One of my earliest memories from childhood of political life in America is of the Watergate trial, and the images on TV of President Nixon’s fall from grace. Much less do I remember the years leading up to Watergate and those events which laid the ground for that profound rupture between the American people and those they had entrusted to lead the country.
Though I was born in 1964 and remember little of that tumultuous decade, as I watch and listen to keynote speeches coming out of the GOP convention this week in Cleveland, and even the public prayers led by (putative) Christian ministers, it seems like deja vu all over again.
The filmmaker Oliver Stone has said this about the closing years of the 1960s:
My generation had this tremendous surge of hope and idealism for a better world – a ‘Peace Corps World,’ let’s call it, for want of simplification. Then it just kind of caved in so quick. Bobby Kennedy went down in the bizarrest of assassinations. Martin Luther King Jr., again in the same year, 1968. I was in Vietnam at that time. All the blacks in my unit were so upset when King was killed, and they said, “Never again! Don’t trust whitey!” And it was over. You could just feel the 60s clattering down on top of you . . . it was a nightmare. And then we took drugs and dropped out, and then Nixon came in on this tremendous fear and everyone was so scared in 1968 that the world was going crazy with all these killings and assassinations. He was a face from the past and he came in and presented, like Hitler did, the concept of law and order to cure disorder. What did he give us? He promised us peace and he gave us four more years of war. He promised us order and gave us chaos. He gave us Watergate.
Whether the likening of Nixon to Hitler is a fair comparison or a case of rhetorical overreach, it is hard to argue with Stone’s deeper historical and cautionary point: that fearful human beings, when gathered together in political blocs, will often attach their collective fears and energies, which is to say their minds, hearts, imaginations, and wills, to a powerful figurehead who promises “the concept of law and order to cure disorder.”
The imposition of “law and order to cure disorder” presumes a great deal, but above all, the presumption that “we” are on the right side of reason, law, and order, and “they” are not. Who are “they”? Fill in the blank. It’s obvious. Our political opponents are the unreasonable, the unlawful, the disordered ones. Everyone knows who “they” are, and which of their leaders would further the moral bankruptcy of the country and the inevitable corruption of our kids. (And watch the process repeat itself in reverse during “their” national convention.)
If there was anything admirable in the hopefulness and idealism of the 1960s counterculture, surely it was the faith that so many of America’s young people put in the democratic process itself, which implies that every citizen not only has a right to participate in the building of the “commonwealth” but a positive moral duty to do so. And wherever one person or whole communities are left out, the many must rally to their defense, even risking one’s own well-being to defend the dignity and right to full participation in public life of those whose views we loathe.
As one music critic of the era observes, by 1974 (I was 10), the idealism of the 1960s, “the marches, slogans, love-ins, the changes that were supposed to make real every American’s constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness,” now carried “the hollow echo of Johnny Rotten’s snarl, ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated’?” Singer Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash sums up the aftermath this way:
The pendulum swings, very often in very non-plussing ways, and the swing from the idealism of the 60s to the conservatism of the Nixon and later the Reagan years was shocking to us. We thought that we would be able to change the world instantly and we were very naïve. This planet has a certain mass and it’s very difficult to change the trajectory of that mass. Maybe one is able to do it in millionth of degrees, but we thought it would happen overnight and we were wrong.
Of course the challenges we face today are not precisely the same as they were when I was a child. But in the heat of the moment, some five decades after the death of Dr. King, it is easy to forget the lessons of those years, and find ourselves embracing the same ideological polarities and disastrous political “solutions” of the past.
My own greatest fear – to borrow another lesson from the deeper American past – is fear itself, or the amassing of fears that would continue to drive us down the same tortured path of “Us” and “Them,” and continue to elevate leaders – not just presidents but local, state, and national legislators – whose main interest and motivation seems to be fanning those terrible flames.
The hard truth is that the “disorder” of our times cuts far deeper than any imposition of “law and order” is able to cure. That is the great deceit, and historically, the promise and temptation, of Great Deceivers. In one Great Stroke, I will “Make America Great Again.”
I (want to) believe that most Americans, most of the time, are much smarter than this. We know that the real cure for our complex societal ills is incremental, and can only come one “millionth of a degree” at a time, beginning with the softening of our own hearts of stone toward one another. It is at once the most difficult and the most beautiful cure. You may call me naive, but I’ll risk it, and call it love. Dr. King had it right: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
No leader – not even a great one – can save us from ourselves. Nor can any leader drive us into Hell. Only we can do that, together. This was Lincoln’s great insight, an essentially theological insight, born from the dark night of faith, in his extraordinary Second Inaugural Address.
Like it or not, we need one another. We belong to one another. It’s time that we all grow up and find new ways to imagine and work out our problems together. The alternative, as Lincoln knew too well, is death, and soul-killing grief, on all sides.
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Postscript: In his piece yesterday, following day two of the RNC, conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times writes: “Suddenly the global climate favors a Trump candidacy. Some forms of disorder — like a financial crisis — send voters for the calm supple thinker. But other forms of disorder — blood in the streets — send them scurrying for the brutal strongman. If the string of horrific events continues, Trump could win the presidency. And he could win it even though he has less and less control over himself.”