'There can be no right to revolt in this society; no right to demonstrate outside the law, and, in Lincoln's words, "no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law." In a civilized nation no man can excuse his crime against the person or property of another by claiming that he, too, has been a victim of injustice. To tolerate that is to invite anarchy.' ('What has happened to America,' by Richard M Nixon, Reader's Digest, 1967.)
US president Harry S Truman is famous for many things. A strong president during a tumultuous period, he guided the United States through the end of the second world war and the beginning of the Cold War. He had to support Britain, for a price, as her power waned, and stand up to Stalin as his grew, and he had to manage America's success and convince his people that as the world's most powerful nation, isolation was not an option. In the popular mind, President Truman is most famous for the sign he placed on his desk in the Oval Office accepting full responsibility for his actions as president, 'The buck stops here,' the message was clear.
The ubiquitous popular mind remembers Richard Nixon as the only guy who had to resign the presidency. It remembers Watergate, 'Deep Throat' and 'All the President's Men.' History has treated Nixon rather badly as he was a very effective legislator and passed some surprisingly liberal laws through Congress. He was also successful on the international front, particularly in his contribution to reducing the tensions of the Cold War. It was Nixon who signed the SALT 1 treaty, with Leonid Brezhnev in 1972 and it was Nixon who ended communist China's international isolation, also in 1972 when Mao Tse Tung and Zhao En Lai ( I prefer the old-fashioned formulation) were still alive.
Before being elected president in November 1968, Nixon had come to agree with his predecessor's assessment of the situation in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive. It was clear that North Vietnam and the Viet Cong could not be defeated and Nixon took responsibility for finding an 'honourable' end to the involvement of the US in south-east Asia. It turns out that Nixon was another one of those 'Buck Stops Here' guys and his achievements might have been legend if the popular mind wasn't so in love with scandal.
In the Reader's Digest article quoted above, Nixon both supported Lyndon Johnson's contemporary policy on Vietnam and campaigned for his own election by using the often violent anti-war demonstrations that had erupted across the US. He deployed the threat of mob rule to galvanise his once famous 'silent majority.' He presented himself as the guardian of law and order, of reasoned debate, of the traditions of American constitutional democracy and he succeed.
But ironically, many consider the calamity of Nixon and Watergate to have started the rot that we now see in the US body politic. I'm not entirely convinced of that, I think it's more complicated because America is vast with a diverse population holding many different visions of what the word 'America' actually stands for. So, for the country to have become as polarised as seems to be the case, has taken a lot of work over a time longer than Nixon's incumbency.
After Gerald Ford's brief occupation of the White House, during which his much-needed lack of charisma seemed to calm things down, Jimmy Carter (Democrat) brought his genuine liberalism to the job. Carter's time was considered to have ended in failure; he was too nice, too civilised to protect Americans in a world containing many dangerous enemies including revolutionary Iran. Carter created division despite being a genuinely non-polarising figure, the vision thing began to harden in American society.
In many ways the election of 'modern' Republican Ronald Reagan in November 1980 was a reaction to Carter and the dynamic of reaction and counter-reaction in American electoral politics that has continued ever since. Bill Clinton could be seen as a reaction to 'Reaganism', George W Bush a reaction to Clinton, Obama a reaction to Bush… And now we have Donald J Trump elected by a demographic in the country that felt ignored, not just by Obama's Democrats, but by mainstream Republicans too, the Republicans in Name Only or RINOs.
Now we see a real and intractable polarisation between the two Americas of the interior and of the coasts; of descendants of the white European immigrants of the 17th-19th centuries and the other migrants, whether forced or by choice, from other parts of the world. America is no longer diverse, it is divided and it is important to realise that Trump is not the cause of that division, he is a symptom. But he is a symptom – a virus – that revels in the hostile and conflict-ridden environment, as we see daily.
Donald Trump is less interested in healing divisions within America than any of his predecessors, and he is more partisan than any of them. Politically he has little choice, being without a recognisable ideology, Trump must appeal to his followers on a personal level, so that they identify with and follow him – the person, not a party, in the traditional sense. He knows how to press their buttons, while at the same time, being uniquely incapable of caring about the increasingly disturbing consequences. Here we see what may become Trump's most enduring legacy.
Apparently lacking an objective sense of what is right and wrong, unable to identify the concept of the greater good in any political decision-making process, Trump always chooses the solution that seems to benefit him most at any particular moment. As a result, he does not govern because he has no idea how; instead, he calculates, manoeuvres and manipulates. But, more than anything else, he blames everyone else when things go wrong.
Trump clearly incites hatred and violence among extreme elements, in his tweets and his speeches. Critics and opponents are not to be argued with or won over, they are to be crushed. His message is binary of necessity because the political thought processes of most of his audience are uncomplicated. Obama's lawyerly sophistry did not, and will not, convince Trump's supporters just as the Clintons' liberalism repels them. However, Trump's repeated chanting of his 'we are good and they are bad' certainly will, and if you are good then all the bad stuff must be the fault of those who are bad; including the murder of Jews in their synagogue in Pittsburg who did not protect themselves with enough guns.
The real problem for America is that a great many Democrats have swallowed 'Trumpism' as enthusiastically as Trump's own supporters. They are making it all about him too and their campaigns and public messaging reflect this. American politics is turning into an almost literally life-or-death struggle for the soul of the nation, with little concern shown for either the language or actions being deployed. Two mobs are emerging with no-one, the president included, showing the necessary discipline to take responsibility for where this whole process may end.
The buck no longer stops at the White House. Nobody now knows where it does stop and that is why the US is in danger of sinking into the anarchy that Richard Nixon wrote about in 1972. During October this year, in the run-up to the midterm elections, we saw some terrible things and we also saw that Donald J Trump has absolutely no intention of bringing the situation under control.