Reflections on life in the Neo-Gilded Age

Reflections on life in the Neo-Gilded Age

Like so many people in this state and across this country, I have not gotten over my funk regarding the rise of Trump and the subsequent train wreck of his presidency. It has turned me into a political junkie and created a situation in which I get my daily fix by consuming a steady stream of evidence explaining how corrupt, morally bereft, and colossally stupid and uninformed the Trump administration is.

Why do I take all of this so seriously now? Why am I suddenly binge-watching MSNBC? I did not used to be this way, always preferring NPR and CNN. I am unable to figure out whether it has simply been a slow burn since the days of Dubya or whether the tragicomic façade of the party of Trump jolted me into an existential furor.

I can still remember my feelings on that fateful day in December 2000, when five conservative and partisan Supreme Court justices handed the presidency to George W. Bush and I asked myself, “how bad could this turn out to be?” As we all know, it was pretty bad, in a bigly sort of way.

Nonetheless, like many educated and progressive-minded Americans, I moved on with my life, finished my Ph.D., and took an academic job in North Carolina in 2003, which at the time had moderate leaders in most major offices. It seems like a golden age to me now.

But long before Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican party, the Neo-Gilded Age had already begun in North Carolina with the 2010 midterm elections, which brought us the ultra-conservative majorities that now run North Carolina like a one-party state.

The original Gilded Age (comprising the final decades of the 19th century) was just as horrific, as conservative and partisan supreme courts created a gilt highway for federal and state governments to favor capital over labor, and pass immigration laws with impunity against the Chinese. While the southern states set up their version of apartheid, the feds wrapped up the massive, centuries-long dispossession and genocide of native peoples.

This was also, of course, the great era of political corruption – a period during which graft and self-dealing became the “new normal” for municipal and state governments and nearly three quarters of all wealth was concentrated in the hands of the top ten percent, with two thirds of that belonging to the upper two percent.

Sound familiar? Between Trump’s tax break — a gift wrapped present to the current two percent which made no fiscal sense whatsoever (tax breaks are traditionally used to prime the pump of a sluggish economy) — and the placement of foxes and weasels like Mike Mulvaney, Steve Mnuchin, Ryan Zinke and, until recently, Scott Pruitt, (all rascals who give little thought to such supposedly American values as morals and ethics or the rule of law) in charge of nearly all the cabinet level henhouses, the parallels to the 19th Century are striking.

Our current state legislature is a prime example of a Neo-Gilded Age in full flower. From the refusal to expand Medicaid under Obamacare to the debacle of HB2, North Carolina provides a powerful example of a conservative ideological majority so unwilling to work with the “other side of the aisle” that its leaders took the extraordinary step of hobbling the powers of the governorship just prior to Roy Cooper’s inauguration in 2017.

Of course, the excesses of the original Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era at the dawn of the 20th Century, as a critical mass of Americans grew disgusted with governments that served the interests of capital first, and their constituents second.

Here in 2018 North Carolina, flickers of hope arose briefly with the spring teacher demonstrations, but the hollow support they exposed in the legislature’s super-majorities for addressing the plight of our schools, combined with the mad, late-session rush to rewrite the state constitution served as a bucket of political cold water.

When I contemplate such things, I fight off the cynicism that is simply a numbing agent for dealing with these most calamitous of times. Even now, as his supporters goose-step to Trump’s every whim, I really want to believe that there has got to be a critical mass of concerned citizens in this state who believe in truth, who believe in progress, who believe in justice, who are disgusted and embarrassed by the age of Trump, and his enablers in this state, both in the legislature and in congress, who refuse to speak truth to power against an authoritarian president.

As I await future elections, I will continue to feast on the liberal manna of MSNBC and endure, hopefully, the latter days of the Neo-Gilded Age.

Dr. Charles Beem is a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.