THE WEEK IN GREED #3: What We Remember of the Old Country

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Let’s say you work at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells, just down the road from Palm Springs. You do maintenance stuff: irrigation, pool filters, plumbing. Or maybe you clean the rooms, strip the beds, the massage tables, scrub the toilets and bidets. There’s an order to these things, like everywhere. The valet guys, the women at the front desk and in the restaurants – they’re paid to be seen. You’re paid to be invisible.

Which is fine. The money’s good, enough to send home a bundle every month and to pay for a one-bedroom outside Indio. You’ve got a coffee maker, a microwave, a flat-screen the resort was ready to trash. From where you came, from what you grew up amid, this is a dream life, safety and abundance, and you love America, even if nobody visits, and the only night sounds are the drone of the A/C and the dumb rumble of the big trucks on I-10.

***

But then it’s Friday morning and the guy who acts like your boss – he’s not really your boss, but he could make trouble about your papers, so he gets to deliver orders like they were his – tells you there’s no work today, no work tomorrow, or Sunday. You look at him like, What? Because this is late January, peak season, and the register lists every single room as booked through Monday.

Go home, he says. Don’t come back till Tuesday.

Am I in trouble? you say.

Just get the fuck out of here, he says. Crack some beers. Have a fiesta.

You want to ask someone what’s going on, but you can tell from the way this asshole’s talking to you that he’s scared, too, that whatever’s happening is bigger than he can pretend to understand. So what you do is park yourself behind a berm near the driving range, and watch as the black SUVs glide in from the airport. Men emerge from them, alone, in suits mostly, a few golf shirts. They blink at the sun, glance around, slip into the lobby. You’d like a closer look but you realize, suddenly, that there are private security guys flanking every entrance, standing in the small rods of shadow cast by the columns. There’s a queasy charge in the air that reminds you of something you saw as a little boy, standing outside the municipal building with your father. A phalanx of bodyguards passed by, at their center a plump man in a fedora and sunglasses.

You asked, Is it the governor, papa?

Your father issued a sharp hiss and lowered his head and you understood, without wanting to, that it was your place also to fall silent and look away, that this was the nature of true power, to make itself invisible, and to impose its will through the garish, costumed puppets of the church and state.

***

So you go home. What choice do you have? It’s not your place to solve the mystery of American democracy. But here, in fact, is what’s happening:

Charles and David Koch, inheritors of an oil and chemical fortune, have invited 250 of their wealthiest allies to a retreat which will raise $100 million in a single weekend. This money will be funneled into political action committees to buy television ads against the President. Virtually every single one of these ads will be driven by distortions, or outright lies. They will represent an unprecedented infusion of propaganda into the political discourse of the United States. The special interests once focused on morally malleable elected officials will try their luck lobbying a lazy and aggrieved electorate.

The reason you and the rest of the staff have been sent home—that the restaurants have been closed, the facilities locked down—is because the Koch Brothers don’t want people to know what they’re doing. If word gets out, protestors show up, then the media, then people start asking questions about the motives of those willing to pony up $100 million to shape the electoral process.

***

You can’t know this, but there’s a long back story here, which starts in 1973, when President Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment. The Watergate scandal grew out of a break-in engineered by Republican operatives. They were seeking to illegally tape Nixon’s political opponents. The following year Congress, in an effort to curb corruption, set a strict limit on contributions. Republicans lost badly at the polls.

Ever since, they have been trying to figure out how to get more money into the political process without breaking the law.

It’s worth asking why conservative candidates need all this money and the short answer is because, as a rule, they can’t win on the issues. And they can’t win on the issues for the simple reason that their core economic policies—cut taxes for the rich, cut spending for everyone else, deregulate business—are wildly unpopular.

The way Republican candidates win, therefore, is the way Nixon won the presidency in the first place: by appealing to the primal negative emotions of an electorate willing to set aside its own economic self-interest. His Southern strategy was predicated on scaring white Democrats into voting for him by playing to their anxieties about an empowered African American population.

***

What Republican operatives quickly realized was that they needed a way around those pesky contribution limits. And the way around them was to form political action committees, PACs, that were officially unaffiliated with campaigns, but worked on their behalf.

These “independent groups” not only funneled millions of dollars into elections, but provided cover to candidates who enjoyed the political benefits of sleazy ads while dodging blame for running them. George Bush, for instance, ran for the presidency in 1988 against Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis. Bush the elder won partly because of an “independent” ad featuring the mug shot of an African American murderer named Willie Horton, who had raped a woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The message was simple: elect Dukakis and your (white) women get raped.

The Bush campaign claimed to have nothing to do with the ad. But Bush’s media consultant, Roger Ailes, later joked about creating a version for the official campaign: “The only question is whether we should show Willie Horton with a knife in his hand, or without.” Ailes currently works as chairman and C.E.O. of Fox News.

Sixteen years later, George W. Bush was the recipient of a similar gift, when a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced an ad questioning the valor of Bush’s opponent, John Kerry, who served in Vietnam. The ad deflected attention from the fact that Bush avoided serving in Vietnam.

Because these ads are, by nature, salacious and incendiary, the corporate media covers them obsessively, thus magnifying their impact. In this way, campaigns drift further and further from matters of actual policy.

***

From time to time, legislators have sought to limit the money in politics. But Republicans recently have found solace in the judiciary. Stacked with conservative appointees, the Supreme Court ruled two years ago, in Citizens United, that the government cannot limit spending for political purposes by corporations and unions.

The result has been a deluge of corporate money into PACs, and the expansion of a kind shadow army, consisting of operatives and ad men utterly unmoored from the codes of conduct that govern traditional political campaigns. To extend the metaphor: political war in this country has gone rogue. It is no longer waged by soldiers loyal to the Geneva conventions, but mercenaries who are beholden to nobody but the men who pay them.

***

And this, of course, is what brings us back to the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells, and to you, the worker sent home for the weekend. Because what the Koch Brothers are doing, while perfectly legal, is morally unsightly. Americans take pride in their democracy. They don’t like feeling that they live in some primitive backwater, where oligarchs meet in secret to buy elections.

And you yourself, though an immigrant in this place, mostly reviled, probably want to believe this, too. That’s partly why you came here. It wasn’t just because there was money to be had, but because you assumed that in America power resided with the many, not the few.

And this is why you feel such a strange foreboding as you watch these men gathering on the grand rotunda. You will feel it later on as well, in the night, the same reverberations of dread, as you gaze out your window at the flicker of the screens in the homes around you, the people staring into them, hypnotized by rage and innuendo, ready to believe. You will be reminded of the sudden obedience in your father’s eyes, the way he consented to his tyranny, the way he wouldn’t look up.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →