“Billionaire investor Ray Dalio warns U.S. is ‘on the brink’ and estimates a more than 1 in 3 chance of civil war.”Fortune Magazine, May 16, 2024

Billionaires and civil war? A billionaire-funded Supreme Court Justice flew the American flag upside down outside his house after January 6th in apparent support of Donald Trump‘s attempt to overthrow our government.

Americans for Tax Fairness reports that 50 billionaire families have, at this early stage, already injected almost a billion dollars into our political system — the overwhelming majority of it going to Republicans and in support of Donald Trump — in an effort to maintain enough control of our political system that their taxes will not go up. And that total is just what is reported: it does not count the billions in unknowable dark money that’s sloshing around the system thanks to Citizens United.

Back in the day, the late Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis warned us:

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

The number one movie in America in April was Alex Garland’s Civil War. Rightwing militias are on the march. More than half of Republicans say they are “expecting” a civil war. How did we get here? And what does oligarchy have to do with civil war?

The clear result of five corrupt Republicans on the 1978 and 2010 Supreme Courts legalizing political bribery of politicians – and Supreme Court justices, by both corporations and the morbidly rich is that America is now well past the halfway mark of a fatal-to-democracy slide into oligarchy and the strongman autocracy typically associated with it. And the conflict that can follow that.

You can see the consequence in any contemporary survey. The majority of people want things — gun control, a strengthened social safety net, a cleaner and safer environment, quality, free education, higher taxes on the rich — that Congress refuses to do anything about because it is in thrall to great wealth.

As President Jimmy Carter told me eight years ago:

“It [Citizens United] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president … So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

For example, just recently Donald Trump solicited a $1 billion bribe from a group of fossil fuel executives in exchange for undoing all of President Biden’s climate regulations.

In a testament to how today’s form of transactional oligarchy has become normalized in America, the only national news organization that reported this shocking story was MSNBC; every other news outlet thought it was entirely normal for an American politician to have their hand out in exchange for legislative or policy changes. As Media Matters reported:

“CNN, Fox News Channel; ABC’s Good Morning America, World News Tonight, and This Week; CBS’ Mornings, Evening News, and Face the Nation; and NBC’s Today, Nightly News, and Meet the Press” all completely ignored the story.

What we are watching is the final stage of the 40-year neoliberal transition of our nation from a forward-looking and still-evolving democratic republic into a White supremacist ethnostate ruled by a small group of fascist oligarchs.

Some years ago, Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore (before he was Trump’s advisor) was a guest on my radio/TV program. I asked him, “Which is more important, democracy or capitalism?“

Without hesitation, Moore answered, “Capitalism.” He went on to imply this was how the Founders wanted things. After all, as George Orwell said:

“Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future.”

That philosophy and a phony American history have held the Republican Party in its thrall for the past 40+ years and have brought America to this moment of great crisis and danger.

It has transformed America from a democracy into a late-stage oligarchy, and the point of no return is now visible. Which presents a true crisis for America, because oligarchy is almost always merely a transitional phase in the evolution to full-blown tyranny and/or fascism, and often civil war.

Oligarchies are inherently unstable forms of government because they transfer resources and power from working people to the oligarchs. Average people, seeing that they’re constantly falling behind and can’t do anything about it, first become cynical and disengage, and, when things get bad enough, they try to revolt.

That “revolution” can either lead to the oligarchy failing and the nation flipping back to democracy, as happened here in the 1860s and the 1930s, or it can flip into full-blown strong-man tyranny, as happened recently in Hungary, Turkey, and Russia, and nearly happened here on January 6.

Oligarchies usually become police states, where any average person who dares seriously challenge the ruling oligarchs is squashed like a bug either legally or financially; the oligarchs themselves are immune from prosecution and get to keep their billions regardless of how many people’s lives are ruined or die because of their crimes.

Oligarchic governments almost always do a few predictable things, as I lay out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy:

  • They change monopoly laws and regulations so their rich buddies can take control of most of the nation’s businesses and media.
  • They stack the courts and regulatory agencies with oligarch-friendly ideologues or outright corrupt toadies, while eliminating regulatory protections for average citizens.
  • They cut taxes on the rich and drive wages low on working people while criminalizing and cracking down on dissent, particularly if it involves any sort of direct action or property damage.
  • They distract voters from their own looting by demonizing minorities and encouraging racism, religious/gender conflict, and regionalism.
  • They reinvent history to argue that the country was “always an oligarchy and that’s the way the nation’s founders wanted it. It’s what works best.”
  • They actively suppress the vote among people inclined to oppose them (typically minorities and the young), or outright rig the vote to insure their own victory.
  • And they transform their nations into police states, heavily criminalizing demonstrations, nonviolent resistance, or “direct action” while radicalizing and encouraging rightwing vigilante “militias” to put down the inevitable pro-democracy rebellions as people realize what’s happening.

To the end of cementing their own oligarchy here, the billionaires who own the GOP are now actively promoting the same sort of revisionist history the Confederacy did, claiming that the Founders were all rich guys who hated taxes, wanted rich men to rule America, and wrote the Constitution to make that happen. It was a story popular in the South leading up to the Civil War, now part of the “Lost Cause” mythology.

To that end, they are purging our schools and colleges of books and history courses. Professors and teachers who do not toe their line that America was designed from its founding to be an oligarchy are being fired as you read these words.

In this, they are promoting — for their own benefit — a dangerous lie. A lie that rationalizes oligarchy.

While there were some in America among the Founders and Framers who had amassed great land holdings and what was perceived then as a patrician lifestyle, Pulitzer Prize winning author Bernard Bailyn suggests in his brilliant 2003 book To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders that they couldn’t hold a candle, in terms of wealth, to the true aristocrats of England.

With page after page of photographs and old paintings of the homes of the Founders and Framers, Bailyn shows that none of those who created this nation were rich by European standards. After an artful and thoughtful comparison of American and British estates, Bailyn concludes bluntly:

“There is no possible correspondence, no remote connection, between these provincial dwellings and the magnificent showplaces of the English nobility…”

Showing and describing to his readers the mansions of the families of power in 18th-century Europe, Bailyn wrote:

“There is nothing in the American World to compare with this.”

While the Founders and Framers had achieved a level of literacy, creativity, and a depth of thinking that rivaled that of any European states or eras, nonetheless, Bailyn notes:

“The Founders were provincials, alive to the values of a greater world, but not, they knew, of it – comfortable in a lesser world but aware of its limitations.”

Kevin Phillips described in his masterpiece book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, that:

“George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms.”

Phillips documented that it was not until the 1790’s — a generation after the War of Independence — that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today’s dollars. The Founders and Framers were, at best, what today would be called the upper-middle-class in terms of lifestyle, assets, and disposable income.

In 1958, one of America’s great professors of history, Forrest McDonald, published an extraordinary book debunking Charles Beard’s 1913 hypothesis that the Constitution was created exclusively of, by, and for rich White men. McDonald’s book, titled We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution, bluntly stated:

“Economic interpretation of the Constitution does not work.”

Over the course of more than 400 meticulously researched pages, McDonald went back to original historical records and revealed who promoted and who opposed the new Constitution, and why. He is the first and only historian to do this type of original-source research, and his conclusions are startling.

McDonald noted that a quarter of all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had voted in their own state legislatures for laws that would have helped debtors and the poor and thus harmed the interests of the rich.

“These [debt relief laws] were the very kinds of laws which, according to Beard’s hypothesis, the delegates had convened to prevent,” says McDonald. He adds: “Another fourth of the delegates had important economic interests that were adversely affected, directly and immediately, by the Constitution they helped write.”

While Beard theorized that the Framers were largely drawn from the class of wealthy bankers and businessmen, McDonald showed that was not true at all:

“The most common and by far the most important property holdings of the delegates were not, as Beard has asserted, mercantile, manufacturing, and public security investments, but agricultural property.”

Most were farmers or plantation owners and, as noted earlier, owning a lot of land did not always make one rich in those days, particularly compared to the bankers and mercantilists of New York and Boston.

“Finally,” McDonald concludes, “it is abundantly evident that the delegates, once inside the convention, behaved as anything but a consolidated economic group.”

After dissecting the means and motivations of the Framers who wrote the Constitution, McDonald went into an exhaustive and detailed state-by-state analysis of the constitutional ratifying conventions that finally brought the U.S. Constitution into law.

For example, in the state of Delaware, which voted for ratification:

“[A]lmost 77 percent of the delegates were farmers, more than two-thirds of them small farmers with incomes ranging from 75 cents to $5.00 a week. Slightly more than 23 percent of the delegates were professional men – doctors, judges, and lawyers. None of the delegates was a merchant, manufacturer, banker, or speculator in western lands.”

In other states, similar numbers showed up. Of the New Jersey delegates supporting ratification, 64.1 percent were small farmers. In Maryland, “the opponents of ratification included from three to six times as large a proportion of merchants, lawyers, and investors in shipping, confiscated estates, and manufacturing as did the [poorer] delegates who favored ratification.”

In South Carolina it was those in economic distress who carried the day: “No fewer than 82 percent of the debtors and borrowers of paper money in the convention voted for ratification.” In New Hampshire, “of the known farmers in the convention 68.7 percent favored ratification.”

But did farmers support the Constitution because they were slave owners or the wealthiest of the landowners, as Charles Beard had guessed back in 1913?

McDonald showed that this certainly was not the case in northern states like New Hampshire or New Jersey, which were not slave states.

But what about Virginia and North Carolina, the two largest slave-holding states, asked McDonald rhetorically. Were their plantation owners favoring the Constitution because it protected their economic and slave-holding interests?

“The opposite is true,” writes McDonald. “In both states the wealthy planters – those with personality interests [enslaved people] as well as those without personality interests – were divided approximately equally on the issue of ratification. In North Carolina small farmers and debtors were likewise equally divided, and in Virginia the great mass of the small farmers and a large majority of the debtors favored ratification.”

After dissecting the results of the ratification votes state by state — the first author in history to do so, McDonald concluded:

“Beard’s thesis — that the line of cleavage as regards the Constitution was between substantial personality interests [wealth and slave ownership] on the one hand and small farming and debtor interests on the other — is entirely incompatible with the facts.”

Here we find the explanation for James Madison sealing his notes on the Constitutional Convention until every man who participated was dead – they were finally published more than 50 years later in 1840. He and many others at the convention were essentially betraying their own economic class in favor of democracy. Something today’s wealthy Americans apparently cannot imagine doing.

No matter how hard Republicans try to reinvent the Founders and Framers of this nation in the image of their libertarian billionaire patrons, and no matter how imperfect and even brutal their time was, the simple reality is that in 1770’s America this nation’s Founders undertook American history’s first truly great progressive experiment.

They all put their lives on the line to do it: when they signed their names on the Declaration, a death warrant was issued against each one of them by the largest and most powerful empire in the world. And then, four generations later, we backslid.

The only other time in American history when an entire region of America was converted from a democracy into an oligarchy was the 1830-1860 era in the South. It is why Republicans are so fond of the Confederate flag and Civil War memorial monuments.

The invention of the Cotton Gin made a few hundred families of southern planters richer than Midas. They seized political control of the region and then destroyed democracy in those states. Even White men who dared stand up to them were imprisoned or lynched, ballot boxes were stuffed, and social mobility came to a standstill.

By the 1840s, the South had become a full-blown police state, much like Trump and his acolytes would like America to become in the near future.

Offended and worried by the democratic example of the Northern states, the Confederacy declared war on the United States itself with the goal of ending democracy in America altogether. Almost 700,000 people died defending our form of government.

And now, for a second time in American history, we are confronted with a near-complete takeover of about half of our nation by America’s oligarchs.

And with it has come not just the threat of political violence, but the reality, from the death of Heather Heyer to the George Floyd protests to January 6th and the assault on Paul Pelosi.

All driven by oligarchs determined to pit us against each other so we will not recognize how they are robbing us blind.

Unless and until our tax laws are changed and the Supreme Court’s legalization of political bribery is reversed, we’ll continue this disintegrative slide into fascism and the danger of domestic armed conflict.

This fall we will have the opportunity to elect politicians who actively oppose oligarchy and fascism while embracing the true spirit of American egalitarianism.

President Biden is the first president in 80 years to consequentially raise taxes on both rich people and corporations. That political bravery has brought him powerful enemies: this fall’s election will be hard fought.

Make sure everybody you know is registered to vote, and if you live in a Republican-controlled state double-check your voter registration every month at vote.org.

America’s future — and the integrity of our history — depend on it.

Jeffrey M. Frank, Ware Wardson, Bob Pool (via Shutterstock) and Murray Close (via A24)

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