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Are Our Oligarchs Going to Drag Us Into Civil War?

The billionaires who own the GOP are now actively promoting the same sort of revisionist history the Confederacy did. That did not go very well.

Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio looking smug
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio on the Fox Business Network in 2018

The headline in this week’s Fortune reads: “Billionaire investor Ray Dalio warns U.S. is ‘on the brink’ and estimates a more than 1 in 3 chance of civil war.”

Billionaires and civil war? A billionaire-funded Supreme Court justice flew the American flag upside down outside his house after January 6 in apparent support of Donald Trump‘s attempt to overthrow our government.

Americans for Tax Fairness reports that 50 billionaire families have, at this early stage, already injected almost a billion dollars into our political system—the overwhelming majority of it going to Republicans and in support of Donald Trump—in an effort to maintain enough control of our political system that their taxes won’t go up. And that total is just what’s reported: It doesn’t count the billions in unknowable dark money that’s sloshing around the system thanks to Citizens United.

The number one movie in America last month was Civil War. Right-wing militias are on the march. More than half of Republicans say they are “expecting” a civil war.

How did we get here? And what does oligarchy have to do with civil war?

The clear result of five corrupt Republicans on the 1978 and 2010 Supreme Courts legalizing political bribery of politicians (and Supreme Court justices) by both corporations and the morbidly rich is that America is now well past the halfway mark of a fatal-to-democracy slide into oligarchy and the strongman autocracy typically associated with it—and the conflict that can follow.

You can see the consequence in any contemporary survey. The majority of people want things—from a strengthened social safety net to a cleaner, safer environment to quality, free education—that Congress refuses to do anything about because it is in thrall to great wealth.

For example, just last week, Donald Trump solicited a $1 billion bribe from a group of fossil fuel executives in exchange for undoing all of President Biden’s climate regulations.

In a testament to how today’s form of transactional oligarchy has become normalized in America, the only national television news organization that reported this shocking story was MSNBC; every other news outlet thought it was entirely normal for an American politician to have their hand out in exchange for legislative or policy changes.

What we are watching is the final stage of the 40-year neoliberal transition of our nation from a forward-looking and still-evolving democratic republic into a white supremacist ethnostate ruled by a small group of fascist oligarchs.

Some years ago, Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore (before he was Trump’s adviser) was a guest on my radio/TV program. I asked him, “Which is more important, democracy or capitalism?” Without hesitation, Moore answered, “Capitalism.” He went on to imply this was how the Founders wanted things.

Oligarchies are inherently unstable forms of government because they transfer resources and power from working people to the oligarchs. Average people, seeing that they’re constantly falling behind and can’t do anything about it, first become cynical and disengage, and when things get bad enough, they try to revolt.

That “revolution” can either lead to the oligarchy failing and the nation flipping back to democracy, as happened here in the 1860s and the 1930s, or it can flip into full-blown strongman tyranny, as happened recently in Hungary, Turkey, and Russia and nearly happened here on January 6, 2021.

To the end of cementing their own oligarchy here, the billionaires who own the GOP are now actively promoting the same sort of revisionist history the Confederacy did, claiming that the Founders were all rich guys who hated taxes, wanted rich men to rule America, and wrote the Constitution to make that happen. It was a story popular in the South leading up to the Civil War, now part of the “lost cause” mythology.

While there were some in America among the Founders and Framers who had amassed great land holdings and what was perceived then as a patrician lifestyle, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Bernard Bailyn suggests in his brilliant 2003 book, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders, that they couldn’t hold a candle, in terms of wealth, to the true aristocrats of England. With page after page of photographs and old paintings of the homes of the Founders and Framers, Bailyn shows that none of those who created this nation were rich by European standards.

As Kevin Phillips describes in his masterpiece book Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich: “George Washington, one of the richest Americans, was no more than a wealthy squire in British terms.” Phillips documents that it wasn’t until the 1790s—a generation after the War of Independence—that the first American accumulated a fortune that would be worth one million of today’s dollars.

No matter how hard Republicans try to reinvent the Founders and Framers of this nation in the image of their libertarian billionaire patrons, and no matter how imperfect and even brutal their time was, the simple reality is that in 1770s America, this nation’s Founders undertook American history’s first truly great progressive experiment.

And they all put their lives on the line to do it: When they signed their names on the Declaration of Independence, a death warrant was issued against each one of them by the largest and most powerful empire in the world.

And then, four generations later, we backslid.

The only other time in American history when an entire region of America was converted from a democracy into an oligarchy was the 1830–1860 era in the South. It’s why Republicans are so fond of the Confederate flag and Civil War memorial monuments.

The invention of the Cotton Gin made a few hundred families of Southern planters richer than Midas; they seized political control of the region and then destroyed democracy in those states. Even white men who dared stand up to them were imprisoned or lynched, ballot boxes were stuffed, and social mobility came to a standstill.

By the 1840s, the South had become a full-blown police state, much like Trump and his acolytes would like America to become in the near future. Offended and worried by the democratic example of the Northern states, the Confederacy declared war on the United States itself with the goal of ending democracy in America altogether. Almost 700,000 people died defending our form of government.

And now, for a second time in American history, we’re confronted with a near-complete takeover of about half of our nation by America’s oligarchs. And with it has come not just the threat of political violence but the reality, from the death of Heather Heyer to the George Floyd protests to January 6 and the assault on Paul Pelosi.

All driven by oligarchs determined to pit us against each other so we won’t recognize how they’re robbing us blind.

Unless and until our tax laws are changed and the Supreme Court’s legalization of political bribery is reversed, we’ll continue this disintegrative slide into fascism and the danger of domestic armed conflict. This fall we’ll have the opportunity to elect politicians who actively oppose oligarchy and fascism while embracing the true spirit of American egalitarianism.