Under President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the corporate upper class started exporting basic industry offshore, where wages were lower. That was a staggering blow to the middle class in the American rust belt. The same corporate CEOs likewise used globalization to sell goods and services abroad, rather than in the US. Ominously, among them arose a dangerous new breed of multi-billionaires who were rightwing extremists and completely without scruple. These super-rich individuals, such as Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers, began to use their wealth to attack American democracy and disenfranchise the middle class, because their income no longer depended on American workers and consumers.
Tutored by the neo-cons, the corporate upper class funded powerful rightwing think tanks and supported conglomerates that featured hate radio, which together dominated political debate. Their most formidable feat was destroying progressive taxation that had been in place since the early 1900s, shifting the tax burden onto middle class families while cutting services. Rupert Murdoch hatched the idea of an American TV network devoted to extreme rightwing propaganda laced with religious bigotry against Muslims, formatted like a regular news channel. He created a niche market for Republicans, in the process carefully stoking the violent paranoia of the party’s geriatric white southern base and the clueless hysterics of the Tea Party.
Meanwhile, the conservative attorneys of the Federalist Society were patiently waiting for their turn. Supposedly opposed to “liberal judicial activists,” the Federalists’ real motivation has always been their own ultra-conservative activism. Rejecting the Enlightenment values of the Constitution, they hark back to an earlier Puritan ethos in which civic virtue is determined by profit. The high tide of Federalist Society influence was the Citizens United judgment of recent memory, in which the Roberts court handed down the most treacherous decision in the history of the US Supreme Court. It creates an America in which power is determined not by merit, but by the highest bidder.
But the aging Republican base is a dying breed, while Democrats attract young voters that communicate online and watch MSNBC. This explains the unseemly haste of Republicans to consolidate power by destroying unions, passing laws to make it harder to vote, and dissolving city governments they don’t like. By having unlimited corporate money and ending dues check-off for unions, the Republicans can outspend the Democrats ten to one and establish a one-party state.
What do the Republicans want? I’m sorry to say it, but what many want is fascism, though they may not know it yet. According to reporter Pam Martens, it was associates of Charles Koch who funded the Clarion Fund, which distributed the film Obsession during the 2008 election. This was an inflammatory Islamophobic film that was distributed free as a DVD in swing state newspapers, in a transparent attempt to influence voters who thought Obama was a Muslim. The Koch brothers also fund the Tea Party and pay their proxies to destroy unions, while Republican candidates increasingly compete with each other to engage in Islamophobic rhetoric. Clearly, some Republican leaders seek to use Islamophobia exactly as the rightwing parties of Europe used anti-Semitism a century ago. They want an internal US “enemy” to distract the middle class from the predations of multi-billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch, who are intent on destroying the social gains Americans have won since the New Deal, as well as the democratic institutions that made those gains possible.
American civil society must protect American democracy, defend religious liberty and effectively fight Islamophobia. The crisis America is now entering puts pressure on affluent Muslims to fund organizations to protect Muslim civil rights in America. Above all, there should be thoughtful alliances with all who support democracy and the rule of law. If people of good will organize now, they stand a good chance of winning. But if we wait until the knock on the door in the middle of the night, it may be too late.
LAWRENCE SWAIM is the Executive Director of the Interfaith Freedom Foundation.