Any country founded by religious fanatics, refugees and hucksters needs a good creation myth to take the edge off the truth, and America found one courtesy of Ronald Reagan by way of Jesus Christ. According Matthew 5:14, Jesus supposedly said, “You are the light of the world. A city set upon a hill cannot be hidden.”
Puritan leader John Winthrop picked up the theme in 1630, when he told settlers headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “We shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Ronald Reagan made it a recurring theme in his speeches, beginning in 1974, when he quoted the Puritan and then said, “We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of men on Earth.”
Today that shining city on a hill is a grubby metropolis where the rich live in polished high rises protected by private security, while the rest of us ferret around the dingy streets for any crumbs that may have fallen off their balconies as we fondle our pocket screens filled with images of our fearless leader, glowing like a Halloween pumpkin carved with a hatchet, telling us that people who don’t look like the white Christian majority are dangerous.
Luckily, guns are as available as minimum-wage jobs, so political fanatics or maladjusted loners can pink-mist complete strangers without conscience or a pesky waiting period.
Reagan was a genial con man, hoping Winthrop’s words would make us so warm and fuzzy at the idea of America that we would never notice he was picking our pockets, but he was closer to the truth than he realized.
John Winthrop was both a religious fanatic who hated democracy and a corporate shill for the Massachusetts Bay Company, which was formed to exploit New England’s resources for the British Crown by getting as many settlers to the Massachusetts Bay colony as quickly as possible. Winthrop was part of a caravan of illegal migrants (at least as far as the Natives were concerned) sailing to America 1,000 strong, the largest single movement of Europeans to the New World yet attempted.
Winthrop spent 12 years as governor of the colony and meant it when he said, “Democracy is the meanest and worst of all forms of government.” He persecuted and banished religious opponents, ordered raids that wiped out the Pequot Indian tribe, restricted the rights and movement of non-Puritan immigrants, ignored the growing slave trade, and ordered investigations into people accused of witchcraft. A half-century later, his decisions were the partial basis for mass executions during the Salem Witch Trials.
Winthrop and company were the first American authoritarians, so it makes sense that Reagan, whose administration paved the road to the hellscape we now live in, would quote Winthrop and claim his words were uplifting and not a call to rid the “shining city” of heretics and troublemakers. After all, the modern white Christian American Taliban first got a workout as the Moral Majority by campaigning fervidly for Reagan.
Reagan and the conservative movement gutted unions, caused wages to stagnate, gave tax cuts to the rich that both hobbled the economy and led to the mammoth wealth inequality that threatens to tear 21st century America apart, and pitched it all as “individual liberty” as earnestly as a car-trunk salesman trying to pass off oven doors as the newest high-def TVs.
Starting with Reagan, the American middle class began a slow decline, while wealth inequality began to rise. The National Bureau of Economic Research in 2017 found that men’s median lifetime income has declined between 10 percent and 19 percent from Reagan until now. When Reagan took office, the top one percent in America controlled roughly 24 percent of the nation’s wealth. Now they control 45 percent. When Reagan took office, roughly 20 percent of American workers belonged to labor unions. The number now is around half that.
You don’t need me to tell you where this all ends up 38 years later. We’re living it. But it’s not just conservative economics and tax cuts that led us to the border of dystopia. Trump’s authoritarian desire to control government as a means of silencing his critics is an old American tradition, but its recent incarnation began under George W. Bush, following 9/11 and leading up to the Iraq invasion.
Authoritarians from Mussolini to Putin have always placed law and order at the top of the societal pyramid. After 9/11, Americans honored the police, firefighters, and first responders who died, as well as the military that invaded Afghanistan searching for Osama bin Laden, but that honor quickly turned into fetishizing anyone who wore a uniform. We were told they were all heroes, every last one of them, and that was that, as if putting on a uniform automatically changed the person wearing it from a human capable of greed and cruelty, as well as kindness and sacrifice, and turned him or her into a demigod.
Just before and immediately after the Iraq invasion in 2003, the “shut up and salute” syndrome became a national standard. Ever since, everyone in uniform has become a hero who should be thanked for their service. But what seems superficially polite is actually pernicious. French filmmaker Jean Genet once said, “Fascism is theatre,” and even though the British punk movement of the ‘70s coined the term “Nazi chic” as a goof, there’s truth in the humor: fascist movements always glorify order, racial purity, and uniforms.
The authoritarian architype extends to small-town cops, like Darren Wilson. Accusing him of murder or manslaughter in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson was seen as an insult to the very concept of order and the thin blue line.
So with economic policies that favor the rich, twisted language equating individual liberty with sociopathic policy, and authoritarianism glorifying order over everything, we end up with Trump.
John Winthrop would have understood and approved.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.