Conservatives harbor an aversion to all-things “public.” They tend to see the world through a deeply individualistic lens in which there’s no public interest, only private gain. Their world is one in which capitalism is not a system created by human beings that’s subject to human flaws and shortcomings, but a sanctified doctrine received from atop Mount Sinai for the purpose of separating the worthy from the unworthy via an unassailable “market” that capriciously decides who shall rot in shantytowns and who shall lord from golden penthouses.
Of all the ideas that come together to “make” conservatism, chief among them is that the pursuit of material wealth and social power through capitalism constitutes the ultimate human purpose on this earth. In other words: it’s the money, stupid. For the Right, wealth is both the means and the ends to measuring human worth. This is why, during the long buildup to the 2016 presidential election, protests from warbling scribblers like Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas, and Peter Wehner that Donald J. Trump was “not a conservative,” did little to damage Trump’s appeal to legions of Republican voters.
The Big Orange Tyrant now sits in the Oval Office as the leader of a conservative party that dominates American government at the federal, state, and local levels. Either Donald Trump isn’t a conservative, or he hoodwinked millions of conservatives into supporting his lurch towards the presidency. I’m willing to give conservative voters more credit than are conservative pundits. Voters know that Trump is conservative. His wealth is all the proof they need.
Trump supporters love their Velveeta-colored leader precisely because he’s filthy rich, and he’s filled his administration with filthy rich assholes just like himself. His supporters know this, and they’re all for it. They’re happy to play the role of American serfs to Trump’s feudal lords in the hope that some of that lordishness will rub onto themselves.
No one who pays attention to American conservatism should be surprised that President Trump has larded up his cabinet with a comic-book rogues gallery of right-wing billionaires. Among some of the more loathsome reptoids that Trump picked include Betsy DeVos, a Michigan-based GOP billionaire donor whose family fortune stems from the direct marketing company, Amway. DeVos is a passionate proponent of “school choice,” which really means that she and her family have been at the root of decades-long conservative efforts to destroy the public school system. She also appears to know literally nothing about basic education policy, which is probably why Trump chose her (non-thinking minds “think” alike).
Of course, most Americans (I hope) still agree with the United Nations that accessible, quality, free education constitutes a fundamental human right, so DeVos and her ilk have taken to shielding their disdain for human development by pimping the glories of private school vouchers as an alternative to public education. A simple belief guides DeVoss actions: education — that kind that teaches the basic principles of the Enlightenment to inculcate human beings with critical thinking skills so that they may develop into empowered individuals — makes it more difficult for the ruling class to control the population. Educated human beings, for example, are more apt to recognize the interconnectedness of life, the importance of environmental protection, the dangers posed by delusional religious beliefs, the hollowness of commodifying everything for a profit, and the basic notion that humans are sentient beings with dreams, aspirations, and intellects of their own, not laboring meat sacks created for the ruling class to exploit.
Trump’s other cabinet picks are just as repulsive as DeVos. For Secretary of State, Trump picked Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxonmobil and a cozy ally of Russian President/Shirtless Dickhead Vladimir Putin. As you might expect, Tillerson has a deep personal interest in Russian oil, which smacks of a conflict of interest given he’ll be dealing directly with Putin to discuss Russian sanctions. For Secretary of the Treasury, The Orange Troll chose Steven Mnuchin, the former senior Goldman Sachs executive and notorious “Foreclosure King” who bought California-based bank IndyMac, renamed it OneWest Bank, and reaped a fortune by foreclosing on over 36,000 homeowners.
Then there’s Andrew Puzder, a pile of human compost whom Trump picked for Secretary of Labor. The former chief executive of garbage food chains Hardee’s and Carl’s Junior, Puzder is a vociferous critic of the minimum wage. He’s also a noxious chauvinist who made commercials of bikini-clad women chomping on his shit burgers because, in his own words, “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American.” Oh, and it should go without saying that Puzder is also anti-union, anti-safety regulation, anti-overtime pay — basically, he’s anti anything that would make working people’s’ live less miserable. Good thing he’ll be Secretary of Labor.
Thus, Trump’s Secretary of Education will be a religious fanatic who rejects the very legitimacy of public education. His Secretary of State will be a Russian tool who thinks the state should exist merely to serve the needs of private interests. His Secretary of Labor will be a petulant goblin who doesn’t believe in the rights of labor.
Now, you’d think that from the moment Trump’s voters heard about the Cabinet of Deplorables, they’d feel betrayed by the candidate who vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington and claimed he’d give power “back to you, the people” rather than turn it into a handmaiden for corporate interests. But you’d be wrong. The Trump army loves his cabinet (those of them who know what a presidential cabinet is, anyway) because it’s a cabinet of rich people.
Roger Mansfield, a sixty-seven year old Pennsylvania small business owner, claimed that since Trump’s cabinet picks are “independently wealthy,” they “don’t need any more money,” and will thus make “pragmatic, rational business decisions.” Never mind that a presidential cabinet is not a business, but a branch of federal public service. To conservative voters, the public service is inherently corrupt, while the private sector is the epitome of virtue and rational decision-making. Another small business owner, Illinois resident Eileen Barlow, was stoked about Trump picking DeVos for Secretary of Education. “I don’t like the indoctrination that goes on in the public schools,” Barlow stated, “they teach the theory of evolution as truth.” And really, who could argue with that (other than every reputable scientist on earth).
Commentators who predicted that Trump’s cabinet picks would roil those who expected The Donald to be an agent of “the people” missed an essential characteristic about conservative voters: they equate wealth not only with power, but with superiority. For the common right-winger, there’s no glory in solidarity with collective causes like that of labor, there’s only a perceived decrease in status. They see a world populated by two groups of people: those with more money and those with less. Better to strive for a spot among those with more, because at least that status holds the promise of having others to look down on.
Back in 2015, when I wrote my first piece on Trump, I claimed that, “Americans, especially conservatives, have always equated material wealth with the highest level of social acceptance.” Trump’s subsequent rise to greater plutocratic prominence only bolsters the former point. Power is intoxicating even if you’re not the one wielding it. For the Right, the promise of perceived power by proximity makes voting for billionaires and their servants eminently attractive. This has been the Right’s secret for decades, and it’s what allows a soft fascist like Trump to remain in good standing with his followers.
A common conservative criticism of liberal policies in that they make people dependent on government “handouts” (the term the Right uses for the various strained threads of the social safety net). Real dependency, however, comes wrapped in the veneer of absolute freedom; with the promise that surrendering your livelihood to the wealthy and powerful somehow makes you an agent of your own destiny. This is the illusion of freedom that a particularly American brand of fascism promotes.
In April 1944, Henry Wallace, Vice-President of the United States under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wrote an article for the New York Times in which he outlined the characteristics, similarities, and differences between European and American fascism. Wallace observed that American fascism was largely a front for untrammeled corporate rule of life in America — the total usurpation of private interests in the name of the public good. “[A]n American fascist,” he wrote, “puts money and power ahead of human beings.” These American fascists often paid “lip service to democracy and the common welfare,” but because of their “insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives,” they consistently tried to “evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.”
Wallace eerily predicted the rise of Trump when he warned that fascists “appeal to prejudice” and “play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power.” He recognized that American fascism “will not be really dangerous until there is a purposeful coalition among the cartelists, the deliberate poisoners of public information, and those who stand for the K.K.K. type of demagoguery.” The latter point ought to send chills down your spine in a modern era when the White House promotes a postmodernist disinformation campaign based on “alternative facts” via a symbiotic relationship with right-wing “news” echo chambers. This is also an era when human slime like Steve Bannon influence millions of Americans and the Klan rallies in support of the new president.
American fascists like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have brilliantly played on the prejudices of despondent voters to consolidate corporate autocracy (see the Trump cabinet). Talk radio, Fox News, and the right-wing alternative reality that flourishes on the internet via propaganda sites like Breitbart have long persuaded conservative Americans to give up independence for the perceived freedom that they associate with the dominance of their social and economic superiors. But this “freedom” amounts to little more than functional dependency.
You aren’t free if your economic and social well-being are entirely dependent on the demands of the local industrialist/hedge funder/developer who demands tax breaks, pushes for wage reductions, slashes safety regulations, robs your pension, purges your health insurance, and poisons your air and water. This is “freedom” as a game of Russian Roulette. If a person or an organization is more powerful than you, if they control the reigns of political persuasion, and if they present a list of demands and threaten to take jobs elsewhere lest all of their demands are met, then they’re exerting total control over your life. This is exactly the kind of relationship that exists between labor and capital in much of Appalachian coal country. In such cases, people aren’t free, they’re locked in a perpetual state of dependency.
In 1890, Eugene Debbs, the great American union socialist leader, wrote an article titled “What Can We do for Working People?” in which he outlined how workers could be truly free in America. “They can teach capitalists that they do not want and will not accept their guardianship; that they are capable of self-management,” Debbs wrote. Workers who relied on the alleged benevolent paternalism of the wealthy were cuffing their own wrists, for the ruling class would never hesitate to “strip them of everything of value that they may the more easily subjugate them by necessities of cold and hunger and nakedness.”
You don’t have to be a raging socialist to understand what Debbs understood: that workers could never be “independent, self-respecting, [and] self-reliant” unless they had agency in their relationship with employers. Such a relationship doesn’t just exist in the writings of long-dead radicals; it can happen — it has happened — within the confines of American capitalism. In fact, many of the voters who want to “Make America Great Again” imagine an America that existed thanks to the legacy of the New Deal. This was an America in which government policy recognized labor as having a vital role in the ordering of American society.
While America and the world is a very different place in the 21st century, right-wing myths about the “natural” ordering of society are as fantastical as they ever were. The capitalist society that the Right embraces — characterized by the dominance of capital, the subservience of public interest to private gains, and an extremely regressive tax system — is no more “organic” and natural than Donald Trump’s drug-enhanced bouffant. That the rich and powerful will always advocate a “natural” vision of social organization that naturally comports with their own economic interests is a constant throughout history. What isn’t a constant is that people in democratic societies will make themselves willingly dependent on the capricious whims of the ruling class. Dependency is a choice, not destiny. Choose wisely.