Trump Hysteria and the Good Old Days
Recently, I have heard people lamenting the fact that, especially in the age of Trump, that the United States has become a divided nation like never before. In the “good old days” it is said that the American people were moderates politically and now they are “forced” to take sides and are not willing as a result to compromise, as they did in “the good old days.”
Some things about this argument bothered me and it took a little while to figure out what these things were. First, the very idea of “the good old days” bothered me as I think Billy Joel was right to sing, “The good old days weren’t always so good and today isn’t as bad as it seems.” I especially like the first part of this refrain because today is, often, as bad as it seems.
Second, “the good old days” is a myth, a comforting myth according to which that in the good old days people were moderate, willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and to compromise. I wonder: When was this “golden age” of moderation and compromise? Was it the 50s and 60s when blacks could not legally sit at lunch counter and order food in Greensboro, N.C.? Was it when there were no blacks at southern colleges and universities like UNC, N.C. State, or Wake Forest College? There was a time, in the good old days, when there were no black athletes playing any sports in the ACC or the SEC and a basketball player like Oscar Robertson, a resident of Winston Salem, N.C. had to go north to play division 1 college basketball.
Were people moderate and willing to compromise when very few gays or lesbians would “come out” for fear for their bodies and lives and for being arrested and charged criminally? Was our politics moderate when JFK, because he was a Catholic, was not on the presidential ballot in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia? Was our politics moderate when JFK was gunned down in Dallas in 1963? Or when MLK was gunned down in Memphis in 1968? Or when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles also in 1968? Or when Malcolm X was gunned down in the 60s as well? Or when Ronald Reagan, as governor of California spoke of shooting student protesters? Or when no one was charged with any crime after the killings of unarmed students at Kent State and Jackson State? If this is moderation, it is certainly a strange kind of moderation.
Thirdly, such arguments about “the good old days” imply that moderation and a willingness to compromise are the “default political position.” That is, moderation and a willingness to compromise are thought to characterize politics in its “natural state,” and this state is only upset by the efforts of people and politicians committed to disruption and chaos. And this is just another myth and one that is dangerously geared to political passivity. By this view, people shouldn’t have fight to be heard, to advance their agendas in the political arena. All people have to do is “start a discussion,” say, about race and, in the end, people will “see the light,” act moderately and compromise to advance justice.
Well, as near as I can tell, this is just poppy cock. It wasn’t a “discussion” that ended, for a while anyway, the racist apartheid regime that existed in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t a “discussion” that led the government, eventually, to change its policies in Vietnam, to seek “peace with honor” rather that “victory” over those evil Communists. It wasn’t a “discussion” that won workers the right to unionize and that led to legislation meant to make work places safer. It wasn’t a discussion that won women the right to vote in national elections. None of these phenomena occurred because the nation had “a discussion.” They occurred as the result of battles, real, bloody battles. As Plato makes evident in his Republic, justice does not just appear, is not “self-evident.” Knowing what justice is requires a struggle, which is what Plato understood to be philosophy. And of course this means that a politics of justice necessarily involves struggles, even battles as contestants seek to advance, one way or another, their different versions of justice.
The argument condemning Trump – and he deserves condemnation as do others as well – for dividing America based on the idea that in the past, in “the good old days,” moderation and compromise characterized our political order and society is an argument that leads to political passivity. As a result, eventually people will just throw up their hands, giving up when their wishes for a “discussion” about this or that are thwarted, thinking “what’s the use? Our political activity doesn’t get us anywhere.”
But as my mother use to say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Calling for “discussions” of race, of gender, of imperialism are powerless against the likes of Trump. It was Malcolm X who said a relatively long time ago, “The ballot or the bullet.” And, indeed, that is still the choice. It was Malcolm X who also said, “By any means necessary.” Without intending it, Trump has helped to create a situation where even people who claim to be “white” can understand, can feel what Malcolm meant.