“Can you remember when Republicans still believed in the free market?”
Dana Milbank, THE PROGRESSIVE POPULIST, 6/15/23
Milbank’s sarcasm is evident here. He and most progressives know that big money Republican donors, while paying lip service to the “free enterprise” myth, eagerly and routinely stifle the market when it suits their fiscal advantage. He is making a point that the wealthy patrons of the Republican Party, having catered to racist and religious fanatics in order to advance their greedy aspirations, now must live with the consequences: impending domination of the Party by those fanatics. The war on Disneyland by Florida’s governor, and rightwing attacks on beer, candy and dolls for championing sexual equality, are only the first skirmishes of the power struggle between business conservatives and culture warriors—a struggle that history shows culture warriors tend to win.
In the 1960’s, Republicans, realizing that their pro-business, anti-labor, anti-environment policies would not attract many working class votes, made a deal with the devil to bring rightwing racists and evangelicals over to their side. Now the devil, the savviest of businessmen, is demanding payment, as bigoted culture warriors begin to assert themselves in positions of real power in the Republican Party. These events reflect what happened in France in the 1790’s and Germany in the 1930’s, when the upper classes backed fanatics, hoping to keep or claw back power for themselves—only to be disastrously discarded by their allies, once the fanatics gained power and realized they no longer needed their wealthy patrons.
During the French Revolution, a moderate republic run by the middle class was being established, with strong hopes for peaceful change. In a last-ditch effort to regain power, the nobles backed the radical Jacobins, hoping to control them from behind. When the Jacobins took power, noble heads rolled. Similarly, during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, German industrialists and landed aristocrats supported the Nazis, expecting Hitler to crush the communists, then yield power back to the wealthy. They too were wrong. This time they avoided the guillotine, but they did have to support a ruinous war. In the end, the landed gentry lost their estates to Russian and Polish communists. The industrialists kept their fortunes because the victorious American industrialists could do business with them. Defeated German capitalists were spared the gallows the allies erected for the Nazi leaders. But in the postwar republic, they must share power with the working class.
Similar times are visiting American elites. Knowing their robber baron policies could not win elections, they sought support from segregationist and evangelical commoners. They traded the erosion of civil rights, abortion rights, and sexual rights for lower taxes and weakened government regulations. The arrangement worked well until now, with the coalition coming close to gaining total power—power which, as always, is not going to be shared. Someone must get it all, and right now the numbers are with the racist, religious hardliners, who have begun sidelining their wealthy backers, who have nowhere else to go. History, again, is rhyming.
One positive aspect of free enterprise is eagerness to provide what people want, in search of more customers. This is especially true of small business, but big businesses still occasionally practice this positive principle, as they are doing with promotions favoring persecuted minorities. Though it is easier and more profitable to manipulate the political landscape through various types of legal bribery, corporate executives can also make pitches toward gays, minorities, and other unpersons, in the effort to sell their products and services. Many support expansion of basic civil rights (excepting unions) because they know a more inclusive society will have greater buying power. They promote social uplift for second-class citizens, hoping those citizens will buy what the corporations sell. If capitalists could stick to these activities, we would never have heard of Karl Marx.
Unfortunately, greed always steps in to reinforce the dark sides of capitalism. By bribing legislators and government officials when it suits their purposes—usually in cases where they are cheating their customers, their government, their workers, or their planet—capitalists bring public opinion down upon themselves. To regain public support, capitalists made friends with others who have dark ambitions involving racial and religious domination of society. The unholy alliance has constructed a strong plutocracy, and now the plutocracy’s underclass of far-right fanatics, having the guns and the numbers, is stepping up to collect its due. Donald Trump fired the first volley in his 2016 presidential campaign, when he accused big business of taking advantage of average Americans, and promised that he (a big businessman himself) would be their “voice” to redress their grievances. Plutocrats should have believed him, and commoners should have not, but neither happened and Trump became president. Now Trump wannabes like Ron DeSantis are harassing businesses that fail to follow the party line. Plutocrats might have heeded the warnings and withdrawn financial support, but greed, like all addictions, is immune to common sense.
The Republican Party, that longtime enthusiastic promoter of free enterprise, now belongs to a plutocrat who supports free enterprise as long as it does not interfere with his ambitions. Trump’s hardline supporters will do everything they can to keep it that way. He has promised to “make America great again,” which means whatever each individual in that cult of personality thinks it means. He never spells it out, but “greatness” appears to have something to do with a return to the “glorious past,” as a springboard to an even brighter future. The here and now is to be spurned. America’s wealthy elites are left with a choice to continue underwriting their changed party, allowing the new masters to take over, or to side with politicians who insist that they share power with poorer citizens. As it happened in France in the 1790’s and Germany in the 1930’s, American plutocrats are learning they cannot control the fanatics they have been patronizing.
We cannot accurately predict the fate awaiting America’s upper crust, although being humans holding power, they will surely hate losing power. We can predict disaster for everyone else, if the fanatical, racist evangelicals take over the government behind a power-mad leader. Fortunately, this gargantuan tragedy has not happened here—yet. It came close a few years ago, however, and it still lurks on the threshold. We “woke” plebeians will need to stay together to prevent this looming disaster from becoming reality. Our alliance is fragile. So many of us believe we have irremediable differences. We must remember that we all seek the same goals of equality, justice and democracy.
The failure of the “magic of the marketplace” to satisfy humanity’s needs, hopes and desires is—or ought to be—obvious. The main beneficiaries of that magical myth, capitalistic plutocrats, are adept at obscuring reality from us commoners. By manipulating media and backing hard-right politicians, the upper class has kept power. But the politicians now being elected by the Republican Party’s fanatical base are beginning to sense their own strength as they take over one of America’s two major parties. Mass beheadings in town squares are unlikely; same with concentration camps. But fanatics who take power always need more power, and they are capable of any atrocity, once they believe they can get away with it. I hope we never find out what they actually will do. We of the ninety-nine percent who are awake must do everything possible to avoid this scary scenario: organize, unionize, demonstrate, and vote.