Editor’s Note: Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College. Her most recent book is
”To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Americans are right to wonder if, at long last, what George Washington called the Great Experiment has failed, and that our founders have lost their extraordinary wager that regular people could govern themselves better than a few rich men could.
Consider that in his disastrous press conference in Helsinki Monday – and again in a comment before a Cabinet meeting Wednesday – President Donald Trump sided with a hostile foreign oligarchy over our own democracy.
Asked by a reporter Wednesday, “Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?,” Trump responded, shaking his head “Thank you very much. No.” (Later, his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, offered that he was saying “no” to answering questions.)
Trump’s alliance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, in defiance of America’s own intelligence community, the Department of Justice, and the bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forces us to face that the fundamental principles of our nation are under attack.
History suggests the game is not yet lost. Three times before, in the 1850s, the 1890s, and the 1920s, oligarchs took over the American government and threatened to destroy democracy. In each case, they overreached, and regular folks took back their government.
Democracy was always a gamble. In 1776, the founders rejected the old idea that government should be based on hierarchies according to wealth or birth or religion. They declared it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” and they created a popular government based on the radical idea of equality before the law.
For all that they got around the problem of slavery by defining “all men” as “all white men,” and that they wrote women out of self-government altogether, their vision was still astonishing. Could regular men really govern themselves?
Three times in our history, a wealthy elite has thought the answer was no.
In the 1850s, wealthy southern slaveholders laid out the argument. They said the founders were wrong: all men were not created equal. God had made some men better than others.
South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond explained that those better men must rule the rest: most folks were “mudsills” he said, supporting their betters just as the sills of a house were driven into the mud to support the house itself. The mudsills were society’s menial workers, dull, unambitious, and good only for creating wealth that better, civilized people with educations and connections would use to advance the economy and society.
Mudsills must not vote, for they would want a fairer distribution of the wealth they created. Limited resources would cripple the ability of society’s true leaders to shape progress.
So convinced were the slaveholders that they were right, they tried to destroy the nation and start a new country. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln noted that the idea of equality was no longer “self-evident,” but rather “a proposition.”
The slave owners lost, of course, but their worldview reappeared in the late 19th century with the rise of industrialists and their influence over Congress. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie defended the robber barons as stewards of the nation’s wealth, using it meaningfully, unlike workers, who would fritter it away.
This argument, too, failed in the face of the Progressive Era. But when a similar argument in the 1920s brought the Great Crash, Wall Street executives blamed the economic disaster on overpaid public workers.
We are in the newest incarnation of this age-old struggle. Since Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reorganized the government in the 1930s to give a “new deal” to the American people – regulating business, promoting basic social welfare, and providing infrastructure – wealthy men have howled that such a government is socialism, for the taxes to fund such policies redistribute wealth from the haves to the have-nots.
While most Americans recognize the New Deal state as the foundation of our stability and prosperity since WWII, today’s Republicans are determined to destroy it.
Trump’s deliberate attacks on our democratic allies and on NATO play into Putin’s hands, but there is more to Trump’s friendliness to the Russian oligarch than fear of kompromat.
Trump and Putin share the same worldview: that the world should be governed by a few wealthy men who should not be hamstrung by regulations or human rights because they know better than the rest of us how to manage the economy, the government, and, therefore, society.
To make that happen, Trump is destroying the post-WWII New Deal state, and today’s Republican leaders are cheering him on. After a series of presidents who believed that government should serve the people, they have found their man at last.
Never before has a president sided with a foreign oligarch, but in the past, oligarchs have rejected government regulations, suppressed opposition voters, gamed the system, and finally taken refuge in the Supreme Court to retain control. In each instance, regular Americans ultimately reclaimed democracy. Will it happen again? As George Washington said, we walk on untrodden ground.