Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (35 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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There was always plenty of bigotry against immigrants—for being Catholic, Jewish, poor, foreign, swarthy—but historically a negligible fraction of immigrants were not white. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, 98 percent of Americans outside the South were white. For all of America’s defining embrace and embodiment of the new, for more than two centuries our society was
unchanging
in its basic racial makeup—overwhelmingly white and very consistently so. From the first census in 1790 through the one in 1970, the national population was 85 percent white and non-Hispanic, give or take a couple of percentage points from decade to decade, and it was still at 80 percent in 1980. But as a result of the latest immigrant influx from Latin America and Asia, today barely 60 percent of us are non-Hispanic white people.

It is an unprecedented American metamorphosis. As a white person delighted to live in a thriving city with low crime rates where white people became a minority just after I arrived forty years ago and the foreign-born population has since doubled, I say:
Good job, United States!
Obviously not all my fellow white Americans agree, especially not my fellow white men, and more especially my fellow old white men, many of whom also feel diminished by the simultaneous rise of women. Those transformations of American society have reduced some of their privileges.

To me, the most striking metric of female empowerment concerns women’s higher education: in the early 1970s, almost twice as many men as women in America had graduated from college, but today more women than men have B.A.s, and they earn most of the advanced degrees as well.

The large social and political consequences of lots more people having college degrees extend beyond equality for women. In 1970, when the hard hats and other angry blue-collar patriots were hating and beating on uppity college-kid protesters, only a small minority of American adults, 11 percent, were college graduates. Back then, 88 percent of Americans were white and 95 percent were not Hispanic
and
89 percent lacked a college degree—in other words, non-Hispanic white people who had no more than a high school diploma made up three-quarters of Americans. (And if their kids wanted to go to college, it cost a fraction of what it costs now.) That majority, naturally, felt as if in every way they
ruled
.

Since the 1970s the giant U.S. supermajority of white people without college degrees has shrunk by more than half, down to about 35 percent. They constitute a shrinking fraction that’s now the same size as the fraction of college graduates and the fraction of people of color, both of which are growing. Thus a lot of less-educated white people, especially older ones, feel nostalgic for the old days. Yet while it’s understandable that such nostalgia zeroes in on race and ethnicity, it’s inexcusable when it’s politicized—and by my moral calculus, even more so for affluent white people with no screwed-by-a-rigged-system economic excuse for resentment and racism.
*5

Since the 2016 presidential election, scholars and journalists have debated which type of unhappiness more importantly drove a majority of white people to support Donald Trump. Was it all about America’s new racial and ethnic character, or was it all about America’s new economic character? Was it nostalgia for a whiter, more sexist society or for more fairly shared prosperity, security, and economic mobility or for the time before America was awash in the meritocratic hubris of the liberal social winners? Of course it was all of those different versions of nostalgia for the past and of resistance to the new. It’s another clear case of social and political and economic comorbidity: different chronic conditions with intertwined causes and symptoms that make both more debilitating and harder to treat.

But in fact, most white people have voted for the Republican presidential candidate ever since 1968—that is, ever since the first election after the new federal civil rights laws came fully into force and after several consecutive summers of large black urban riots-cum-uprisings. And in the last eight presidential elections, the overall white vote has been quite consistent: an average of 56 percent voted for the Republican candidates (except when quasi-Republican Ross Perot ran in the 1990s), and an average of 41 percent voted for the Democratic candidates. In 2016 Trump actually did worse among white voters than the average modern Republican candidate. Even among whites without college degrees, Trump did only a bit better than a typical GOP nominee—62.5 percent, versus Mitt Romney’s 61 percent four years earlier. A study of thousands of election precincts in six big swing states found that in white-majority neighborhoods that had had influxes of Hispanics and immigrants, the same fractions of white people voted for Trump in 2016 as had voted for each of the three previous Republican nominees—in other words, all the new foreign-born and nonwhite neighbors didn’t make them more Trumpist. And in
poorer
white neighborhoods that had Hispanic influxes, Trump did
worse
than his Republican predecessors.
*6

So to the degree that white people began voting for Republicans and against Democrats out of racial animus or fear or solidarity, that started a half-century ago and apparently hasn’t changed much since. What’s new is that unlike the Republican candidates and presidents before him, Trump doesn’t stick to innuendo and codes and dog whistles; his heart is obviously in it, even more so since 2016, which means that all white people voting for him in 2020 will be fully ratifying his racism.

But the scholars and others who emphasize bigotry as the only meaningful factor tend to define the economics—that is, voters’ “economic anxiety”—way too narrowly as acute distress rather than as structural malaise. Because voting for Trump didn’t correlate in surveys with a “drop in income in the previous year” or concern about losing jobs or making the rent or paying for healthcare
right now,
researchers conclude that Trumpism is entirely about feeling racial hatred or defensiveness. Some analysts also argue that support for Trump by prosperous people discredits the importance of economics to his appeal, but prosperous Republican voters reflexively support Republican candidates as a safe bet on lower taxes—even Trump, especially after his four years of strictly adhering to the Republican line on business and the rich.

How better to nail down the kind of chronic economic unhappiness and anxiety I’m talking about? Measuring the actual conditions of whole communities over time seems like a good idea. The authors of one study divided all 3,138 U.S. counties into two groups, Opportunity-Falling and Opportunity-Rising America, depending on whether each county lost or gained businesses between 2005 and 2015. In the two-thirds of counties that were Opportunity-Falling during that decade before the 2016 election, Trump won the two-party vote by 53 to 47 percent, while in the Opportunity-Rising counties he lost by 55 to 45 percent.

I have a different way of dividing America that amounts to the same thing: Dollar General–Dollar Tree–Family Dollar America versus Starbucks–Target–Whole Foods America. All six of those chains started or exploded in the 1980s as we began making the political economy more unfair and unequal. In 2016 Trump won all 9 states where the density of dollar stores is highest, and 10 of the next 13 on the chart; Clinton won 15 of the 25 states that have the relatively fewest dollar stores.
Of course
most people in Dollar Store America responded to the candidate who sounded in 2016 like a Democrat of a very old-fashioned kind—rough, tough, promising to spend billions building new roads and bridges and never to cut and possibly to improve Medicare and Social Security, telling them that “big business and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”

Then there are those fascinating, problematic 8 or 10 million people who voted for Obama, then Trump. People are confused—and so often
encouraged
to be confused by political actors—about which kinds of new they should or shouldn’t want or have no choice but to accept. After the 2016 presidential election, experts couldn’t reckon with the large fraction of the reactionary white racist candidate’s voters, as many as one in six, who had
also
voted for the cool liberal black ex-professor. But it made sense to me as a kind of desperate independent grassroots political yearning for
some kind of new
. Those Obama-Trump voters may be ideologically inconsistent—like most people—but they were clearly desperate for
new and different,
8 or 10 million people who repeatedly chose the most unlikely and unconventional candidate on the ballot.


America has become new.

Racially and socially, it is not at all what it was forty or fifty years ago, and it won’t be ever again, the whole United States as white as Oregon or Wyoming. I hope and think we’re reaching peak nostalgia for the old superwhite (and superstraight) American monoculture. As white people who grew up back then die off, we can hope that particular nostalgia will proceed to be extinguished as a powerful political force.

America is no longer what it was economically, either, and it won’t be again. Nostalgia for a manufacturing-based economy is absurd, and the takeover of more and more human work by computers is going to proceed apace and probably accelerate. Yet in fundamental ways, we actually
can
restore our political economy to something like what it was, with fairness a goal as important as growth, all boats rising together.

We Americans will keep screaming back and forth about which aspects of America’s past should or shouldn’t be missed or celebrated or restored. Today’s unhinged right, however, even when it isn’t
explicitly
fetishizing the past, is also overrun by a de facto nostalgia for the scientific ignorance of the old days. Resistance to new social norms or demographics always defined conservatism, but now it also includes resistance to newly discovered
facts
that aren’t even new
.
For instance, creationist rejection of evolutionary biology, which has become Republican orthodoxy, amounts to nostalgia for life before 1859, the year Darwin published
On the Origin of Species
.

And by means of the denial of science, we return to the main subject, the excessive power granted to big business starting in the 1970s. Since then, at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, the right has developed a de facto nostalgia for the blissfully ignorant time when almost nobody outside climate science was aware of the CO
2
crisis and its potentially catastrophic effects. Climate change is an absolutely new challenge for which the past provides no models to cope. Will we finally summon the will to stop this willful self-destruction? With our government in the corrupting grip of big business and the rich as it was more than a century ago, America—the land of the new, past master at meeting unprecedented challenges—would prefer not to.

*1
Cowen dedicated his short 2011 book
The Great Stagnation
to Peter Thiel, who he calls “one of the greatest and most important public intellectuals of our entire time. Throughout the course of history, he will be recognized as such.” Thiel is the libertarian billionaire cofounder of PayPal who donated $1.25 million to the 2016 Trump campaign.

*2
To his credit, in his 2018 book
Stubborn Attachments,
Cowen grants that his libertarianism is nondoctrinaire enough to allow that a few problems, such as the climate crisis, do require massive government action.

*3
Likewise,
Roe v. Wade
invalidated laws against abortion almost half a century ago—and by the way, the rate of U.S. abortions is now half what it was at its peak in 1981, and less than it was before
Roe v. Wade
.

*4
“We on Team Trump,” Peter Navarro, the president’s director of manufacturing policy, said in 2018, “are astonished by the argument that America’s future is in the services sector, and [that] Americans don’t want ‘dirty’ jobs in steel furnaces.”

*5
In the 1960s, just a few states had white populations of less than 70 percent: Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Alabama. Today the size of the white majority in the whole United States is down to what it was only in the Deep South back then—which I think helps explain why so many white Americans outside the South turned into crypto-Southerners during the last fifty years. As their communities got more racially and ethnically diverse, they got more
consciously
white and defensive and racist.

*6
A different study by political scientists found that Trump’s anti-immigrant ravings actually inspired more white people to vote against him than it did white MAGAs to vote for him.

If not for what happened in the 1980s, when we liberated business to do almost anything it wished no matter what, there’s a good chance we’d now be well on our way to ending the climate crisis. Instead, as I described earlier, our new laissez-faire economic model permitted a couple of well-placed right-wingers—the presidential commission chairman and the White House chief of staff—to turn the uncontroversial scientific consensus about global warming into a fake-controversial partisan issue.

Remember the Powell Memo of 1971 prescribing the comeback strategy big business and the superrich right would follow, how it reads like a fictional document in a novel that’s a bit too on the nose? In 1998 an even more blatantly sinister memo laid out a plan to protect the fossil fuel industry from climate change regulation. It was drafted and circulated by the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas trade association, along with the CEOs’ Business Roundtable, Grover Norquist’s powerful antitax group, and a think tank cofounded by that global warming commission chairman under Reagan who spun the findings to deny it was a looming crisis.

“Environmental groups essentially have had the field to themselves,” the memo complained, and—based on an overwhelming scientific consensus—“have conducted an effective public relations program to convince the American public that the climate is changing, we humans are at fault, and we must do something about it before calamity strikes.”

Legitimate arguments against regulation (or pandemic lockdowns) usually focus on economic costs, that some rule or law is too expensive given its benefits. But opposing emission limits “solely on economic grounds” isn’t enough, the memo explained, because that “makes it too easy for others to portray the United States as putting preservation of its own lifestyle above the greater concerns of mankind.”

Rather, the fossil fuel business and its political allies needed to make civilians believe there was serious “scientific uncertainty” in order “to build a case against precipitous action on climate change.” This it would do by means of a “national media relations program” promoting the supposed “uncertainties in climate science” as well as “a direct outreach program to educate members of Congress and school teachers/students about uncertainties in climate science.”

The memo defined “victory” as making “uncertainties in climate science part of the conventional wisdom for average citizens” and “promoters of curbs on fossil fuel emissions seen as ‘out of touch with reality,’ ” to the point where “ ‘climate change’ becomes a non-issue and”—Dr. Evil had just been invented—“there are no further initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change.”

Thus a generation after the big 1980 victory and a decade after John Sununu did his crucial dirty work in Washington, the Establishment right moved definitively beyond legitimate policy argument to a dangerous new bad-faith zone. As Senator Moynihan had started saying at the time about political discourse in general, they decided they were entitled not just to their own opinions about policies for addressing climate change, but to their own facts concerning its existence and causes and possible impacts.

Four years later, in 2002, yet another influential memo about denying climate science circulated among Republicans, this one by the prominent strategist and pollster Frank Luntz. He advised them that so far their decade of climate-change-denial propaganda had been effective, but they needed to redouble it. “Voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community,” he wrote. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue,” and continue to “challenge the science.” Luntz recommended as well that Republican politicians use the term
climate change
rather than
global warming,
because “global warming has catastrophic communications attached to it,” whereas “climate change sounds [like] a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

Al Gore’s documentary
An Inconvenient Truth
came out in 2006, won an Oscar, and brought the issue to the full attention of millions of people, including me. Which is probably a reason why, at the same time, the oil and coal billionaires Charles and David Koch, together with ExxonMobil and more than a hundred right-wing foundations, were funneling hundreds of millions a year to organizations working against the mitigation of global warming. Before long, full-on climate change denialism was Republican orthodoxy. As recently as 2008, their national party platform had respectfully mentioned “climate change” thirteen times, stipulating that it was indeed caused by “human economic activity” and committing Republicans to “decreasing the long term demand for oil.” At the next convention, the platform mentioned “climate change” just once, in scare quotes, only to disparage concern about it.


Beyond their successful work to prevent “initiatives to thwart the threat of climate change,” in the early 2000s the Kochs and big business kept expanding what they’d begun in the 1970s and ’80s, giving more money to the think tanks and nonprofits and Washington lobbyists promoting their other political economic interests. The Kochs started holding biannual meetings of their new confederacy of right-wing billionaire political donors, the active core of whom had made their fortunes in fossil fuels and finance. A new national right-wing financial organization called DonorsTrust enabled donors to remain anonymous and keep their fingerprints off their $1.1 billion in contributions (so far) to hundreds of groups dedicated to “advancing liberty.”

The most recent annual ranking of think tanks’ influence (by policy specialists and journalists for the University of Pennsylvania) lists the Heritage Foundation as the eighth most influential on Earth, and the Cato Institute as the fifteenth. Among the thousand or so U.S. think tanks with a principal focus on political economics and other domestic issues, Heritage is at number two, Cato at number five. Other think tanks that the right created in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Charles Koch’s Mercatus Center and the Manhattan Institute, are not far behind.

Charles Koch remained closely involved in George Mason University and his quasi-independent institutes there as a major funder, board member, and ideological overseer of faculty for the economics and law programs. George Mason’s custom-fabricated right-wing law school was renamed the Antonin Scalia Law School, thanks to an anonymous $20 million donation for which the Federalist Society was the intermediary. But having built that permanent fiefdom inside an established institution, which is now Virginia’s largest public university, the Koch operation leveled up and went national. It endows and otherwise subsidizes libertarian economic and legal programs and classes and one-off conferences and a thousand professors at more than three hundred public and private colleges and universities, including every member of the Ivy League and MIT, NYU, Wesleyan, Amherst, Wellesley, Georgetown, Northwestern, Stanford, and most of the University of California system. In the early 2000s, the Kochs’ spending on U.S. academia increased to around $30 million a year, and since 2017 it has been $100 million a year.

Most of the right-wing counter-Establishment that was dreamed up and built in the 1970s and ’80s is now simply the Establishment, none of its pieces more remarkably or importantly so than those in the law. Back in 1985, three years after the Federalist Society was founded, the young director of its Washington, D.C., branch modestly told a reporter that “the society hopes to continue growing quite a bit.” Such a long game: thirty-five years later, that guy is president of the Federalist Society, which has chapters at almost every law school as well as in a hundred cities for lawyers and judges and other assorted rightists, seventy thousand members in all.

Back at that same mid-1980s moment, the Federalist Society’s godfather Michael Horowitz, who wrote the seminal memo telling right-wing law how and why it needed to step up its game, was more confident, like Babe Ruth pointing to the fence before he hit his World Series home run. “Twenty years from now,” Horowitz promised a reporter, “we will see our federal justices coming from the Federalist Society”—and precisely twenty years later two members of that first generation, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, became federal appeals court judges.

In fact, a large fraction of all federal judges today are or have been Federalist Society members, including the entire Supreme Court majority. At the level just below the Supreme Court, the 179 federal appeals court judges all over the country, almost 30 percent have been appointed since 2017, and more than 80 percent of those Trump appointees are Federalist alumni or members. These newest appellate judges are almost twice as likely to have Federalist ties as those appointed by Bush in the 2000s, and they are much more likely to have political rather than strictly legal backgrounds. Before he was even nominated for president in 2016, Trump asked the Federalist Society to give him short lists of approved candidates for the Supreme Court from which he agreed to make all his nominations; that is one promise he has absolutely kept.

Certainly for big business, this part of the long war has paid off. One measure of that is how the Supreme Court has decided cases in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce takes a side. In the early 1980s, decisions in those cases went their way four times out of ten, but since 2006 it’s been seven of ten.

The money spent by the economic right on universities and think tanks and the legal profession goes to propagate ideology and change public policy and judicial understandings over the long term. The money they spend on lobbyists is to get Congress and administrations to enact or stop specific laws and policies
now
. In just a decade, from 1999 to 2008, expenditures on Washington lobbying more than doubled to over $3 billion. Of the 100 groups that spend the most, 95 mainly represent business interests, and of the 20 biggest spenders of all, 19 are corporations or business groups, dominated by finance and healthcare. None are unions. The ugly, corrupting frenzy that the Reagan administration unleashed in 1981 and that ostensibly stunned its budget director—
“Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront? The hogs were really feeding. The greed level just got out of control”
—never stopped.

In addition to vastly expanding the scale of their inside work in the intellectual and lobbying worlds, around the turn of the century the rich right’s project expanded in scope as well to a whole new realm. Instead of funding mainly behind-the-scenes players, the wheedlers and geeks, the strategy now encompassed far more public operations. In 1980, David Koch ran for vice president to Reagan’s right on the Libertarian platform that then seemed crazily extreme—abolish the EPA and OSHA, privatize Social Security, repeal campaign finance laws—and his brother Charles worried about the reaction if the general public were to learn of their “radically different” views. But a generation later in the mid-1990s, what had once been beyond the fringe was the mass-marketable conservative mainstream. The Kochian economic right had become a tight-knit shadow national political party affiliated with and dominating the nominally independent GOP.

It was perfect synchrony that the Kochs and some of their rich comrades began their direct involvement in electoral and protest politics just as the first right-wing mass media platforms were being launched.

In 1993, just as right-wing talk radio had become huge, Roger Ailes partnered up with Rush Limbaugh to executive-produce and co-own his year-old daily half-hour syndicated TV show. Ailes had also just become the head of NBC’s two cable news channels, CNBC and another called America’s Talking.

That fall I was working on a cover story for
Time
that was partly about Limbaugh. Out of the blue one day I got a phone call at the magazine’s offices from Ailes, with whom I’d never had any communication. Assuming I might trash his boy Rush in
Time,
he was phoning not to be interviewed but simply to snarl and bluster and try to intimidate me preemptively.

The second time he referred to me as “a socialist,” I chuckled. There was a pause. “How would you like it,” he said then, “if I sent a camera crew to your kids’ school?” At the time my daughters were three and five, and NBC was owned by GE. “Wow,” I replied. “I’ll bet Jack Welch would love to find out that his new news executive was threatening to use his employees to stalk toddlers.” That pissed Ailes off. “Are
you,
” he asked, “
threatening
me?”

I figured he was speaking from a hundred yards away, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, just across Sixth Avenue from the Time-Life Building. “If the millions of Americans fanatically devoted to Rush Limbaugh have one major common hypothesis about the way the world works,” I wrote in my
Time
story, imagining how New York City itself must stoke Ailes’s nonstop right-wing anger, “it is that a rich and powerful elite, congregated in Manhattan, sits in posh salons sipping cocktails and smugly denigrating them and their unorthodox heroes. And they’re right.”

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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