"History repeats itself," wrote Karl Marx in 1852, "first as tragedy, second as farce." He was referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Louis Napoleon. One hundred and sixty-four years later, my subject is Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.
People talk about "the Sixties" as a heyday of activism in the U.S., and they're not wrong. I feel so grateful to have come up in a time when social imagination was encouraged, when social experimentation was rampant, when the desire to expand human liberty and human rights pervaded so many communities.
But the Sixties lasted more than a decade. Well into the Seventies, social action for justice and equity was going strong. It took a long time for the movement against the Vietnam War to succeed in stopping the war--or at least in exhausting the American people's belief in the wisdom of our war leaders--but finally, the draft effectively ended in 1973 in response to massive protest and civil disobedience, and when Saigon fell in 1975, the war effectively ended too. There was a sizable People's Bicentennial to counter the triumphalist official celebrations in 1976. Through the late Seventies, quite a bit of public money was still being invested in community development, including public service jobs that supported artists working in community to the tune of $200 million a year. It was by no means heaven on earth, but the enormous civil and human rights protests of the Sixties and early Seventies had made an indelible impression, creating the fervent hope and tentative expectation that justice would grow.
Back then, I lived in a world of the like-minded: San Francisco in the Seventies had not yet succumbed to the extreme gentrification brought on by high-tech corporate occupiers, and there were legions of organizers working from the micro--block-by-block politics--to the macropolitics of incipient globalization (a term that only began to take hold in the Seventies).
Here are two of the things that were widely believed in my circles at the time:
Social progress, in the form of the expansion of human rights and increasing equity, would continue. The force of history was unstoppable.
It didn't make much difference who was elected President; we didn't feel represented by either major party, and neither acted at all accountable to our values.
To say this was naive is drastic understatement. Within a startlingly short time following his election, Reagan had enacted a program that had been carefully planned in collaboration with the far-Right Heritage Foundation, abolishing public service employment and most community development funding, and going on to break unions, cut budgets for every type of social good, and reward his friends and supporters with tax-breaks and sweetheart deals.
I was living in Washington at the time, covering cultural politics for a national organization of community arts folks. No one was allowed to possess a copy of the first edition of Mandate for Leadership, the Heritage Foundation report that set out Reagan's agenda, but we were allowed to visit the Foundation's office to sit in a room with a copy of the report and make notes by hand. I still have the first radically alarmed bulletin I wrote about that surreal experience, along with many more that followed.
The thing is, everyone I knew was surprised--astonished--that a majority of those casting ballots in the 1980 election thought Reagan worth of their votes. I literally knew no one who had voted for Reagan. (I doubt I know anyone who will vote for Trump either.)
Our astonishment was a startling indicator of our own short-sightedness and ignorance. Reagan himself had been a progressive at one point, voting liberal Democrat and rising to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild. When McCarthyism gripped Hollywood, he aligned himself with the witch-hunters. By 1962, he had joined the Republican Party and opened a lucrative new career track as a spokesman for conservatives. He was elected Governor of California in 1966, cementing his popularity by sending National Guard troops to crack down on student protestors and riding his increasing visibility through two unsuccessful attempts at the presidential nomination before winning it and beating Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Reagan was clearly plugged into a meta-trend in U.S. politics that had escaped my notice. It could accurately be described as a backlash against the very movements that my friends and I had mistaken for the pulse of the nation. Many people were frightened by the shifting social boundaries and mass protests that had filled their TV screens. They longed for a society of ordered authority with white men in charge. They had voted accordingly, responding to Reagan's famous "Morning in America" message, which promised that under his leadership the clock would turn back.
The tragedy followed. Now comes the farce. Did you see The Daily Show segment featuring members of the U.K. Parliament denouncing Donald Trump as a buffoon? It was like a splash of cold water on a very dry day. My eyes feel more open now than in the Seventies, but still, I am having a familiar type of incredulity flashback. I'm having a hard time making myself believe that the U.S. electorate will allow this racist, sexist, narcissistic clown to become President.
The thing is, Ronald Reagan taught me to believe it.
And that's not all he taught me. Reagan showed me a truth of postmodern politics: the candidate who speaks most strongly to those who are unhappy with the current order of things has a good chance of winning. Despite all the party-machinery superstitions that push candidates toward what is perceived as the "middle of the road" in the hope of capturing swing voters, it's really hard to excite people with middle-of-the-road platitudes.