About 75 percent of Americans trusted the federal government to “do what is right” when polled during most of the last years of the Eisenhower administration and early years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency.
In 2019, when the Pew Research Center released its most recent poll of public trust in the government, only 17 percent of Americans trusted their government. It’s so bad that armed protesters have shown up nationwide to protest the “tyranny” of having to wear masks during a pandemic… and have been cheered on by the president of the United States and Fox News.
This is no accident; it’s the result of a decades-long campaign by some of America’s richest people to tear apart the governing fabric of our nation, kicked off by their man, Ronald Reagan, proudly proclaiming at his January 20, 1981, inauguration that, “[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
The rich have been successfully chipping away at Americans’ trust in government for decades.
Put yourself in the place of the heir to a multimillion-dollar fossil fuel empire, a situation akin to the “heroic” brother and sister who inherited a railroad from their dad in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged:
- If you don’t have to pay to dispose of cancer-causing byproducts from your refineries but can simply vent them into the air, you make more money.
- If you can cut wages and threaten employees because they don’t have a union, you make more money.
- If you can run a pipeline across sacred Native American land atop a major national aquifer with minimal safety oversight, you make more money.
- If you can hide your money from the IRS because the agency has had its budget slashed so badly that it can no longer do expensive audits of morbidly rich people, you can keep more of the money you’ve made.
- If you can get the government to cut social programs and public education, thus lowering your taxes, you can keep more of the money you’ve made.
So how do you pull this off, when every one of these things hurts average Americans?
Easy. Just embark on a 40-year-long campaign, through think tanks, right-wing media, and massive PR efforts to convince average Americans that government is the cause of, not the solution to, their problems. Convince working-class Americans that gutting government is a good thing that will ultimately help them in some mystical, magical way through the incredible “invisible hand” of the marketplace.
Lewis Powell, a lawyer for Big Tobacco, launched the movement to do just this with his infamous memo in 1971, and billionaires have funded and promoted politicians who jump on board the “government is evil” bandwagon ever since.
And it’s largely worked, if the “trust in government” statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center since 1958 are accurate.
Back in 2011, I was up late one night watching Bloomberg News on a hotel TV. The American host was interviewing a very wealthy German businessman at a conference in Singapore.
Amidst questions about the business climate and the conference, the host asked the German businessman what tax rate he was “suffering under” in his home country. As I recall, the businessman said, “A bit over 60 percent, when everything is included.”
“How can you handle that?” asked the host, incredulous.
The German shrugged his shoulders and moved the conversation to another topic.
A few minutes later, the American reporter, still all wound up by the tax question, again asked the businessman how he could possibly live in a country with such a high tax rate on very wealthy and successful people. Again, the German deferred and changed the subject.
The reporter went for a third try. “Why don’t you lead a revolt against those high taxes?” he asked, his tone implying the businessman was badly in need of some good old American rebellion-making.
The German businessman paused for a long moment and then leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, his clasped hands in front of him pointing at the reporter as if in prayer. He stared at the man for another long moment and then, in the tone of voice an adult uses to correct a spoiled child, said simply, “I don’t want to be a rich man in a poor country.”
There are a few wealthy Americans who understand this. But the billionaires who fund the Republican Party and right-wing media think it’s perfectly fine to rip the financial and political guts out of their own nation if it makes them a few extra bucks.
They’ve funded and facilitated movements like the Tea Party and the Boogaloo Bois, media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, and organizations like the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and ALEC. They throw piles of money at Republican politicians, so long as they never stray far from the “deregulate, cut, denigrate” line about American government.
As this nation shudders from a crisis of confidence in government during a deadly pandemic that has—unnecessarily—killed more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens, let’s remember who brought this about. And all for a few extra pieces of gold.
Independent Media Institute
Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of the War on Voting and more than 30 other books in print. His most recent project is a science podcast called The Science Revolution. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.