This essay was originally published at ActivistLab on November 7, 2016
Tomorrow will make history. And many are frightened and confused. How could a grotesque demagogue bellowing the rhetoric of dictators gain a major party’s nomination? Trump’s rise has confounded even the best informed amongst us. But his success is not some random aberration. Rather, the possibility of President Trump is a predictable result of the growing power of unaccountable global elites. When oligarchy rules, aspiring dictators are able to exploit populist rhetoric to claim autocratic power.
Whether he is elected or not, we must address the oligarchic conditions that created his success or we risk another brush with a potentially permanent authoritarian. To solve this problem, we must understand the lineage of aristocratic exploitation that has given rise to dictators throughout our history.
Western civilization has long engaged in a bloody dance between oligarchs—wealthy property owners—the body politic, and an autocrat: a king, emperor, dictator. Take the Roman Republic. Its near 500-year history was fairly—though not entirely—oligarchical, as Frank Frost Abbott lays out in A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions.
Ancient Rome’s republican government consisted of the Senate and a collection of assemblies through which male citizens could participate in political decision-making. Landowning patricians—the wealthier class of old money nobility—held disproportionate power over the plebeian masses. The poorer plebeian class, through strikes and protests, fought for representation in government and won it. They maintained a notable level of autonomy and some became very wealthy.
But after decades of military conquests, poor plebeian farmers and laborers, burdened by neglected land and indebtedness, were forced to sell their bankrupted farms and property to the wealthy. Impoverished plebs flooded the city and, in desperation, began seeking out populist leaders to protect them from exploitation by the aristocracy, which consisted of patricians and rich plebs alike.
Conquests declined, discharging soldiers from their employment, while influxes of slaves swelled the labor market, leaving many Roman plebs jobless. Tiberius Gracchus—himself a plebeian—was among the first leaders in the latter part of the Republic to gain power on a populist platform and challenge the predatory Roman aristocracy, seeking to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Conservative senators murdered him for his efforts. Nearly thirty years later, Gaius Marius was elected consul—the highest elected office—as a member of the populist Popularis party. He too challenged the hegemony of the oligarchy, but his reforms were insufficient to dislodge their domination over the Senate.
Around thirty years of violent struggle between reigning oligarchs and aspiring dictators finally culminated in the rise of Julius Caesar. A populist politician of the Popularis party, Caesar was made dictator for life, buoyed by his support from the plebeians, and launched the strongest challenge yet to the entrenched aristocracy. The oligarchs killed him, but his extensive reforms laid the groundwork for his nephew, Octavian, to take his place as dictator and found the Empire, swinging the balance of power to the emperors for many subsequent generations.
In Rome, the impunity of ruling oligarchs created a desperate precariousness for the plebeian poor. This condition led to populist masses elevating a politician who spoke to their interests. Caesar skillfully exploited the plebs’ fears and insecurities to gain power. Unfortunately, in electing a lion to keep the wolves at bay, the lambs lost more autonomy and representation than they already had. Caesar’s reforms toppled the Republic and ushered in 400 years of Empire. Populism is a desirable, important antidote to oligarchy. But, like a flame that gives warmth and light, can grow unruly and lead to greater destruction than what it sought to contain.
The founders of the American Republic took these lessons into account when building the US government. The founders sought to design a system that would break this cycle of aristocratic predation leading to dictators exploiting populist fears. This new system would avoid the mistakes of Rome and provide the mass of citizens with greater representation than had been so far achieved.
As Colin Woodard writes in American Character,“The struggle for freedom is not bilateral, but instead triangular. The participants are the state, the people, and the would-be aristocracy or oligarchy. Liberal democracy, an incredible historical and cultural accomplishment that allows for mass individual freedom, relies on keeping these three forces in balance.”The US system set out to do just that. Woodard quotes John Adams’s warning against the risk of a powerful aristocracy leading to dictatorship:“The standing armies in Europe…were all given to kings by the people, to defend them against aristocracies.”But, as the founders knew, kings wielding unchecked authority were no better than aristocrats for ensuring mass enfranchisement.
The US separation of powers, between a bicameral Congress – one wing, the Senate, composed of members of the oligarch class (66% of senators today are millionaires) and the House representing the people – an appointed judiciary, and a powerful elected president, was meant to strike this balance between the state, aristocracy, and the masses.
That system has been fairly successful in maintaining a balance of power. But US history has seen several periods in which that balance has been thrown off by the ambitions of predatory aristocrats.
During periods when laissez-faire libertarianism achieves a dominant position in the national ideology, the balance of power swings toward unaccountable elites. Woodard continues,“Laissez-faire economic libertarianism was the ruling ideology of the United States from the period between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the rise of the Progressives at the turn of the twentieth century and again through the 1920s.”The latter era led to“inequality…the rise of an oligarchy that threatened freedom itself, and a worldwide economic meltdown that ended liberal democracy in Germany and nearly America as well.”
Both of these periods saw a populist backlash that expanded the role of the president to challenge the powerful oligarchy. With the rapacious robber barons of the late 19th century pillaging and pilfering from the masses, the country elected an American strong man, Theodore Roosevelt, to defend them against the oligarchy. Trump and TR share some temperamental similarities: a prodigious ability to manipulate the media, charismatic showmanship, caricatured notions of masculinity, a bellicose disposition, and shrewd political instincts.
But their differences are vital. Where Trump is anti-intellectual with little regard for truth, TR was a voracious reader and writer who valued the primacy of facts. Where Trump is an oligarch masquerading as a populist, TR seems to have genuinely cared about the plight of working people and earned the title“traitor to his class.”TR respected US separation of powers and the traditional role of the executive; Trump seems ready to question the legitimacy of the electoral process altogether. Roosevelt was progressive, Trump is regressive; a regressive authoritarian will never deliver a credible challenge to oligarchy.
The 1920s brought a resurgence of aristocratic excess that crippled the economy and plunged the working class into mortal destitution. Again, the populace elected a strong man—another Roosevelt—to defend their interests. A less boisterous version of his older cousin, FDR would oversee the power of the president expand beyond what TR ever enjoyed. The second President Roosevelt, also dubbed a traitor to his class, helped usher in the largest expansion of welfare and redistributive policies in the nation’s history. He arguably went further to curtail the power of the oligarchy than any other single president, and, for that matter, managed to hold onto power longer than any other president. Trump and FDR have little in common, and Trump’s authoritarian faux populism will absolutely fail to deliver the kind of benevolent challenge to aristocracy that FDR helped foster.
The FDR era checks on oligarchy began to break down in the mid-1970s with the mainstream introduction of a global neoliberal economic paradigm and the rise of orthodox market activists like Thatcher, Pinochet, and Reagan.
For the past thirty years, the power of the global oligarchy has expanded dramatically, aided by every US president since Carter, along with many Prime Ministers around the globe. Today, the wealthiest 1% own more wealth than the remaining 99% combined. According to Oxfam, sixty-two individuals control resources equivalent to that of the 3.5 billion poorest. The world’s major corporations are sitting on nearly $2 trillion. Six banks hold wealth equal to 60% of the US GDP.
All this concentrated wealth gives the oligarchy tremendous political power. The US government more often passes legislation that favors elite interests over the will of the majority than the reverse. Wall Street companies wrecked the global economy and far from imposing any significant punitive consequences, the government allowed them to continue with business unchallenged. The oligarchy controls many levers of government and, through the government, has passed tremendously exploitative policies.
The impunity of global oligarchs has led to populist backlashes around the world. Putin is a benefactor of public dissatisfaction with predatory elites in Russia. Europe has seen a rise in nativist sentiment and demagogues like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France challenging economic elites’ hegemony. Brexit, too, can be explained as a backlash against global oligarchy. Trump, meanwhile, is just another member of this club of aspiring right-wing authoritarians deftly exploiting legitimate populist fears to gain power.
One reason so many of these leaders tend to lean right-wing seems to be that left-leaning parties have been among the most successful in helping the oligarchy establish their current hegemonic domination. The Democrats in the US and Labour in the UK have vociferously advocated for policies that have led to the oligarchic rule sweeping the globe.
In the US, Bernie Sanders was the left’s answer to this populist backlash. Sanders would have likely proven to be a 21st century Roosevelt. He was advocating exactly the kind of challenge to oligarchy that FDR succeeded in bringing. But the Democratic Party, with its decades of pro-oligarchic sentiment, undermined his wing of the party. Hillary Clinton is struggling in the midst of this populist moment because many Americans see her as an enthusiastic partner of the oligarchic ruling class. Given her tenure on the board of Walmart, her zeal championing multinationals abroad as Secretary of State, her affinity for Wall Street banks, and her enrichment from corporate patronage, Americans can be forgiven for seeing her as a member of the aristocratic class.
If Trump wins tomorrow, it will have been an unsurprising outcome given Western civilization’s history of meeting predatory oligarchic overreach with dictators exploiting populist interests. If he does evolve into the autocrat many fear, we can at least take some comfort in the fact that this has happened before and history can offer lessons for how to confront him.
If Clinton wins tomorrow, the fight to overthrow oligarchic rule will only just begin. If we hope to prevent aspiring dictators in the future, we must curtail the unaccountable rule of economic elites now. There is no alternative. The oligarchy of Bank of America, Warren Buffett, ExxonMobil, and the Kochs, aided by the US government, has given us Trump. If we fail to dismantle the domination of these oligarchs and restore the balance of power, we may suffer some future dictator far worse.