In the above video, the beginning discussion about Franklin Delano Roosevelt is quite significant. He didn’t just seek to boost the economy by increasing employment and promoting consumerism. The rise of early progressivism, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt and continuing with FDR, was tied up with corporatism, militarism, imperialism, expansionism, and racism. TR was famously bigoted and xenophobic but so was FDR. Both needed to get the support of Southern racists and working class whites. Progressivism sought to make America a great nation that would compete globally, both in terms of economic success and military power. Progressivism was America first on steroids. And that America was very much a white America.
Some of those early progressives, specifically Jews in support of Israeli Zionism, started the neocon movement and switched to the GOP. They maintained the progressive vision of a powerful free society (at least, free for whites) and combined it with a cold war mentality of theocratic-slanted capitalist realism, which was used to further exacerbate the Anglo-American strain of Manifest Destiny and White Man’s Burden. This is where Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism came from, as he always admired FDR. And that confident optimism was easily brought in line with nationalist bravado. Like progressivism, neoconservatism wasn’t isolationist but quite the opposite.
The neocons complained about government and welfare, but they pushed for big spending, military buildup, corporate subsidies, and nation building. Reagan raised taxes more than he cut them while expanding the number of federal jobs, all of which was done with a conservative majority in Congress. They wanted a new expression of progressivism by different means. At the same time, Democrats almost entirely gave up on progressivism and, in its place, took up a status quo pseudo-liberalism (often in the form of neoliberalism). This gave the neocons free reign to more fully co-opt the progressive worldview while subverting it to ever more reactionary ideology.
The Roosevelts had a genuine sense of paternalistic noblesse oblige, that is to say with great power comes great responsibility. TR, as a conservative progressive, hated the radical left-wing. Yet TR argued that socialists were right in the problems they brought up and that those problems needed to be taken care of or else the public would vote for socialists. FDR, although a liberal progressive, also wasn’t friendly toward the radical left-wing which is why he became the most union-busting president in US history, before and since. But like the trust-busting TR, neither was FDR fond of monopolistic and oligopolistic corporations.
Corporatism was promoted by FDR giving out corporate subsidies (the origin of big ag). It was intended to bring big biz into alignment with big gov, with the latter calling the shots. The goal was to place labor and business under a common cause of economic and social progress, a strategy that competed with the then popular fascist and ethno-nationalist ideology of an organized society. Fascism was a much more feared threat than communism at the time. Soft corporatism kept in check by social democracy seemed like a decent compromise, considering the alternative as seen in other countries.
The neocons later sought to reverse this progressive formula by creating inverted totalitarianism where big biz gained the upper hand over big gov, through various methods: corporate personhood, big biz media consolidation, propagandistic right-wing think tanks, astroturf front groups and fake movements, lobbyist power, indirect bribery, revolving door politics, regulatory capture, no-bid contracts, privatization, defunding of public education, etc. It was corporatism turned on its head and no longer serving the public good, not even for most whites. This co-opted corporatism bypassed standard fascism and went straight to corporate rule. That is how paternalistic progressivism became full-blown plutocracy. The Reagan neocons were able to sell this using a number of rhetorical tactics and political maneuvers: Starve the Beast and Two Santa Claus theory, Supply Side Voodoo Reaganomics and Trickle Down promises to float all boats.
The Clinton Democrats, building off of Jimmy Carter’s austerity-minded pre-Reaganomics (along with Carter’s anti-welfare and anti-union politics), then played into this confused push toward the right-wing. Bush and Obama helped to further establish the reactionary neoconservatism in the post-9/11 world, always with dashes of neoliberal ‘free’ trade bullshit — the two parties falling ever more into lockstep. As FDR was more union-busting than any other president, Obama was the most immigrant deporting of any president, not even the present president yet outdoing Obama’s anti-immigrant accomplishments. And this dominant paradigm of mutated ideology is what set the stage for yet another demagogue using progressive rhetoric to win the presidency, which brings us to Trump riding a populist backlash into power.
Trump was able to successfully manipulate trends that had been developing for more than a century. And Hillary Clinton had no alternative to offer because she was fully entrenched in the establishment worldview. The brilliance of Trump, by way of Steve Bannon, was to combine early 20th century progressive rhetoric with early 20th century isolationist rhetoric, and that proved to be a potent mix. But this mix was only possible because of the growing bipartisan racism that was able to lock together old school progressivism and isolationism, a strange brew of optimistic promise and fear-mongering, hope and hate.
Here is what changed. Paternalistic technocracy has long been the ideal of the ruling elite of both parties. It goes back to the claims of an enlightened aristocracy from early American politics. The early progressives followed more closely the view of an enlightened aristocracy. That is what the Roosevelt family represented. They didn’t deserve power because they were from a business family but because they promised to use their inherited power and privilege toward the public good.
The neocons, in cahoots with the pseudo-libertarians, came to argue that the optimal technocrat to rule the country should be a businessman (sometimes combined with the utopian night watchman state, a government without need of governance). That capitalist class elitism has finally been fulfilled by Trump, a man who has styled himself as a successful businessman. According to the neocons, only someone like Trump could solve the country’s problems. They finally got what they wanted. But the reality is that Trump is as much a product of inherited wealth as the rest: the Bush family, the Kennedy family, and the Roosevelt family (while other politicians have to suck up to this plutocratic aristocracy to gain access to wealth and power). Trump would be deemed a failed businessman in terms of a functioning free market which of course doesn’t exist, even as he is a symbolic representative of success within present capitalist realism (i.e., actual functioning capitalism), which is to say plutocratic cronyism wielding power through oligarchy. His wealth was not the product of meritocracy, if we assume that meritocracy is based on the concept of genuine earned merit.
The neocons have pushed plutocracy under the guise of deceptive rhetoric. Sure, there was always a dark element going back to the beginnings of progressivism. But the Roosevelts could never have dreamed this is what would become of the progressive tradition. They avoided the extremes of authoritarianism in their own era, but in the process they helped to give birth to a new and even more threatening monster. This neocon neo-imperialism as global superpower, at this point, would likely require a global revolution for it to be dismantled. Paternalistic noblesse oblige has long been thrown aside. In the void left behind, obscene wealth and brute power has become its own justification.
Yet the memory of old school progressivism, faint and distorted as it may be, still holds the public imagination. The progressive label, as polls show, has gained favor among the majority of Americans. Bernie Sanders being the most popular political leader at present demonstrates this. If another strong and inspiring Roosevelt-style candidate comes along, he or she would be able to take the presidency by storm. That is what the plutocracy fears the most.
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