Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Nixon's Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics

Nixon’s Impeachment, Trump, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            Rick Perlstein in his Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, writes about “a spirit of the age” that led “Americans … to train their eyes on ugly truths. They had to abandon their heroes. They had to join the suspicious circles - to abandon blithe optimism.” [261]

            But this is precisely what the impeachment, the hunting of Nixon was all about: Confronting this “spirit of the age,” where the ugliness of American politics and even American life was being revealed – by the war in Vietnam, by the investigations into the CIA, by black power advocates, by feminists, by gays and lesbians coming out, by the free speech movement, by “stagflation,” to name a few phenomena of importance. Impeaching Nixon was a way to hide the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness. And then, once again, Americans could be made to believe that their politics was not ugly; rather, it was Nixon who was ugly. And, of course, it made perfect sense that this project led to the election of Ronald Reagan, a person who represented, even incarnated the idea that Americans and American politics were not ugly, who incarnated “blithe optimism,” that Perlstein shows was so much a part of Reagan’s politics.

            And after Nixon’s resignation, two phenomena confirm this. First, by forcing Nixon’s resignation, the establishment could claim, once again, that the political system “worked.” It cleaned itself up, as it were, confirming that the Constitution is one of the greatest political documents ever created. Second, by not following through with the impeachment proceedings against Nixon, which would have been perfectly constitutional as early on in our history the Congress decided that a resignation could not stop an impeachment, the curtain of respectability was once again drawn closed, covering over the ugliness of American politics. Nixon was banished and all was well again in the house built by our founding fathers.

            And this is how the story was played, from the White House to the mainstream media. From Gerald Ford, now president: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.” [273, Perlstein] A pundit at the NY Times said that “the end of the ‘Watergate agony’ presaged ‘an era of more open government.’” Frank Wills, the security guard who stumbled on the break in at the Watergate was quoted as saying “NO POSITION TOO HIGH” in a headline whose article said “in America even the president is not above the law.” NY Times senior columnist, James Reston celebrated “A SENSE OF NATIONAL RECONCILIATION” while guest writers quoted James Madison. As Perlstein summarizes: “They all resounded with the very same theme: the resignation proved that no American was above the law, that the system worked, that the nation was united and at peace with itself.” [273. Perlstein]

            And what a contrast the new president presented to the recently resigned president. He made his own breakfast; that is, he toasted an English muffin, which became “the joyous keynote – a national talisman of normalcy restored, “ according to the Washington Post. And Ford was “just a balding, square-jawed, honest, straightforwardly pleasant man….a man, who smoked a pipe, like one of those kindly old dads in a 1950s television situation comedy. A pure pragmatist, with no ideology to divide the nation.” Let the good times roll. [278, Perlstein]

            Hiding the ugliness of American politics behind a façade of righteousness has a certain ring to it, especially these days as so many righteously call out Donald Trump for his crassness, his politics, his racism and sexism. And, of course, like Nixon, Trump’s impeachment allowed this righteousness to flourish, while hiding the ugliness of our politics from view. There is no Reagan available to cap this project off these days but there is “Stumbling, Stuttering Uncle” Joe Biden to fill that role. While Biden is no Ronald Reagan, perhaps he will do until the next blithely optimistic doppelganger gets here.

           As William Faulkner wrote somewhere: “The past isn’t dead. In fact, the past isn’t even the past.” Indeed. Or as Mark Twain wrote somewhere: “Maybe history doesn’t repeat itself but it certainly rhymes.”  

           Of course as Perlstein points out, the ugliness of America was still there, even though buried beneath platitudes of pompous patriotic drivel. Three female Episcopalian deacons were banned from performing their official duties because they were …. women. In Jamaica, Queens “a criminal gang of police sergeants had extorted $250,000 from legitimate business owners.” And in Los Angeles, cops were buying bulletproof vests with their own money because they were being shot frequently and the police department wouldn’t buy the vests. It was also the year when Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson as a homicidal vigilante, became one of the most profitable movies of all time. . [274, Perlstein] And Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, asserted “the same kind of people who were paid to do the dirty work in Watergate were paid to so the dirty work in the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations.” [276’ Perlstein] As Malcolm X use to say, you would have to be asleep to believe the American dream, which was actually a nightmare.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

No Country for Old Men? Violence, Bloodshed, and American Politics

No Country for Old Men? Violence, Bloodshed, and American Politics
Peter Schultz

            Americans like to think that our political order is somewhat peaceful, running along fueled by elections every two years and presidential elections every four years. There are debates, sometimes nasty, and there are scandals like Watergate or Iran-Contra. Sometimes presidents resign (once), sometimes presidents step down or don’t seek re-election (once in recent years, LBJ), sometimes a president is not re-elected (twice in recent years, Carter and Bush I). But by and large, people think of the American political order as non-violent and bloodless, even if not exactly peaceful.

            The facts, however, tell a different story, a very different story. In fact, violence and bloodshed are central to our political drama, driving it and impacting its character. Consider the following: JFKs presidency was cut short when he was cut down, assassinated in 1963. Certainly this violent bloodshed had a tremendous impact on our politics insofar as LBJ became president. Consider too that LBJ decided – within days of JFKs assassination – to embrace the use of US troops fighting the war in Vietnam. (JFK approved advisers but never the use of ground troops in Nam.) This led to what is called “the quagmire of Vietnam,” which of course had a tremendous impact on the US, including more violence and bloodshed even within the US as happened at Kent State and Jackson State where American soldiers fired upon and killed American citizens. And this violence and bloodshed eventually let to LBJs abdication of the presidency after one full term, along with more violence and bloodshed in Chicago during the Democratic Party’s national convention.

            It also led to the election of Richard Nixon, who continued and even expanded the war in Vietnam to include almost all of Southeast Asia. Nixon engaged in massive violence and bloodshed not only in Vietnam but also in Cambodia and Laos, the former leading to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and its “killing fields.”

            Also, in the late 60s, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, along with alleged “radicals” like Fred Hampton in Chicago. Surely these violent and blood soaked assassinations impacted our politics in significant ways as MLK, Malcolm, and RFK espoused significant political alternatives to the prevailing consensus.

            The violence and bloodshed continued with wars in the Middle East and with the overthrow of the Shah in Iran and, eventually, the taking of American hostages. Even Jimmy Carter turned to violence both in Iran – to try to rescue the hostages – and in Afghanistan – where his administration supported jihadists and other Muslims seeking to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Carter started what became the largest “covert” military action ever undertaken by the CIA.

            The Reagan administration also embraced violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas and in Afghanistan where it continued what Carter began, funding the likes of bin Laden, as well as the ISI in Pakistan. The violence and bloodshed in Nicaragua led directly to the Iran-Contra scandal that almost cost Reagan his presidency. Upon his succession to Reagan, George Bush I turned to violence and bloodshed with regard to Panama and, more significantly, with regard to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The latter violence and bloodshed was billed by Bush as liberating the US from what was called “the Vietnam Syndrome,” as well as being the foundation of “a new world order.”

            The Clinton administration embraced violence and bloodshed as well, preferring to label it “humanitarian,” at least in Eastern Europe. It continued the violence against Iraq via sanctions and continued the bloodshed against Iraq with continued and constant bombings. And the Clinton administration even brought violence home via his war on crime that led to the militarization of police forces and the mass incarceration of, primarily, African Americans.

            And then, of course, on 9/11 the violence and bloodshed hit “the homeland,” with the attacks on NYC and the Pentagon. Needless to say, the second Bush administration turned to violence and bloodshed in response to these attacks, using 9/11 as the justification for spying on American citizens, for making war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for torturing “enemy combatants,” et. al. American society was militarized to a degree hitherto unknown, with troops appearing throughout society as well as being glamourized as the protectors of our freedoms and our prosperity. Violence and bloodshed spread throughout the world via the US military, and the phrase “endless wars” became as acceptable as our wars on crime and drugs. The Obama administration continued these wars embraced by the Bush administration, a sign of how deeply indebted our politics was to such violence and bloodshed.

            And yet through all of this history, very few seemed to notice this indebtedness, to the point that the Trump presidency was often presented as a unique challenge to a politics that was, if not always peaceful, devoid of much violence and bloodshed. In fact, however, US politics cannot be understood except as recurring cycles of violence and bloodshed. Which is why perhaps the title of Cormac McCarthy”s book, No Country for Old Men, is a most apt description of the United States.