Musings on Conservative “Populism”

Trump and the Trumpistas have lost lawsuit after lawsuit, but still they have won. A goal of the conservatives has been to plant distrust of the government with their talk of the Deep State, QAnon conspiracies, stolen elections, and fake news. Of course, like many of Trump’s actions and policies, he is not their sole inventor. Instead, the present trend comes out of traditional Republican rhetoric and politics. Probably the two most famous anti-government statements came from Ronald Reagan, who said: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” And: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

Generations of such diatribes have had an effect, even on many who consider themselves liberal. Think back a few days ago to when the Supreme Court struck down the ludicrous lawsuit the Texas Attorney General filed to overturn various state elections. What was your reaction to the Court’s action? Was part of it relief? Doesn’t that indicate that you don’t fully trust the government? The conservatives are winning.

The roots of the “Deep State” go back well before Reagan at least to Joe McCarthy. The Senator’s unsupported cry that there were Communists in the State Department controlling our foreign policy is almost the same as today’s rant that there is a Deep State in the State Department and elsewhere controlling the functioning of government.

Anti-government feelings have been part of the American makeup probably forever, but the populist movements of yore also had an anti-corporate component that is absent now. Those on the little guy’s side were fighting not just the government but also the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and other plutocrats. Part of the reason to fight the government was because it was allied with the rich to further the interests of the powerful often at the expense of everyone else. Today the populists do not perceive the government as captured by the corporations or other powerful institutions. Instead, they feel that the government has been co-opted by a lower strata of society – a strata of people who are challenging them for their own place in our already unequal society. Corporations, then, evade opprobrium while the middle and lower classes fight among themselves. With this shift in populism, the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win again.

Our country has abandoned a longstanding tenet of our governance. As Jane Mayer says in Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right: “From the Republic’s earliest days, the wealthy had always dominated politics, but at least from the Progressive Era the public, through its elected representatives, had devised rules to keep the influence in check. By 2015, however, conservative legal advocates, underwritten by wealthy benefactors and aided by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, had led a successful drive to gut most of those rules. . . . As America grew more economically unequal, those at the top were purchasing the power needed to stay there.”

One of the people Arlie Russell Hochschild talked to for her book Stranger in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right said something that captured the new populism. She lived in a region whose lakes and streams and wetlands and forests had been ravaged by corporate toxic wastes, but she was resigned to the devastation. “With a small, sad shake of her head, Jackie says, ‘Pollution is the sacrifice we pay for capitalism.’” She is conceding defeat, and the traditional rich and powerful conservatives win yet again.

The new populist conservatives do not seek to fight the large corporate food processors who have taken over the local packing plants, pay lower wages and have reduced or have non-existent health benefits. They don’t fight the national trucking companies who pay lower wages than were paid a decade ago. They don’t fight the oil and gas companies who have made landscapes uninhabitable. Instead, these populists rail against internet and social media corporations even though these entities have had little effect on the populists’ economic well-being and even though the Right has used them effectively to strengthen their message.

It is discouraging, nay frightening, for the future of our governing system that over 100 Representatives signed on to the Texas Attorney General’s lawsuit. It is perhaps at least as disheartening that three-quarters of Republican voters believe that the election was stolen. This is so even though the supposed “proof” of widespread fraud has been debunked and rebutted convincingly many times and has been examined by courts repeatedly and rejected by judges around the country. When I watch, listen, or read right-wing media, I understand why the populist conservatives cling to a discredited belief. These media outlets repeat again and again the claims of fraud even after the assertions have been shown to be false. They don’t offer the counter proof; they don’t show why the rebuttals are wrong. These media outlets disregard and fail to mention the countervailing evidence. The consumers of their “information” never get the chance to evaluate the rebutting proof. Distrust is sown and Democracy is the loser.