The Rear-View Mirror

Like many who read this blog, I get the Letter from an American from Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a historian, and the great benefit of her Letters is that they provide what I like to think of as a look in humanity’s rear-view mirror.

Driving a car requires checking the traffic behind us in order to navigate the road ahead. History serves much the same purpose (which is one of the many, many reasons why the rightwing hysteria over teaching the country’s history of racism is so deranged…)

A few days ago, Richardson shared an “aha” moment.

It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly. But this morning, as I was reading a piece in Vox by foreign affairs specialist Zack Beauchamp, describing Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s path in Florida as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the penny dropped.

She proceeded to outline the political currents prior to the election of Trump: the evolution of today’s GOP into the pro-oligarchy party, following what she described as the usual U.S. historical pattern to that point– “in the 1850s, 1890s, 1920s, and then again in the modern era, wealthy people had come around to the idea that society worked best if a few wealthy men ran everything.”

Each of those periods was a reaction to the expansion of civil equality. Richardson reports that wealthier Americans protected their privileged status by playing on the racism of  poorer white male voters– telling them that passage of laws protecting equal rights was really a plan to turn American governance over to immigrants or to Black or Brown Americans.

The idea that poor men of color voting meant socialism resonated with white voters, who turned against the government’s protecting equal rights and instead supported a government that favored men of property. As wealth moved upward, popular culture championed economic leaders as true heroes, and lawmakers suppressed voting in order to “redeem” American society from “socialists” who wanted to redistribute wealth. Capital moved upward until a very few people controlled most of it, and then, usually after an economic crash made ordinary Americans turn against the system that favored the wealthy, the cycle began again.

When Trump was elected, the U.S. was at the place where wealth had concentrated among the top 1%, Republican politicians denigrated their opponents as un-American “takers” and celebrated economic leaders as “makers,” and the process of skewing the vote through gerrymandering and voter suppression was well underway. But the Republican Party still valued the rule of law. It’s impossible to run a successful business without a level playing field, as businessmen realized after the 1929 Great Crash, when it became clear that insider trading had meant that winners and losers were determined not by the market but by cronyism.

Trump deviated from the usual cycle in one way–he didn’t care about enriching the oligarchy, only about enriching himself, his toadies and his family. Despite his  repellent personality and embarrassing ignorance of government and policy, he was especially dangerous because he turned the Republican base into a cult that no longer respected the rule of law.

Richardson warns that Trump’s deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is especially dangerous because it creates space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies. Two current Republican governors model those ideologies: Abbott in Texas, who is pursuing the South’s Civil War insistence on “states’ rights,” and DeSantis in Florida, who is emulating Viktor Orbán’s “soft fascism.”

Orbán has taken control of Hungary’s media, ensuring that his party wins all elections; has manipulated election districts in his own favor; and has consolidated the economy into the hands of his cronies by threatening opponents with harassing investigations, regulations, and taxes unless they sell out.

DeSantis is following this model right down to the fact that observers believe that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was modeled on a similar Hungarian law. DeSantis’s attack on Disney mirrors Orbán’s use of regulatory laws to punish political opponents (although the new law was so hasty and flawed it threatens to do DeSantis more harm than good).

Richardson counsels us to look in that rear-view mirror–to access the knowledge and tools that history provides to defend democracy from the ideology of states’ rights.” But she also warns that, because the rise of “illiberal democracy” or “soft fascism” is new to us, we need to understand how it differs both from Trump’s version of autocracy and from the old arguments for states’ rights.

At risk of over-extending my somewhat strained analogy, Orbanism represents a massive pothole on the road to democratic self-governance and civil liberty–a pothole requiring us to drive carefully and keep our eyes on the road– ahead and behind.

19 thoughts on “The Rear-View Mirror

  1. I find Heather’s comment, “It has been hard for me to see the historical outlines of the present-day attack on American democracy clearly” extremely hard to justify.

    Maybe if she didn’t jump from 1929 to Trump’s presidency, she’d find a boatload of history explaining how our democratic republic became more controlled by the oligarchy. It certainly didn’t happen when Trump took office.

    The Grand Ole Party was crushed by the Koch network. Read Jane Mayer’s book on the specifics, but it didn’t happen overnight.

    It was a deliberate exercise to get rid of the Establishment Republicans in favor of Libertarians who despised the Establishment.

    Guess who still controls the Democratic Party and much of the Republican Party?

    Also, this statement from Sheila is completely inaccurate, “Trump deviated from the usual cycle in one way–he didn’t care about enriching the oligarchy…”

    His first move was tax cuts for the oligarchy and repatriating their tax evaded cash stashed in overseas banks. It was a hand job of epic worth and that’s why they tolerated his antics.

    It’s also why they have kept him around as a threat for 2024. Remember, the Koch Network has been working at the state level to control the Senate and the judges all the way to the Supreme Court.

    The media and politicians are pawns. Hell, even the Brits are waking up to the Tories and their propaganda media like the BBC, etc.

    We’ll see what happens as Musk gets Twitter away from government control which is establishing a “disinformation board” housed in the DHS.

    Hold on tight…

  2. In 2020, Trump and his minions tried to use the vagueness of the electoral vote certification and counting process to steal the election. The assault on our democracy failed.

    As 2024 approaches, Trump and his minions are maneuvering to get the state and federal players in place to ensure their next effort to steal a presidential election via the electoral vote certification and counting process will be successful.

    There is bipartisan legislation in Congress that would fix the Electoral Count Act to close the electoral loopholes that the Trump team tried to exploit in 2020. You would think Democrats would be chomping at the bit to support this legislation that will help out their 2024 nominee.
    But no, Democrats insist electoral count reform has to be tied to a much larger voting rights bill or they won’t support it. It’s an insane position. It’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.

    If the 2024 presidential election is stolen, it will almost certainly be through the counting and certification of electoral votes, not because there was not enough early voting. While the Electoral Count reform legislation won’t cure everything that ails our democratic system, it would be a huge step forward in ensuring our presidential election won’t be stolen next time around. And yet Democrats won’t support it. Go figure.

  3. “Richardson reports that wealthier Americans protected their privileged status by playing on the racism of poorer white male voters– telling them that passage of laws protecting equal rights was really a plan to turn American governance over to immigrants or to Black or Brown Americans.”

    This statement was as true as the promise of 40 acres and a mule to newly freed slaves in the south. The Carpetbaggers from the north descended on black and white alike, like a plague of locusts. I will repeat Rhett Butler’s oh-so-true line from “Gone With The Wind” that “There is as much money to be made in the destruction of a civilization as there is from building one.”

    “Richardson warns that Trump’s deliberate destabilization of faith in our democratic norms is especially dangerous because it creates space for two right-wing, antidemocratic ideologies.” As I stated recently, Trump’s White Nationalist MAGA party makes that third party which many have cried for to resolve problems with our 2 party system but come election day, those old GOP party members will vote with the MAGAs to regain Trump’s control so he can finish his deconstruction of American government. Look in that rear view mirror; he is on our ass, tailgating us and hoping road rage will return the violence in our streets to rid them of peaceful protesters. Is that SCOTUS “leak” a GOP action to further their “antidemocratic ideologies”?

  4. Sheila, I am amazed at the superb quality of your essays. Your insight and clarity of thought are such a gift, and I am deeply grateful you share them with the rest of us.

  5. Just to show that history comes full circle, those immigrants that everyone feared in 1850 and 1870 were generally Irish and Italian. Today many of the descendants of those immigrants are storming the Capitol trying to keep power out of the hands of the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and others. We need to look in the rear view mirror, but we also need to look in the plain old mirror for a hard look at ourselves.

  6. Are we witnessing the fall of the United States, a la the Roman Empire? Will the war in Ukraine finally embroil us against Russia and perpetrate the long-feared nuclear holocaust? Tough questions? Sure.

    But meanwhile pinheads like Ron DeSantis, Brian Kemp and a host of other red politicians are racing to beat each other to the finish line of the utter destruction of our Constitution, its spirit, its meaning and its intent to bind us together. The entire GOP-like wretches are racing to the brink of their own destruction and don’t seem to care.

    That has GOT to be the political definition for mass insanity. Well done, America. You really know how to preserve and protect your founding document for domestic enemies.

  7. I have been predicting the demise of Democracy in the US for quite some time and it seems others who are better informed than I are saying the same thing. My house is up for sale and I’m trying to get out of here before it becomes impossible to do so.

  8. 24/7 access to oligarch controlled ultra-right wing media outlets Fox and Newsmax has enabled this country’s oligarchs to control the political opinions of far too many republican voters. The oligarchs knew they could easily control the minds of right wing voters by feeding them with propaganda that tells them they are at risk of losing their power and place in society to socialism. History supports the fact that their targeted audience would not make any effort to research the validity of the propaganda they would be fed. Constantly feed them lies that keep them too angry to think rationally.

    As long as oligarchs are allowed to present their propaganda as a source of “news” and to also claim that any other news sources are “fake” our country will continue down the path to being completely controlled by the oligarchs.

    The oligarchs’ plan was to first take control of the state legislatures by financially supporting legislators who are willing to sell their souls in exchange for personal power and job security as long as they agree to support any legislation that gives their owner/oligarchs what they want. After successfully taking over state legislatures the oligarchs promised their obedient state legislators they could win elections to Congress and could safely stay there as long as they obeyed their owners.

    Things are going to get much worse before the republican voters realize they have been duped.

  9. What I wrestle with is, do we have problems that can be solved or is it too late? Terminal cancer requires different actions than treatable cancer. It’s hard for me to tell if I suffer from terminal optimism about the country or if I just can’t get out of the problem solving personality that I have always had.

    I’ve learned that our democracy is designed in some ways that are unnecessarily fragile. For instance, none of our representatives in Federal Government are chosen democratically, by all of the people who they govern. That’s should be a solvable problem but it is not because the problem is the means that the only people who could solve the problem maintain employment. That means that it is more or less a terminal condition.

    I’ve also learned that we have allowed the establishment of the worlds most effective propaganda network that is able to speak to us pretty much 24/7 and it employs the most persuasive culture making means humanly possible. We speak of the President’s “bully pulpit” like it still exists but the ability of politicians to influence we the people is almost silent now because of the clamor of advertising that is never silent.

    Another lesson is that the concept of countries has been weakened considerably by businesses that are global in scope. We no longer stand alone in the world but are tied inextricably to the rest of the world by both global business and the fact that the more humans there are the more any individual action is damped by human collective action. We’ve become like a beehive or anthill wherein the power to do anything is in the numbers, not individuals.

    Lastly we are so great in number that we have exceeded the capacity of our supply of natural resources to support us. The rate by which we turn useful but limited resources into waste is such that for many we can actually see the time when they run out forever.

    We count on technology to save us but what we need is unlimited alchemy and that probably is a hill too far.

    I hate to give up, and emulate Todd, and I will never stop trying. But like Sisyphus, I don’t see control in any way proportional to the forces chipping away at our dream of civilized living.

  10. Writing in 1984 (and about television, without social media, which simply magnifies many times his isnight), Neil Postman wrote in “Amusing Ourselves to Death) quoting some others: “We Americans seem to know everything about the last 24 hours, but very little of the last 60 centuries or the last 60 years” (Bill Moyers).

    “With media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to a historical prospective. In the absence of continuity and context, ‘bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole.’ (Terrance Moran).

    We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis – a theory, a vision, a metaphor – SOMETHING within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context, is, in fact, hampered by any attempts to provide any. With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present.”

  11. Todd, you have caused expletives to enter my train of thought. Too bad your train left the tracks!
    “Orabanism” is the perfect phrase for my gov’s motivation, that, and kissing up to the so easily manipulatedfools in Florididia.

    Regarding Abbott, Mexico is going to reroute the rail lines that have delivered goods through Texas, to New Mexico.

    This will, presumably, cost the Looney Star State some big money, and help defeat Abbott in the next election.

  12. Vern,

    I know this is tough, because this actually is worse than most books that have been written as fiction. Our reality is actually worse than fiction!

    I know I smell a book here, lol! But, I believe I have been saying for quite a while that history is cyclical! But I suppose it takes a so-called “Expert,” or an intellectual self-anointed Dynamo to figure that out🤔

    You want to know what’s going to happen? Look to history, it’s not rocket science, but folks are too lazy, and, basically tube down that River without noticing the rapids and the falls straight ahead.

    The only rear view mirror being noticed today is the one from fantasyland. The good old days! When things were better, you went to Drive-In movies, you sat in Drive-In restaurants and ate hamburgers and sucked down ice cream sodas. Listening to all that hoppin and boppin, which basically came from the African-American culture. But hey, the white race never turned down a theft to claim something as their own.

    If you hadn’t done it, maybe some research would enlighten many.

    We are now back to the times of the Robber Barons, when Roosevelt and the burgening Unions went to war against them.

    King Solomon said, “that which Has come to be, that is what Will come to be, and that which Has been done, that is what Will be done, and so ‘there is nothing new under the Sun.’

    Our youthful hope has given way to pessimistic fatalism!

    Why is that? You look at the comment from a few days ago, and it listed all of the ideas behind morality and conscience. And therein lies the rub, no one knows, everybody deems themself an expert, but when it’s all said and done, the truth of the matter is lying somewhere which is not acceptable to the majority.

    Death of the societal body, the body politic? No, the entire societal body of mankind, will bring about change, but not change anyone wishes for.

    King Solomon also made this statement in Ecclesiastes, “the end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear god, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

    I mentioned before, Joe Biden could stop all of this in it’s tracks if he had the stones. But, I highly doubt if he will! That’s the frailty and the flaw of the human condition. Humanity is not as bright as it thinks it is!

  13. So, Stan, where are you going? I have thought about doing the same thing, but I wouldn’t leave behind my daughter and grandchildren behind to suffer the decent into fascism that seems inevitable.
    Also, who will stay behind and fight the fascists if the ‘good guys” flee?
    It’s getting more depressing by the day — a failed coup; a reasonable party’s solution destroyed by 2 knuckleheads – Joe & Krysten; overturning a precedent right which freed women to have choices about whether or not to have children; a cult party that seems bent on making this country a theocracy and the oligarchs that fund it even richer; and a planet which will continue to respond to the total lack of respect it’s given.
    I guess every population that faced these types of overwhelming problems “in the old days” (the fall of the Roman Empire, 1347, all of the 1500s, 1861, 1914, 1929, 1939, etc. ) felt hopeless and desperate at times. How do we best maintain our equilibrium during these periods?
    Also, what Philip said — thanks, Sheila

  14. Kathy M – find servant leader folks running for office and work to get them elected!

  15. Kathy M. —

    I believe that Stan has found Love with a young lady from the Philippines if I’m not mistaken. And he’s planning on moving there and getting married. All very honorable!

    The only thing about fleeing? where do you flee? The Philippines have an insane president named Rodrigo Duterte, and once his attention is focused back on his Insanity instead of China, he’ll go back to executing Drug users and vagrants!

    This entire world, as lousy as it is, is completely connected through the internet/social media. You can’t run from it nor can you hide from it! The insane, the narcissistic, the self-a-grandizing, the influencers, all have an opinion that is magnified by their stature from their minions who have no one else to worship so they select their own God.

    I think we all know people who would definitely rival the aforementioned lunacy if they had a large enough soapbox to spew their mentally deficient propaganda’s and theories.

    The sad thing about it, is, people have a hard time recognizing reality over fantasy. Or, they will create their own fantasy-based reality according to their own personal needs. Since people tend to have misplaced faith, they definitely have no hope. And that’s a bad place to be.

    The Greeks of ancient Corinth actually stated; “let us eat and drink for tomorrow we are to die.”

    Now that’s pretty fatalist and extremely disconcerting.

    We talk about the experiment of this particular government we live under, but the other experiment was mankind ruling himself. It’s a choice that men made, that affected the entire planet.

    Why Love your Neighbor? Why love God? It’s much easier to blame your Neighbor and to blame God for your woes. If one was to love their neighbor which really means the entirety of mankind, would that one actually murder all of those that they love? Would You hate those You love? Would You let those You love starve? Would You let the Widows be put to death in the streets, would You let the Orphans be run over by tanks, abused by authorities or degenerates? (Isaiah 65:20-25)

    Men do not have the answer, they never have. An interesting read would be the Old testament book of Judges which is pretty much self-explanatory concerning men’s stubbornness. Oh, and please read the quoted reference scriptures and tell me what you think.?!? Also (Hosea 2:18)

    But it’s much easier to blame something or someone that they don’t believe in anyway for all of their troubles. Kind of pathetic, wouldn’t you say?

  16. Lester and John — thanks guys!
    And it would seem that running off to the Philippines would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire! South Carolina is bad enough! 🙂

  17. Kathy M,

    Yeah, if you get outside of Myrtle beach, it gets a little dicey. We were taking pictures of an old closed down store when a woman drove up with a shotgun and asked if we were republican or Democrat. 😲

  18. Don’t say gay. It’s not hard.

    Just shut up and teach Math.

    A teacher’s personal life has no business in the classroom, unless it’s good and normal.

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