Watching Nancy Pelosi, soon to be the Democratic Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives once again, and Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader of the U.S. Senate, thrust and parry with President Trump in the Oval Office in front of reporters a week ago, I was reminded of John Adams and how he despised the solipsism of the rich and powerful.
It may have been among Speaker-elect Pelosi’s finest hours, and Donald Trump’s worst. Fuming and gesticulating, badmouthing and lambasting, Trump seemed to be the embodiment of what John Adams loathed the most.
Adams had a visceral revulsion to privilege and the wealth that gives it clout. He linked it to the abuses of the hereditary aristocracy that the American Revolution saw as its blood enemy. Adams thought elitism, and the fiscal inequality that comes with it, was a fundamental danger to America’s fledgling democracy.
A “founding father,” the nation’s first Vice President and second President, Adams was intellectually at odds with the signers of the Constitution, favoring a modified parliamentary system in which the rich would be shuffled off into an American version of the House of Lords, somewhat defusing their political might. Though he was relentless in his arguments, Adams couldn’t convince his peers, especially Thomas Jefferson, the third President, that wealth had basically replaced heredity in the creation of an American aristocracy. Ever the revolutionary patriot, Adams put his name to the Constitution despite his strong beliefs and reservations.
In an eye-opening review in the New York Review of Books of Gordon S. Wood’s “Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” historian T. H. Breen quotes Adams view of those who hold “aristocratical influence.” From my perspective, it’s an almost perfect portrait of the current President of the United States. Adams didn’t pull his punches in his description: “the weakness, the folly, the Pride, the Vanity, the Selfishness, the Artifice, the low craft and meaning [sic] cunning, the want of Principle, the Avarice [,] the unbounded Ambition, the unfeeling Cruelty of the majority of those (in all Nations) who are allowed” aristocratic powers.
Breen comments, “Not only had the privileged class (in revolutionary America) continued to try to monopolize power, it had also successfully persuaded ordinary citizens that it was right for them to do so.” It’s shades of Kansas and Wisconsin, and other rural American strongholds, allowing themselves to be stripped of their social safety nets just so Trumpian and GOP political deities could sprinkle down a crumb or two more for them to wrestle over. Breen continues, “Adams could not help but be depressed by the corruption of republican government. After all, the ordinary people did the bidding of the aristocrats. They ‘not only became their Dupes, but even love to be Taken in by their Tricks.’”
In our day and age, the greatest hoodwink played on the American people came from the conservative life-time appointees of the U.S. Supreme Court in a case commonly referred to as “Citizens United.” Heaven only knows what kind of other perfidious debasements of common sense will be laid upon us by the new Trumpian associate justices of the court.
In 2010, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing the majority opinion,
the Supreme Court gave credence to the idea that spending money, any amount of money, was virtually the same thing as you and I speaking your minds freely. Money was speech, because without money, the majority argued, speech would be reduced to a barely-audible whisper. In effect, the court gave corporations the same First Amendment protections of free speech as the Constitution gave to individuals, allowing the vast PR resources of corporations and unions to overpower the squeaky little voices of the rest of us. The big megaphone drowns out the little ones. If all voices are created equal in our country, the voice with the most money is more equal than the rest.
This is exactly what John Adams was afraid of. It’s not hereditary aristocracy
that he hated, but the aristocracy of cold hard cash, tons and tons of it.
What the court’s ruling did was to extend the protections of the First Amendment from individuals to associations of individuals, giving them what’s come to be thought of as a “corporate personhood.” But when free individuals speak, their actual personhood, in the form of their name, it is likely to be associated with what they say. And often individuals must pay the consequences for their ideas.
A corporate person has no name but the corporation’s. And the individuals associated with the corporation probably have no voice expressed politically by the corporate person who comparatively has all the money in the world to disseminate the ideas and bias of the corporate elite, who actually speak through the megaphone of money.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, as the case is formally known, has lead directly to the creation of “super PACs” which may raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, individuals, unions, and other associations and advocate for candidates and policies during an election. Their only restriction is that they cannot contribute money directly to a candidate or a political party.
Super PACs have super speech. They can advocate for anything without any personal repercussions. Corporate persons can make use of the ultimate power of money — swaying public opinion — with having no responsibility, or accountability, whatsoever.
In the context of the fears of John Adams, corporations mostly, and what few pitiful unions are left still standing, have aristocratic and monopolistic influence.
For those of us who put our names to what we say, that kind of power speech comes with a stink of chicken s..t. If one can find anything constructive to say about our current President it’s that his name is all over everything he says. An aristocrat working feverishly to be an autocrat, there’s nothing anonymous about him. Trump hides behind nothing, except his vast superstructure of deceit and deceptions. And because we can see plainly who he is, we can make evidence-based assessments of what we think about him.
The corporate persons empowered by Citizens United can back Trump and Trump’s policies without taking any of the richly deserved flak that he does. If it’s possible to be more odious than their bully leader, the cowardice of conservative corporate persons takes the cake and eats it too.
*Nullius in verba: take nobody’s word for it