But, in the end, isn’t it kinda funny?
All this talk about resisting and waking up and taking action is great, but I’d like to take a moment to indulge my strange love for history and poli-sci. Let’s remove ourselves a bit from the screaming chaos of the armchair warriors flooding Twitter and Facebook with their impotent outrage and just revel in the fact that, finally, for the first time in our lives, politics is interesting again.
All the Millennials are rushing out to buy and read Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here because the marketing department of the big publishers printing those titles have fake newsed their way into all the outrage feeds. Brilliant, actually. The article goes out saying how 1984 has sold out and, lo and behold, 24 hours later after the news cycle picks it up, 1984 has sold out and no one wants to ask how the chicken (the news article about the event) came before the egg (the event itself).
Anyway… Books about the rise of American fascism and British totalitarianism don’t really apply. It drives me up the wall that the so-called Millennials, who consider themselves free of the fetters of the stodgy old generations before them, are so fucking lock-stepped in with the world of corporate marketing. They buy these books because they’re told to buy them and they lack any sense of the larger history around them, or how they relate (or don’t) to our modern history.
How about you all stop reading fiction about how this shit was done in the 1930s and 40s and, instead, read motherfucking non-fiction about what was actually done in the modern day and what we actually need to watch out for and rebel against?
I link you now to the magnificent expose on where, exactly, our world went wrong and how a template was created that paved the way for Trump. And it’s only 250 pages! Written by a 25 year old in 1969, the book is The Selling of the President, and it lays bare how the Presidency shifted from an institution to a “product.” The subject is Richard Nixon – a man who, in 1960, was a sweat-covered pig grunting on TV and showing his ass but, eight years later, was a sleek and infinitely desirable candidate who was even outpacing the Kennedy powerhouse in terms of charisma.
So…it’s 1968 and the world is on fire. Vietnam is our first Living Room War, and the streets back home have erupted into what was, effectively, a massive and potentially cataclysmic social civil war. The high water mark of the ‘60s had been reached in the fury against social injustices at home and a pointless war that would eventually destroy the American psyche. But that water was rolling back by 1968, leaving a splintered leftist rebellion frustrated by the fact that they’d been throwing themselves against a wall of armored cops and had very little to show for it. For every integrated school, there was an incident like the one in Mississippi where entire towns conspired to murder and disappear civil rights workers. For every victory at the lunch counter, there were fire hoses and dogs let loose on children in the streets. For every opinion turned against Vietnam, there was escalation and expansion of our strikes against not only that country but the surrounding countries. The Left – which had, nominally, attempted to pursue a nonviolent protest – fell apart. The students and the NAACP had been battling for a decade and had little to show for it but unenforceable presidential Acts and lots of blood. So they splintered. Where once there was Martin Luther King, now there was Malcolm X. Where once there was the SDS and the Port Huron Statement (“a radical vision for a better future”), now there were The Weathermen (“a white fighting force…to achieve the destruction of US imperialism”).
When the splintered factions met and battled each other and the establishment on the doorstep of the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, enough was enough.
And Team Nixon had understood this several years before. The “high water mark” of the 60s that I’ve been referencing comes from a Hunter Thompson quote. He pegged it as sometime in the mid-60s (in the Depp movie, it was 1965). It was before the Left splintered. Leading up to the ‘68 riots, it seemed like something good was happening. LBJ caved on Civil Rights, the Democrats talked the talk, folks started to realize that Bobby Kennedy was the first (and last) Kennedy with a brain, a heart, and courage. It felt good. It felt like, maybe, we could turn back what we’d been doing. But impatience took over. The weak gave way to the screwheads who thrived on violence, and the Left became the monster that would rise up in the streets and try to claw the world to pieces. The writing was on the wall, even during the glorious days of the revolution. Nixon the failure, Nixon the idiot, Nixon the sweaty pig was just about the only surviving voice from the Right. Everyone else was (literally) having panic attacks in the middle of campaign speeches. The only viable Republican candidate besides Nixon was a fucking actor who’d been accidentally elected governor of California. Ronald something or other.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were in a free for all even before LBJ refused to run again and Bobby got killed. The time was ripe… But with someone like Nixon, you had to play a carefully orchestrated game.
So, while the Democratic Convention burned, the Powers Behind the Throne of the GOP started to reshape the party. Nothing dramatic here. Nothing for the history books. No defections or splinter groups or internal strife. Just, on Tuesday, the GOP was the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and, on Wednesday, it was the party of Richard Nixon. And it was saying something different. Teddy talked about bullying and vigilantism, his successors talked about integrity and temperance. Nixon talked about law and order. Something suburban America craved since every news cycle was showing explosions and strafing runs and machine gun fire…and that was just the local news.
But it wasn’t as simple as crafting a “law and order” presidency. The sense of a deep-rooted and stable establishment had to follow, and so the “selling of the president” extended beyond rhetoric from the podium. The corporations had to buy in. Law and order could only be maintained if, yes, that “great silent majority” remained happy. And what makes us happy? Our microwave ovens, our two car garages, fewer homemade pipe bombs in our air conditioning vents.
In many ways, the ’68 Republican convention was the beginning of the “fake news” phenomenon. (Thompson again, written in 1968: “History is hard to know because of all the hired bullshit.”) America, in the middle of riots, tear gas, and horror, latched on to a version of Nixon that had been carefully crafted by Big Money People out of whole cloth. The way he dressed, the way he acted, and even the cadence of his speech did not exist prior to the campaign trail leading up to ’68. He would be the answer to the shattered world around us all. And the convention was able to ride on this, in large part thanks to the debacle in Chicago.
By ’72, both conventions had adopted the techniques that were laid out to first sell Nixon to us. The Democrats immediately sized up their enemy and aped his technique. George McGovern drove the message home. He was half loosey-goosey and appealing to the Left, and half polished politician. And his loosey-goosey half meant that he went down in flames and ushered Nixon in on one of the most astounding landslides in history. The people had spoken. The Democrats, from then on, would be as “safe” as possible. What you see, after McGovern’s failure, is the homogenization of politics. In the 1960s, it was daring for a Democratic candidate to run up onto a soapbox and shout their heart out about working with the rebels against the establishment and then throw themselves into the audience. By 1992, the only daring element in Democratic candidates was that they might have an accent.
Meanwhile, the Republicans followed a cookie cutter plan. Spin the names and the pull-quotes round and round – Nixon, Reagan, Mondale, Dukakis, the Bush dynasty, Dole, McCain, all those who won or failed and it’ll be hard telling them apart. All different toys made by the same company.
I know – duh, right? Same thing for the Democrats. And that’s what gets us to 2017. Trump won because he’s the first candidate since the world caught on fire who was truly crazy. And we loved it. That’s the real point here. Even if we feared him, even if he disgusted us, we loved the show. We tuned in.
The point here is that our political system was ruthlessly homogenized by a generation that’s now dead or in the nursing home. It was created especially to avoid conflict, to distract us, to co-opt every form of revolution with corporate greed. In our youth, the Beatles sold sneakers and the ghost of MLK sold cell phones:
There is the fate of our revolution. Co-opted, bastardized, and fucking raped to death by those same Big Money Men who crafted the political America we know and despise today for one purpose: To keep us fat and stable and in their debt, addicted to their products.
Trump, amusingly, is one of these men. But he’s also working against them (seemingly).
I think it’s hard to tell when it’s happening, but history will show us that one of two things is happening right now. Trump either broke the system (in which case, in the long run, if we survive, we will be eventually grateful), or he’s a carefully crafted product of some new twist by the same system that’s been orchestrating our lives since the initial “selling of the president.”
Either possibility is likely, in my opinion. And I secretly hope for the former scenario. As I watch Trump’s first few weeks in office spin wildly out of control, I keep wondering how far he’ll go, what he’ll do next. I’ve shifted from horror to fascination. Not because I’m watching a monster, or because I’m heartbroken. I’m fascinated because I’m pretty sure I’m watching someone not only rock the boat but also set it on fire. I’m pretty sure that I’m watching the death of American politics as I knew it. And that’s a good thing. Because it’s not some orangutan, in the end, who’ll get us killed. It’s the androids that the political machine shits out. And Hillary was one of those androids. They all have been! Obama was, Bush was, Clinton was. All the way back to Nixon – these are individuals crafted to cash in on charisma and corporate sponsored revolution. They are designed for one thing only: To maintain the status quo, to keep us in our place, to keep us shopping online, to maintain the illusion of an America frozen in the middle of the 20th Century. Ward and June Cleaver Forever!
It’s fascinating that the same people who embrace that idealistic dream of a bygone era are also the ones who supported Trump. This is why some may think my second scenario is more likely, but I simply think Trump read The Selling of the President. The template is all right there. How to get to the White House without really trying. So if he is a Change Agent, then the people who’ll be hardest hit are the people we need the most to reach out to and shake awake: The old ways are dead. And now’s our chance, for better or worse, to avenge the failed revolution of the ‘60s. And it might just be Trump who does that for us, whether he fully understands that or not.