by Heather Gray
July 26, 2017
Justice Initiative International
How to understand the Trump policies and those around him? A look at some philosophical and economic history is called for. In fact, when George W. Bush won his second term in 2004, I decided it was way past time for me to get a handle on the history of the right-wing in America. My personal philosophy had mistakenly been that it was hard enough to keep up on the left, much less an understanding of the right-wing. But I realized that I needed to change my priorities. Deciding that I wanted to get a view of the American right from sources outside of the country, I read the book The Right Nation: Why America is Different (2004) by British writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It was incredibly instructive. But what was most important for me was that toward the end they make reference to the fact that the godfather of many leaders on the right was Leo Strauss. Then I delved into Leo Strauss. Strauss’ views and philosophy resonate with those under Trump, as well as the views and philosophy of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman.
For those who might be interested, the best source on Straussian thought is Canadian scholar Shadia Drury. Here are a couple of Drury’s books on Strauss:
A somewhat simplified description is that Leo Strauss, both German and Jewish, left Germany for the United States in the 1930s during the rise of Hitler. A philosopher, he ultimately became a professor at the University of Chicago. Drury notes that Strauss did not trust democratic systems as, he said, it was democracy that brought Hitler to power. He thought also that the “people” can’t handle the truth and need to be controlled – read that also as “manipulated”. He said the best way to control the people is through religion. Thanks to Leo Strauss and his followers, Frances Boyle (a professor of international law at the University of Illinois College of Law) describes the University of Chicago as a ‘moral cesspool”.
While making reference to Drury, here is also a brief description of Strauss by John Walsh that includes a list some of Strauss’ followers during the Bush administration. Bush, in fact, appointed 20 Straussians to his administration. No wonder it was such a mess!
Leo Strauss (1899-1973) was a Jewish-German émigré from the Nazi regime who eventually landed at the University of Chicago where he developed a following that has achieved enormous prominence in American politics. Among his students were Paul Wolfowitz who has openly acknowledged that he is a follower of Straus as has the godfather of neconservatism, Irving Kristol. Irving Kristol begat William Kristol, the director of operation for the DC neocons, editor of the Weekly Standard and “chairman” of the Project for the New American Century, which laid out the plans for the Iraq War. (PNAC also opined in 2000 that a Pearl Harbor-like event would be necessary to take the country to war, and one year later, presto, we had the strange and still mysterious attack of September 11.)
For his part Paul Wolfowitz begat Libby, in the intellectual sense, when he taught Libby at Yale. Others stars in the necon firmament are Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and lesser figures like Abram Shulsky, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, created by Donald Rumsfeld. Shulsky, also a student of Strauss, was responsible for fabricating the lies masquerading as intelligence that were designed to get the U.S. into the war on Iraq. While the neocons have a passion for the Likud party and Zionism, they also count among their number not a few pre-Vatican II Catholics and an assortment of cranks like Newt Gingrich and John Bolton and crypto fascists like Jeanne Kirkpatrick. The list goes on and Justin Raimondo has documented it in great detail over the years on Antiwar.com. But it is enough to note that Cheney’s alter ego was Libby, and Rumsfeld’s second in command until recently was Wolfowitz. So both Cheney, the de facto president with an apparently ill perfused cerebrum, and the geezer commanding the Pentagon have been managed by younger and very prominent Straussians for the past five years.
A superb account of the ideas of Strauss, his followers and his influence is to be found in The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (hereafter PI) and Leo Strauss and The American Right (hereafter AR), both by Shadia Drury, professor of politics at the University of Calgary. Her account of Strauss’s ideas and the prominence they play in American politics today will give you chills or nausea, perhaps both. As she says in PI (p.xii), “Strauss is the key to understanding the political vision that has inspired the most powerful men in America under George W. Bush. In my view men who are in the grip of Straussian political ideas cannot be trusted with political power in any society, let alone a liberal democracy. This book explains why this is the case.” For those who wish to understand the neocon agenda, Drury’s books are essential reading. She is clear and thorough. (The Philosophy of Mendacity)
To add further to the University of Chicago being a “moral cesspool” was the presence of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman. I made reference to Friedman in my 2015 article entitled “Draconian Neoliberalism” that now also echoes of what we are witnessing under the Trump administration:
Neoliberalism is what Milton Friedman, of the University of Chicago’s School of Economics and the American godfather of neoliberalism, wanted which is that his market-driven policies be imposed on the American people. With the new majority Republican Congress in place, the rightwing on the whole is likely pleased that the United States might finally be all the more the victim of these failed and tragic market driven economic policies espoused by Friedman and others. It’s a homecoming and not a pleasant one. Congress does after all serve the interests of corporate America. They are bought, sold and controlled as it were.
Friedman is probably smiling from his grave. As Filipino economist Walden Bello said of Friedman, “Indeed, there is probably no more appropriate inscription for Friedman’s gravestone than what William Shakespeare wrote in “Julius Caesar”: ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.’”
In 2005, when I began studying the right-wing in America more seriously and looking at Strauss and Friedman and others, I began to observe certain patterns in America that I had witnessed over the years. Patterns that, I ultimately realized, were being orchestrated by America’s right-wing to shift American thinking toward their basically “undemocratic” Leo Strauss and Friedman mindset. This resulted in my 2005 article “Privatizing the Social Contract”.
From an edited version of that article, below are some of my observations that echo also of what we are witnessing under Trump.
For decades, the corporate and conservative political operatives has been dishing out propaganda to make us bow down to America’s wealthiest corporate CEO’s and attempt to stop the rest of us from protecting our own and our community and collective economic and social interests. They’ve been attempting to disseminate myths to benefit themselves and other international capitalists-it’s called neoliberalism. Above all, they want us to stop thinking collectively within society and of social responsibility. Recalling the past few decades of the insidious corporate myths that have been thrust upon us, there are three major themes I want to mention from my own experience and they are in the economic, religious and social spheres.
In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan, the darling of American capitalism, started deregulating everything from the environment, to banking, the media and nuclear policies to name but a few. Now Trump is continuing and expanding this trend even in the few short months he has been in power.
Reagan’s, and now Trump’s, policies were and are a war against the poor and an invitation to corporate exploiters in every conceivable arena – climate, health, education, etc.
Under Reagan, pro-corporate propaganda spin intensified and we are seeing that under Trump as well, albeit with considerable resistance across the country. In fact, since Roosevelt’s New Deal, America’s corporate elite had been waiting for the likes of Reagan, then both Bush’s, Clinton as well (he began privatizing virtually every “public” service he could) and/or now Trump to sit in the White House to begin to dismantle the social programs developed in response to the 1930’s depression and that served as a cushion for working and older Americans.
In fact, with this trend toward privatization, corporate leaders finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel and under Reagan they began to organize their think tanks and corporate/government exploiters to distribute their sinister messages.
Myth Number One: Trickle Down
I remember marching into New York’s Central Park in the huge 1982 national rally against Reagan’s military and nuclear policies and being greeted by activists who said “We invite you to a Republican fundraiser in Manhattan. It’ll only cost you $1,000. Don’t worry, with ‘trickle down’ you must have at least $1,000 in your shoes by now!”
Snide remark or not, this is myth number one: In the economic sphere “trickle down” was becoming ingrained in the American psyche-give more wealth to the rich and everyone will benefit. Corporate leaders have wanted us to accept this as an economic given for the development of a healthy and thriving economy. They want us to hand over our hard earned tax dollars to the wealthiest of Americans and what fools we’ve been to let Congress do exactly that!
The reality is that when we give these wealthy capitalists our money they invariably keep it at the expense of everyone, coupled with excessive greed and mismanagement. Witness, for example, the corporate abuse and/or huge government give-aways in Iraq and New Orleans under the Bush administration in the 2000s, including, of course, the involvement infamous Halliburton in both instances and the billions of dollars that went missing.
Where was the plan for “real” efficiency by contracting with locals who are more likely to have a vested interest in the community and keeping the wealth in the community? The great populist Jim Hightower’s response to all this has been “we need an economy that percolates up rather than trickles down.” Indeed!
Whenever “developing” countries attempt to establish programs to benefit the community as a whole through sustainable agriculture, land reform, nationalized programs, and the like, U.S. multinationals will invariably aggressively attempt to destabilize them or kill their leaders with U.S. government assistance. The list is far too long to recount here but witness the U.S. destabilization of Chile in the1970’s with the assassination of President Salvadore Allende who was attempting to nationalize industry and implement land reform; Nicaragua in the 1980’s and Reagan’s Contra War against the Nicaraguan Sandanista revolution to benefit the poor. It was a war that basically sent Nicaragua back to the stone age thanks to Reagan; Guatemala in the 1950’s and the United Fruit Company’s furious reaction against the land reform efforts by President Jacobo Arbenz who was toppled thanks to US interference; and the disdain for Cuba with one the highest literacy rates in the world and ranked as having one of the world’s best health care systems.
Why we insist on wasting our money and resources on these wealthy Americans is beyond comprehension. We’re foolish to think these multinationals would treat us any differently than they would Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, or Venezuela. When we in the United States attempt to establish programs to benefit the masses, they’ll attempt to malign us, divide us and destabilize our efforts and promote myths such as “trickle down”.
Myth Number Two: Faith-based Everything
In 1985, one of my friends accused me of being a “secular humanist”. “What on earth is that?” I asked. She said, “You’re more concerned about the physical welfare and well-being of the people then you are about their souls.” I said, ” Yeah, that’s me, all right.” She then proceeded to criticize me, of course.
This is myth number two: in the religious sphere, “faith-based everything” and secular humanist criticism. (Amazingly, there was an effort to take out anything considered secular humanist in school books in some districts across the country during this period.) Basically, this was a means of discouraging the lack of support for programs and activities involved in hands-on support for the poor. Just pray, is the answer. People are on their own, it was inferred. It’s their fault if they don’t have good health coverage, good schools, good food, or a job. Obviously they haven’t prayed enough. God is looking at them with disdain as a result. If their environment is polluted, tell them to pray. Keep out of the public sphere. Leave it to the corporations or the free market to handle this. After all the market place is miraculous-it will take care of everything. And besides, people need to adapt and figure out these problems by themselves. Basically, the message from the right-wing was “don’t organize against anything. Go to church.” What nonsense!
The undermining of “secular humanism” in the United States is comparable to the Catholic Church’s ousting of the liberation priests who sided with the oppressed poor throughout the Third World. All of this was occurring at about the same time period. With liberation theology, finally the Catholic Church was doing something relevant for the poor, but the last Pope opposed this.
Liberation priests were a thorn in the side of the ruling elite throughout the Third World and of western multi-national corporations. Much to the chagrin of the corporations, the priests, for one, were helping to organize against corporate exploiters. The corporate elite was not about to let this continue whether it was by Catholics or Protestants. While in the Philippines in the late 1980’s I met a number of the liberation priests whose lives were threatened by the military and paramilitary when the church turned against them.
The reality is that the most outspoken religious leaders in America don’t appear to have a vested interest in the poor or programs that will benefit the poor through sustainable economic development. Witness the vengeance by the Reverend Pat “Assassination” Robertson against President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Chavez’s remarkable programs to assist the poor and his attempts to build sustainable wealth in poor communities through cooperatives and other collective measures, was obviously threatening to the Reverend. He seemingly can’t handle the thought of empowered poor communities and certainly has no interest in a distribution of wealth.
Karl Marx was certainly correct when he stated that religion is the “opiate” of the masses-at least the corporate leaders have been doing their best to force the evangelical version of it down our throats so the last thing we’ll think about is their excessively decadent profits and stop us from organizing against their oppression. By the same token, it was bizarre to realize that the Bush administration had been opposed to the rather secular government in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Instead, Bush and others want governments they can control and it is dictatorial governments they consider easier to control. Like Strauss, they don’t like democracy. All you have to do with a dictatorship is bribe the religious, or other dictatorial type leader, and “he” will take care of the rest of your demands. Clearly, the bond between conservative religious leaders in the world and multinational corporations is a deadly alliance.
Myth Number Three: Individual Responsibility
In the 1990’s Hillary Clinton wisely stated, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I appreciated her articulating what I’ve always known-yet thought what she said was innocuous-a given-everyone knows this as true-I didn’t give it a second thought. Suddenly Clinton received a maelstrom of criticism from the Republican leadership and religious conservatives. I was astounded at this. Why this simultaneous outcry from the right-wing?
Clinton was stating basically that we’re all in this together. We are engaged in a “social contract” which incorporates a responsibility for the whole. No one is isolated. We bear responsibility for all children in terms of the funding and support of schools, of the environment, good food, of the support systems such as fire, police, and virtually everything in our local, national governments and international extended communities. And, it takes this village of all of us to nurture and raise all of our children.
This is myth number three: in the social sphere, “individual responsibility” is claimed to be sacrosanct by these corporate strategists and Clinton had violated their mantra by suggesting otherwise. They obviously want us to forget that we are part of a community. They want us to think that it’s us and our family against the world. Grab what you can for yourself and don’t even consider the consequences. It’s making money and material accumulation that bring you success and means that God shines “his” blessings on you. They want an end to government programs for the poor and to hand over the welfare of the masses to the “free” market.
The hypocrisy here is rather astounding. The corporate elite in the U.S. seemingly doesn’t sneeze without informing others in the corporate world. The last thing they want is competition. In fact, they are excessively collective in action and spirit-“village minded” you might say. They sit on each other’s boards and consistently support and assist each other. They want us underlings, however, to fight among ourselves and certainly not to cooperate as they do. This is the classic case of “divide and rule” and they’ve unfortunately been successful at this game.
Further, the so-called rugged individualism was never a reality in the United States. Going west always required a community of individuals working together in order for families and communities to survive effectively. “Individualism”, therefore, is myth in American lore from the American west, rather like the Southern elite’s efforts (known as the Lost Cause) after the Civil War to romanticize an aristocratic gentile South with smiling contented Black slaves in the cotton fields. It’s all a myth!
In some ways, what the corporate community has done in the United States serves as a substitute of the International Monetary Fund’s imposed structural adjustment programs. As the U.S., for example, is not taking out IMF loans, the corporate controlled IMF can’t require that the United States end its social programs as a structural adjustment prerequisite for loan acquisition as it has done throughout the so-called “developing” world. So, instead, the corporate world seeks and accomplishes the same goals in the west through use of propagandizing these myths and through political control of Congress and the White House and Trump is doing his best to attack these popular programs.
Trump is threatening to take away programs we have developed over the years to protect the most vulnerable whether they be the poor assisted through medicaid; the elderly though medicare; making the migrant population vulnerable; the transgender population vulnerable; women threatened with a loss of their sexual freedom and protection; attempting to give corporate entities free rein to pollute our environment; privatizing our school systems; maintaining private prisons, etc. The list of his atrocities and threats is long.
The above myths and lies in economics, religion and social concepts are the foundation of neoliberalism and Straussian ideology that the U.S. and the world’s capitalists are attempting to impose everywhere in the world. However, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales’ recent announcement that Bolivia is claiming independence from the IMF and World Bank is a good sign. All of us in America and the world should be encouraged by Bolivia’s wise move. It’s also way past time for a vigorous, coordinated and collective anti-corporate propaganda attack of our own in America, but based on reality and not myths. Our ideology should be to tell the truth and not to pay attention to or adhere to the right-wing myths. With crony capitalism running amuck in the United States, it’s clear we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
HEATHER GRAY is the producer of “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.