The (Il)logical Product
of a “Series of Unfortunate Events”
(Another History Lesson?)
I have mentioned in earlier BLASTs that I often liked to begin teaching 11th grade United States History classes in September with a simple question: “How did we get here?” It’s a question that always seems apt, at any time in our collective history. With that in mind, I was watching a series on the National Geographic (NatGeo) channel --- five one-hour segments (no, I did not watch all of them) recounting 1990-2000 which (it’s hard to believe) is between twenty and thirty years ago! Watching two segments (more than enough, I assure you) it evoked clear memories of that period but, more significantly, brought me back to “How did we get here?” Indeed. 2020, Donald Trump is President of the United States and many of us are sheltering-in-place. How the fuck did we get here? The NatGeo program led to a reflection of what created this (il)logical product of unfortunate events.
Being wary of a strong, centralized government is in the DNA of the United States of America. The Bill of Rights is the definitive statement defending individual citizens against a repressive, centralized, powerful government. In 2020 we tend to narrowly view the Bill of Rights --- particularly focusing on guns (2nd amendment) and abortion (4th amendment). But I would contend that much of our present Red/Blue polarization is based in a Fifty Year cultural/political tug-of-war by the citizens and politicians of this nation.
We know the “Sixties” was a period of cultural and political ferment and that’s really where this story begins. All of the “Liberation” movements of that period --- Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, Earth Day/Environmental Rights, etc. --- drew a definitive line in the sand: you were either with “us” or against “us” (and, therefore, “them”). Early political statements dividing us had to do with “Never Trust anyone over 30” and “The Silent Majority” (who, it seemed, were all over 30!). Starting with LBJ’s election over Barry Goldwater (and passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964), the liberal/conservative fissure opened up, evolving into the chasm we now see. As the 1970s progressed, the leading proponent of that conservatism was Ronald Reagan and his ascendance to the Presidency in 1981 began widening the crack in our political, social, and economic culture. While Reagan was not exactly the conservative that our current mythology makes him out to be (“indeed, the records of Reagan, the Bushs, and Trump don’t show ‘small government.’ They show only and specifically tax cuts for the wealthy, especially in terms of wealth taxes, the creation of debt, lots of military spending, and select uses of power when it suits their agenda.” - factmyth.com) The Reagan quote that is often invoked is “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” With that in mind, we can use our 20/20 (hmmm, 2020?) hindsight to look at how the Bill Clinton administration was the real inflection point leading to our current social/political dilemma.
If we simply scan the landscape of the “Clinton Years” there is an array of issues we can identify as being the lit fuses that ultimately blew up our system in 2016, with the election of Donald Trump. While there is no doubt that the election of a Black President (who had publicly skewered Trump at a Washington Correspondents Dinner) was an immediate cause for Trump’s election, the tinder and the stack of firewood that lit up in 2016 were first placed in our hearth during the 1990s.
That Bill and Hillary Clinton are polarizing figures really can’t be argued. From the beginning of Clinton’s Administration we saw right-wing conservatives begin an attack like few had previously seen --- looking for “dirt” everywhere (not that there wasn’t some, particularly Slick Willie’s womanizing). The Whitewater investigation, the Vince Foster death (“murdered by the Clintons?”), a variety of Cabinet member inquiries (According to CBS News: Independent counsels have spent nearly $100 million investigating the Clinton administration. Five Clinton cabinet appointees have been targets of court-appointed independent counsels.”) --- there was a constant attack on the Clintons, whose association with Hollywood “elites” also infuriated conservatives. Of course, the battle came to a head in the 1994 Congressional election with Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America (using text from former President Ronald Reagan's 1985 State of the Union Address, the Contract detailed the actions the Republicans promised to take if they became the majority party in the United States House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Many of the Contract's policy ideas originated at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank . . . its provisions represented the view of many conservative Republicans on the issues of shrinking the size of government, promoting lower taxes and greater entrepreneurial activity. Wikipedia). The political chasm we now see in our Red/Blue divide began to spread into a canyon during the mid-1990s.
There were other events during this period which present direct through lines to our current cultural/political dilemma. The vast “deep state” conspiracy theories were ignited by several events from the Clinton Years. The “Branch Davidian” Waco disaster increased the number of para-military militia groups, as well as swelling the ranks of the NRA. The government’s assault on the compound in Waco, in the wake of the earlier Ruby Ridge “massacre,” fueled the notion that the government (particularly the ATF Bureau) was coming after “individualistic” citizens who chose to live off the grid, ignoring (federal) laws, etc. This struggle was later tragically played out in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April of 1995.
On the cultural side of things, we can see the beginnings of the world we currently inhabit being created in the 1990s. The internet begins to emerge not only as a communication tool but as a vehicle for spreading conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas. On a more visceral level, there are three cultural touchstones I would point to that are the tips of the current icebergs tearing our Titanic apart: the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding rivalry, and the Jerry Springer show. The O.J. trial’s verdict demonstrated just how wide the gap was between White and Black America. While White people were outraged that O.J. “got away with murder,” Black people saw the trial through the lens of Los Angeles Police “misconduct” (remember Rodney King?) and, even if they believed O.J. was guilty, his exoneration was an indictment of the police brutality and misconduct the Black community has been subjected to historically, and on a regular basis.
The Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding debacle is a perfect “Class Warfare” tableau. The pretty privileged girl against the bootstraps-up working class kid. Kerrigan and the “elites” won, of course, and, looking at it now, how can we not see the Tonya Trumpsters losing out to the Privileged Elitists --- just another grievance to be filed away until the 2016 election. Jerry Springer, of course, ushered in the Realty Television boom (leading to The Apprentice and Trump’s celebrity) while presenting the kind of tabloid titillation that even went beyond Vince McMahon’s staged chaos with the WWE. That Trump actually appeared at a WWE event speaks to the merging of Reality television and the distortion of what’s true and what’s not. It was also during this period that Fox News emerged as the propaganda arm for Conservative Politics, completing the foundation for the house we inhabit today.
One of the things you learn from teaching/learning U.S. History over the years is that one needs to look back at least one generation to truly understand the current state of events. For example, we know the roots of the Great Depression and World War Two were sown in the Treaty of Versailles, the development of the Black Civil Rights lawyers who ultimately won Brown v. Board of Ed began in 1930s law classes at Howard University (in particular, but not solely), the V-2 rockets during WW II spawned the Space Race of the 1960s, etc. Given that basic “formula” we can see that the current Red/Blue polarization and the election of Donald Trump began two generations ago and the seeds were deeply planted during the 1990s, bearing their rotten fruit in the last few years. What we might think about, then, is where will our nation be 25 years hence, as a result of what’s going on today. Break into small groups and discuss.
Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands.