Male White Supremacy is real and white suppression of minorities, particularly Black and Brown people along with gender minorities and women, absolutely permeates every aspect of our society, from business to culture to governance.
Without setting aside that reality, it’s useful to examine why so many white people, with their built-in white privilege, would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with wannabe dictators like Trump, Abbott, and DeSantis.
All over social media people are asking, “Why would anybody embrace fascism? Why would they be willing to overthrow a functioning democratic republic?” And why now, instead of forty or more years ago? The answer is simple: their perception of their own safety.
Safety is at the foundation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. If a person doesn’t feel safe, they’re not able to even think about other dimensions of life.
If you’re crossing a busy street and stuck in the middle as cars are whizzing by on both sides, you’re not thinking of your job opportunities or the next car you want to buy or even what’s for dinner or your love life. You just want to get safe!
And, increasingly, working class white men in America are feeling unsafe as America is conspicuously becoming browner. They’re told daily by an entire movement based in the GOP — which includes over 1500 right wing talk radio stations, rightwing television networks, and hundreds of publications — that straight white men have targets on their backs.
Adult Hispanics in Texas, for example, outnumbered whites for the first time this decade. It’s a new and shocking feeling for a group that’s been in power for over 400 years, and — as we’re seeing with DeSantis and Abbott’s cruel fraud against asylum seekers and all the love it’s getting on Fox “News” — producing a predictable backlash.
Racism, homophobia, and misogyny have gone from the margins, kept to oneself, and blown into the mainstream, being amplified and celebrated daily by Republican politicians busing and flying brown-skinned asylum seekers around the country, to open attacks on teaching Black history in schools, to rants on radio and podcasts.
In 1981 Ronald Reagan and the GOP began a 40-year project to disempower and gut the American middle class wage earners, which was then mostly made up of white men.
He wanted to take away their wealth and their safety.
There was an actual rationale for this, laid out by Russell Kirk in his 1951 book The Conservative Mind that I detail in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy. Kirk argued that without clearly defined classes and power structures — essentially without the morbidly rich in complete control — society would devolve into chaos.
He and his followers essentially predicted in 1953 that if college students, women, working people, and people of color ever got even close to social and political power at the same level as wealthy white men, all hell would break loose.
(Keep in mind, this was at a time when racial segregation was legal and brutally enforced, the voting age was 21, campuses were almost entirely all-male, and women couldn’t open checking accounts or get credit cards without a husband or father’s signature.)
Throughout the 1950s, Kirk developed a small following; the most prominent of his proponents were William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater. Most Republicans, though, considered him a crackpot.
But when the birth-control pill was legalized in 1961 and the Vietnam War heated up a few years later, those marginalized groups Kirk had warned his wealthy white male followers about began to rise up in protest.
Kids were burning draft cards, women were burning bras, and Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a movement for racial justice that the white power structure blamed for American cities burning.
Meanwhile, the Arab Oil Embargos of the 1970s had lit the flame of inflation, and unionized workers were striking all over America for wage increases to keep up with the rising cost of living.
The white male power structure freaked out. They became convinced that they were seeing Kirk’s prophecy play out in real time on their television screens every night.
Nixon demanded “law and order,” a euphemism for preventing students, women, striking union workers, or people of color from acquiring political and social power and the wealth that usually accompanies it.
He put into place his War on Drugs to, as his right-hand man John Ehrlichman famously noted, overtly criminalize being Black or an anti-war or pro-civil rights hippy.
“You understand what I’m saying?” Ehrlichman told reporter Dan Baum. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
“We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
“Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This took us straight to 1971, when Lewis Powell wrote his infamous Memo noting that Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson had kicked off consumer and environmental movements that threatened to cost industry lots of money, and that the student, women’s, union, and civil rights movements were disruptive to society and had to be stopped.
The next year Nixon put Powell on the Supreme Court and, particularly with the Buckley and Belotti decisions of 1976 and 1978 respectively, the Court put Powell’s doctrine into practice by legalizing political bribery by billionaires and corporations alike. (The Belotti decision legalizing corporate campaign contributions and dark-pool third-party bribery of politicians by industry was written by Powell himself!)
In the election of 1980 the Democrats were awash in union money, so didn’t much take advantage of Powell’s twin SCOTUS decisions, but the GOP leaped at the opportunity. Millions flowed from rich individuals and huge corporate behemoths — particularly the fossil fuel industry — into Republican coffers, sweeping Reagan into office that year.
Thus, Reagan set out to make sure the dystopia he and other wealthy white men had glimpsed during the “unrest” of the 1965–1979 era was never repeated:
- Unions were crushed and formerly unionized jobs were aggressively offshored; individual states started passing “right to work for less” laws that devastated union membership; an entire union-busting industry was birthed that today makes over $2 billion a year terrifying workers.
- Voting rights were circumscribed by Karl Rove’s 1980s invention called “caging” where postcards were sent into minority and union neighborhoods and when they weren’t returned the voters were purged from voter registration lists. The US Supreme Court legalized this just a few years ago in a case involving Governor Mike DeWine and Secretary of State John Husted in Ohio who were throwing hundreds of thousands of mostly Democratic voters off the rolls just before elections (as Ken Blackwell had done in Ohio to help Bush win the 2004 election).
- Voter ID laws and other criminalizations of normal voting behavior were passed that excluded as many as 20 percent of potential Black and Hispanic voters, as well as college students and elderly Social Security voters, from casting ballots.
- Massive antiabortion organizations were funded and mobilized to push back against the women’s rights movement, and white evangelical churches — which had been mostly pro-abortion rights prior to 1980 — cashed in on the movement and further empowered it, leading straight to packing the Supreme Court and the Dobbs decision.
- Phyllis Schlafly led a national campaign urging women to stay out of the workplace and be obedient to their husbands, while also working against labor and abortion rights in the media and the courts.
- Government programs to provide minorities with “bootstraps” (ranging from civil rights enforcement to affirmative action to basic food, education, and housing subsidies) were gutted. And the cultural demonization of college professors, queer people across the spectrum, and public intellectuals went mainstream.
In 1980 about two-thirds of white workers had either a union job or its equivalent (unions set local wage floors, generally, even in non-union shops) and most of what was consumed in America was manufactured here. Housing, college and healthcare were all affordable.
With just one single wage-earner, about two-thirds of Americans — most of them white— were living the American Dream, buying a home and car, taking an annual vacation, and building up pensions and savings for retirement. In many parts of the country Black Americans were also grabbing a share of the American dream, mostly through government jobs which, since the 60s, had forbidden racial discrimination in hiring.
It was so ubiquitous a lifestyle it was a background story line for shows from The Flintstones (1960–1966) to All In The Family (1971–1979) and The Simpsons (1989-today).
The 1960s show The Jetsons assumed that by the year 2020 a single wage earner just pushing a button a few times a day could support a family including fashion-obsessed teenagers and a charge-card-addicted wife.
Fast forward to the consequence of the first 30 years of Reaganomics: 2010 was the first year in three generations when fewer than 50 percent of Americans could call themselves middle class.
By 2020 almost two-thirds of all Americans would be wiped out by a single $400 unexpected expense, and between foreign imports and the gig economy most people entering the job market were looking at a poverty-grounded lifestyle.
Reaganomics succeeded in accomplishing Russell Kirk’s goal. The white middle class has largely become the white working poor, and the sense of safety their parents and grandparents enjoyed had evaporated.
As Alan Greenspan, in 1989, told the Wall Street Journal and I documented in my book Screwed: the Undeclared War Against the Middle Class, he believed his main job as Reagan’s Chairman of the Federal Reserve was to maintain a “necessary” minimum level of “worker insecurity.” (Republican former private equity executive and now Fed chair Jerome Powell has revived this ideology.
Meanwhile, for forty years Republicans from Schlafly to Reagan to Trump told white workers that the enemies who’d “stolen” their good union jobs were not the morbidly rich who’d shipped them overseas: the “bad guys” were liberals, women, Blacks, and Hispanics.
There is a debate about whether fascists are primarily motivated by economics, authoritarianism, or just pure racism. The answer is: “all of the above.”
But the Germans didn’t start looking for Jewish “others” until the Treaty of Versailles wrecked that country with its worst depression in its known history. Out of that grew Hitler, as John Kenneth Galbraith had correctly predicted would happen if the Treaty contained extreme economic punishments for Germany.
And out of Reaganism gutting the middle class grew a Trump wannabe dictatorship that lives on in demagogues like Ron DeSantis, Ted Cruz, and Rick Scott — all backed up by a massive network, often funded by the morbidly rich, of rightwing talk stations, podcasts, and online publications.
This isn’t experienced just at the level of the individual, of course, but far more deeply and powerfully as a corrosive poison that hollows out an entire society from within.
At the same time the white middle class was being gutted, the Black middle class that grew particularly fast after the Great Society reforms of the mid-1960s took a hit, too. Republicans then reached out to African Americans, arguing that their problems were all caused by Mexicans or Asians, while also telling Hispanics (now on hundreds of Spanish-language rightwing radio stations) that Black people are coming for their jobs.
“Divide and conquer” is as old as Julius Caesar.
Today they are funding new networks of Spanish-language “conservative” radio and television programming nationwide, telling mostly-Catholic Hispanics that Democrats are using abortion to produce a Latino genocide and that Democrats want to turn their children into drag queens.
Kirk’s original vision was to produce a more secure and stable America.
Like so many conservatives before him, from Edmund Burke (who opens Kirk’s book) to today’s columnists for major mainstream publications and talking heads on rightwing “News” stations and networks, he argued that when “those people” were simply held down, suppressed, and marginalized — when people knew their place and were kept in it — society would function smoothly.
Oligarchy is a good thing, they said, with white rich people (in constant need of trillions in government subsidies and tax cuts) running the show. They are promoting, essentially, an American version of fascism.
That it would build a middle class here in America instead of an authoritarian police state, as it has throughout history, was a fantasy then and its a fantasy now.
And it’s brought us the dystopian reality of a weakened economy (except for the rich), racial hatred, and now a full-blown fascist anti-democratic anti-republican movement grounded in a bizarre conspiracy cult led by demagogues like Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Ron DeSantis.
While Black history is under attack in schools across the nation by these same people, white Americans also need to learn their their own history and Reaganism’s role in it.