In Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Acemoglu and Robinson defines society as two groups; a rich elite dedicated to protecting property rights and favorable to non-democratic policy making, and a poor majority who are supportive of democratic regimes and redistributive measures. Given their conflicting policy goals, one group cannot win without the other losing. Both the majority and the minority want control over the institutions of government so that they can have the credible political power necessary to carry out their policy preferences. While the dichotomy of rich elite vs poor majority is too simplistic to be directly translated onto the American Political system, there is a similar dynamic at play.
In her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer outlines how a minority of mega-wealthy individuals have spent decades and billions of dollars influencing the ideology and grassroots of the Republican Party. The philosophy of this network can be summarized by the Robert LeFevre (libertarian activist and theorist) quote, “Government is a disease masquerading as its own cure.” Disproportionately, members of this elite minority are white men who run large energy corporations that would benefit financially from less government intervention, regulation, and taxation. As such, their goal has been to enact a libertarian agenda that drastically shrinks the role of government while promoting free-market ideals and absolute liberty. Such policies would greatly increase the wealth of this minority, however, the decrease in social programs and spending would have detrimental effects on the majority. Unfortunately for the Koch’s, as they discovered in 1980 when David Koch ran for Vice-President on the Libertarian ticket, there is little appetite for such policies among the American electorate. David and his running mate, Ed Clark, ran openly on their liberty-focused ideals and received 1.1% of the national vote. The Kochs thus decided that subterfuge and control of a mainstream political party would be necessary to push through the change they believed was paramount to the survival of their country.
The Kochs carried out their crusade with the assistance of Supreme Court decision such as 2010’s Citizens United vs F.E.C. which allowed for unlimited dark money spending of super pacs and other non-profit groups. Over the past several decades, the Kochs have funded dozens of conservative think tanks and grassroots mobilization groups that have come to dominate the Republican Party. Their libertarian ideology, once outside of the mainstream, is now considered the norm among Republican elites. Control over lawmakers within the party on issues such as tax policy, governmental regulation and climate change is enforced through threat of primary opponent. Any Republican who votes against the wishes of the Kochs and their elite minority cadre will find themselves facing not only a well-funded opponent, but an entire network of television ads and grassroots activists calling for their removal. The Koch brother’s success can be largely attributed to their strategy of stoking anti-government and ethnic grievance sentiments across the country; sentiments that Republican lawmakers encouraged and rode to electoral victory. However, as the years went by and politicians failed to follow through on the rhetoric they had espoused while campaigning, voters became disillusioned, and in 2016 chose a candidate that no one had intended for.
Donald Trump ran for President seemingly as a Populist dedicated to improving conditions for the poor majority. He frequently claimed to be the spokesman for the morally pure ‘true Americans’ who had been mistreated by an impure establishment class. Furthermore, he clearly viewed himself as the only viable candidate of ‘the people’, famously declaring at his nominating convention that “I alone can fix it”. He openly ran against not just members of the Republican establishment class, but against modern day Republicanism itself. Trump campaigned on both protecting social services and funding a trillion dollar infrastructure plan – two policies strongly opposed by the mega-wealthy minority, and by most members of the GOP. To make his position even more clear, Donald Trump brazenly mocked his primary opponents for groveling to wealthy donors such as the Koch brothers, signaling his separation from that faction of the party. Yet, Republican primary voters overwhelmingly chose a Trump as their nominee and several months later he was elected President.
Facing the prospect of running the United States Government, the Trump team had a difficult choice to make. Although they had just run a campaign based on exploiting frustrations with the establishment Republican class, the full-throated support of that same party would be necessary to pass legislation through congress and staff the executive branch. Steve Bannon described in an interview with Charlie Rose how the administration chose to ‘embrace the establishment’; a choice he describes as their ‘original sin’. In doing so, Donald Trump tied himself to a political party that had become, over the decades, intrinsically linked to the ideology and objectives of an elite, mega-wealthy minority; an ideology that is antithetical to the populism he had so clearly run on. The question for the President-elect, heading into the beginning of his administration, was whether he would follow through with his populist agenda, or follow the lead of the Republican Party and enact policies that benefit the elite minority of mega-wealthy individuals. Perhaps it is too early to fully characterize the Trump Presidency as having decided one way or the other, yet it seems clear that, for the most part, the Republican apparatus has secured control of both the executive and legislative branches of government and has attempted to push through an agenda favorable to the Koch brothers and their friends. This can be seen in the Republican health care and tax reform plans, as well as in the Environmental Protection Agency and executive orders deregulating various industries.
Returning to Acemoglu and Robinson’s division of society, neither side can win without the other losing. Should Trump continue to abandon his populist promises and pursue validation through the passage of a libertarian-conservative agenda, his supporters will likely become even more distrustful of our governing institutions. Given that in the 2016 election they were angry enough to elect a reality TV star with no governing experience, their further antagonization and exploitation does not bode well for the future of our democracy.