Becoming Unraveled: How a nation that was a beacon of freedom disintegrated from its own brutality
“Conservative” columnists in America are bemoaning how coarse, violent, and Third-World-ish the United States has become in the past 40 years. David Brooks, for example, comes right out and says “America is falling apart at the seams.”
In that, he is largely quoting data from Matt Iglesias’ substack newsletter Slow Boring, where he wrote:
“You’re seeing more killing, which is a subset of the increase in shooting, which in turn is a subset of the large increase in gun-carrying. But traffic deaths are also up. Unruly passenger incidents on airplanes have surged. Schools report more discipline and student safety issues.
“Basically, the murders seem like the tip of an iceberg of bad behavior.”
Brooks correctly notes that it is terrible but:
“As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now. I just know the situation is dire.”
The rapid disintegration of the nation that was once the world’s bulwark of democracy and beacon of freedom has been relentless and brutal — but it should not be a surprise to Brooks or other conservatives: it’s all happened right out in the open and most of it has been driven from the right side of our political spectrum.
How this came about is not a mystery, and progressives have been warning about the dangers of this kind of consolidated rightwing (racist, rich and corporate) power ever since the 1901 presidency of progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt. For those who have not been paying close attention, here is a quick, bullet-point summary of how we got to this point of crisis and disintegration:
- Prior to WWII, there were “two Americas”: one for White people and another for everybody else. They were strictly held apart by the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v Ferguson decision.
- A postwar executive order by President Harry Truman, Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, “that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin” ended official racial segregation in the military and began the modern era of racial integration of America. Cue the rise of rightwing hysteria.
- That old soldier President Dwight D. Eisenhower thought it would be good if racial integration went national, and so did fellow Republican Earl Warren, who Eisenhower had put straight into the Chief Justice role on the Supreme Court on October 5th, 1953. The following year, Warren organized a unanimous decision to overturn Plessy v Ferguson, ruling in Brown v Board that schools could no longer be segregated.
- That ruling produced a rightwing political explosion and a “massive resistance” campaign. Public schools shut down rather than integrate, and all-White churches stepped into the breach, organizing all-white private schools.
- This became a source of both money and political power for the racist “White evangelical” movement led by people like Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell who, in 1958, proclaimed: “The true Negro does not want integration… He realizes his potential is far better among his own race… It will destroy our race eventually… In one northern city, a pastor friend of mine tells me that a couple of opposite race live next door to his church as man and wife… It boils down to whether we are going to take God’s Word as final.”
- The Brown v Board ruling also put the John Birch Society on steroids, as wealthy right-wingers like Fred Koch helped fund “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards and advertisements all across the nation. In the US Senate, Georgia’s Richard Russell organized a “Southern Manifesto” signed by 19 Senators and 77 House members saying: “This unwarranted exercise of power by the court … is destroying the amicable relations between the White and Negro races … [and] has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding.”
- Enough Americans were horrified by the open racism of Falwell/Russell/Koch et al, and inspired by the movement that was by then largely led by Dr. Martin Luther King, that on June 11, 1963 President Kennedy proposed Civil Rights and Voting Rights legislation. After he was murdered, President Lyndon Johnson carried on his legacy by passing both bills and signing them into law in 1964 and 1965 over strong objections by White “conservatives” in both parties.
- As I lay out in detail in The Hidden History of American Healthcare, Medicare in 1966 became the most effective tool ever used to integrate any aspect of America: within one year our hospitals and doctors’ offices were no longer segregated. White people were increasingly coming into contact with Black people and Civil Rights leaders were covered by the news media, but with 100% of entertainment TV and movies portraying Blacks as villains, predators or buffoons White freak-outs became more common, particularly around school integration.
- Nixon became president in the 1968 election after committing treason by cutting a deal with corrupt officials in South Vietnam to blow up the peace deal LBJ had negotiated, taking down VP Humphrey who was running against him. To get enough votes to win, Nixon explicitly reached out to racist White people into the GOP with his new “Southern Strategy.”
- Nixon put Lewis Powell (of 1971 “Powell Memo” fame) on the Supreme Court in 1972 and began a rightward tilt there, striking down union rights and, in 1976 (Buckley v Valeo) struck down hundreds of state and federal “good government” laws so they could legalize political bribery under the theory that money wasn’t money and bribery wasn’t bribery: when billionaires give money to politicians it was henceforth to be known as “free speech.”
- Now that politicians could take nearly unlimited money from rich people and corporations (the Court’s First National Bank decision that declared this in 1978 was authored by Powell himself) both corporations and the morbidly rich jumped in to finance the GOP in its self-proclaimed war on integrated public education, worker’s rights and civil rights.
- By 1980, the “libertarian” movement had largely subsumed the Republican Party (Democrats were still funded by big unions) as they embraced Ayn Rand’s gospel of selfishness and turned it into a political creed.
- That year Ronald Reagan’s campaign followed Nixon’s treasonous example and cut a deal with the Iranians to hold US hostages until after he’d beaten Jimmy Carter in the election. (The Iranians released the hostages as Reagan put his hand on the bible to be sworn into office: they timed it to the minute.)
- A flood of big money (and disgust that Carter couldn’t free the hostages) floated Reagan into the White House, and, in return, Saint Ronnie cut his rich benefactor’s top tax bracket from 74 percent to 25 percent, tripling the national debt during his eight years in office.
- Reagan then began a propaganda campaign to convince Americans that our government wasn’t the solution to our nation’s problems but was, in fact, the problem itself. Americans began to lose faith in Americanism and the slide to today’s crisis begin in earnest.
- As Limbaugh and rightwing talk radio came of age, they rolled out a modernized 1980s version of Nixon’s 1960s Southern Strategy that could work all across the country: appeal to the economic, racial and sexual insecurities of working-class White men with a steady drumbeat of racist and misogynistic “gonna take your job,” “Hillary Clinton nutcracker” and “affirmative action/reparations/Critical Race theory” rhetoric.
- As scientists began warning of the dangers of climate change in the late 1980s, the Limbaugh crowd and their fossil fuel billionaire funders launched a campaign asserting scientists were just hustlers on the take and couldn’t be trusted. Science was now the enemy. Across America colleges went from affordable to expensive, student debt exploded, and college-educated “pointy-headed liberals” became an object of scorn and derision in Republican politics and rural popular culture.
- As unions collapsed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bill Clinton and Al From invented the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to build financial bridges between “clean” industries like banking, insurance and pharma and “New Democrat” politicians.
- In the 1990s, President Clinton took the GATT/WTO and NAFTA “Free Trade” deals the Reagan/Bush administrations had negotiated and put them into place; they were rewarded by campaign contributions that more than made up for the loss of the now-moribund unions.
- At first these Republican-negotiated trade deals produced a trickle of good-paying jobs flowing overseas; by the end of the 1990s thousands of entire factories every year were shutting down in the US and reopening in Asia and Mexico. Over 60,000 factories by today’s count.
- Getting into the “let’s make a buck, no matter how bad it hurts America” ethos that Reagan had pioneered, the profit-driven weapons industry laundered campaign funds through the NRA. State after state loosened their gun laws and big money began bringing “gun rights” cases before the Supreme Court. Soon the country would have more guns than people, the only democracy in the world with that problem.
- George W. Bush continued the deregulation and tax cutting, further jacking up college costs, legally denying Medicare the right to negotiate drug prices, and rolling out the “Medicare Advantage” scam to privatize that Great Society program.
- When America elected a Black man president in 2008, the rightwing funder class and the White evangelicals found common cause, producing the astroturf Tea Party and the Birther movement, led by Donald Trump, that argued President Obama was a secret Kenyan Muslim socialist. Rightwing media exploded in popularity and profits.
- Trump then took his racist campaign national, with billions in free media from a press more excited about making money showing the “if it bleeds, it leads” destruction of the GOP than keeping Americans well informed.
- Campaign funds to politicians became a rushing torrent; the GOP dropped the pretense of putting voters first so completely that they didn’t even both to put up a party platform in 2020. While Democrats had been moving away from Clinton’s DLC cash-for-legislation philosophy, a few hung on and a few others joined in.
- Now much of America is dominated by the worldview of factions of billionaire Betsy DeVos’ Calvinist religion. Calvinists believe that most of humanity is irreparably sinful and doomed to destruction, but they also believe in predestination — that God set aside some people as his Chosen Few to become our political leaders. The visible proof of God’s blessing/predestination — and thus the true “goodness” of an individual — is his or her wealth, so only rich people should run government.
- And Republican presidents elected by treason (Nixon, Reagan), fraud (Bush Jr.) and with the help of foreign nations (Trump) have so stacked the Supreme Court with hard-core right-wingers (Ginny Thomas helping with Jan. 6th; Neil Gorsuch refusing to wear a mask even though Sotomayor is immune compromised) that laws benefiting average people or public health are in deep and continued trouble.
So here we are. The morbidly rich have taken over politics and our courts, nobody trusts anybody, violence is up, gun sales have exploded, and our nation experienced its first armed assault from traitors within since the Civil War.
The wealthy White billionaires behind so much of what’s tearing America apart don’t just “not care about democracy”: they openly disdain it. They believe in aristocracy as the “natural order” of things and will sometimes tell you that right to your face, like when Trump economic advisor Stephen Moore told me on the air, a decade ago, that capitalism was more important than democracy.
This is no secret, by the way. Russell Kirk kicked off the modern-day conservative movement in 1951 with his book The Conservative Mind, using Edmund Burke’s argument that if the working class ever got wealthy enough that they weren’t economically insecure then women, minorities and young people would rebel – a prophecy the 1960s seemed to validate: thus Reagan’s successful efforts to gut working class wages.
As you can see, this entire scam began with attempts by wealthy people and politicians to exploit White fears and gin up White grievance for partisan political purposes (mostly to get tax cuts and deregulation) during a time American society was becoming more egalitarian.
Government became more and more remote, people who lost good manufacturing jobs realized they were moving backwards, and the rightwing media machine told them who were the villains: Democrats and liberals who wanted to “tax and spend” to maintain “big government.”
Nixon told White people they could not trust Black people; Reagan told us all we shouldn’t trust government; Bush Jr. started privatizing government in a big way and told us torturing others because we were afraid was a fine thing to do, warping America’s sense of morality and self. Trump then piled on, telling White people to prepare for an open race war, with heroes like Kyle Rittenhouse.
And through it all, “conservative” columnists behaved like cheerleaders on the sidelines, from pushing trickle-down tax-cut economics to demonizing unions and Civil Rights leaders to collaborating with rightwing “think tanks” that sold us lies about climate change. You would think they’d have figured it out by now.
© Thom Hartmann, used with permission. Originally published on The Hartmann Report as How America Is Becoming Unraveled
Subscribe to The Hartmann Report directly and read the latest views about U.S politics and other fascinating subjects seven days a week.