“men of certain backgrounds of certain interests” (A People’s History…Ch. 11)

Unless some unforeseen and arbitrarily specific and fortuitous calamity happens between now and January 20th, rendering him unable to hold office, Donald Trump will officially be President of the United States.

Typing those words out, seeing them on the page, repeating that sentence aloud, and thinking about what those words put together in that sequence actually means still feels surreal, like we’ve tripped and slipped into some Kafkaesque parallel dimension. And not because the Trump election and the upcoming Trump presidency is unbelievable; but because it’s actually too believable. Too fathomable. Too predictable. Knowing what we’ve known about America and what America steadfastly refuses to know about itself, it makes too much sense that Donald Trump would follow Barack Obama. So much sense that it seems too horribly simplistic, too unfathomably and brutally transparent to actually be true. The path to his presidency was so plain and straightforward and linear that it stretches, morphs, and breaks the concept of believability.

Those words come from a recent piece by Damon Young, and they reflect how I felt reading Zinn’s 11th chapter in A People’s History of the United States (more acutely than the general feel of the book, which consistently begs the believability that Young articulates so well). With every underline, the refrain, “of course,” rang loudly in my mind. Because there’s just so damn much “America steadfastly refuses to know about itself.” I knew this, but the depth of my knowledge continues to grow alongside the alarming believability of it all.

I’ll present to you a series of passages from the chapter that made me ask, “what’s changed?”

  • The Horatio Alger stories of “rags to riches” were true for a few men, but mostly a myth, and a useful myth for control.
  • [Carnegie] Mellon’s father had written to him that “a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health. There are plenty of lives less valuable.
  • “They control the people through the people’s own money.”
  • And so it went, in industry after industry – shrewd, efficient businessmen building empires, choking out competition, maintaining high prices, keeping wages low, using government subsidies. These industries were the first beneficiaries of the “welfare state.”
  • Meanwhile, the government of the United States was behaving almost exactly as Karl Marx described a capitalist state: pretending neutrality to maintain order, but serving the interests of the rich…the purpose of the state was to settle upper-class disputes peacefully, control lower-class rebellion, and adopt policies that would further the long-range stability of the system….whether Democrats or Republicans won, national policy would not change in any important way…a transfer of executive control from one party to another does not mean any serious disturbance of existing conditions. (Just go read p.258 in this book.)
  • On presidential campaigns in the late 1800s: But the amusing thing is that no one talks about real interests. By common consent they agree to let these alone. We are afraid to discuss them. Instead of this the press is engaged in a most amusing dispute whether Mr. Cleveland had an illegitimate child and did or did not live with more than one mistress.
  • Very soon after the Fourteenth Amendment became law, the Supreme Court began to demolish it as a protection for blacks, and to develop it as a protection for corporations.
  • The justices of the Supreme Court were not simply interpreters of the Constitution. They were men of certain backgrounds, of certain interests.
  • “So great is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the common good of the whole community.” Control in modern times requires more than force, more than law. It requires that a population dangerously concentrated in cities and factories, whose lives are filled with cause for rebellion, be taught that all is right as it is.
  • “let us remember there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings”
  • “…see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law of order, fit for the life of civilized society.”
  • These educational institutions…trained the middlemen in the American system…those who would be paid to keep systems going, to be loyal buffers against trouble.
  • From a Social Revolutionary club’s manifesto in 1883: “All laws are directed against the working people…Even the school serves only the purpose of furnishing the offspring of the wealthy with those qualities necessary to uphold their class domination…The Church finally seeks to make complete idiots out of the mass and to make them forego the paradise on earth by promising a fictitious heaven. The capitalist press, on the other hand, takes care of the confusion of spirits in public life…The workers can therefore expect no help from any capitalistic party in their struggle against the existing system. They must achieve their liberation by their own efforts. As in former times, a privileged class never surrenders its tyranny…”
  • “…you have been miserable and obedient slaves all these years: Why? To satisfy the insatiable greed, to fill the coffers of your lazy thieving master?”
  • The year 1886 became known to contemporaries as “the year of the great uprising of labor.” (I include this because I’m anticipating a return to late 19th century class revolts.)
  • How many rebellions took place against this system we don’t know.
  • The farmers’ poverty prevented them from helping themselves.
  • “The fruits of the toil of million are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes…From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes – paupers and millionaires…”
  • Tom Watson, Populist leader of Georgia: “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”
  • Populism regarded itself as a class movement, reasoning that farmers and workers were assuming the same material position in society.
  • On the 1896 election: It was a time, as elections times have often been in the United States, to consolidate the system after years of protest and rebellion.
  • …in 1890…Wounded Knee…was the climax to four hundred years of violence that began with Columbus, establishing that this continent belonged to white men. But only to certain white men…


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