From Robber Barons to Evil Geniuses to Trump: The Fight to Save the Plutocracy

Don’t confuse means with ends or tactics for strategy. White nationalism is one of the means used by the Republican Party in its attempt to overthrow democracy in the United States. Republicans exploit racial prejudice to seek and hold the support of bigoted white voters who otherwise have nothing to gain from the Republican agenda. The tactic is repugnant.

White nationalism, however, is not the moving force behind the authoritarian takeover. The moving force is the desire by ultrawealthy power brokers, this country’s plutocrats, to preserve the phenomenal gains that they have made over the past forty or so years in shaping economic, taxation, and other policies to their advantage.

The plutocrats now own the Republican Party lock, stock, and barrel, having purchased its undivided loyalty largely through dark money. The Republican agenda is the plutocrat’s agenda, and Republicans will fight to save the plutocracy by any means necessary. Donald Trump has shown us how loathsome those means can be.

The Trump era is just the latest chapter in a struggle for power that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution, however. We must understand the nature of that struggle to prevail in it. If it is true that you cannot understand modern American society without understanding critical race theory, then it also is true that you cannot understand contemporary American politics without understanding the never-ending quest by plutocrats for political and economic supremacy.

The history of the struggle includes a planned coup (one that took place long before the one on January 6th), stealth and guile, and raw political demagoguery. Although the tactics have changed over time, the end goal of America’s plutocrats — protecting their enormous wealth — has not.

The point of the article is not to incite class warfare. The point is that class warfare has been going on in this country in one form or the other for well over a century, and at this juncture the middle and lower classes are losing badly. Depending on the outcome of the next two elections, things could get a lot worse.

Robber Barons

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century brought an extraordinary number of changes to the United States. Among other things, it created the potential for the aggregation of great wealth by individuals in a manner not possible in an agrarian society.

By the end of that century a relative handful of industrialists and financiers widely referred to as “robber barons,” with names like Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Astor, Gould, and Vanderbilt, had amassed enormous wealth and power. President Theodore Roosevelt, elected in 1901, believed that the robber barons considered themselves to be a government unto themselves. He feared a violent popular uprising because of the obscene disparity in wealth between the plutocrats and ordinary citizens.

The “trust busting” president used the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 to whittle away at the power of the robber barons. The ultrawealthy have been trying to restore their political and economic dominance to Gilded Age levels ever since. In 1933, some of them decided to resort to force of arms.

The Wall Street Putsch of 1933

A remarkably little-known event in American history occurred in 1934 when a plot to seize control of the federal government by force was thwarted. The plot, sometimes called the Wall Street Putsch (coup), is recounted in a 1973 book by Jules Archer, The Plot to Seize the White House. A later book by Sally Denton, The Plots Against the President (2012), describes the event in the context of the rise of the right wing of modern American politics.

The plot was hatched by members of the arch-conservative American Liberty League, a group funded by wealthy Americans including J.P. Morgan, Jr, Irénée du Pont and the CEOs of General Motors, Birds Eye and General Foods. The plutocrats were enraged by legislation pursued by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to try to alleviate the suffering caused by the Great Depression.

Their sentiments toward Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were expressed by Republican Senator Henry Hatfield of West Virginia in 1933:

“This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot. The president has not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but has ordained the mutilation of the Constitution, unless the friends of liberty, regardless of party, band themselves together to regain their lost freedom.”

The putsch collapsed when one of the conspirators approached retired Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, a two-time winner of the Medal of Honor, about leading an army of veterans to carry out the coup. It was a mistake. Butler reported the plot to J. Edgar Hoover, head of the agency that would become the FBI.

The congressional committee that investigated the plot never issued a report but told Congress that it “had received evidence that certain persons had made an attempt to establish a fascist organization in this country. There is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.” Unsurprisingly, the conspirators never were brought to justice — and the financial backers never publicly identified.

Historian Kim Phillips-Fein pointed out in Invisible Hands (2009) that, after the Wall Street Putsch failed, the efforts of conservative business executives to combat the alleged encroachment of the welfare state largely went underground. The efforts did not re-emerge completely until the liberal political cycle ended forty years later, although by then “evil geniuses” already were hard at work.

Evil Geniuses

In the 1970’s, before the advent of the Reagan Revolution in 1981 and “trickle-down economics” entered the vernacular, a group of wealthy Americans, corporate executives, and political right-wingers, aided and abetted by “useful idiots” in the media and the political left, began the process of converting this country into a paradise for the ultrarich. Kurt Andersen, who counted himself among the useful idiots, detailed the process in Evil Geniuses (2020).

Anderson pointed out that the distinguishing characteristic of the process was its stealth. The “capital supremacists” made “countless nuts-and-bolts changes so dweeby and tedious, and so often bipartisan, that they appeared inconsequential and were uncontroversial.” The gulf between rich and poor began widening and the prosperity of the middle class was jeopardized before most Americans realized what was happening.

Income inequality increased dramatically. Among the top 5% of households by income — households with incomes of at least $248,729 in 2018 — their share of all U.S. income rose from 16% in 1968 to 23% in 2018. The number of American adults who lived in middle-income households decreased from 61% in 1971 to 51% in 2019, and the number in lower-income households increased from 25% to 29%.

Wealth inequality increased even more. The gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016. The second quintile of wealth is defined as the tier immediately above the poorest 20%, and roughly corresponds to the lower middle class. Families in the first quintile generally have no measurable wealth.

In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile. By 2016, this ratio had increased to 248.

The plutocrats did best of all. The top 1% expanded their share of all household wealth in the U.S. from 21% in 1989 to an astounding 32% as of the first quarter of 2021. It is an intolerable number considering the number of Americans living in or on the edge of poverty.

The plutocrats gained the upper hand while flying beneath the public’s radar. In Dark Money (2016), Jane Mayer describes how a relatively small group of exceedingly wealthy and conservative individuals fundamentally altered the political landscape in this country. The fate of the Republic Party as nothing more than the political front for the plutocracy was sealed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United “dark money” decision in 2010. The plutocrats want the Republican’s fealty, and they are willing to pay for it.

The plutocrats identified in Mayer’s book have names like Koch, Bradley, Olin, and Mercer. One, Richard Mellon Scaife, was a descendant of Andrew Mellon, one of the original robber barons.

Stealth succeeded where open revolt failed fifty years earlier, but tactics had to change again as the public became increasingly aware of the wealth and income inequalities and the progressive wing of the Democratic party became stronger and more vocal. The resentment of ordinary Americans that Teddy Roosevelt feared over a century ago was bubbling back to the surface and the plutocrats feared a political backlash. Enter Donald Trump.

Demagoguery to the Rescue

A key challenge for Trump and the “new” GOP was attracting and retaining the support of non-college educated and other white people at the lower end of the economic spectrum whose economic self-interests conflict with the Republican agenda. Trump met the challenge through raw demagoguery, with an emphasis on exploiting racial prejudice.

He stoked the anger and fears of bigoted white voters, and then promised to protect them from fabricated threats posed to their safety and way of life by people of color. White voters with the least to gain from his presidency were caught up in the appeal to their emotions.

Trump did not change the Republican Party. The party already had changed and was ready, willing, and able to embrace a candidate like Trump. For the plutocrats, he was the right person at the right time. And there is no such thing as coincidence.

Dark money is funding GOP efforts across the country to pass voter suppression and other anti-democratic election laws intended to make sure that the plutocrats do not have to worry about attempts to redress the egregious wealth and income inequalities in this country ever again. If the GOP and its overseers have their way, we will have an authoritarian government that is, for all intents and purposes, a plutocracy, and we will have it forever.

Practical Implications

Why don’t we have universal health care and affordable housing, childcare, and higher education? Why isn’t every worker paid a living wage? Why don’t we have a safety net strong enough to keep 37 million people from living in poverty?

The reason is that the ultrawealthy in this country do not want those things because they fear that a reduction in their wealth and income would be necessary to pay for them. Americans on the lower rungs of the economic ladder do not have more prosperous and comfortable lives because those on the top rung — the 3.3 million who control 32% of the household income in this country — do not want them to. It is no more complicated than that.

Democrats must stop pussyfooting around this issue. They must deliver the message to Americans of low and moderate income that the plutocrats that control the GOP do not want them to have the benefit of social and economic programs that would improve their lives. Those plutocrats are manipulating them to serve their own economic interests.

It is not enough to tell the voters who are being duped by the plutocrats that people of color are not their enemy. They must be told who is. If they want to be angry at someone, at least point them in the right direction.

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David Plymyer

David Plymyer

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Retired lawyer, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Now a part-time writer, published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.