As America rapidly urbanized in the 1920s and ’30s, nearly every burgeoning city gave rise to a jumbled, boisterous side of town that lay somewhere between exciting and dangerous. One such place in my state, known as “Deep Ellum,” was a stretch of Elm Street in East Dallas. A predominantly African American community, it also hosted a freewheeling mix of immigrant laborers, rural migrants, musicians, saloonkeepers, preachers, fortune-tellers and assorted hustlers. It was both bedazzling and dicey — the sort of place where the blues lay in wait for innocents. As a popular song of the day warned:
“If you go down in Deep Ellum,
“Keep your money in your shoes
“Or you’ll go home
“With the Deep Ellum blues.
“Oh, sweet mama,
“Your daddy’s got them Deep Ellum blues.”
A 1937 article in a black weekly described it as a rollicking scene “where business, religion, hoodooism, gambling, and stealing goes on at the same time without friction.” The writer told about seeing a Bible-thumping street preacher mesmerize a crowd by prophesizing that “Jesus Christ would come to Dallas in person in 1939.” As the evangelizer grew louder, “a pickpocket was lifting a week’s wages from another guy’s pocket, who stood with open mouth to hear the prophecy.”
Some 80 years later, our whole country is living through a reign of pure flimflam — one without any of Deep Ellum’s sketchy charms. Our media, politics, government, public discourse and civic focus have been captured by the mesmerizing sideshow of AllThingsTrump — from the Putin bromance to the Saudi bone-saw horror, from constant Cabinet chaos to the caravan bugaboo, from his vanishing middle-class tax cut to his illusory wall, from peep-show vulgarity to full-monty corruption … and to the nonstop spectacles emanating from this White House. As we gape 24/7 at the amazing ridiculousness of The Donald, however, our pockets are being picked, not by scammers who are barely getting by themselves but by wildly rich, greedy and powerful corporations.
These members of the corporate elite in America profess dismay at Trump’s ignorance, arrogance and all-around awfulness, but they’re delighted to exploit his power of distraction, which helps them grab more power and wealth at the expense of you and me. They’ve known all along that Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign pledge was a cynical political slogan. After all, he is the scion of a New York real estate con artist, who followed Daddy into the mucky gurgles of deep financial rot. Sure enough, far from draining Washington’s pay-to-play swamp, Trump promptly repackaged it as a luxury hot tub resort, selling off parcels to eager corporate buyers.
And lo, in practically no time, the slick ooze of Trump’s swamp (including tax breaks, regulatory repeals, monopoly promotion and labor suppression) has lubricated the way for the biggest, richest and greediest of corporate powers to broaden and deepen their control over consumers, workers, suppliers, competitors, technology and government itself.
The dominance of these profiteering interests did not, of course, begin with Trump. For the past half-century, they and their acolytes have steadily spread the pernicious legalistic fiction that a corporation’s sole obligation is to generate as much profit as possible for its shareholders. Every administration since (Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama) has essentially accepted this ridiculous fairy tale as fact. And, to one degree or another, each has taken steps that have incrementally advanced the supremacy of corporate interests over all others.
But when Trump Inc. crashed into Washington — KABLOOIE! — incrementalism exploded into a government of agencies almost wholly owned and run by Wall Street bankers, CEOs, industry lobbyists and corporate lackeys often plucked from the ranks of former Congress critters. Rather than seeking favors from government officials, corporate interests have now largely become the government. And while we gawk at the president’s monkeyshines, these gluttons are looting the people’s treasury and fast locking in a permanent American oligarchy.
Populist author, public speaker and radio commentator Jim Hightower writes The Hightower Lowdown, a monthly newsletter chronicling the ongoing fights by America’s ordinary people against rule by plutocratic elites. Sign up at HightowerLowdown.org.