Will the billionaires' risky bet pay off?
Close up of businessman throwing dice. Gambling concept

America’s rightwing billionaires are making a risky bet.

They’re betting that supporting openly fascist policies and politicians will increase their wealth, lower their taxes, and let them get away with more and more questionable business practices without government oversight. All without blowing back on them.

They’re betting that, with the blessing of 5 Republicans on the Supreme Court (Citizens United), they can pour just enough money into election campaigns to swing them by slim margins to friendly politicians, but hold back enough on their funding (and those electoral margins) that it won’t be obvious to everybody that they’re simply buying elections all across the nation.

They’re betting that as white Americans find themselves deeper and deeper in debt they’ll turn their anger against women, immigrants, and Blacks “stealing their jobs” and “affirmative action-ing” away their kids’ chances to go to college.

They’re betting that there’s still plenty of juice left in their trickle-down sales pitch, and that working class people still support more massive tax cuts for billionaires and giant corporations.

They’re betting that gullible white people will put their fear of climate disasters below their fear of drag queens and Critical Race Theory.

They’re betting that employees will forget that Republicans and rich people have fought unions for over 100 years and will never, ever give in.

They’re betting that we’ll continue to tolerate utilities that rip us off, laws that make it expensive or difficult to solarize a home, and a food supply filled with cancer-causing, gender-bending “forever chemicals,” pesticides, and herbicides.

They’re betting they can get us more angry about impoverished homeless people than the $50 trillion they’ve stolen from the middle class over the past 42 years that has, in large part, caused our homelessness crisis.

They’re betting they can create so much hysteria around crime and race with the money they’re pouring into advertising that Americans will forget that Republicans have fought against everything from the minimum wage to unemployment insurance and Social Security for almost 100 years.

The world’s wealthiest countries have only been functional democracies for the past century or so, and during that time morbidly rich people have tried this fascist narrative repeatedly, in nation after nation.

They support politicians who seize and hold political power by demonizing Jews, gays, and racial minorities.

They promote claims that policies helping average working people or the poor are “socialism” or “communism.”

They work in the dark-money background to turn Americans against each other, using lies and half-truths in nearly-anonymous advertisements and social media to destroy the reputations of public servants who simply want to help democracy succeed through elective office or volunteering as poll workers.

In exchange for money and massive support from a nationwide media machine and an industry of think tanks and PR firms, the corrupt politicians they fund tear apart regulatory agencies, cut taxes, and give billionaires massive government contracts and subsidies.

Their hand-chosen mostly-Republican politicians have already gutted the EPA, paralyzed the Federal Elections Commission, begun the privatization of Medicare and the Post Office, and eliminated so many thousands of IRS staffers that for the past two decades most audits have been limited to the merely upper-middle-class instead of the very rich.

Their most powerful tool is that most fundamental of human needs: family, community, tribe.

For 400,000 years of human history, those individuals who lost tribe or community perished.

Only those who could create and sustain tribe and community survived and became our ancestors. We humans are physically weak, but when we form into tribe and community we can challenge and defeat the predators in both nature and among our own species.

Deep down inside we know this, and it drives us to form community and tribe whenever and wherever possible.

At school, at work, in the neighborhood, around issues, around politics, around hobbies. From model train clubs to ham radio societies, from gamers and neighborhood poker nights to gangs and military units, we are wired to form community.

The rightwing billionaires and social media moguls have weaponized this foundational human instinct, this ancient behavior, this deepest of all instincts against us.

Instead of healthy, nurturing, functional community and tribe, they instead use algorithms, sensationalized media, and demagogues to push us toward dysfunctional, often violent tribe.

Militias. Racism. Nazism. Antisemitism. Qanon. Misogyny. Science denial. Suspicion of democracy itself and its essential fulcrum, elections.

As a result, we now live in a society where tribe and community are fractured. Two years of Covid tore us further apart from each other physically and increased our dependence on media owned and controlled by these same billionaires and their friends.

Out of this vacuum emerged a new electronic tribe and community based on a commonality of paranoia.

The world has seen this before. After World War I, community and tribe were shattered in several nations around the world; the story Americans know best is probably that of Germany.

Fritz Thyssen, the steel baron who was one of that nation’s richest industrialists, wrote a book about how he made the same bet today’s American billionaires are making: he thought he could ride a tiger that would make him richer and it would never turn and devour him.

His book I Paid Hitler (my book-collecting father gave me a copy 50 years ago) — which lays out how he personally convinced Hindenberg to make Hitler Chancellor and raised the Nazi Party’s first 3 million Reichsmarks so they could win their first national election — reads like a modern-day tragedy.

Just like after World War I there was a huge emptiness in Germany because community was smashed by the war, many Americans — smashed by neoliberal Reaganism that has gutted the middle class — are forming community around a common set of online beliefs that the rest of us call hate, bigotry, and lies.

But the Americans voting for Republicans, by and large, actually believe the stories the billionaires and their hand-picked politicians are promoting:

  • *There’s widespread voter fraud in the United States so we have to clamp down in ways that, just coincidentally — regretfully — make it harder for women, minorities, and young people to vote.
  • *Climate change is just a hoax promoted by greedy academics trying to squeeze grant money out of our hard-earned tax dollars.
  • *Queer people are trying to recruit our kids into their “lifestyle choice.”
  • *Black activists want white children to feel so miserable about America’s history they’ll grow up to want to give African Americans piles of free money “reparations.”
  • *Teachers are parasites whose unions keep them unaccountable while they gleefully ruin our kids.
  • *Democrats at the highest levels party together by drinking the blood of tortured children to get high.

There’s an actual tribe in America that believes most or all of these things. One of them tried to assassinate the Speaker of the House at her home last week: thousands of members of their tribe tried to kill her 22 months ago on January 6th, along with America’s vice president.

And American billionaires are still funding and thus growing this tribe, just like Fritz Thyssen did back in the day.

Pushing conspiracy theories. Casting minorities (gender, race, religion) and politicians as actual evil. Passing laws that increasingly narrow our democracy until one day there will only be one party governing this country and that party will be wholly beholden to them.

Can they pull it off? Can they create a righwing movement so powerful it will lock the Democratic Party out of national power forever? Will their stooges on the Supreme Court help them block future Democrats from the White House with the upcoming Moore v Harper decision, itself funded in part by these same billionaires?

Or will the beast they’re empowering turn on them, like it did on Fritz Thyssen when he had to flee his homeland to avoid the brutal fate so many of his wealthy peers suffered when, like Liz Cheney, they finally recognized the crimes and horrors of their party’s leadership?

At the moment, they’re fighting efforts to heal our democracy, like Proposition 211 on the ballot in Arizona that would require public disclosure of all donations over $5000 to political campaigns. The Wall Street Journal, owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, editorialized this week against such transparency, claiming:

“Transparency and sunshine are happy words, but in reality disclosure laws have become a weapon used by the left to intimidate conservatives from engaging in politics.”

NPR, meanwhile, just last week reported:

“More than $1.6 billion has been spent or booked on TV ads in a dozen Senate races, with $3 out of every $4 being spent in six states — Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada and Ohio, according to an NPR analysis of data provided by the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.”

NPR also noted:

“Most of that money is coming from outside groups, some of which have little-to-no donor transparency — and Republicans are getting a huge boost from them.”

Outlawing actual (as opposed to purely symbolic and impotent) opposition took a few months in Chile when Pinochet took over; it took about two years in Germany; arguably four or five years in Russia. If Trump, DeSantis, or somebody like them becomes president in two years, it could happen very quickly.

It can happen here.

This election isn’t the final act in this drama; it’s one of the opening ones. It’ll give us a lot of clues about where we’re headed, but this cancer that started with Trump’s racist “birther” claims about Obama in 2008 has now fully metastasized across American society.

As long as our rightwing billionaires can keep their billions in dark-money “donations” relatively quiet and minimize outrage over their practice of nakedly purchasing elections, of carpet-bombing American homes with lie-filled television advertising, of turning the algorithmic social media screws to fill our nation with hate, the path we’re following won’t change.

That will take an overwhelming number of us waking up and becoming politically active. And we’re going to have to get it done soon, while it’s still legal to protest and to vote.