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For What Are America's Wealthy Thankful? A Worsening Culture War

When leaders run out of unifying myths, division is the last currency. Why this Thanksgiving, America is a "death cult" versus "radical socialists"

By Matt Taibbi

November 27, 2020 "Information Clearing House" - Self-described “elected DNC member” and Washington Monthly contributor David Atkins tweeted this last week, garnering a huge response:

You have to read the full thread to grasp the argument, a greatest hits collection of DNC talking points. Conservatives, Atkins writes, have no beliefs, being a “belligerent death cult against reality and basic decency.” There’s no reason to listen to them, since the “only actual policy debates” are “happening within the dem coalition between left and center-left.” He had over 61,000 likes last I checked.

Meanwhile, as Donald Trump kept describing the election as a “hoax,” newly re-upped South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted this, perhaps offering a preview into Republican messaging in the post-Trump era:

From the “vast right-wing conspiracy” through the “basket of deplorables” to now, the Democratic message increasingly focuses on the illegitimacy of the ordinary conservative voter’s opinion: ignorant, conspiratorial, and racist, so terrible that the only hope is mass-reprogramming by educated betters.

On the other hand, Republicans from Goldwater to Trump have warned that coalitions of “marauders” from the inner cities and “bad hombres” from across the border are plotting to use socialist politics to seize the hard-earned treasure of the small-town voter, with the aid of elitist traitors in the Democratic Party.

Spool these ideas endlessly and you get culture war. Any thought that it might abate once Trump left the scene looks naive now. The pre-election warnings from the right about roving bands of Pelosi-coddled Antifa troops looking to “attack your homes” haven’t subsided, while the line that Trump voters are not a political group but a stupidity death-cult is no longer hot take, but a mandatory element of mainstream press analyses.

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This language has been picking up for years, from Vanity Fair’s “Cult of Trump” to endless Washington Post and New York Times ruminations on the theme, all wondering how humans supporting Trump could also hold down jobs or take out the trash by themselves. Every tale about science-denying Trumpists gone off the deep end in the manner of religious loons is boosted. When an E.R. nurse went on CNN to tell tales of Biden-haters going to their Covid-choked deaths gasping, “It isn’t real!”, her story was circulated everywhere, retweeted by multiple Senators and a Pulitzer winner.

A rare follow-up by Wired suggested these and other similar tales were apocryphal, which ought to have been a relief. However, just as news that Robert Mueller might not discover the president to be a secret agent was deemed a “disappointment,” press and politicians alike seem reluctant to let go of legends of Middle America as one great sea of mass insanity. In the same way, some in the GOP can’t let go of the dream of an election stolen in the dark night of our Venezuela-style city governments.

As a result, we’ve seen story after story of late about skyrocketing gun sales, with frequent reminders that it’s not just frustrated white dudes tooling up now. Even “women, minorities, and politically liberal buyers” are being forced to “contemplate something outside their universe,” is how one gun dealer recently put it to NBC.

Though the oft-predicted breakout of Yugoslavia-style sectarian violence hasn’t happened yet, it’s not for want of trying on the part of both politicians and the bigger media organizations, which couldn’t get enough of the stories of “on edge” and “nervous” citizens boarding up storefronts on Election Night. They keep playing up these tensions as click-generating theater, not caring about the consequences of wishing actual sectarian battle into existence.

This is what happens when the very wealthy stop having a stake in the outcome of a country’s future. Having long ago stopped investing in ameliorative programs to keep cities and small towns alive, they stop bothering with unifying national legends, too, letting long-simmering divisions rise.

Eight years ago, at the height of anger toward Wall Street, the American Conservative wrote about the “revolt of the rich,” saying, “Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it.” They pointed out that in both world wars, the Harvard man and the New York socialite alike “knew the weight of an army pack.” By the 21st century, war became a job for lower-class suckers, with soldiers being one of many groups targeted by predatory lending in the crash era. Conflicts in places like Afghanistan drag on forever because the children of Important People mostly don’t serve. We have very wealthy people, but walled off in an archipelago of tax and criminal justice loopholes that give them more common statehood with other plutocrats in Europe and Asia than with other Americans.

Right around the same time that “Revolt of the Rich” article was being published, political movements on both the left and the right were beginning to wake up to the idea that they’d been focusing their anger in the wrong places. Each articulated a theory of abandonment by the political class. The Occupy movement described their battle as being between the 99% and the 1%, while the Tea Partiers, for all their eccentricities — I was pretty harsh about them once upon a time — were at least coming to the realization that the Republican Party leaders had long been lying to them about things like spending. These movements respectively set the stage for Bernie Sanders and Trump, who both described politics as a fight between a broad mean of betrayed constituents and that archipelago of rich villains.

Those movements failed, for different reasons, and we’re now back to corporate-sponsored tales of half against half. What’s always forgotten is who’s paying for these messages. We have two donor-fattened parties that across decades of incompetence have each run out of convincing pitches for how to improve the lives of ordinary people. So they’ve settled into a new propaganda line that blames voters for their problems, with each party directing its base to demonize the other’s followers. Essentially, in the wake of Trump, the political class is accepting the inevitability of culture war, and urging it on, as something preferable to populist revolt.

As any restaurant owner will tell you, the customer is not always right. The customer is often a braying, obese asshole, prone to ogling waitresses, yelling gross jokes at stadium-rock volume, and skipping out without tipping. It’s the same with the “ordinary” voter, who for generations was exempted from criticism by unwritten consensus of stumping candidates.

Because it was once understood that politicians in both parties wanted to at least try for their votes, presidential campaigns devolved into flattery contests about the boundless rectitude of the farmer, the autoworker, the teacher, the firefighter, the nurse, the beer-drinking good ole boy, anyone who didn’t sound too upscale and was physically capable of pulling a lever in a voting booth.

If you want an idea of how deeply Washington strategists once pretended to revere the “regular” person, watch the scene in Primary Colors where John Travolta-as-Bill-Clinton escapes the tumult of a hotel fight with Hillary to share a Krispy Kreme apple fritter with a Boobus New Hampshirus (it would be a Dunkin’ Donuts in actual New England). Travolta-as-Clinton is nearly brought to tears at the thought that he might let down someone like Danny the Krispy Kreme clerk, gutting out a late shift on a bum leg for $5.25 an hour. “We won’t let him down,” whispers Henry, supposedly the stand-in for George Stephanopoulos, patting saddened Travolta-Clinton on the back.

“Middle class” (read: white) voters back then were depicted as sinless creatures whose uncomplaining devotion to work had talismanic healing properties for the deformed soul of the compromised Washington politician. “Folks” were fetishized as virtue-icons in elite media and never criticized in speeches. Targets instead for stump wrath were “Washington insiders,” “millionaires,” “waste,” Russians, and whichever treacherous, cheating, probably Asian economic rival was kicking America’s ass at the time — for Dick Gephardt it was the Koreans, for Pat Buchanan Japan, then China, etc.

The lone exception to the don’t-rip-the-common-man rule was the inner city minority voter, for ages caricatured by Republicans as a gobbler of taxes and a work-avoiding criminal. Ronald Reagan’s tales of Linda Taylor, the famed “queen” of welfare who drove a Cadillac and bought T-bone steaks with the working person’s taxes, grew out of a calculation that there was more percentage in riling up “silent majority” white voters than in trying, even insincerely, for Black votes.

Republicans had the monopoly on this behavior until Bill Clinton’s run in 1992, which unveiled a new politics designed to steal Republicans’ donors by appropriating Reagan’s deregulatory policies, and their voters through dog-whistle campaigns to “save the middle class.” Clinton decided that selective ur-father moralizing about the likes of Sister Souljah would be enough to pry loose white voters anxious about the popularity of Jesse Jackson, who led the precursor movement to Sanders-style populism.

By the mid-nineties, Clinton was openly speaking the language of Reagan with respect to welfare and trade, and was demonizing the same inner-city voters as Reagan, only with a little more subtlety. Years after he left office, Clinton would write an op-ed in the New York Times hailing welfare reform as the great example of unity and “bipartisanship,” a politics of togetherness:

The 1996 Welfare Act shows us how much we can achieve when both parties bring their best ideas to the negotiating table and focus on doing what is best for the country.

Essentially, the two parties were both using race as a way to deflect attention from their own job-exporting, donor-fellating policies. When corporate America started shuttering its steel factories and auto plants, Reagan went after union workers with appeals to patriotism and racial animus.

At the same time, decades of promises of more investment in inner cities went up in smoke as New Democrats embraced “opportunity” and “community policing” instead of urban renewal. An enduring example is beloved Democrat Mario Cuomo using New York’s Urban Development Corporation — a public agency created a week after Martin Luther King’s death with the aim of developing jobs for inner-city voters — to fund the construction of a series of new upstate prisons in the early eighties.

The blaming behavior would wane during fat years, and accelerate in downturns. Both parties, for instance, lied about the causes of the 2008 crash, when once again racial politics were used to deflect attention from donor greed. The actual culprits in 2008 were bankers pumping up a speculative bubble selling mortgage securities to institutional investors like pension funds, but in short order, the legend spread that the crash was caused by “irresponsible” homeowners who took out mortgages they couldn’t afford.

Obama’s chief economist at Treasury, Alan Krueger, explained years later why they rescued banks and not people. “It would have been extremely unfair, and created problems down the road,” he said, “to bail out homeowners who were irresponsible and took on homes they couldn’t afford.”

This line of rhetoric was celebrated on Wall Street as a way to make Black and Hispanic homeowners the face of the crash, instead of the executives from Countrywide-type firms who’d targeted them with crooked no-money-down mortgage schemes that were basically a modern take on Jim Crow land deals.

Meanwhile, a crucial development between the Clinton years and the 2016 election was that white, formerly middle-class, rural and suburban voters stopped believing in any of the appeals coming from either party. Unlike the country’s very poor, who could still hold out a hope that their lives might get better with, say, more access to higher education, less-educated white voters by 2016 were abjectly pessimistic. “Most don't believe they would be better off if they had earned a four-year college degree,” is how Evergreen professor Stephanie Coontz put it after Trump’s win.

And why not? The indicators across the board — job security, quality of public schools, real income growth — were bad for everyone except the very wealthy, who were essentially living in a separate country. Huge chunks of America looked like the third world by 2016, with rampant drug addiction, dead factory towns, closed hospitals, terrible nutrition, and phenomena like “maternity care deserts,” i.e. swaths of the country with no access to birthing centers. Before 2016 we saw the first headlines about declining life expectancy among white Americans, and studies showed a clear split: where life expectancy was down or stagnant, Trump did well, while Hillary Clinton won the approval of voters with rising life spans.

That wasn’t the whole explanation, but it was part of it: the more people’s lives sucked, the higher the likelihood they would vote for someone like Trump, whose campaign was opportunistically devised as a way to stick it to the “global financial elite” that had "watched on the sidelines” as the country crumbled. A huge part of Trump’s appeal was that those people, the ones who consider themselves the arbiters of “decency,” found him appalling. The general public’s expectations for their votes were so low by 2016 that for many, a Schadenfreude factor was enough incentive to fling feces in the form of a Trump vote. It wasn’t rocket science and still isn’t.

The United States is not a healthy country. Our biggest cities remain basically segregated, along racial lines but also into functional and dysfunctional parts. The “defund the police” movement is borne out of frustration in a lot of poor neighborhoods that cops are often the only well-funded policy response to joblessness, lack of health care, etc. Now that the Sanders campaign has been successfully beaten back, we’re already hearing the predictable calls from within the Pelosi wing of the Democratic party to tone down the demands for more and better social programming, which they’re of course citing as the reason for recent down-ballot losses.

Rural America has its own failures, and has now been betrayed so many times by so many different parties that insults like Joe Biden’s exhortation to miners to learn to code barely even register. Yet in punditry and on social media alike, it’s become nearly impossible to say something as simple as Dave Chappelle’s speech after Election Night:

We don’t talk about why people are losing their minds, for the increasingly obvious reason that culture war is the only thing standing between America’s plutocrat class and a lot of pitchforks. So what we’ll get more and more of, as the country grows less stable, are inciting narratives: the sticks are filled with gun-toting loons, Antifa wants your house. This is what happens when a society runs out of myths to sell to the public. After a generation of lies and failures, our fear of each other is all our leaders have left.

Matthew Taibbi is an American author, journalist, and podcaster. He has reported on finance, media, politics, and sports. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, author of several books, co-host of Useful Idiots, and publisher of a newsletter on Substack.  https://taibbi.substack.com/

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