The late Rev. Daniel Berrigan declared in a 2008 conversation with me that the American empire was in irrevocable decline. He said that in the face of this dissolution we must hold fast to the non-historical values of compassion, simplicity, love and justice. The rise and fall of civilizations, he noted, is part of the cyclical nature of history.
Protesters band together near Trump Tower in New York City in the aftermath of the presidential election. (Mary Altaffer / AP)
This Christmas I mourn the long, slow death of our democracy that led to the political ascendancy of Donald Trump. I fear the euphoria of those who have embraced the atavistic lust for violence and bigotry stoked by him. These nativist forces, part of the continuum of white vigilante violence directed against people of color and radical dissidents throughout American history, are once again being groomed as instruments of mass intimidation and perhaps terror. I know that our civil and political institutions, poisoned by neoliberalism and captured by the corporate state, have neither the will nor the ability to protect us. We are on our own. It won’t be pleasant.
“What am I seeing?” she asked about the nation’s political and cultural condition. “Am I seeing a replay of the McCarthy era? To a large extent some of the parallels are stunning. You can look at a figure like [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy, who symbolized a much broader repressive movement. I would say Trump plays the same role today for what really is a right-wing reactionary movement that has taken over the American government.”
“There are a number of fairly superficial comparisons we can make,” Schrecker went on. “I think both McCarthy and Trump are somewhat abhorrent characters—perhaps there’s a little sociopath involved there. McCarthy was a genius at working the press. He understood how to get himself on the front pages. He knew the deadlines that specific reporters had. He knew how to feed them stories. I think the parallels there are pretty obvious. Trump is a genius with regard to the media.”
The Wisconsin senator was, as Trump is now, very opportunistic, she said. McCarthy, a Democrat before he became a Republican, “was just a little bit late” in exploiting the Red Scare, Schrecker said, latching on to it in 1950, “by which time the Un-American Activities Committee had been hounding Hollywood.”
Trump and his Christian fascist minions, sooner than most of us expect, will seek to shut down the small spaces left for free expression. Dissent will become difficult and sometimes dangerous. There will be an overt campaign of discrimination and hate crimes directed against a host of internal enemies, including undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans and dissidents. The Christian right will be given a license to roll back women’s rights, insert their magical thinking into school curriculums and terrorize Muslims and the GBLT community. The Trump administration will hand our Christian jihadists a platform to champion a repugnant religious chauvinism that fuses the symbols and language of the Christian religion with American capitalism, imperialism and white supremacy.
Repressive measures, I expect, will be implemented swiftly. Speed blinds a captive population to what is happening. Already anemic democratic traditions and institutions, including the legal system, the two major political parties and the press, will crumble under the assault. Trump will use the familiar tools that make possible the authoritarian state: mass incarceration, militarized police, crippling of the judicial system, demonization of opponents real and imagined, and obliteration of privacy and civil liberties, all foolishly promoted by the political elites on behalf of corporate power.
Schrecker said the rise of Trump has been in the making for four decades. Corporations funded and established institutions to close the cultural, social and political openings made in the 1960s, especially in universities, the press, labor and the arts. These corporate forces turned government into a destructive power. America was pillaged and cannibalized for profit. We now live in a deindustrialized wasteland. This scorched-earth assault created fertile ground for a demagogue.
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The late Lewis Powell, a general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and later a Supreme Court justice, in 1971 wrote an eight-page memo outlining a campaign to counter what the document’s title described as an “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” The memo established the Business Roundtable, which generated huge monetary resources and political clout to direct government policy and mold public opinion. The Powell report listed methods that corporations could use to silence those in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals” who were hostile to corporate interests.
Powell called for the establishment of lavishly funded think tanks and conservative institutes. He proposed that ideological assaults against government regulation and environmental protection be directed at a mass audience. He advocated placing corporate-friendly academics and neoliberal economists in universities and banishing from the public sphere those who challenged unfettered corporate power—especially Ralph Nader, whom Powell cited by name. Organizations were to be formed to monitor and pressure the media to report favorably on issues that furthered corporate interests. Pro-corporate judges were to be placed on the bench.
Academics were to be controlled by pressure from right-wing watch lists, co-opted university administrators and wealthy donors. Under the prolonged assault the universities, like the press, eventually became compliant, banal and monochromatic.
“He spelled out a need for an alternative to academic knowledge,” Schrecker said of Powell. “He felt the academy had been undermined by the left. He wanted to establish an alternative source of expertise. What you’re getting in the 1970s is the development of things like the American Enterprise Institute [in existence since 1938] , The Heritage Foundation, a whole bunch of think tanks on the right who people in the media can go to and get expertise. But it’s politically motivated.”
“It was unbelievably successful,” she said of the campaign. “It’s pretty bad. What we’re seeing today is an assault on knowledge. What came out of this are the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s which created a set of stereotypes of professors as deconstructionist, raging feminists who hate men, cross-dressers, and, worse, who are out of touch with reality.”