Whenever I feel a bit down about the fact that, after electing a billionaire president who campaigned on promises to help the working class, we are now fighting a breathtakingly brazen attempt to enact the agenda of corporate America, I find it helpful to remember that we’ve seen all of this — or at least some of it — before.
Mark Twain called the late 1800s the “Gilded Age.” Historian Vernon Parrington, however, preferred the more cynical term “The Great Barbecue,” referring to the government’s brutal seizure of the West’s lands and their subsequent giveaway to white settlers, land speculators, and railroad, mining and timber barons.
“Congress had rich gifts to bestow — in lands, tariffs, subsidies, favors of all sorts,” wrote Parrington, “and when influential citizens made their wishes known to the reigning statesmen, the sympathetic politicians were quick to turn the government into the fairy godmother the voters wanted it to be. A huge barbecue was spread to which all presumably were invited.”
One hundred years later, in the 1980s, the next course was served by the Reagan Revolution. As Contributing Editor Cally Carswell reports, Reagan’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch (the mother of Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s current Supreme Court nominee) led the charge to slash her own agency’s budget and relax pollution standards. Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration’s new EPA administrator, has staked out an eerily similar path.
As this administration scuttles regulations on everything from the oil and gas industry to drug manufacturers and bankers, and pushes a budget that would bloat the military while starving programs designed to help people and the environment, it is clear that the Big Barbecue never really ended. Many of our fellow citizens are still eagerly begging for scraps.
The people illegally cutting valuable bigleaf maple and selling the wood to small mills in the Pacific Northwest, featured in Ben Goldfarb’s cover story, are a far cry from the timber barons of yore. Many are locals working to feed their families or their drug habits, living in rural communities where the good-paying timber jobs have long since dried up. It’s hard to feel too angry at them, but there has to be a better way to get by.
Will President Trump honor his commitment to help people like this? So far, the prospects appear dim. There’s been a lot more focus on reducing constraints on Big Business than there has been on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure or, for that matter, providing rural people with jobs restoring our forests and waterways. In the meantime, we still have laws that rein in the excesses of capitalism and affirm our rights to a clean environment and equal treatment. Judging by the mounting protests and lawsuits, and the news media’s renewed vigor, those laws won’t be easily undone.