The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

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Former President Jimmy Carter

W.J. Astore

I was sixteen when President Jimmy Carter gave his so-called Malaise speech in 1979.  Focusing on America’s wasteful energy consumption, Carter vowed to cut America’s dependence on oil imports while pushing alternative energies such as solar.  In crafting his speech, he listened to regular Americans and diagnosed a national peril far worse than America’s wanton consumption of energy.  And for his honesty, Carter got voted out of office in 1980.  The sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan arrived, though the “sunny” part didn’t include the solar panels that Carter had added to the White House.  (Under Reagan, these were quickly removed.)  For Carter’s expertise in science (he was formerly a naval nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover) came Reagan’s fossil-fuel-friendly policies and Nancy Reagan’s penchant for astrology.  It was morning again in America in the sense that profit once again took priority over policy and people – and fantasy took precedence over reality.

Let’s take a fresh look at Carter’s speech, one in which he never used the word “malaise.”  Carter told Americans in 1979 that: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The second, much to be preferred, path was: “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

Does anyone have any doubt about which path America chose under Reagan and his successors?

The “certain route to failure.”  A route where tens of millions of Americans lose their health care during a pandemic; a route where the government bails out the richest corporations first and the poorest Americans last, if at all; a route where division and fragmentation are the order of the day, embraced by a president who revels in chaos and his own self-interest.  And a route where that same man is likely to be reelected as president in November, despite his colossal mismanagement of a health crisis that he can’t even bring himself to understand, let alone attempt to control.

Jimmy Carter caught the looming dysfunction back in 1979: “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.”

In the four decades since then, Congress has been totally consumed by these “well-financed and powerful special interests,” so much so that, to repeat myself, they get bailed out first during a pandemic, tapping into a slush fund that may rise to $4 trillion, while most Americans are lucky to see a one-time payment of $1200.

Meanwhile, what is the message to regular Americans from President Trump and his handlers?  You must get back to work.  Never mind a deadly pandemic.  We must get the economy humming again.  We must make and consume, just as we always have.  Yet Carter had a warning here as well:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Small wonder that he lost, right?  What madness was Carter talking about in 1979?  Material goods aren’t the source of happiness?

Carter made matters worse by calling for energy conservation and gasoline rationing.  He even asked Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and to reduce their speed on the highway.  That commie!

In 1980, Americans rejected Carter’s call for sacrifice, preferring the fantasy sold by Reagan.  Forget conservation and gas rationing.  I can’t drive fifty-five!  Don’t you know the best way to help the poor is by empowering the rich?  It’s called trickle-down economics (don’t listen to that guy who called it “voodoo economics”).  Might makes right and the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.”

In 1980, it was like the country took a collective journey to “Fantasy Island,” maybe on the “Love Boat,” a TV show where Ronald Reagan could have had a star turn as an ageing, washed up, actor.  Reagan gained the Oval Office instead, and the former pitchman for GE got to work selling a corporate-dominated America as the natural end state of Democracy.  Yay capitalism!

Is it any surprise that real wages for workers in America have basically been flat since the time of Carter?  Reagan instituted Robin Hood in reverse, facilitating an economy where the rich got far richer, mainly by trampling on the backs of the middle class and poor.

So, we collectively bought a cancerous fantasy in 1980, one which has now metastasized with a malignant and sociopathic exploiter, Donald Trump, at the helm.

One thing is certain: you won’t get any honest speeches from Trump.  Nor from his predecessors back to the time of Reagan, as they all did Wall Street’s bidding, Democrats and Republicans alike.  Nor can you expect any future honesty from the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

For the last honest speech by an American president, you must go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979.  The malaise came, not from his speech, but from our failure to listen to him.

Random Saturday Musings

W.J. Astore

Hello, loyal readers of Bracing Views!

If corporations are people, can they catch the coronavirus?  It appears not, therefore they’re not people.  But let’s imagine corporations could catch COVID-19.  Don’t you think if Trump Inc. could be killed by a virus, the president would have acted far faster than he did?

When did fantasy become more important than science in American life?  My guess is roughly 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected on sunny optimism and trickle-down economics.  It’s only gotten worse since then.

The military-industrial complex has been relatively quiet lately, except for all those loud flyovers in honor of medical workers, first responders, and the like.  I haven’t heard anything about the Pentagon volunteering to cut its budget, either now or in the future, to help desperate Americans make ends meet.

Those demonstrations by Trump supporters who want “to reopen America”: they sure carry some interesting signs, as in this photo from Cape Cod:

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Some priceless symbols here: “the blue lives matter” flag to the far right, the various “don’t tread on me” flags, symbol of the Tea Party, together with signs to reopen gun shops.  It truly amazed me, as a history professor, to learn that so many of students equated freedom with the 2nd Amendment.  Reducing freedom to guns, God, and Old Glory (and perhaps gold as well) is truly a propaganda victory for the NRA, the Republican Party, and corporations in general.

Another perspective on that photo: these protesters are pro-authority, i.e. they support the police with the “thin blue line” flag but they’re anti-authority in that they resist a Republican governor’s call for social distancing during a pandemic. So they’re selectively pro-authority when it’s convenient for them to be, and anti-authority when they can’t gather and shoot their guns.

Echoing the photo above, this cartoon truly made me laugh out loud, perhaps because I had aquariums from roughly the age of ten to eighteen:

the fish

I love the fish holding the “My Choice” sign.  Except it’s not simply a “choice” when your decision to jump out of the tank imperils the lives of others.

I saw Tara Reade’s interview with Megyn Kelly, which I highly recommend.  Let’s just say I find her account far more credible than Joe Biden’s blanket denial.  Here’s the link:

When it comes to Biden versus Trump, I can’t vote for either man.  Both are deeply flawed individuals.  I do agree with Tara Reade that Joe Biden should be replaced, no matter how unlikely that seems.

We need a leader who’s calm in a storm, a leader with compassion, a leader with experience with adversity, and a leader who wants to end America’s calamitous wars.  Yup: I’d still much rather see Tulsi Gabbard than any other Democratic candidate, even Bernie Sanders.  (Bernie really let me down with all that “my friend Joe Biden” talk.)  Of course, barring the apocalypse, this isn’t going to happen.

What say you, readers?  If Biden can be replaced, who should replace him, and why?

A happy Saturday to all!

The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders at George Washington University: Reshaping America’s political language

M. Davout

In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”

With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.

Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”

While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018.  Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.

And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.

In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

Dystopias Are All the Rage

W.J. Astore

The historian Jill Lepore has an interesting article at The New Yorker on dystopic novels and their popularity today.  Dystopias are all the rage, which is not surprising given the politics of fear that rules us.

Consider the stark contrast between the Republican Party of today versus that of the 1980s.  Remember the sunny optimism projected by Ronald Reagan?  The idea it’s “morning again” in America?  Now we have the dystopia of Trump.  Mexicans are rapists!  Muslims are terrorists!  They’re coming to get us!  Build a wall!  Torture and kill them!

I’m not suggesting Reagan was a saint.  Reagan was, however, a gifted communicator and an inspiring symbol for many. There was substance there as well.  As a young man, he served as a lifeguard and helped to save lives.  I find it intriguing that he was somewhat of an introvert, somewhat of a dreamer.  He worked with the Soviets and Mikhail Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear weapons, a dream that did not come to pass.  For all his flaws, there was a fundamental decency about him.

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Contrast Reagan to Trump.  With Trump, it’s all about him.  Trump’s favorite way of communicating is with insults, bluster, threats, and tweets.  Reagan dreamt of eliminating nuclear weapons; Trump insists America will remain “at the top of the [nuclear] pack,” at a cost of a trillion dollars over the next generation.

Reagan and his wife Nancy were quirky as well (astrology, anyone?), but seeing how they looked at each other and treated one another, no one could doubt their love.  Trump and Melania?  In public, at least, they come across as ill at ease, uncomfortable with each other.  Small potatoes, perhaps, but part of being the “First Family” is projecting harmony, or so it has been in the past.  Nowadays, such symbolism seems unimportant as Trump himself dominates the scene, his wife seemingly a bit player in his life.

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There’s a toxicity to Trump that’s consistent with the emergence of all these dystopic novels.  The Victorian author Samuel Smiles once wrote that a man should be what he seems or purposes to be.  By this Smiles meant that a man must demonstrate, by his behavior, uprightness of character.  A quaint expression, that.  When people think of Trump today, “uprightness of character” doesn’t exactly spring to mind.  Rather the reverse.

Though I wrote early on that Donald Trump had a serious chance at the presidency, by early November of last year I thought the negativity of his message – his bundle of hate – would not prove compelling enough to carry him to victory.  I was wrong, of course.  Trump, with his dystopic rhetoric as well as his actions, captured as well as amplified a prevailing mood.

It’s not morning again in America.  Under Trump, darkness and dystopia prevail.