Was the GOP Plan All Along to “Break” America to Make Room for an Authoritarian Strongman?

By Thom Hartmann | 7 February 2024
Daily Kos

(Image: Thom Hartmann / Daily Kos)

Recent reporting suggests that Trump followers, by and large, are fine with him being or becoming a dictator. It seems crazy, but there it is, irrefutable: they’d rather have Trump as a dictator than Biden or any Democrat as a “normal president.” But why?

When I was 22 years old, on the advice of an old friend, I took the Dale Carnegie Course: it was literally a life-changing experience, and I credit that course with a good bit of the successes I’ve enjoyed in business and the media in the intervening years.

In one of the early weeks of the course, we each had to get up in front of the class and act out with great emphasis this statement (almost a mantra):

“I know people in the ranks who will stay in the ranks. Why? I’ll tell you why: Simply. Because. They. Haven’t. The. Ability. To. Get. Things. Done!”

The ability to get things done is a high value for business, but it applies to politics as well. And that’s where authoritarian strongmen come in.

The most appealing thing about a dictator is that he can “get things done.”

Dictators don’t have to worry about bureaucracies hindering them, or pesky laws and regulations. They don’t care about local opposition to their projects, or their impact on the environment.

From making the trains run on time to building an autobahn and a car company to go with it, dictators famously “get things done.”

The corollary to that old nostrum is that when things are going well, when things are working smoothly, when the people are getting what they want from their government, there is little interest in putting a dictator into office.

You have to break government pretty badly before people are willing to trade in a normal democracy for a dictatorship, but it’s sure happened before.

Germany wouldn’t have embraced Hitler if it weren’t for the depression the country had slid into because they lost WWI and were hit with fierce sanctions in the Treaty of Versailles.

Mussolini stepped up to take over Italy during a time of multiple crises: the echo of the flu pandemic, WWI, and an economic crash. The existing government was so weak that when he showed up with his “army” of 20,000 or so militia volunteers, the King essentially handed the country over to him.

Pinochet was able to hold Chile in part because Nixon’s sanctions had crippled the country’s economy and thrown millions out of work.

One of the most successful ways the forces of autocracy and authoritarianism have risen to power throughout history is by creating or stepping into a crisis and promising to be the “strongman” who will fix things and fix them now.

Which, of course, is why rightwing billionaires and the Republicans they own have been working so hard in the decades since the Reagan Revolution to break our government.

They want a series of terrible crises. And if they don’t happen organically, rightwingers are more than happy to create them, as we saw yesterday when Republicans in the House of Representatives refused to do anything about our southern border or to fund aid to Ukraine and the Palestinians.

Back before the Reagan Revolution — when things were working well, a third of America had a good union job, our schools were brand-new and well supplied and staffed, college was free, healthcare was inexpensive, and the biggest challenge America had was to put a man on the moon and bring him safely home — there was little demand for a dictator in this country.

Sure, women, Blacks, and queer people were demanding rights and their fair slice of the pie, but they wanted part of a pie that was already working (to mangle a metaphor). For the majority of white Americans to adopt a strongman authoritarian, first the country had to be broken and broken badly.

Republicans and their billionaire donors have been working on this project for decades.

It was originally proposed in a memo by Lewis Powell in 1971, the year before Nixon put him on the Supreme Court and he authored the decision legalizing corporate bribery of politicians.

Now the GOP and their billionaire backers are more than 40 years into their project:

Breaking our schools and students: Reagan began the process of breaking our educational system, which was once the pride of the world. He ended free college in California, cut federal aid to education by nearly a fifth, gutted civics, and almost singlehandedly created a nearly $2 trillion black hole of student debt that’s dragging down millions in the last few generations. And now rightwing haters are roiling school boards and threatening teachers to further break schools with their lust for banning books they don’t like.

Breaking our workers: Reagan also shattered the compact between workers and employers that had created and guaranteed a strong and stable middle class, the first and largest in the world. He started early in his presidency by crushing PATCO, one of only three unions that had endorsed his presidential candidacy, and then put an anti-union lawyer in charge of the Labor Department (a practice followed most recently by Trump, who put Antonin Scalia’s notorious union-busting son in that job).

Breaking our manufacturing base: George H.W. Bush broke our nation’s job market by executing the Trade Act that went into effect in 1989 and amplified the “free trade” powers of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which was signed by President Clinton. This began the steady migration of good American jobs to Mexico and China, causing over 15,000 factories to close and move, taking with them over 20 million good jobs.

Breaking our wallets: Pharmaceutical and insurance companies scored major victories during George W. Bush’s presidency. Not only did he begin privatizing Medicare with the Medicare Advantage scam, but he also put into law an absolute prohibition against the government negotiating drug prices with drug manufacturers. As a result, Americans pay as much as ten times more for drugs than do people in other developed countries.

Breaking our environment: Republicans and the fossil fuel billionaires who own them have known since the 1970s that their products were damaging our environment as well as causing tens of thousands of cancer, heart- and lung-disease deaths every year through their pollution. While President Jimmy Carter tried to do something about this in the late 1970s with his solar panels on the White House and his “Solar Bank” program that would have 20% of America’s energy produced by wind and solar by the year 2000, Reagan shut it all down when he came into office in 1981 in exchange for big contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Republicans are still working to break our environment: they regularly lie about global warming and promise to increase our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Breaking our society: Republicans once talked about freedom and individual responsibility, but these were always buzzwords for letting billionaires do what they want and ignoring the needs of the poor. In reality, they delight in pitting Americans against each other, demonizing minority groups (racial, religious, gender), while promoting hateful, racist tropes like the so-called Great Replacement Theory.

Breaking our institutions of democracy: Republicans spent three years promoting the lie that Trump beat Biden in 2020. This is on top of 30+ years of promoting the idea that there is massive voter fraud in America, justifying making it harder and harder for people to vote, when in fact there is no voter fraud crisis in this country and never was (in the modern era).

Breaking our stature in the world: There was a time when Republicans stood strong against dictators: now they embrace them. In a recent rally, Trump openly praised Putin, Orbán, and Xi while trash-talking our actual allies in NATO and the EU. Republicans in the House and Senate are openly opposed to helping democratic Ukraine fight off violent aggression by dictator-run Russia. Allies that long depended on the US are now publicly questioning the wisdom of relying on us for any sort of support for democracies around the world so long as the MAGA faction controls the GOP.

Breaking our public health system: According to the British medical journal Lancet, a half-million Americans died from Covid during Trump’s presidency unnecessarily, all because of the lies he told us to try to salvage the economy for his re-election. Now we’re experiencing outbreaks of measles and other infectious diseases because MAGA Republicans like DeSantis have shattered people’s faith in our public health system. From calls to prosecute Fauci to rejecting masks and vaccinations to supporting price-gouging drug manufacturers and for-profit hospitals, they’re causing widespread death and disability and appear to delight in it.

Breaking women and girls: After a 50-year campaign against Roe v Wade, Trump finally packed the Supreme Court with Catholic fanatics who, based on the writings of a 17th century witch-burning English judge, let states again prosecute women and doctors for abortion. The GOP has now brought to the Supreme Court a case that could outlaw all birth control in America, and they’re dead serious about getting women out of the boardroom and back into the bedroom and kitchen.

Breaking our children: for the past 40 years, the GOP has led the charge to fill our schools with guns. They have been so effective at this that bullets are now the leading cause of death among our nation’s children, a horror that has not been successfully inflicted on any other nation on Earth. They’ve also fought vigorously against any effort to regulate social media, which is provoking a mental health crisis among our young people and driving an explosion of suicide.

Breaking entrepreneurs: There was a time in America when a good ticket to the American Dream was to open a small local business, grow it, and hand it down to your kids. The corner dry cleaner, pharmacy, dime store, restaurant, hotel, bank, travel agency, electronics or furniture store, etc. But ever since Reagan stopped enforcement of the Sherman Act and other anti-trust laws in 1983, it’s been all “mergers and acquisitions” all the time: every consequential sphere of American industry is now dominated by a small handful of giants who will squash anybody who tries to start a company in their sector like a bug.

Predictably, now that Republicans and the morbidly rich billionaires who own them have broken most of the social contract and systems that held the middle class together (and our middle class has gone from being almost two-thirds of us to fewer than half of us), people are looking for a change.

Politicians have been promising that change — a break with Reagan’s neoliberalism — since the 1990s.

Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama campaigned on change but missed or ignored most of their chances to stop the disintegration of the middle class, and Bush, Bush Jr., and Trump all doubled down on Reaganomics.

Finally now, many Americans — particularly “low information voters” — have reached a breaking point.

— Their kids carry hundreds of thousands of dollars of student debt.

Forty-one percent of American families have more medical debt than they can handle.

— As Republican governors roll out voucher programs, our schools are failing and simultaneously under attack from fanatic bigots.

— Fox “News” and other hate-driven media have convinced them that the US is being “invaded” by brown-skinned people.

— They’re in a constant state of hysteria about CRT, DEI, BLM, Antifa, drag queens, Taylor Swift, and any other boogeymen they can come up with.

These are the people Republicans are counting on to support transforming America from a democratic republic into a strongman authoritarian oligarchy. The GOP’s bet is that if they can keep things broken and bad enough long enough, then people will demand a dictator “who can get things done.”

They even hatched a scheme called Project 2025 that hyper-concentrates political power in the White House, pre-positioning the next Republican president to be America’s first dictator.

The good news is that President Biden is actually doing something about each of these areas where Republicans have worked so hard for the past 43 years to break our country. And his work is producing good fruit: inflation is down, employment is up, wages are up, and consumer confidence is growing.

It’s a race against time, in a way.

If Democrats can continue to put America back together, there’s hope for a brighter, healthier future.

On the other hand, if rightwingers in Congress and the media can continue to sabotage our country (and other democracies like Ukraine and Taiwan) things may devolve to the point where we elect our first open dictator in the form of Donald Trump or some other authoritarian Republican.

Ten months from now, the choice will be ours.

Thom Hartmann is a New York Times bestselling, four-times Project Censored Award-winning author, and host of The Thom Hartmann Program, which has been broadcasting live nationwide for 20 years on AM and FM radio, SiriusXM satellite, and as video on Free Speech TV, YouTube, and Twitter/X.

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