Forces of Chaos and Anarchy

We Should Have Seen it Coming: From Reagan to Trump–A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
Gerald Seib

I have gone missing but I have not stopped reading.

That, I suppose, is a statement always at risk of being true. If so, then it’s more true than ever lately as I find my free time diminished and my workday lengthened by an untimely staff death. Once again, the universe has unveiled a nasty streak of larceny aimed at my time.

That theft has not yet driven me to oxymoronic forms (i.e., audiobooks) but it has driven me to more than one “book” stored on my phone. As my dear departed colleague, herself an avid reader, liked to say,  “You spend so much time waiting you ought to at least have a book with you.” That notion, and a bargain-basement price, explain the present volume.

More than once I’ve referenced the role The Wall Street Journal played in my development as a young professional. Gerald Seib, the author of this book, is presently the Executive Washington Editor for the paper and for a long time penned a weekly column on doings in the capital city. He’s precisely the sort of person you meet riding the Acela corridor, where I literally once bumped into him.

Gerald Seib in the iconic WSJ dot illustration style.

Here Seib provides his version of our recent politics. Political journalists are always tossing off lengthier versions of the first draft of history and the longer form doesn’t necessarily improve things. How can I say this kindly? Journalists are concerned with a coherent storyline. The tale’s the thing. They often ask important questions. But the analysis is typically less satisfying than I like.

You could rightfully argue that they’re doing their job and if they find an expert willing to lend their interpretation then there’s no issue. I’m willing to accept that. It just strikes me as thin gruel. Maybe it’s why newspapers seem less vital to me now.

In any case, Seib essentially uses his own career as a frame for the transformation of Republican politics over the last 4 decades. That’s basically from the “Reagan revolution” to the age of “Make America Great Again.” I don’t want to pick fights, but anyone who sees these poles as two sides of the same coin, or as a story of mutation-free evolution, isn’t thinking clearly. They do, though, begin with a common impulse: throw the rascals out.

You could start a discussion of opposition and rage at the Contract With America.

The story Seib tells is, by now,  familiar. Mid-century Eisenhower/Country Club Republicans find themselves suddenly eclipsed by a group that so spectacularly lost the 1964 Presidential election that any sort of resurrection seemed beyond fanciful.  If you’d told anyone in 1964 that Republicans would be in control in less than 20 years you’d have been thought bonkers. Yet you might question that achievement when you consider what came next.

First, there was the rise of Newt Gingrich.  A would-be professor turned politician representing suburban Atlanta, Gingrich engineered a stunning Republican takeover of the House. That was just a prelude to turning himself into a legislative Icarus. But before immolating his political career Gingrich spurred real changes in legislation and in how the House operated.

Adding fuel to the fire. Homes lost. Dreams shattered. And bailouts for Wall Street.

Absent charismatic leadership those changes didn’t really stick in any meaningful way. One thing that fascinates me is cultural persistence. I’ve worked in at least two organizations that, in the name of self-preservation, decreed wholesale revolutions and overturned the majority of the staff. And yet years later self-defeating behaviors and policies remained in place. Why should the United States Congress be any different?

Yet the underlying anger kept simmering and exploded again in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. There are many ways to understand that mess. I’m particularly fond of David Harvey‘s Marxist interpretation which manages to cram in every trope I learned from the red diaper baby brigade I studied with into 11 entertaining minutes. No matter the explanation, what’s indisputable was the outcome. The malefactors–the financial elites–got bailed out, collectively, by the little people.

As a business acquaintance from the southeast always says, “Tain’t right.” And so the Tea Party movement emerged. In Seib’s telling the electoral success of the TPM in the 2010 midterms should have awakened everyone. Here was a group that could be,  and has been,  defined in many ways. Yet I haven’t seen a lot of use of the word i believe best describes their outlook: nihilism.

The great professor.
Whatever it is, he’s against it. Click the image for the musical version.

Like Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, whatever it is, they’re against it.

It strikes me that this, too, is a persistent undercurrent in the United States. However well-intentioned the present-day punditry may be in describing what they’re observing, their framing is very often too limited to “It started with _________” fill in the blank. Sometimes you get a half-hearted nod towards wanting to return to some mythic golden age, maybe the 1920s, more often the 1880s.

Such attitudes are neither recent nor novel.

Long before the Silent Majority, the Regan Revolution,  the Gingrich years and the Tea Party there was the 80th Congress, in the infamous formulation of Harry Truman the “do nothing 80th Congress.”  Which is not entirely fair. What they spent an awful lot of time doing was passing laws and Constitutional amendments related to the Presidency. They actually did pass a lot of important national security acts, too. But domestically. Robert A. Taft and his colleagues would have executed a U-turn if they could have. And they certainly were going to change some rules after a 4-term Presidency.

All that is old is new again, right down to defacing the flag they profess to revere.
Photo Courtesy RSD Museum

None of what we’ve seen since 2010 (or 2016)  is new. Nativism? See the history of the 1840s, in particular the “Native American Party,” known more familiarly as the “Know-Nothings.” Isolationism? See Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s. Urban-rural conflict? See the 1890s. It’s not just the companies I’ve worked in and Congress: ideas and attitudes stick around and bad ideas appear particularly sticky, never completely disappearing. It’s more like they go dormant waiting to be discovered anew, Gresham’s law applied to intellectual matters.

Is there no hope? In the faith tradition of my forebears, hopelessness is a grave sin.  So I won’t go there. But I fret that my children will face as fraught a time as any this nation has faced.

And like the song says, that ain’t good.

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