality, and strengthen the rule of law around the world. The budget would even eliminate a program co-founded by Bob Dole, who backed Trump in the Republican primary: the McGovern-Dole Food for International Education Program, which helps provide school meals and nutritional programs in impoverished nations.”
In George Orwell’s novel 1984, O’Brien, the representative of the all-powerful Inner Party that rules the dystopian dictatorship, tells the book’s hero, Winston Smith, that his vision of the future is “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” For all its pretensions of celebrating individual freedom, a Libertarian society in practice would be a handful of wealthy, privileged people stamping on the faces of everyone else forever. Whatever their differences, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan and the handful of Republican Congressmembers in the so-called “Freedom Caucus” who sandbagged the American Health Care Act because it wasn’t tough enough and didn’t throw as many people off of access to health care as they wanted share that cruel vision, and they mean to use the full power of the U.S. government to bring it about.