“Truth, Justice and the American Way.” That was how each episode of “Superman” was introduced in the early days of television that followed World War II. Now, we have finally arrived in the Age of Disillusionment, questioning whether the American Way is still firmly rooted in truth and justice, or if it ever was. Was this catchphrase merely a wishful ideal, an unrealistic sentiment requiring a fictional “Superman” to make it true? If that was indeed the case, as the TV show obliquely implies, even then there was an innate awareness that the truth lay somewhere else. In 1950’s America, justice and truth were a matter of perspective. If the Constitution was true and justice lies in equality then why was segregation still enforced in the South and women had not attained equal rights under the law. We regard it as a positive sign that for decades we have witnessed major changes in our system of laws and consequently the culture. As we look at this passing timeline of change, we believe America has made real progress, so why in the age of Trump are we being asked to look backwards to “Make America Great Again?”
To be sure the value system we have today is not one created by Trump. Rather Trump was created by a shift in our values. Is Trump merely a sign, a mile marker on the road to disillusionment? It has taken many decades to affect this shift in values, from a false belief in the righteousness of our patterns of conformity, to the realization that we have been living in a world of self-delusion. Whether the glass is half empty or half full, we have divided ourselves into two basic camps, that of lemmings and cynics, those who believe anything and those who question everything. These divisions do not follow political lines. They are neither progressive or conservative, Democrat nor Republican. They are simply recognized by the politically astute as believers and non-believers, both vulnerable to manipulation by skilled hands.
Turn on the radio if you seek evidence of this massive culture shift. In my day, the Beatles were content with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” That and songs like “She Loves You” proclaiming the simple joys of young love, moved thousands of teens to flock to their concerts and millions to buy their records. Decades before, Bing and Frank crooned love songs and throughout the fifties and sixties, no matter what the genre, love songs dominated the airwaves. Today, songs need not have a melody, but are created around “beats.” Lyrics are a far cry from hand-holding. Take these lyrics from Lil’ Kim… “I wet cha like hurricanes and typhoons, got buffoons eatin’ my pussy, while I watch cartoons.” The balance of the song is liberally spiced with all manner of profanities, heavy use of the word, “Fuck,” and the forbidden “N’ word permitted only in rap music and Tarantino movies. Now I’m an avowed liberal and none of these words bother me in the slightest, but even I will admit that something very tender has been lost here. Is this what Trump means when he seeks to go back into the future with MAGA? No, not really. It’s a talking point just to push your emotional buttons, nothing he can do anything about.
Today, the overwhelming success of movies based on Marvel and DC comics’ super-heroes gives testament to a return to the mentality of that former decade. We have emotionally retreated to a time when mere mortals could not solve our problems and we again fantasize of super-powered heroes. But no longer is just one hero enough. Our problem is so large that heroes must team up, combining their many, varied superpowers to defeat the evil villains, such is the magnitude of evil. Trump, a TV personality at best, was the first politician to recognize this and took full advantage, forming his team of like-minded “heroes,” a cabinet of backward thinkers and ner-do-wells, to subvert the timeline of progress and undermine our entire political system by seeding mistrust with promises of the return to a “Greatness’ only he can deliver.
In those early days of television and on into the sixties, the American family was identified simplistically and with moral clarity through shows like “Father Knows Best” and “Make Room for Daddy.” Now, the American Family is represented in television and movies as a dysfunctional unit of misfits through shows like “Shameless,” “Breaking Bad” and “Animal Kingdom.” A lot has changed as to how we are willing to see ourselves.
Back when the news was determined by investigative journalists and filtered through media giants controlled by millionaires and rich corporations who benefited from keeping the masses pacified and moving along the lines that best suited their own agendas, the nation was unified because the media was united in its messaging and the electorate shared common beliefs born of their messaging.
Today we are divided between those of us who get their news via traditional over-the-air, terrestrial broadcasting and those who rely on cable to learn what is happening in the world. You might say it’s the haves and the have-nots. The largest terrestrial News broadcast is Fox News. The largest cable News channel is CNN. These two news giants control the flow of news that divides this nation between fact-driven and emotion-driven responses. When Roger Ailes defined Fox News’ mission, he formulated it to conform to his own belief system, unabashedly subjective, and unapologetically emotional. This is well documented. CNN with all its shortcomings nevertheless reports data, not alternative facts as does Fox, false narratives designed to support the singular opinion and political mission of its founder.
With the advent of the internet, the power of any individual to move public opinion has shot gaping holes in the old model, and bad actors such as foreign interests, hackers, pranksters, the greedy, and corrupt politicians have hidden among them in plain sight through the use of trolls and bots that perpetuate fake news as if they were just everyday people using social media to express themselves. In previous decades, this type of misinformation was called psyops and was the exclusive domain of military and intelligence organizations looking to control public opinion. In foreign countries we referred to it as propaganda. Now, it hides among the masses, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be just like you and me, but with many more powerful resources at their disposal. They prey on our disillusionment as any predator singles out the weak for a kill.
American disillusionment began with the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Never has this public murder, one orchestrated in prodigious detail been fully explained by our government. Rather today, even the most uninformed citizens do not believe in the “lone gunman” nor the “magic bullet.” In the face of the very few standardized facts, it defies logic and common sense. Followed by the assassinations of his brother Robert and the Reverend Martin Luther King, we descended into a lasting despair in search of our next hero, who emerged as the TV cowboy president, the guy who disassembled our economy and reassembled it into one favoring his rich supporters and political cronies. Along the way we elected a couple crooks who installed a war criminal as Secretary of State and an Attorney General who through a political slush fund managed to destroy American faith in its institutions. Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, pleaded no-contest to criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax fraud, but after Nixon resigned, Ford pardoned the disgraced Nixon and “saved the country” from the turmoil that would have ensued in a prosecution of this fallen-from-grace imperial angel and demonstrated that indeed, there are those who are above the law. John Mitchell was ratted out by his wife, Martha, nice guy that he was, and sentenced to 19 months in jail, and to this day Henry Kissinger is a wanted war criminal in France.
By now, given the various reasons and means which determine our leaders demise, it should have been clear that who we elect and how they acquired office needed more examination than was given by a timid and compliant press of the period.
Then in 1988 a firm hand took the rudder and an ex-CIA director, otherwise unelectable save for his ascendancy as a Vice President to a TV cowboy, marched us through an easy win in “Desert Storm” and the America that carried its tail between its legs ever since its defeat in Viet Nam, was now a proud, flag-waving country once again. That is, until a Southern charmer handed the stiff commander his electoral ass and led us into a morass of legal definitions of words like “sex” and “is,” as he desperately tried to evade the inevitable consequences of a lifetime of indiscretion and marital infidelity, Clinton was undone by a young Whitehouse intern who smoked Clinton’s bent penis like a cigar, which according to Clinton, did not constitute a “sexual relationship” since it lacked a vaginal component. Unfortunately for Bill, the cum stains on Monica’s blue dress said otherwise, and the moral shift that followed could be felt like shifting tectonic plates, as we rallied behind the man who brought our economy into balance for the first time. America had its priorities and marital infidelity was not on the list.
As we turned the corner on the century, new and expanded horrors awaited. The same individualism given expression on the internet wound its way to validate a variety of crazies empowering them to act as lone terrorists on behalf of a belief system founded on radical religion or territorial affiliation. Bullied students killed their classmates and teachers en-masse. Violated workers killed their fellow employees–but our institutions remained strong. That is until September 11, 2001 when a small band of radicals acting together flew four jumbo jets into the very symbols of American power—two into the Twin Towers, one into the Pentagon and a fourth failed attempt diverted from the Whitehouse to an alleged crash in a Pennsylvania farm field. Well anyway, that’s the official story. While the Bin Laden family, personal friends of GW, was whisked away and safely flown back to Saudi Arabia all other flights were grounded. Later, as all evidence of the crashes was carted away and disposed of, America watched and waited for the truth, only to get a white-washed version with too many holes in it to be entirely plausible. Following that, led by W and Cheney, America plummeted into a moral abyss forgoing constitutional rights under the “Patriot Act” and willingly supported torture depriving prisoners of the basic humanities that are protected by the Geneva Convention. We were no longer the shining example we claimed to be. On May 3, 2003, aboard the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln , Bush declared “Mission Accomplished.” Yes it was. The rights of American citizens had been redefined by a single act, but whose?
And so, perhaps as a result of this changing moral climate, the following decades saw a rise in Police brutality inflicted on peoples of color. Shoot first and ask questions later became the rule of law. Drivers were shot in their vehicles after minor traffic violations. A man was choked to death for selling single cigarettes without a license. So much for the moral understanding of Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey and cowboys of lore. Truth is, it was never like that and while it may have gotten worse, it was just more apparent. Thanks to the proliferation of smartphones that shoot video, police were caught in the act and yet almost to a man were never prosecuted and avoided punishment, yet we wonder, “What got into these uppity Blacks that they don’t respect our institutions?”
But it only gets worse. Little was left to believe in until we learned that we were not even safe in our homes and schools. After we learned that our largest financial institutions were “too big to fail” we plunged into a long-lasting recession, ultimately resulting in the foreclosure of approximately seven million homes and the loss of 9 million jobs.
While it took 58,318 deaths of American sons in Viet Nam before public opinion became forceful enough to move it to its inevitable end, we, America’s parents sit helplessly depressed as our schoolchildren are slaughtered without conscience by other disturbed children with access to high-power weapons. Yet, the only organized voices strong enough to be heard against the din of the NRA have been the children who were friends of the slain. We should be ashamed, but it’s hard to feel anything else, yet alone take action, when you are deep into a depression and live in different realities.
Perhaps we have forgotten that the first school shooting was way back in 1970 when the National Guard shot and killed four innocent students walking to class at Kent State at distances over 100 yards, such was the threat they posed. One might have expected community outrage over these murders, but the Nixon administration had whipped up national fervor to support the actions of the Guard and the dead students were villainized for years to follow.
Alternate lifestyles and beliefs have never been easily tolerated by the “moral majority,” despite legal protections guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right of assembly. When David Koresh, an eccentric religious leader established a cult community in Waco, Texas, then Attorney General Janet Reno called in the military to root them from their community home under the pretense of protecting their children from sexual abuse. After a 51 day siege, while the news media was kept over a mile away, she supervised the mass destruction of their compound by sending in flame-throwing tanks to penetrate their structure and burn it to the ground killing 76 inhabitants including 23 children. Oh well, those degenerates got what was coming to them and on we moved. Later the FBI found that no abuses had occurred, but a righteous nation had long forgotten. Thank God for the NRA who protected the Branch Davidian’s 2ndamendment rights. Unfortunately, no one explained to Koresh that AR15s and AK47s are an inadequate defense against tanks, gunship helicopters and flamethrowers. They died clinging to their rights. Looking at long term patterns, it would seem that the rule of law in the United States has too long been that equal justice is not applicable to those who self-identify as different and may be interpreted and twisted at will by those who administer it.
So what are we left to believe in? Some might say science, others might say religion, but the difference between facts and fairy tales will remain an unresolved controversy if this is the ground on which we choose to do battle. With virtually every scientist in the world affirming man’s influence on climate change and with the means to reverse it at hand, virtualy a single climate denier at the pinnacle of our government has stopped and actually reversed progress to attain this critical goal. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Christian fundamentalists flock to a little town in Northern Kentucky to view a “replica” of Noah’s Arc and the Creation Museum that purports that millions of years ago, Homo Sapiens and dinosaurs inhabited the planet together while denying the evidence of evolution presented by science. Which scenario is harder to believe?
Turn on the radio if you seek evidence of this massive culture shift. In my day, the Beatles were content with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” That and songs like “She Loves You” proclaiming the simple joys of young love, moved thousands of teens to flock to their concerts and millions to buy their records. Decades before, Bing and Frank crooned love songs and throughout the fifties and sixties, no matter what the genre, love songs dominated the airwaves. Today, songs need not have a melody, but are created around “beats.” Lyrics are a far cry from hand-holding. Take these lyrics from Lil’ Kim… “I wet cha like hurricanes and typhoons, got buffoons eatin’ my pussy, while I watch cartoons.” The balance of the song is liberally spiced with all manner of profanities, heavy use of the word, “Fuck,” and the forbidden “N’ word permitted only in rap music and Tarantino movies. Now I’m an avowed liberal and none of these words bother me in intrinsically. It’s how they are used that becomes offensive. But even I will have to admit that something very tender has been lost here. Is this what Trump means when he seeks to go back into the future with MAGA? No, not really. It’s just a talking point to push your emotional buttons, nothing he can do anything about.
But we still had our elections, the last bastion of freedom-loving citizens who want to believe that America was still the world leader in humanitarianism and equality and as such, ignoring the influence of big money, they, as voting citizens, have the power to determine its course, as they elect one corporatist after another, after another, after another. It’s not much of a choice when both candidates are corporatists. Consequently, the choices we are presented with are defined along other guidelines. No wonder a plurality of eligible voters decline to participate year after year.
Recognizing this simple statistic has become key to winning elections. It is a vast untapped resource. To identify these people and move them to participate requires pushing some pretty well established but less than obvious emotional buttons. Once these buttons are identified then the new winning politic is to suppress certain eligible voters on the one hand, while creating new emotionally-charged voters from the disillusioned cynics on the other.
With the help of Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, Bush defeated Gore by the slimmest of margins by suppressing voter rolls and tallying irregularities created by the design of the non-uniform voting forms used in various Florida precincts.
This is but one tool in a devious politicians arsenal. By far the biggest tool commonly used is gerrymandering, which allows state legislatures to group bodies of voters along serpentine jigsaw-puzzled maps to create an advantage in the count, where none previously existed.
In 2004, Ken Blackwell worked tirelessly in a quasi-legal manner to assist George Bush in winning swing state Ohio by suppressing voter turnout of Democrats. Additionally, dirty tricks occurred across the state, including phony letters from Boards of Elections telling voters that their registration through certain Democratic activist groups were invalid and that Kerry voters were to report on Wednesday not Tuesday because of massive voter turnout. Phone calls to voters giving them other erroneous polling information were also employed., thus handing Bush re-election. Perhaps this is legal, lying to take advantage of the misinformed, but is this the democracy we can build our future on? Is this the American way?
In the years that followed several companies emerged to gather data and apply that knowledge to manage elections for their paying clients. Prominently among these was a British Firm started by Steve Bannon, Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge used data gathered digitally from social media sites and smartphones to target “persuadables,” in order to increase or suppress voting. After applying their techniques to elections in countries such as the Czech Republic, Argentina, Malaysia, Nigeria, Malta, Kenya, India and others, some 200 countries in all, it moved on to manage Brexit in the UK, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson in the United States and finally Donald Trump, defying laws against foreign interference in our elections. Knowledge is power, but how you use it is ethics. As the hammer was coming down on Cambridge, they declared bankruptcy, closed their operations and removed and destroyed all evidence of their illegal activities thus avoiding prosecution for the time being. Too late, Cambridge has already reformed the world by identifying our different realities and pandering to our disillusionment.
We are a polarized nation split between those who seek knowledge and those who follow their beliefs, those who watch CNN and those who watch Fox News, those who seek facts grounded in hard data and those who follow alternative facts founded in opinion, those who investigate and those who intuit. We were easy prey once identified.
The result was that we elected a sexually-active, philandering “billionaire” fascist racist whose financial acumen consisted of stiffing contractors and bankrupting a casino (how do you lose money with a casino?) over a woman who mismanaged her emails. That was some choice, but we went for it. Thank you, Cambridge Analytica.
Since then in just two year’s time, we have witnessed the erosion of all that we hold dear. The swamp that Trump had identified was now, under his rule, in the words of Anthony Scaramucci, “a gold plated hot tub with no drain.”
“Time it was and what a time it was. It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences, Long ago I had a photograph. Preserve your memories. They’re all that’s left you.”