Could be worse, and was
I'm no goddamn ray of sunshine, but...
“On the ninth day, the hobo died. So it goes. His last words were, “You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.” — Slaughterhouse-Five
As expected it’s still uncalled, and there have been some good results — like the edifying defeat of QAnon freak Mayra Flores — but clearly the election, while not disastrous, was not a great revival of common sense and decency. I mean come on, J.D. Vance? If you can’t see what a fraud Vance is they shouldn’t let you have a driver’s license.
So it’s worth thinking about not only how much worse it could have been, but also how much worse it has been. And I’m not even talking about Trump.
I reminded you guys the other day about Reagan. If you know you know; but for a lot of younger folks it may be impossible to understand how much of a mindfuck the Gipper presidency was.
Reagan was well-known even to young dopes like me to be a hardcore wingnut from the land of John Birch — avuncular, sure, good at Del Sarte displays of presidential-like attitudes, and a great testament to Hollywood cosmetics — but it seemed impossible that anyone who could remember further back than the last time they changed the box of baking soda in the fridge would take a chance on the guy for President.
They did, though. And, smiling and shoe-shining all the way, Reagan looted the Treasury, giving massive tax breaks to the rich while screwing the poor. In his first term the nation went into recession — not entirely a U.S. thing, but (as we have been endlessly told about a similarly global inflation recently) something a president gets heat for. Reagan and his handlers stayed on mission, though; he did not, as is now the style, pump emergency dollars to the downtrodden; he instead gave them the old song and dance while he and his fellow Republicans fucked them over. Near the end of that term he even signed off on the first Social Security tax.
But I gotta tell you: A bunch of Democrats voted for that tax. (Including Joe Biden!) Because by then most of them had been utterly cowed by the Reagan Charm. He and his clotheshorse missus were all over the glamor mags and on TV specials; Dutch’s press agents saw to that. The polls suggested people didn’t like his presidency so much at that point, but they sure liked looking at him. And when the recession lifted, notwithstanding that the rising tide left many boats unbuoyed or plain sunk, the nation’s attention returned to presidential gala dinners and various other forms of what I’ve come to think of as upgrift. In 1984 he carried 49 states.
Iran-Contra was the real tell. It was arguably treason and at the very least a shocking perversion of U.S. foreign diplomacy. Bud McFarlane felt bad enough about it to take a bunch of Valium. (The bastard made it to May of this year.) But none of the rest of them was even remotely contrite. The Reaganauts covered shamelessly by getting Lt. Col. Oliver North on the stand in his full dress uniform (his hype man Robert Owen having warmed the crowd up by reading a poem about him into the Congressional Record) to dreamily rhapsodize on the love of country that motivated these perhaps over-enthusiastic adventures while his wife sat beside him, ostentatiously leafing through alleged telegrams of support.
The Democrats froze, then disintegrated like a Warner Brothers cartoon effect. (Thus was the Democratic Leadership Council born!). And the poohbahs of the press never knew what hit them. By the time the big man gave his own fuzzy-looking, recollection-challenged video testimony, it was clear they’d pulled it off: No one was gonna pin anything on the Gipper, criminal, moral, or political.
Reagan’s big-ticket post-presidential speaking tours — including a Japan leg that netted him $2 million, at the time (ha ha) a lot of money — were also an unseemly innovation, but by then Bush the Elder was running his own racket and guys like Bill Clinton, Paul Tsongas, and Bill Bradley were hiding behind pulled blinds at Democratic HQ waiting for the labor unions and social justice activists to take the hint and stop knocking.
Now, while most Americans went along with all this crap, clearly a lot of them didn’t, and down the road, in some battles that counted, they were able to hook up with enough independent voters to keep things from at least getting too crazy. But I will tell you as a non-going-along guy, in the depths of Reaganism it was hard to convince anyone else, even in deep blue New York, that it was just a racket, not to mention nuts — and, after a while, to convince myself that anyone in the newly yuppified universe ever could be convinced. Cynicism, always my tendency, became my redoubt. I stopped paying close attention to politics then — hell, by the time Clinton ran, I was even hopeful! (Shows what I knew.)
It really was as if America just didn’t make sense anymore, and I’d have to find a way to keep it from bothering me too much. In fact I look back at things I wrote later when things got bleak — like both times Bush the Lesser won — and I can see that the bitterness of my disappointment was really an outrage at having been made to give a shit. In fact, I really think the only reason I didn’t give up on politics entirely then was, I’d been writing about it long enough at that point that I felt I couldn’t quit while I was behind.
Lately things are disappointing — not catastrophic but sufficiently wrong-track that I do feel some strains of the old cynicism — that is, the freshly-hurt cynicism of the 1980s, not the bone-deep cynicism that is the wellspring of my genius. I look around and I see that some people, the MAGA rump, are simply depraved, and a lot of other people are bamboozled — thinking the police were defunded, that COVID is really no big deal, that gas prices can be driven down by tough talk, shit like that. But I also see a lot of people who aren’t so easily fooled. (Like the ones who voted for progressive DAs.)
And though the prestige press and the mainstream Dems are at least as hapless as ever, there are both public figures and ordinary Joes — like the warehouse workers and baristas who are unionizing, and the people who support them despite decades of boss-fluffing rhetoric — who seem pretty wised up.
I may be deceived — maybe there aren’t more of these people; maybe it’s just that they’re more visible to me now. But that would be an improvement, too, wouldn’t it — especially considering the dark tunnels of irrelevance that anyone who thought America was about more than just making money and killing your enemies had to live in in the old days.