American Apocalypse
The Six Far-Right Groups Waging War on Democracy
Rena Steinzor





Intractable polarization, a steady drift toward autocracy, and chronic discontent with government have provoked widespread concern over the stability of American democracy. Where the gridlock and polarization will end is hard to see. Scientists warn that another global pandemic is inevitable and climate change is not only getting worse but happening faster. Without an effective national government, people will die or become disabled for no reason except our inability to agree on what we need government to do. People have died or been injured before for this reason—the slow journey out of slavery was not that long ago. But our big challenges move faster now, powered by the buildup of industrial pollution, the downsides of globalization, and the destructive use of technology.

Most participants in conversations about the stability of American democracy focus on the demographics and attitudes of the American people. They explore the revolt of angry white people fearful of racial diversity.1 They consider an expanding cultural devotion to the preservation of individual rights and prerogatives over community needs.2 Some concentrate on the emerging brands of right-wing populism that attract the disaffected.3 Others emphasize the yawning wealth gap that has created a permanent underclass.4

These analyses are valid, but they focus on outcomes, not causes. Such a corrosive state of affairs did not rise, bottom up, from the people but instead was pushed, top down, by private-sector special interest groups. Viewed from this perspective, starkly different diagnoses emerge.

For decades, what I will call “the six” have waged an unrelenting, intense, and successful war on government. In the order they are discussed in this book, they include big business; the Tea Party and the Freedom Caucus, its descendant in the House of Representatives; the Federalist Society; Fox News; white evangelicals; and militia members. Power, money, and fame are their leaders’ central motivations, as well as the conviction that living in a country led by left-leaning politicians is intolerable.

The six have achieved victories in a surprisingly wide range of political deployments because they are the backbone of today’s Republican party. They have produced razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress and a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. The presidency boomerangs back and forth between Republicans and Democrats, imposing conflicting goals that further destabilize government work.

Evidence has yet to emerge that the six coordinate their attacks on government in any conscious or methodical way. On occasion, their short-term goals conflict. But their priorities fall within a surprisingly tight bull’s-eye: the size and power of the administrative state, especially agencies that protect public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment.

Cumulatively, the six are a deconstructive force of awe-inspiring power, all the more so because they have avoided recognition for what they plainly are: a constellation of armies fighting along parallel paths. The damage they cause could be devastating in the near term if it results in the ascension of another autocratic, right-wing leader to the presidency. Over the long term, an incapacitated national government will harm our children and their children in ways we can barely imagine.


Each of the six exists to implement complicated agendas extending far beyond the war on government. Big business is preoccupied with besting competitors around the world. The Tea Party began as a taxpayer revolt against corporate bailouts after the 2008 market crash but evolved into a crusade against big government in any form. The Federalist Society presents itself as a professional association of conservative lawyers, but its animating purpose is to host, indoctrinate, cull, and seat potential judicial nominees. Fox News’s top priority is to retain, and, if at all possible, expand its loyal audience of Trump supporters. White evangelicals follow the calling of converting non-believers to Christianity by preaching the gospel. Militia members are preoccupied with guns—buying them, displaying them, and using them.

As this broader context shows, the six have plenty on their plates. Why, then, did they become involved in prosecuting a war against government? Because, as they grew stronger, they got to the point that they refused to tolerate government interference with pursuit of their overriding goals. The war on government became a matter of great importance, fueled by the Republican Party’s drift rightward, away from an affirmative agenda and toward the negative one of dismantling the federal government. As former president Ronald Reagan famously said when he was inaugurated for the first time, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”5 Unwise appointments and Democratic resistance pushed Reagan into compromising this bold statement, but a crucial ideological marker was thrown down.


In line with Reagan ideology, the six have converged on a handful of common themes:

—Government is bloated, inefficient, and wasteful.

—Taxes support the bloat and should be cut, especially for “producers,” defined as corporations and their owners and operators that make prosperity possible for everyone else.

—Overregulation is undermining the nation’s economy and global competitiveness.

—The civil service is composed of about 2.1 million employees who are incompetent, power hungry, or both.

—Misguided federal and state officials mandated extreme and unnecessary measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic, in the process trampling on individual freedom.

—Assessments of the severity of climate change are exaggerated. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are too expensive. The United States should not take these expensive steps until the largest emitters—countries like China and India—step up too. Or, alternatively, white evangelicals believe that God has plans for the human race that include climate change, portending the End of Days, the Second Coming of Christ, and the saving of the faithful.

—The January 6, 2021, insurrection arose for understandable reasons and could happen again if the next election is stolen.

Not every corporate executive, Tea Party adherent, Federalist Society member, Fox News host, white evangelical, or militia member agrees with all of these statements. At any given time, some of the six might focus on only one or two. Yet their steady repetition has heightened disdain for government not just among traditional conservatives, but across a full spectrum of disaffected Americans.

Six decades ago, when John F. Kennedy was president, 73 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Its overall approval rating now hovers around 20 percent.6 The downward trend has endured, with only one notable but brief spike in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Thirteen percent of respondents to a Gallup poll released in October 2023 approved of the way Congress was doing its job.7 A second Gallup poll released at the same time found that President Biden’s overall approval rating had fallen from forty percent, the same number as the approval rating during the Trump presidency, to thirty-seven percent, a record low. In an unusual change likely tied to its decision to overturn a five-decade precedent granting a constitutional right to abortion, 58 percent disapproved of the Supreme Court’s performance in September 2023, a record low.8


Four characteristics have proved essential to the success of the six and are worth making explicit as guideposts to the rest of the book. All six have access to enough money to wage the war against government. Each group is organized hierarchically and produces internal discipline and charismatic leaders. The six break fundamental economic, political, and social norms. Some threaten blockades and other forms of extreme action. Much of this behavior would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. It has made the growth of MAGA possible as an intense base that reliably supports Trump’s reelection.

Unprecedented amounts of money flood the electoral system, preoccupying candidates full time. Overall, according to the invaluable OpenSecrets website run by the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2020 national election cost $14.4 billion, more than doubling the amount spent on what had been the record-breaking 2016 cycle.9 The average senator up for reelection in 2020 raised an average of $19,100 per day, and the typical House member raised $2,400 per day.10

Lobbying is an equally important expense, especially for big business. The nation’s largest corporations began to expand their presence in Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s, opening individual offices and sponsoring trade associations for entire industries that are supplemented by private lobbying firms fielding former members of Congress and their top staff. In 2022, business groups spent 86.9 percent of the money devoted to lobbying at the federal level, for a total of $3.1 billion.11 Some 12,609 registered lobbyists plied their trade, or about twenty-three for each member of Congress.12 This high tide dwarfs environmental and consumer groups, civil rights organizations, and advocates for children and social service organizations.

Families that made or inherited a great deal of money in business have established their own distinct sources of funding. The best-known are the Koch brothers, immortalized in Jane Mayer’s bestseller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right. The Kochs led the way but were soon followed by the Scaife Foundations, the Mercer Family Foundation, and a dozen others. They have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks, professional associations, and grassroots groups. The money is “dark” because loopholes in the tax code mean the funding sources remain anonymous.

From a norm-breaking perspective, the most powerful one of the six is the House Freedom Caucus, a well-organized group of forty-five to fifty representatives from many of the most conservative districts in the country. When Republicans control the House, party leaders will not bring legislation to the floor unless they can persuade a majority of their own members to vote in favor. When Freedom Caucus members threaten to defect, they wield enormous power, especially when the margin between the parties is close and Democrats oppose the legislation.

Dating back to 2011, when the members affiliated with the Tea Party first joined Congress and a Democrat was president, decisions to raise the debt ceiling became the favorite target of conservative representatives, along with the passage of continuing resolutions to fund the government. Their standard strategy was to threaten to vote against raising the limit or appropriate the money unless the Democratic president agreed to drastic cuts in government spending. Approval of debt-ceiling increases do not authorize the government to spend more money. Instead, a higher ceiling enables the payment of past bills for goods and services. If the country defaults on existing debts, the consequences would be devastating, crashing America’s credit rating and causing global financial system losses. Failures to pass continuing resolutions shut down the government, an expensive and disruptive outcome that can send the lowest paid employees to soup kitchens, including enlisted members of the military. The money is eventually paid, but the trauma is real at the time. Such battles not only weaken the national government but, not incidentally, make the job of leading a Republican House majority during Democratic administrations close to unmanageable. Former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) once called members of the Freedom Caucus “legislative terrorists.”13 Moderate or weak-kneed Boehner is not. He became a top lieutenant for Newt Gingrich (R-GA) soon after he joined the House, helping to achieve the political miracle of flipping the House to the Republicans in 1994 for the first time in four decades. Boehner resigned from Congress in 2015.

The dysfunction within the Republican House membership was on incredulous display during the first months of the 118th Congress, when the House cast an unprecedented fifteen ballots to elect Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) only to have a handful of far-right members depose him months later after nearly causing the shutdown of the government. The hunt for a replacement took weeks more as Republicans considered and discarded three prominent candidates only to settle on Mike Johnson (R-LA), a white evangelical with impeccable conservative credentials but no experience in a leadership role. As this book goes to press, the future stability of the House remains in alarming doubt, a government shutdown is looming, and failures to extend the debt ceiling remain real possibilities.

According to itself, the Federalist Society is a nonprofit, tax-exempt membership organization composed of conservative lawyers who meet, develop contacts, talk about their objections to liberal legal doctrines, and formulate alternatives. The group sponsors numerous conferences across the country. Panels include liberals to spice up the debate. But this benign description of enthusiastic debate and helpful networking among like-minded lawyers is misleading. In fact, securing judicial appointments is the group’s primary mission. Leonard Leo, its former vice president and current co-chair of its board of directors, was a powerhouse among lobbyists and is widely credited with securing the confirmation of conservative Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.

The backstory of Leonard Leo’s success in populating the federal bench with conservatives during the Trump administration illustrates political norm breaking at its most effective. Nine months before the end of his second term, President Obama nominated then D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) refused to bring the nomination to the floor, arguing that the privilege of nominating the next justice should be reserved for the president elected in 2016, a startling departure from the practice of considering a sitting president’s choice. When McConnell started thinking about this strategy, his first call was to Leo.

Democrats thought Republicans had stolen the seat but were mistakenly confident that Hillary Clinton would be elected president so no harm, no foul. Instead, Trump was elected and made the nomination of Federalist Society–approved judges his top affirmative priority, solidifying a conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court. The sixth conservative justice, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed a handful of days before the 2020 election. During his single term, Trump accomplished the placement of 231 additional judges on federal and appellate courts and securing more seats than any recent two-term president, Democrat or Republican. The Federalist Society was largely responsible for this achievement, choosing the nominees and lobbying for their appointment successfully.

Leo’s well-funded campaigns will continue. In 2021, Barre Seid, an electronic components manufacturer, donated $1.6 billion to the Marble Freedom Trust, a new group founded by Leo that is committed to waging battles over abortion rights, voting rules, and climate change policy. Seid avoided taxes by donating all the shares in his company, Tripp Lite, to Leo before it was sold to an Irish conglomerate for $1.65 billion.

A final example of norm breaking is provided by Fox News, a multi-billion dollar international media conglomerate founded and controlled by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, entrepreneurs who live in Australia. Rupert Murdoch founded what became the Fox Corporation in 1976. In 2023, at the age of ninety-two, he announced that he was stepping back from daily involvement with the multi-billion dollar media empire, turning full responsibility over to Lachlan, his eldest son, although he is likely to retain considerable influence behind the scenes.

The Murdochs insist on ironclad loyalty and obedience from even their biggest stars, as illustrated by the abrupt dismissal Tucker Carlson, the most popular commentator on Fox News, who was fired in April 2023 for texting obscenities about other hosts. At the time, all the network’s commentators were engaged in helping to debunk the soundness of the 2020 election results, hosting controversial Trump advisers who, among other falsehoods, defamed two companies that provided voting machines to the states. Lachlan reportedly made the decision regarding Carlson, although Rupert was almost certainly consulted. Carlson is attempting to raise money to support his own media outlet, but other deposed Fox News hosts have had great difficulty without the network’s imprimatur and resources.

Regardless of his departure, Carlson set the tone and content necessary to maintain a loyal and sizeable audience, and these extremes are bound to be duplicated in some form by other Fox hosts. The most poisonous of Carlson’s monologues advances the conspiracy theory of white replacement. It holds that America has a ruling class (or elite) consisting of white people from upper-middle-class backgrounds who grew up on the coasts and are well-educated. (Although he never mentions it, Carlson has the same background.) He claims that this elite is determined to accomplish the replacement of the white American majority by importing undesirable people of color from poor countries. Over time, immigrants of color will outnumber white people and, because they are docile and easily led, they will elect Democrats, an obvious catastrophe for the country. Carlson also claims that the national government is biased toward people of color and discriminates against white people. A final thread charges that independent career women emasculate men.

In 2022, a few months before he was fired, Carlson sat for an interview with Ben Smith, the top editor of the streaming service Semafor. Smith asked whether he believes that whites are superior to other races. Carlson laughed and said,

No, of course not. . . . You would find no instance where I’m like, “I’m mad at Black people.” One hundred percent of the people that I’m mad at are well-educated white liberals. In my mind, the sort of archetype of person I don’t like is, like, a 38-year-old female white lawyer with a barren personal life.14

Replacement theory is widespread among extremists. During the torch-carrying demonstration that opened the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, demonstrators shouted “Jews will not replace us” and carried Nazi banners.15 Or, in other words, by purveying white replacement theory, Carlson helped to revive a fascist creed that had resulted in the most extensive genocide the world has ever known.

When Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote Fox News to protest this content, Lachlan Murdoch responded that Carlson was merely talking about voting rights issues.16 Murdoch never responded to a letter from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) making similar points.

White evangelicals have the best turnout of any group active in electoral activities, a characteristic that has compensated for their slowly dwindling numbers. In 2020, white evangelicals were 15 percent of the population but 28 percent of the electorate. The reason is that in an age of mega-churches, with congregations in the tens of thousands and large campuses, devout white evangelicals attend more than one church service weekly and are active in a range of bible study and political education groups. Their role in the war on government is supported by old-fashioned sweat equity.

The largest association of white evangelical churches is the Southern Baptist Convention, now engaged in a series of destructive internal battles. The conference is knee-deep in its own sexual abuse scandal involving allegations that women were victimized by pastors and other elders. When an ultraconservative pastor ran for the presidency of the organization, the group’s small Black minority openly considered resigning. Revolts by MAGA parishioners against their pastors’ insufficient fealty to Trump have rocked evangelical congregations across the country. And in the summer of 2023, a majority of members voted to exclude churches that admit women pastors. These disagreements are likely to erode white evangelism over time because they will prove unacceptable to young people already drifting away from the church. But in the short run, the movement will remain loyal to the Republican Party and its nominee for president in 2024 and beyond.

Militia are organized at the state and the national level. Members pay modest dues to state and national organizations. Demographic details and economic circumstances of individual members are unclear. What members definitely have is a fanatic interest in guns and the time to arm themselves and engage in weapons training. Summoned by social media, they appear with their guns at demonstrations when unarmed people of like mind need help.

All militia members are ferociously opposed to any impingement on what they consider their constitutional right to bear arms. In the lead-up to January 6, 2021, they provided an armed presence to support unarmed people demonstrating for causes they approved. When hundreds marched through Lansing, Michigan, to protest pandemic restrictions imposed by Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, armed militia were out in force, brandishing semiautomatic weapons. They traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, with long guns, ostensibly to guard the stores of small business owners during Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. They were well-represented at the Unite the Right weekend in Charlottesville.

The most recognizable national militia leader was Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers in 2009. The group focuses on recruiting former or serving members of the military and the police. Most reporting about Rhodes mentioned that he is a graduate of Yale Law School. The stories do not mention that Rhodes was disbarred for abandoning his clients. He wears an eye patch because he dropped a loaded gun on the floor, shooting himself in the eye. When Trump began to gather steam with his stolen election campaign, Rhodes joined up enthusiastically, exhorting Oath Keepers to travel to Washington to take the country back.

Ironically, Rhodes never went inside the Capitol and did not interact violently with the hard-pressed Capitol police. But on his way to Washington from his home in Texas, he accumulated a small arsenal of weapons that he stored in a Virginia motel to be used when Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, as Rhodes kept exhorting him to do. The act authorizes the president to deploy armed units—specifically, “state militia” and the military—against Americans if necessary to suppress rebellion or domestic violence.17 Rhodes thought the Oath Keepers qualified as state militia under the act and that if Trump invoked it, they could enter the District of Columbia with their guns and fight alongside other insurgents and—hopefully—members of the military ordered to take the field by the commander in chief.

The Department of Justice prosecuted Rhodes and other militia members on a slew of charges after January 6, the most prominent of which was seditious conspiracy, a felony carrying a potential sentence of two decades defined as colluding (with others) to “overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States [including] to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law.”18 In the first militia case to go to trial, the jury found Rhodes guilty of seditious conspiracy, among other charges, and the judge sentenced him to eighteen years in prison. Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the equally prominent Proud Boys, was sentenced to twenty-two years. The key to these verdicts was the elaborate planning to attack the Capitol done by the two men and senior members of both militias.


Almost all the activities explained above other than the January 6 insurrection are legal, however objectionable opponents might find them. They are deeply embedded in the normal state of operation of American politics and policymaking. Yet that status camouflages the radical implications of what the six do by ignoring the cumulative and destabilizing impact these activities have on the national government.

The purpose of the criminal justice system is to forbid bad behavior or acts that most people would agree should be punished. Many argue that criminal law is too inclusive, allowing prosecutors to “indict a ham sandwich.”19 Others think the laws are enforced in a discriminatory and overly stringent manner, leading to mass incarceration, among other evils. (The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.) Accepting actual criminality as the ceiling for judging the behavior of the most privileged participants in our politics has grave implications for the stability of American democracy.

No one who has studied American history or is familiar with the legal system could endorse the notion that just because an activity is legal, it is desirable, acceptable, fair, or in the public interest. To mention just a few examples, Congress has not raised the federal minimum wage since July 2009, when it was capped at $7.25 per hour. Most large corporations and the country’s richest people manipulate the tax system to avoid paying taxes.20 Despite the Civil War, segregation in the public schools was legal until 1954, and many public schools have relapsed into that state.21 In 2010, the Supreme Court granted corporations First Amendment rights, triggering the tsunami of money that has flooded electoral politics and destabilized Congress.22 All these conditions are legal, wrong, and weaken the country.

People who strongly disagree with this perspective would say that the correct approach is not to stand outside the system waving your arms and declaring disaster but to become part of it, fighting individual battles for change. Most activists—right- or left-leaning—have followed that advice. But for all the reasons explained in the following pages, this book was written at a dangerous time and has different goals.

The first is to drive out into the open the dangerously weakened state of the federal government, especially with respect to the protection of public health and worker and consumer safety, and the implications that follow from that condition. The second is to explain how the nation got into such trouble, focusing on the six interest groups primarily responsible for the damage. The cumulative effect of their activities have pushed American government to the brink of failure. Conditions are so bad that the country does not have time to engage in long, slow, and exhausting reexamination of specific laws, increment by increment. Instead, broader, more far-reaching solutions are necessary. Again, a few examples bring these points home.

Oil and coal companies launch incessant and costly litigation that bog down the EPA’s regulatory efforts to curb the emission of greenhouse gases causing climate change. Yet the agency has such a stunning shortage of funding that it operates with roughly the same resources it had in the mid-1980s before we understood the existential threat climate change poses to life on the planet.

The pressures on Congress are intense, and it has become dysfunctional. The amount of money needed to win election has had the practical effect of changing the congressional schedule to the point that members spend as much as thirty hours a week raising money, diminishing the amount of time left to do their official work to three days a week. To compensate, the Senate and the House have drifted far from the “regular order” followed throughout the twentieth century. Especially when Republicans are in charge, legislation is crafted in the leadership’s office in close consultation with industry lobbyists instead of being written at the subcommittee level by members and staff who have expertise in the subject matter. Members vote without adequate notice of what bills contain. The shrinking professional press has little chance to vet their content. As veteran congressional experts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have written, both parties have engaged in these practices, but Republicans have relied on them more often and with far worse effect.23

The following chapters consider the six in the order of their place on a spectrum from most embedded in the legal system to least. Chapter 2 looks at corporations and their construction of an overpowering lobby that does business on Capitol Hill and the White House. The third chapter is focused on the Freedom Caucus, which wields influence far beyond its numbers within Congress, now the weakest branch of government. Chapter 4 examines the success of the Federalist Society in populating the judiciary with conservative judges, including every one of the six justices who control the Supreme Court. The fifth chapter concentrates on the media, specifically Fox News and its parent, the Fox Corporation. Chapter 6 explains the political role of white evangelicals, the most reliable constituency of the Republican Party. Chapter 7 considers American militias and the undercurrent of violence they bring to American politics. Chapter 8 examines why center/left groups have been ineffective in opposing the six. Chapter 9 presents one solution that would go a long way to resolving the core of the problem, congressional paralysis: campaign finance reform.


Chapters 2–7 end with a section that explains how the six were connected to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol that resulted in the deaths of seven people, injuries to dozens of others, and the most serious threat to the stability of national government since the Civil War. The day was a momentous turning point because the invasion of Congress transformed perceptions that the federal government might be unstable to the conviction that it is. The sight of congressional staffers crawling under desks and hoping the door locks would hold was sickening. The revelations about what former president Trump was doing at the time were mind-boggling, from watching televised reports of the violence to throwing a plate at the wall. The six pushed aside the implications of the insurrection with remarkable speed, as did Republicans in general.

Right after the insurrection, many of the largest corporations in the country announced that they would suspend contributions to Republicans, especially those who voted against the certification of President Biden’s victory. They reversed the decision within weeks. As Trump continued his claims of election fraud and the House investigative committee finished its work, then House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) turned over 41,000 hours of tapes assembled by law enforcement to Tucker Carlson, who was still working at Fox News. Carlson’s staff found small sections on the tapes showing demonstrators standing around peacefully outside the Capitol, which he used to claim that the insurrection was instead a peaceful demonstration of loyal Americans and any evidence to the contrary was a “false flag” operation masterminded by dissident elements at the FBI and the military.

Fox News hosts invited Trump lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell on air and they concocted conspiracy theories around two companies that manufactured and sold vote-counting equipment to the states. Both sued Fox News, and the Murdochs paid $787.5 million to settle the first case to go to trial, paying Dominion Voting Systems. A second case, alleging that several of its commentators promoted the falsehood that the company rigged its voting machines, stealing votes from Trump and transferring them to Biden, sought recovery of $2 billion in damages and was pending as this book goes to press.

High-profile members of the Federalist Society supported President Trump before, during, and after the January 6 insurrection. Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), graduates of Harvard and Yale law schools, respectively, both voted against certifying the election. Two other active members, John Eastman and Jeffrey Clark, also played key roles in Trump’s campaign to overturn the election. Eastman developed the untenable legal theory that Vice President Mike Pence could unilaterally overturn the results of the election. Clark offered to take over the Justice Department and steer it into supporting Trump’s claims.

Christian nationalists were active participants in the insurrection, erecting a cross in front of the Capitol and carrying placards picturing Jesus in a MAGA hat. The extreme right wing of the evangelical movement, Chistian nationalists believe that the U.S. constitution was divinely inspired and that the separation of church and state should be abolished.


Any effort to trace the history of social movements and their assaults on government must pick a place to begin. This book begins five decades ago, at the end of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and the beginning of President Richard Nixon’s first term, when the modern regulatory state was born. It focuses on the protection of public health, consumer and worker safety, and the environment.

Historians often overlook the early 1970s in their accounts of the two heydays of progressive government—the New Deal and the Great Society—yet the period was no less momentous.24 In an astonishingly brief time, Congress passed unprecedented laws designed to prevent the harm caused by industrialization. The goal was to substitute prevention of injury for inadequate compensation of victims after the fact. This idea was framed as the “precautionary principle,” which means taking every possible action to forestall adverse effects. The commitment to precaution represented a decision to sweep aside the laissez-faire assumption that damage to public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment are acceptable by-products of industrial activities.

The new laws promised safety in virtually every aspect of American life, from the food we eat to the water we drink, to the pills we take when ill. Regulators would be on patrol, ensuring the purity and efficacy of drugs, mandating antilock brakes, and reducing the air pollution that keeps children indoors on code red pollution days. When the flurry of activity ended, Congress had given unprecedented power to a slew of new and strengthened agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Department of the Interior, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, mandating them to write rules that would cost billions of dollars. These aspirations were naïve in important respects and no one who understood the American political system should have expected that their implementation would go smoothly. But they captured the public imagination and inspired enthusiastic support.

Today, as wildfires, hurricanes, drought, and heat worsen and a global pandemic caused almost seven million deaths worldwide, one-seventh in the United States, that optimism has largely dissipated. Over a period of three decades, members of Congress from both parties cut funding for agencies throughout the government, with the exception of the military, to the point that they have the same resources as they possessed in the mid-eighties. Controversial agencies like the EPA that attract fervent attention from the corporate lobby are in especially bad shape. Compounding these attacks, constant “bureaucracy bashing,” especially by members of Congress, has demoralized the civil service to the point that it has lost courage, independence, determination, and creativity.25

By setting up the health, safety, and environmental agencies to fail and continuing to attack government in general terms, the six have depressed the public’s confidence in this vital enterprise to historic lows. Yet public disaffection is not even the worst problem the country faces. However Americans feel about the national government, we need it more than at any other point in country’s relatively short history.


1. Charles M. Blow, “Trump’s Army of Angry White Men,” New York Times, October 25, 2020,

2. David Brooks, “Our Pathetic Herd Immunity Failure,” New York Times, May 6, 2021,

3. David Frum, “How to Build an Autocracy,” The Atlantic, March 2017,

4. Paul Krugman, “Notes on Excessive Wealth Disorder,” New York Times, June 22, 2019,

5. Ronald Reagan, “Inaugural Address,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, 1981, no. 1, 1, January 20, 1981,

6. Pew Research Ctr., “American’s View of Government: Decades of Distrust, Enduring Support for Its Role,” June 6, 2022,

7. Jeffrey M. Jones, “Congress’ Job Approval Drops to 13%, Lowest Since 2017,” Gallup, October 27, 2023,

8. “In Depth: Topics A to Z, Supreme Court,” Gallup,, accessed November 20, 2023.

9. Karl Evers-Hillstrom, “Most Expensive Ever: 2020 Election Cost $14.4 Billion,” OpenSecrets, February 11, 2021,

10. Amisa Ratliff, “Seven Numbers to Know about the Campaign Money that Flowed to House and Senate Members in 2020,” Issue One, December 17, 2020,

11. Taylor Giorno, “Federal Lobbying Spending Reaches $4.4 Billion in 2022—The Highest since 2010,” OpenSecrets, January 26, 2023,

12. Ibid.

13. John L. Dorman, “Former GOP House Speaker John Boehner Calls Fellow Republican Jim Jordan a ‘Political Terrorist,’Insider, April 10, 2021,

14. Caleb Ecarma, “Tucker Carlson, Promoter of Racist ‘Replacement’ Theory, Insists He’s Not a Racist,” Vanity Fair, July 7, 2022,

15. Yair Rosenberg, “‘Jews Will Not Replace Us’: Why White Supremacists Go after Jews,” Washington Post, August 14, 2017,

16. Oliver Darcy, “Fox Has No Problem with Tucker Carlson’s ‘Replacement Theory’ Remarks, Says Lachlan Murdoch,” CNN, April 12, 2021,

17. 10 U.S.C. § 252, which reads: “Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”

18. 18 U.S.C. § 2384.

19. Josh Levin, “The Judge Who Coined ‘Indict a Ham Sandwich’ Was Himself Indicted,” Slate, November 25, 2014,

20. Ryan Fuhrmann, “How Large Corporations Avoid Paying Taxes,” Investopedia, February 7, 2023,; Dave Davies, “How the Ultrawealthy Devise Ways Not to Pay Their Share of Taxes,” NPR, August 25, 2022,

21. Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Government Accountability Office, K-12 Education: Student Population Has Significantly Diversified, but Many Schools Remain Divided along Racial, Ethnic, and Economic Lines, No. GAO-22-104737, July 14, 2022, The report found that during 2020–2021, more than a third of students (about 18.5 million) attended schools where 75 percent or more of the students were of a single race. The worst problems were in the Midwest and the Northeast.

22. Citizens United v. FEC, 588 U.S. 310 (2010).

23. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006). Mann and Ornstein wrote their book before the Tea Party emerged in 2010. They have followed up with two additional volumes: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2012); and It’s Even Worse Than It Was (New York: Basic Books, new and expanded edition, 2016). The authors are careful to explain that while Democrats broke Congress to some degree by rigging procedural rules in their favor, Republicans are to blame for the damage that has paralyzed Congress.

24. As just one example, Jill Lepore, the Harvard historian who wrote the well-received and extensive book These Truths: A History of the United States, does not identify this period as remarkable and barely touches on what occurred during it. Lepore, These Truths (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018), 681. The blind spot must be deliberate; the index of the book contains only two references to climate change.

25. The phrase “bureaucracy bashing” was coined by political scientists. See, e.g., R. Sam Garrett, James A. Thurber, A. Lee Fritschler, and David H. Rosenbloom, “Assessing the Impact of Bureaucracy Bashing by Electoral Campaigns,” Public Administration Review 66 (2006): 228–240.