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How Did We Get Here? And How Do We Get Out?

It's important that we figure this out, and figure out how to inoculate the country from this disease—the disease that conflates bravado with brains, degeneracy with dignity, greed with grace, hate with hope.

President Donald Trump holds a press conference announcing Vice President Mike Pence will lead the effort combating the spread of the coronavirus in Washington, D.C. on February 26, 2020. (Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

How did we get here?  We have the most objectively failed, personally repellent president in the history of the country, one who has publicly asked our greatest adversaries—Russia and China—to help him win, running a campaign that is a fetid cesspool of lies, venom, self-pitying, and conspiracy theories, aggressively trying to undermine democracy, and it’s still competitive.  Trump could still win.  Republicans could still hold the Senate.

How did America, the original and once-greatest democracy in the world, become reduced to such a pitiful, humiliating state?

It’s important that we figure this out, and figure out how to inoculate the country from this disease—the disease that conflates bravado with brains, degeneracy with dignity, greed with grace, hate with hope.  We can promote bravado and degeneracy and greed and hate.  Or, we can honor brains and dignity and grace and hope.  But we cannot do both.

Let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane to see how we got here.  We’ll start at 1980.  It was a pivotal year.

The country was still licking its wounds from its defeat in the Vietnam War—the first war America had ever lost.  Watergate hung like a pall over the nation, poisoning trust in government and all public institutions.  The Arab oil embargos had undermined the economy and our confidence in our economic prowess.  The Iran hostage crisis had left a sense of impotence and humiliation in foreign affairs.

Ronald Reagan was elected on a promise to make American great again, literally.  He said he would do so by spending the Soviet Union into oblivion militarily and enacting Supply Side economics domestically.  Reagan was a B-grade actor and a C-grade intellect, but he was the one to whom the country had given the nod.  So, we tried it.

The Soviet Union was already on its last legs.  The U.S. was outproducing it 10-to-1 economically and outspending it 5-to-1 militarily.  Save for its nuclear arsenal which Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to limit, it posed no meaningful threat to the U.S.  But it gave armchair warriors like Reagan something to beat their chests at.  It made them feel manly.

Supply side economics was the psychotic mythology (that we still live under, today, by the way) that if we all gave more of our money to the already-rich, we would all be better off.  They would invest our money back into the economy for us and the burst of growth that ensued would employ more people than ever before. Those expanding legions of workers would pay more taxes, but still have more left over, so that it would all pay for itself, and more.

It was the greatest self-licking ice cream cone in the history of self-deluding policy deceits.

The rich invested their money, alright, but in Asia.  That’s where the Asian Miracle was born.  They gutted the industrial Midwest and re-set up their factories in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and China.  Tens of millions of working-class Americans lost their solid, well-paying jobs.  And they haven’t come back.  That downward mobility in the middle of a cultural ideology of upward expectations was the genesis of the virulent resentment of “the system” that eventually metastasized into Trumpism.

Around the same time, 1980, media technology underwent a profound shift.  Before then, the country was bound together by a common culture that was communicated through three national television networks.  Everybody watched Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley for their news.  It was sober, and unsensational.  They watched The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie for entertainment.  It was saccharine but wholesome.

Then, cable television came along with its 500 channels and made stovepipes of the once-common culture.  Now, instead of imbibing a common narrative about themselves, people could live in almost any culture they wanted.  They could watch channels that covered nothing but monster trucks, or duck hunting, or history, or pornography, or sports or…pick your isolated, insulated venue.

Instead of a common culture where everybody affirmed common values and had a shared stake in a common well-being, we moved to a collocation of parallel cultures where everybody still had a stake in their own well-being, but the hell with everyone else.  Think of the panoply of pipes on a pipe organ.  They might play in harmony, but that is a rarity.  Without a skilled organist at the keyboard, it is much more likely they will produce cacophony.  That’s exactly what happened.

By the 1990s, we had the B-grade intellect and presidential wannabe Newt Gingrich fomenting a virulently partisan politics that showed little interest in a common good.  It was piped directly through cable channels like Fox.  Under Gingrich’s impetus, Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for the civilization-threatening sin of lying about sex, despite the fact that Clinton had engineered the longest running economic expansion in American history up to that time.  Clinton was the first president since 1969 to run budget surpluses, and he’s the last one since.

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In the 2000 election, the right-wing-controlled Supreme Court carried out a judicial coup d’etat of the government, overturning the votes in Florida in order to hand the presidency to George W. Bush.  Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the black-robed lynch mob that carried out the act, was recorded as saying, “We can’t have Al Gore as president.  He’s a Democrat!”  Amy Coney Barrett was one of the Republican lawyers on the inside, handing O’Connor the metaphorical axe.

By this time, the Internet was coming into its own.  On top of the stovepiping of culture spawned by cable TV, and the rabid right-wing rage borne of mass economic downsizing, it inflicted three truly demonic curses on the mechanism that conveys American culture.

The first curse was that it gave every village idiot a platform formerly reserved only for prophets.  Fat-mouthed morons who used to spend Saturday nights in the drunk tank now spent them blogging and genuflecting to their audiences of 11.  These drunks-cum-oracles fancied themselves visionaries, and were emboldened when their audiences swelled to 23.  The most enterprising of them, like Alex Jones, built substantial entertainment empires peddling conspiracy, hate, resentment, anger, and fear.

The second curse of the Internet was that it actually paid for the systematic destruction of decent, common culture.  On the Internet, money is paid for clicks.  Fear, deception, conspiracy, and hatred generate more clicks than do thought, integrity, civility, and reason. It’s because our lizard brains are wired to respond more quickly than does our neo-cortex to what is threatening, sensational, and hysterical.  It was an evolutionarily advantage when humans lived in the wild.  It is the death of civilization when every jerk with a keyboard is given the chance to make millions by ladling out bile.   

The third curse it that these self-anointed savants are able to assemble into virtual mobs, where all of the shouters imagine themselves as sentinels because they hear the sound of their own anger echoed back from the stovepiped blogosphere of similarly apoplectic ranters feeling their oats.  It’s like watching a mass of four-year-olds and two-year-olds playing with blocks.

The four-year-olds have acquired the fine motor skills to be able to stack the blocks into a rudimentary tower.  The two-year-olds have not yet developed that skill and are jealous.  The only power they have is the power to destroy, so they kick the tower over, and exult in their victory!  And that’s where we are today.

Where common culture used to enforce common standards of personal comportment—reserve, dignity, honesty, decency—stovepiped Internet culture removed the modulating effect of public shame and replaced it with the amplifying effect of lurid cheers at boys’ night out.  Now, it’s OK to lie, to bully, to de-humanize, to trade in conspiracy theories, because it everybody else in the stovepipe is doing it and it makes more money and it makes small men feel like Big Men as they push around women, gays, minorities, any “Other” from whom they can raise a cheer among their swaggering bretheren—and clicks—by degrading.  That’s what we have with Trump.

A swaggering caricature of megalomania and corruption who has almost single-handedly created the worst epidemic in the country’s history.  The worst economic collapse in 90 years.  The greatest, fastest run-up in debt in the history of the country.  The worst race relations in half a century.  The worst relations with our allies since World War Two—eighty years.  A desperate need to destroy democracy—kicking over the blocks—by lying about mail-in voting, and readying brigades of right-wing vigilantes to carry out voter intimidation.   Is there any public domain where Trump has actually built anything?  And, yet, he’s worshiped as some kind of savior.

Trump is entirely of this vapid, stovepiped, rancid right-wing victim culture.  He’s far less a real estate mogul than a Reality TV Star who played one on TV.  He inherited $420 million from his daddy but went bankrupt six times, shafting tens of thousands of tradesmen and laborers.  He is either a colossal loser of money of a colossal tax cheat, or both, though we don’t fully know because he still—after five years—hasn’t released his promised taxes.  Well find out, soon enough.

He’s bragged about groping women and fantasized publicly about having sex with his daughter.  His defense against the charge of raping one woman who sued him was, “She’s not my type.”  He openly eggs on white supremacists and haters while refusing to agree to a peaceful transfer of power.  He lies so much it would be easier to catalogue the times he’s spoken when he didn’t lie.  And this is the man we’re genuinely thinking about leading us, through another four years of his childish, undisciplined destruction?  Can the country even survive such a debacle?

In Greek mythology, the first generation of Gods was Chaos, Gaia, and Eros.  Gaia and Eros formed the impetus for life, but it was lived in the field of Chaos.  There, in Chaos, were born the second generation of Gods, the Titans.  The Titans were proto-personalities, really, more like impulses of enormous but malevolent and destructive power.  They could only destroy, begetting unending Chaos, which is why it took so many eons for Order to come into being.

Order only emerged with the birth of the third generation of Gods, the Olympians.  Led by Zeus, the Olympians fought the Titans and won.  How?  Zeus created Justice in order to unite the Olympians and peel away some of the Titans.  But Order had triumphed over Chaos.  Civilization was begun.  Still, it was only a temporary victory.  It would have to be renewed again, and again, indeed, eternally, and it pivots on Justice.  When Justice is broken, Order is disrupted.  Until Justice is renewed, Order cannot be restored.

That is the archetypal battle we’re fighting today, that of Order versus Chaos, of an Olympian culture fighting for its life against a Titanic force bent, as its nature compels, on that culture’s destruction.  The Titan has harnessed the forces of division against the Olympians and used the very lack of Justice itself to foment Chaos, and destruction.  

Until we, as a society, treat all people with worth—no matter their race or gender or faith—and give all people the opportunity to lead dignified, meaningful, fulfilling lives like we say we want for them, until we re-create a unified culture, bound together with common values, narratives, and purposes, then Justice will not be renewed and Order cannot be restored.  That is the challenge that the next president faces and on which will pivot the survival of the nation. 

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman

Robert Freeman is the author of "The Best One Hour History" series which includes "World War I" (2013), "The InterWar Years" (2014), "The Vietnam War" (2013), and other titles. He is the founder of The Global Uplift Project which builds small-scale infrastructure projects in the developing world to improve humanity’s capacity for self-development.

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