How we got into this mess

Sam Smith –  Disasters like President Trump don’t just happen; they typically have years of unattended, unnoticed and uncorrected precedents. For example, I have argued for at least a decade and a half that America had quietly ended its first republic and that we were in an ill-defined succession perhaps best described by a term used in Latin America: a culture of impunity.

Which is to say one based on hegemonic liberty i.e. the more power you have the more freedom you have to use it. Traditional external factors such as democracy, history, law, community, religion and cultural values move to the rear or disappear. As I described it:

In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, and at best practices only titular democracy. A culture of impunity differs from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a new culture does not announce itself.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power, and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose, or get caught.

The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.

While one can’t put a date on such a shift, a good approximation would be the Reagan administration. As I wrote in his wake:

Ronald Reagan … applied principles he had used to sell Chesterfield cigarettes to hawk a toxic form of government described well by Robert Lekachman:

“Ronald Reagan must be the nicest president who ever destroyed a union, tried to cut school lunch milk rations from six to four ounces, and compelled families in need of public help to first dispose of household goods in excess of $1,000”.

There is considerable evidence that the collapse of the First American Republic began in no small part with Reagan’s inauguration:

– The number of federal inmates increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to nearly 219,000 in FY2012.

– According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an all-time record 49 percent of all Americans live in a home where at least one person receives financial assistance from the federal government. Back in 1983, that number was less than 30 percent.

– From 1947 to 1979 family income of the bottom 20% went up 116% and those in the top 20% went up 99%. Between 1980 and 2009, the bottom 20% went up 15% while the top 20% went up 95%

– Hours worked per employees are the highest since the 1980s.

– Middle class debt is the worst since the 1980s.

– Personal bankruptcies are up 400% since the 1980s.

– Student loan debt is the worst since the 1980s

– In the 1980s there were 50 corporations controlling most of the major media. Now there are six.

– During the Reagan administration the number of families living below the poverty line increased by one-third.

Just recently David F. Ruccio wrote that: “In 2014, the top 1 percent (red line) owned almost two thirds of the financial or business wealth, while the bottom 90 percent (blue line) had only six percent. That represents an enormous change from the already-unequal situation in 1978, when the shares were much closer (28.6 percent for the top 1 percent and 23.2 percent for the bottom 90 percent).

There are other aspects of the Reagan years we tend to forget. For example, the Reagan administration was among the most corrupt in American history including, by one estimate, 31 convictions of top officials. By comparison 40 government officials were indicted or convicted in the wake of Watergate. 47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes with 33 of these occurring during the Clinton administration itself.

David R. Simon and D. Stanley Eitzen in Elite Deviance, report that 138 appointees of the Reagan administration either resigned under an ethical cloud or were criminally indicted.

The Reagan administration also had secret plans for an unconstitutional takeover of the federal government under an ill-defined national emergency. Members of the government created by the coup had been selected and included Richard Cheney.

Reagan’s policies also led to what was then the greatest financial scandal in American history: the savings & loan debacle which cost taxpayers billions of dollars.


Contrary to our faith in national immortality,  anthropologist Alfred Kroeber noted that elements of a culture do die out, “dissolve away, disappear, and are replaced by new ones. The elements of the content of such cultures may have previously spread to other cultures and survive there. Or their place may be taken at home by elements introduced from abroad. Or they may survive, with or without modification, at home, in the different configuration that gradually takes the place of the old one as a successor culture.”

As an example, Kroeber says that there came a time when the ancient Egyptians had clearly attained “the greatest military might, expansion, wealth, excellence of art and development of thought. The inherent patterns of their culture may be said to have been fully realized or to have been saturated then. After that, with pattern potentialities exhausted, there could be only diminished or devitalized repletion; unless the patterns can be reformulated in the direction of a new set of values – which would be equivalent to recasting the civilization into a new one or into a thoroughly new phase of one. This latter did not happen in Egypt; so more and more sluggish mechanical repetition within the realized but fully exhausted patterns became the universal vogue.”

So while it is easy to blame Trump for everything that is going wrong, it is important that we recognize these and other factors. For example:

The rise of television advertising which shifted politics  from a community-based to an image based standard, aided by factors like the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court

The rise, thanks in no small part to cable, of round the clock television news and commentary. Before cable, people got their news from a relatively few programs that tended to be more objective. Steady coverage quickly runs out of actual news. It also makes news programs increasingly dependent on highly biased but convenient sources such as the White House. As seen on TV, presidential news conferences, for example, were once far less frequent than they are now.

– The over reliance by national news programs on politicians and other journalists, with a noticeable decline in the use of those outside the political establishment such as professors, ministers, local and state officials and leaders of non-political organizations.

The close ties of major media to corporate America described in one article this way: “Project Censored researched the board members of 10 major media organizations from newspaper to television to radio. Of these ten organizations, we found there are 118 people who sit on 288 different American and international corporate boards proving a close on-going interlock between big media and corporate America.”

The media’s growing distance from those to whom it is reporting. When I started out as a Washington reporter in the 1950s, only about half of American journalists had more than a high school degree. They naturally identified with their readership rather than with their publishers or elite sources. I didn’t let anyone know I had gone to Harvard because that would not have improved my standing either with staffers on the Hill or colleagues in the media.

Ben Bagdikian, a bit older than myself, described the craft in his memoir, Double Vision, this way:

“Some of us on that long-ago paper had college educations but we learned to keep quiet about it; there was a suspicion that a degree turned men into sissies. Only after the war did the US Labor Department’s annual summary of job possibilities in journalism state that a college degree is ‘sometimes preferred.'”

All this hasn’t helped the reputation of the media among the public. For example the British paper, the Independent, noted:

Almost a third of Americans support Donald Trump’s belief that the media is an “enemy of the American people” and favor government restrictions on the press, according to a new survey.

A smaller but still significant number of Americans — roughly a quarter — endorsed allowing the government to halt publication of “a story that government officials say is biased or inaccurate,” an extraordinary rebuke of precedent barring such government control of the media.

The rise of corporatism  –  In countries such as Italy, corporatism was the precursor of fascism. We’re not quite there yet, but seem at times clearly headed on the path.

Until the last decades of the 19th century, Americans believed in a degree of fair distribution of wealth that would shock many today. Most free workers in this country were self-employed well into the 19th century. They were thus economic as well as political citizens. James L. Huston writes in the American Historical Review:

“Americans believed that if property were concentrated in the hands of a few in a republic, those few would use their wealth to control other citizens, seize political power, and warp the republic into an oligarchy. Thus to avoid descent into despotism or oligarchy, republics had to possess an equitable distribution of wealth.”

Although the practice was centuries old, the term capitalism — and thus the religion of the same name — didn’t even exist until the middle of the 19th century.

Americans were instead intensely commercial, but this spirit was propelled not by Reaganesque fantasies about competition but by the freedom that engaging in business provided from the hierarchical social and economic system of a monarchy. Business, including the exchange as well as the making of goods, was seen as a natural state allowing a community and individuals to get ahead and to prosper without the blessing of nobility or feudalism.

In the beginning, if you wanted to form a corporation you needed a state charter and had to prove it was in the public interest, convenience and necessity. During the entire colonial period only about a half-dozen business corporations were chartered; between the end of the Revolution and 1795 this rose to about a 150. Jefferson to the end opposed liberal grants of corporate charters and argued that states should be allowed to intervene in corporate matters or take back a charter if necessary.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that economic conditions turned sharply in favor of the large corporation.

Says Huston: “The rise of Big Business generated the most important transformation of American life that North America has ever experienced.”

By the end of the 19th century the Supreme Court had declared corporations to be persons under the 14th Amendment, entitled to the same protections as human beings. It was during this same time that the myth of competitive virtue sprouted, helping to justify one of the great rapacious periods of American business

The populist, progressive and New Deal eras helped to reverse much of this. But all that is now in the past. The new robber barons are not only underpaying and mistreating their workers they are moving their jobs overseas.

The political movement of populism, which Jonathan Rowe called the “last spasm of economic freedom in an American context,” did battle with the new corporations but lost, as did the eurocentric socialists who followed. Save during the depression, generations of Americans would come to accept the myth of the free markets and free enterprise. Today, only about 7 percent of non-farm workers are self-employed.

 – The rise of a gradocracy.  In the 1950s universities were turning out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.

By 2005,  these schools graduated 142,000 MBAs in one year.

There are plenty of worthy arguments to be made correlating the rise of business school culture with the decline of our economy and our country. A cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product has become wasted energy. And not just the physical sort. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. We have created an economy based not on actually doing anything, but on facilitating, supervising, planning, managing, analyzing, tax advising, marketing, consulting or defending in court what might be done if we had time to do it. The few remaining truly productive companies become immediate targets for another entropic activity, the leveraged buyout and the rise of the killer hedge fund.

And it was not just business school graduates that were the problem. In 2009, the Washingtonian Magazine estimated there were 80,000 lawyers in Washington.

The law has always been a favored profession for the Congress. Even Thomas Jefferson complained, “If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send one hundred and fifty lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, and talk by the hour? ”

It was a given until recent times, that from a political point of view, understanding law or economics or business was a valuable asset but one that fell far behind social intelligence upon which successful politics relied. As my father, a lawyer who worked in the New Deal, would tell my buddies, “Go to law school, then do something else.” Roosevelt wasn’t as gracious towards the academic elites: “”I took economics courses in college for four years, and everything I was taught was wrong.”

Today, the gradocracy has increasingly determined the views and strategies of liberals. People with less education are considered a lesser group and even, to borrow the word of the last Democratic presidential candidate, “deplorables.”

One of the effects is that instead of organizing, liberals increasingly analyze, criticizing the very people they should be converting or activating. The term “white privilege,” for example, isn’t all that appealing to that portion  of white America in poverty, a group twice as large as blacks of all incomes. And the analyses rely heavily on errors of history making me wonder sometimes whether we haven’t become a national dysfunctional family, forever trapped in our past rather than breaking out of it. As I  hope this essay illustrates, history can be  useful, but to let it define today’s limits can be painfully ineffective.

– The decline of study of matters of importance to maintaining a democracy. The current indifference to matters such as history and civics in our schools means that we are creating generations that don’t have a firm handle on what a democracy is and how it functions.  We don’t even talk about it. But a recent poll found that in 1995, only 16% of 16 to 24-year-old Americans believed that democracy was a bad way to run the country. By 2011, that share had increased to 24%. Further, only 43% of older Americans did not think that the military should be allowed to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job. Amongst younger people the figure is much lower at 19%.

The decline of community – With urbanization as well the niche building of cable television and the Internet, communities and their values are less important. One of the characteristics of a community is that it is common ground for varied souls. In a small community, you learn to speak decently to those with whom you may not agree in religion or politics because you still share something in common. Identity politics, for example, emphasizes self-realization and pride but often combined with a harshly judgmental attitude towards others.  I find myself wondering sometimes whether Martin Luther King – who admonished his colleagues that among their dreams should be that  someday their enemies would be their friends –could have flourished in today’s atmosphere.

– The damage to the voting system. Citizens United, redistricting, and numerous requirements designed to reduce voting by certain groups have caused great damage to voting system.

– The unravelling of the Democratic Party – With the arrival of Bill Clinton on the national scene, his party lost interest in the issues that had created the New Deal and the Great Society. The party became Republican Lite .

After Clinton’s first term, I wrote, “Even that otherwise egregious warlock of Whittier, Richard Nixon, practiced domestic affairs in the tradition of social democracy. He was, in fact, our last liberal president, an amazing claim until one considers that he favored a negative income tax; revenue sharing; a guaranteed income for children; supplementary programs for the aged, blind, and disabled; uniform application of the food stamp program; better health insurance programs for low income families; aid to community colleges; aid to low-income college students; the creation of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and increased funding for elementary and secondary schools. Today someone of Nixon’s domestic political tendencies might be considered too radical for C-SPAN.

The party and the media also ignored the Arkansas corruption and that of the Clintons in a manner later replicated in many ways by the media coverage of the Trump campaign. Hegemonic power had begun trumping reality.


All this began happening well before Donald Trump took office and it makes more sense to recognize that he is the outcome of recent years of failure on our collective part rather than its creator. We have moving towards a Trump regime for a long time.

There are things we can do about it, but I’ll leave that for another day.

This essay includes excerpts from previous articles by the author



One thought on “How we got into this mess

  1. Another tour-de-force Sam, and the pre-eulogy of a nation. I’d only add that the Reagan Administration was the shotgun start of Open Season on quality of life and standards of living; the Carter Administration began the post-Powell Memo process a few years before with airline and transportation deregulation.

    Pitching this column at the Trump-obsessed, whose focus on the peripheral/irrelevant are now in conspiracy territory, might cause some strokes…definitely tantrums. It’s become unlistenable, the shrill nonsense of sorta-liberals, even as they have steadily ignored the dire needs of the victims. Did the same thing happen on Easter Island when they ran out of trees?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.