A grade-school friend posted in Facebook concern about the anticipated post-election unrest in some US cities. Business owners in several of the cities that saw Black Lives Matter protests are boarding up their windows to avoid damage should rioting break out. Regardless of who wins the election, I assume. Another friend, a fellow ex-pat, for far longer than I have been one, lamented that it was “not the United States I grew up in, it’s the divided states.” It certainly feels like it’s the end of civilized society, and for our young people, it’s the first example of just how divided the country can be.
But I am, of course, the same age as my grade-school friends. We were in the fifth grade during the 1968 Presidential election. Our country was seriously divided by the Vietnam War, a conflict in which our young men were forced to fight, in someone else’s country, or flee our country. On April 4 of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., a champion of non-violent protest, was assassinated in Memphis. His assassination sparked major, city-leveling riots in over 100 cities. Then, on June 5 of that year, Robert Kennedy, a Democratic primary candidate and the brother of assassinated US President John Kennedy, was himself assassinated in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian anti-Zionist. In August 1968, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, police and the Illinois National Guard clashed violently with protesters. People who’d applied for permission to protest were called “anti-patriotic” by Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Sound familiar?
My entire childhood and adolescence were marked by division and political and social upheaval. On August 9, 1969, as Quentin Tarantino fans will know, followers of Charles Manson broke into a house on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles and killed the actress Sharon Tate and her friends. The sentence about this murder that has stayed with me since I read it in 1979 is from Joan Didion’s excellent book The White Album: “I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.” The reason for this lack of surprise was the unrest and sense of things spinning out of control that was the norm in that time, especially in places like Hollywood, where two different parts of American culture were constantly at odds with one another. Manson and his followers may have been drug-crazed misfits, but they were a symptom of the age, with their counter-culture “kill the pigs” rhetoric.
Then, on May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds into a group of 300 protesters, killing 4 nineteen- and twenty-year-old students, one of whom was just walking across campus, and wounding 9 others. Despite attempts to depict the shootings as self defense against dangerous “rioters,” only one National Guardsman required medical attention in the melee. Although most people now recognize this whole incident with horror, at the time, according to Gallup, 58% of respondents blamed the students and thought the shootings were justified. I know my parents were in that camp.
What about Presidential elections? Well, on June 17, 1972, the burgling of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Complex led to the eventual resignation of re-elected President Richard Nixon and more and longer division among the electorate. New (one-term) President Gerald Ford both pardoned Nixon and instituted amnesty for “draft dodgers,” trying to reunite the country, whose population was divided between people who thought Nixon should have been jailed for his crimes and people who thought he was railroaded and should still be President. Does any of this sound familiar?
Of course, there are differences between our time and the 1960s/70s. One of the biggest, I think, is a shift in the way a large segment of the population (and the President) view science and education. William Safire, whose “On Language” column in the New York Times was a particular favorite of mine, had been a speech writer for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, coining, among other phrases, the somewhat pompous “nattering nabobs of negativism” in reference to journalists. I can’t imagine a speech writer for the current administration using language quite so adeptly, but the sentiment is one that is shared by today’s conservatives, dismissing journalists as the “MSM” (mainstream media). Then, having educated leaders who could use alliteration and understand words like “nabobs” was seen as a plus by Republican voters. Now, education is viewed with suspicion, and the actually very well-educated people who surround the President play into that suspicion. A lot of this enmity is given voice on social media, the single biggest change to the way people get and pass on information. We no longer have to wait for someone to decide a story is accurate before it’s disseminated, and we no longer seem to have the attention spans to actually read the stories behind the memes and the tweets. This makes me nervous that it will be harder for people to come together after this election, regardless of the outcome.
My cohort, born in the late 1950s to early 1960s, were in many ways lucky. With the draft ending in 1973, we were too young to be drafted—and by the time of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, we were too old to be sent to Afghanistan or Iraq. The economy when I got out of college was not very good, with high unemployment figures, but it was a lot easier to live on very little money at the time, and by the mid-1980s, if we were lucky enough to have retirement funds and healthcare, we started to see them grow at unprecedented rates, even after withstanding the real estate-fueled recession of 2008. So for many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time we’ve really been caught short. No wonder people are upset and think it’s the end of the world.
But that’s not the whole picture, and the other part helps to explain the somewhat misdirected anger. People in the middle class feel squeezed out, poorer than they were a generation ago. Why might that be? The genius of Donald Trump is that he has convinced a good segment of this population that their problem is the people who want to take their jobs (immigrants, undocumented workers), and people who want to take their money (minimum-wage advocates, Medicare for all advocates, students). He, with his wall and his policies, is the only thing standing in the way of these cheaters and queue jumpers. Yet according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank founded as a non-profit institution to study these issues, CEO pay since 1978 has risen 940%, while the pay of the average worker has risen just 12%. Stated another way, CEOs earned an average of 221 times the average worker in 2018, compared to 45 times the average worker in 1989 and 16.5 times the average worker in 1965.
But if it were just CEOs, egregious as those figures may be, it wouldn’t seriously affect the way the average person lives. Since 1989, however, according to another think tank, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the share of the country’s wealth for the bottom 90% of households had decreased from approximately 33% to approximately 23% in 2016, when Donald Trump was campaigning. Since 2010, even the next 9% of households have seen their share of the pie start to decrease, while the top 1% had gone from about 30% to about 40%:
Donald Trump’s tax cuts directly benefited the bottom 90%. According to Market Watch, people earning from $10,000 to $200,000 saw a double-digit percentage decrease in their 2018 taxes, with people earning between $40,000 and $50,000 receiving the biggest percentage tax cut of all, at 14.5%. Tax payers making at least $1 million, in contrast, received an average 4.5% decrease. Trump’s followers believe, with some justification, that he kept his promise to them. Before the pandemic, the economy was booming and now they had a tax cut. Of course, the hidden benefits to the wealthy, which would become costs to the rest of the population, were a little bit more hidden. Economic opinion is still mixed on the cost to the economy of the tax cuts; if economists can’t agree, how is the average citizen supposed to figure out? In the meantime, that citizen has more money in his or her pay packet.
No wonder the pandemic made a good segment of the population so angry. And they were helped by President Trump’s rhetoric. They firmly believed (despite economic evidence to the contrary) that the xenophobic policies touted along with the tax cuts (tariffs, pulling out of the Paris accord, cuts to visas for students and workers) were going to keep them well off. Then “China sent the virus,” according to POTUS, and everything changed. Many of them lost their jobs or took salary reductions. And the Democrats wanted them to keep that economy, which had been humming along so nicely, closed. Trump has also managed to convince people whose taxes won’t go up under a Biden presidency that Biden is lying and they will. And I’m not talking about people who are anywhere close to Biden’s $400,000 number. I have one friend who makes around $36,000 a year who told me yesterday that his taxes will go up “$5800 to $6300—I can’t afford that!”
Then, at the height of the pandemic, people who were feeling aggrieved about the rug being pulled out from under them “by China” found themselves in the middle of another fight, this one the protests and, in some cases, looting in cities across the country. It was all too much to have to deal with, and hypocrisy on the left didn’t help. While New York governor Andrew Cuomo condemned the mass gatherings of people in a city that was just seeing some light at the end of the tunnel after being hit very hard by the pandemic, other public figures on the left didn’t follow suit. And while people on the left were quick to blame the President for the racial tensions he was inflaming, they contorted themselves not to say yes, we need to rethink our relationship with China after they hid this virus from us (halting local travel, for example, but allowing international flights from Wuhan to continue) and caused a lot of the suffering around the world by hiding it.
All of this reminds me of what I started with: 1968 – 1974. We never thought it would get any better. We woke up each day expecting more bad news. There was double-digit inflation. The government tried to suppress protests that, in the long run, most of the country has sympathy for. The President did something clearly illegal and blamed his political opponents for pointing it out. But at least Julie and David and Tricia and Ed never had White House jobs.