Thursday, January 26, 2017

Transformative Presidencies

I was born during the 1948 election campaign between Harry S Truman and Thomas Dewey (Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat.)

The false Chicago Tribune headline would become a legend in November of that year:

Yes, well. "Everyone makes mistakes," right?

I don't remember Truman as president, but I certainly recall Eisenhower and his 1956 re-election campaign against Adlai Stevenson.

I grew up in a Democratic household and there are reasons for it. Loyalty to the Democratic Party on my father's side goes back at least to the anti-Irish riots in Ohio instigated by the Know Nothings -- a third party which amalgamated with the Republicans shortly after the mob violence in Ohio and elsewhere. On my mother's side, it's a little more complicated as her stepfather was a Republican, her mother was a Democrat (primarily due to social issues -- like women's right to vote and so forth) and my mother was initially disinclined to either party but became a Democrat under FDR. She stayed a Democrat the rest of her life, but was sometimes reluctant to vote for them.

Between Truman and Eisenhower, I think we can say that Truman was the Transformative President. Eisenhower consolidated the Truman Transformation.

Because I have no memory of the FDR administration and what I heard about it was somewhat conflicted, I can't say much about it from personal experience. Many of the programs initiated during the FDR administration were continued by Truman and Eisenhower, but many weren't. What I saw and experienced was what remained, the Legacy if you will, of a previous Transformative Presidency.

Of course the Post World War II context of the Truman administration is fundamental to any understanding of what was going on and why.

When I was growing up, WWII vets were everywhere. Some were doing fine. Others I knew were having a lot of psychological problems, what we know as PTSD now, and their difficulties reverberated in the neighborhoods where I lived. There wasn't a lot that was done for them; people were pretty much on their own to work out their war-time difficulties as best they could, or contrariwise, they could be sent to the looney bin.


Truman was Transformative, Eisenhower was not.

Truman authorized the use of nuclear weapons on Japan and was forever after unrepentant. Truman initiated the Cold War with the Soviet Union, something that would reverberate for all of us throughout the '50s and '60s -- and into later decades, and still (for some ungodly reason). Truman integrated the armed forces, which reverberated in unanticipated ways until civil rights and integration for minority non-white populations became the standard, a standard still resisted by die-hard White Supremacists.

Eisenhower, for the most part, just continued FDR and Truman era programs, initiated some of his own -- such as the Interstate Highway construction program -- and allowed particular political and economic interests to have their way. Eugene Joe McCarthy was given leeway to conduct his witch-hunt for example, with no interference from the White House, but what a lot of people don't understand now is that McCarthy was just a temporary phenomenon; the witch hunt for Communists and their sympathizers was continuous and it was everywhere throughout the '50s and early '60s, and it was that continuing witch hunt that inspired the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley in 1964 which in turn triggered the student rebellion of the '60s and everything that followed.

But as president, Eisenhower seemed very hands off, even disinterested. After his heart attacks he seemed to turn over much of his power and authority to his vice president, Richard Milhouse Nixon.

Kennedy's was a transformative presidency, but not the way he intended. Well, everything changed after his assassination. Changes we know of, changes we don't. But there were events during his brief presidency that transformed the way we looked at presidents and particularly their wives. They became celebrity figures more than political ones. In the case of Jackie Kennedy, she was not just a celebrity, she was a glamorous icon of beauty, fashion and class, a status she maintained the rest of her life, and which she passed on to her son, John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, November 22, 1963, was the first of many political shocks we would be heir to. What happened was, up till then, inconceivable. No president had been assassinated for decades, and the prior assassinations had been one-off anomalies. We were so far beyond that by 1963. Besides, despite political differences, who in their right mind would want Kennedy dead? There wasn't a Civil War after all, nor were there the kind of movements afoot in the land that led to the assassination of William McKinley.

No, it was crazy, and suspicion fell on the hostile environment generated by the right wing, John Birch Society saturated, white supremacist culture of Texas. In other words, Kennedy must have killed because those white crackers in Dallas hated him for being a Yankee interloper/"nigger lover."

But things got very strange very quickly when Kennedy's accused assassin was himself assassinated live on TeeVee -- nothing like that had happened before, either. It was equally inconceivable -- and the whole world seemed to come tumbling down over the Thanksgiving Weekend.

The elevation of Lyndon Johnson to the presidency was equally shocking. Lyndon Johnson from Texas. How convenient.

But LBJ got the benefit of the doubt from a strangely passive public, and he made the most of it, achieving the most comprehensive and broad-based social legislation in our nation's history, very nearly enacting FDR's Second New Deal over the muted objections of Republicans.

Transformative? There's no doubt about it. In fact, I rank Johnson the most transformative president of my lifetime. He was a steamroller of a President who managed to overcome many, many obstacles to get done what up till then couldn't be done, including civil rights legislation, Medicare, and a host of Great Society programs intended to alleviate poverty and build a better future for all Americans.

Then there was the war in Southeast Asia. How he got suckered into that one, I don't know, but he did, and once he did, there was no going back. They say he saw it as a "man" thing, he had to prove his cojones as a War President, following as he did a man who was hailed as a genuine War Hero. But the carnage in Vietnam and Laos for unclear or venal motives made less and less sense, and it triggered endless mass demonstrations against the war, added to the student demonstrations triggered by the FSM uprising in Berkeley added to the periodic rage and riots in the ghettos of the country. By 1968, it seemed like the whole country was descending into chaos.

And yet on the other side, the US had never been so prosperous and, yes, "progressive." Not everything about it was either good or perfect, but social and economic progress was being made on many fronts, and many of the changes that got under way following the assassination of President Kennedy became institutionalized very quickly. They're with us today. There is likely no going back.

But the assassinations of 1968 were perhaps too much of a shock to an already reeling society, and they helped destroy what little comity was left in the country, leading directly to the inauguration of Richard M. Nixon -- who ran on a platform of ending the War (Humphrey would have continued it on Johnson's terms) and bringing "law and order" to the streets.


Of course he didn't end the War, he intensified it, but he did end the draft, and that took a lot of the piss and vinegar out of the anti-war movement and the student rebellion. His "law and order" campaign had the effect of declaring domestic war on uppity Negroes, particularly males, who were essentially criminalized as a class. Cities stopped burning on a regular basis.

Some of the progressive ideals he'd grown up with continued, however, and so his truncated regime was/is considered a mixed bag. Good-Bad together.

But Nixon was forced from office in yet another shocking course of events. He was shown to be a criminal -- a political criminal -- who abused the office and the power of the presidency to advance his own political interests and ends. At the time, this behavior was unacceptable by both parties and rather than impeach his ass, he was prevailed upon to resign in disgrace. This after his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had been forced to resign in disgrace for his own crimes.

Dear me. People got the idea that the Presidency was a criminal enterprise run by gangsters.

Well. Yes.

Nixon's actions and fall had a powerful effect on society and the presidency that reverberates today, particularly with regard to an obsession with "law enforcement" (by any means necessary) on the proles, and the understanding that if done right, the Presidency can be an Imperial dictatorship. Nixon just didn't do it right. You see.

Yes, a criminal enterprise run by gangsters. What's to stop it?

I guess I will have to concede it was a transformative paradigm of rule, one we have by no means escaped. It's almost become iron law.

Nixon was followed by our first unelected President/Vice President pair, Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller. They were place-holders while the government attempted to get its act together. The War in Southeast Asia ended, finally, essentially petering out, leaving a swath of destruction through the region that is still being recovered from, but somewhat amazingly transforming the relationship between Americans and the people of Vietnam in particular from enmity to high regard. In some ways, they see each other as equally victimized by out of control rulers.

Ford was followed by Carter, whose moral suasion might have been high, but whose ability to implement that suasion from the Oval Office was thwarted by events, particularly the Iranian Revolution which crippled Carter's presidency beyond recovery. He was not re-elected.

Instead, a movie actor who suffered from incipient dementia/Alzheimers, Ronald Reagan, was elevated in a wave election that began the counter revolution against "progressivism" in its entirety. They wasted no time transforming the government and society into a version of what they used to be prior to the Progressive era.

Once again, people who understood that this wouldn't turn out well for the many, but would greatly enhance the comfort and convenience of the few were largely passive in the face of the Reaganite transformation. What could they do, after all? He was elected and he was for most of his reign very popular with a still powerful subset of white men.

Reagan was transformative, but not in a good way, though some of what he did was positive.

Reagan was followed by his vice president G H W Bush, former head of the CIA, and reputed to have been the eminence grise of the Reagan regime. Once installed in the Oval Office on his own account, he seemed almost as bumbling as Ford, and his appalling War on Iraq eventually became an albatross around his neck; wtf, dude? Of course there were the scandals. Jeebus, what had the presidency become?

Then came Clinton. Oh dear. Clinton has been ritualistically scapegoated for everything since the world began, and strangely he seemed to accept the role of scapegoat. No skin off his nose, I guess. He accelerated the neoliberal transformation begun under Reagan (Carter instituted some of it prior to Reagan's efforts) and thus set the stage for catastrophes to come. But he seemed oblivious -- then and now.

After being re-elected, Clinton was absurdly impeached. WTF, Congress? The spectacle was indeed compelling, much like the Trial of OJ, but what the actual fuck? The lesson was that the Presidency was not at all what many Americans thought it to be. It was neither all-powerful, nor was it power-less, but what it was depended more on the political equivalent of teevee ratings than anything else. In the meantime, the neoliberal/neoconservative game plan was churning away in the background, largely unnoticed due to the spectacle of WTF. Shiny objects to distract from what was important and what was really going on.

Clinton's impeachment failed, but I don't think it was meant to succeed. It was Grand Theatre, Grand Guignol, a conscious and cynical spectacle of power run amok. He left office under a cloud but surprisingly popular nonetheless. He is still reviled and revered in almost equal measure.

Then came Bush2, dear me with sparklers. Jeebus what a shit-show.

His rule was an unmitigated disaster almost from the beginning, in part, certainly, because he was illegitimately placed on the throne (yes, by now it should be clear that the Imperial notion of the United States and the presidency inaugurated by Nixon was institutionalized, and the president was in effect an autocrat/Emperor who could be appointed and removed at will -- by whom, though?)

We knew it would be a catastrophe, and it was.

Transformative? Well, it was sick making. Nevertheless, as appalling as it was, the neoliberal/neoconservative game plan continued unabated. In other words, no matter what happened on the surface, no matter how destructive and horrible, the underlying paradigm did not suffer or change.

That should have been a lesson learned, but it wasn't. When Obama rode a wave of fear and revulsion into the White House, as the Redemption Candidate who would fix what had gone wrong, still the underlying neoLibCon paradigm of rule continued without a pause.

Nothing changed except rhetoric and appearances.

Obama had the opportunity to be a transformative and redemptive president, and he actually had the power, but he didn't use it. Instead, he used his charisma to calm things down while instituting or continuing many of the policies and programs that continued the exploitation and destruction of the Rabble. And then convincing much of the Rabble that it was Good For Them. And everything would work out for the best, you'd see.

No. It didn't.

Some of us were not surprised. Others still don't see his sleight of hand/con game for what it was. Others still are ambivalent, whereas there is a strong element of racism and hatred in much of the opposition to him, racism and hatred that effectively distracts from what he was doing.

I have no love for him, in part because so much of what he did was contrary to the interests of the People and served to further concentrate wealth and power among a kleptocracy that now rules directly through a not-very-tightly wrapped upper class twit, a con-man, gangster and raging conspiracist, who is apparently so wild and ego-driven that he is always spinning out out of control, and is more and more likely to be neutralized with extreme prejudice, perhaps by one of his own guards. It's that dicey.

This cannot be happening, but it is.

Where it might lead is anyone's guess, but I've already said it is likely to be the final end of the Republic, and what comes after will be some form of institutionalized autocracy, even hereditary rule -- a throwback to some other time and place. And endless meatgrinder wars.

Jeebus, what have we done to deserve this?


  1. Excellent summary of past presidencies and how we got here. I had forgotten some of this history.
    Thank you, Che.

    I am having some trouble knowing what to say to people (in particular, one a relative and one a blogger I read regularly and where I was commenting frequently until just recently, since he has allowed one new commenter to abuse everyone else there relentlessly and with gleeful ignorance, and in general with Democrats in office who are going to "work with" Trump and who are voting FOR his bizarre and oligarchic cabinet picks) who adamantly refuse to criticize Trump on the basis that "he is not doing anything that wasn't done before" or that "he is just the obvious continuance of what happened before", or that "Hillary would be just as bad" (the politicians don't say this last), or "this is just the way it works now".

    That all these might be true to some degree or another is beside the point, I think. These same people (I'm referring to the personal ones I mentioned, not the politicians hereafter) didn't hesitate to correctly, in my opinion, rebuke Obama for continuing or worsening the policies of Bush/Clinton and the assorted neolibs/neocons, and furthermore, took pains to point out what he has made worse. Yet with Trump, it's hands off because there's "no particular difference". And these are not people who like Trump or voted for him.

    I find this more than odd. Why would anyone who could clearly see that things have continually regressed for some decades decide that now, of all times, it's time to absolve the current asshole for taking it further down the hill, just because he didn't start the shit himself? Especially since he is making it worse so fast it makes the head swim and the eyes water.

    I find it weird. I say, point out relentlessly every single piece of shit Trump and the Republicans and the oligarchs they are bringing in with them do and, sure, make a note that they are "merely" continuing the downward slide that someone else started if you feel compelled to. But, Jesus, why are they refusing to criticize what is going on right in front of their faces? Or worse, offering excuses for it, as though in some mysterious fashion, it's okay now because Obama was doing the same abhorrent things, or in some cases was headed down the same path? I don't get it at all. Maybe Trump has infected most of the country with his Stupid Syndrome. Trump, the Republicans in office, and the oligarchs they are bringing in absolutely loathe the American population. They don't even try to hide it. The Democrats go, "tsk, tsk. Well, we're trying to influence things for the better, blah, blah, blah," and then they go vote for whatever billionaire asshole is set in front of them to run some agency in the government. We're in a bad spot, with no-one looking out for us or the world.

    Trump may not be the anti-Christ, but he sure plays the role to a fair-thee-well. I won't even start on the Trump supporters, who are going to be stunned when they realize how "their guy" and his merry crew truly sees them as so much disposable human dung. Or maybe they'll never see it. They will assume there is something lacking in themselves that forces them to drink fracking waste while they have no jobs or jobs with ever-decreasing pay, and cannot ever retire because social security has been eliminated.

    That's the real secret of Ayn Rand and Trump's Art of the Deal: make the commoners think their shitty lives are entirely their own fault, while the wealthy and the politicians who serve them run off with the loot.

    1. I have a theory about your question, but I can't get into it now -- press of events and all -- but I fully intend to return to it. If we can answer it clearly, we may find a positive way forward.


    2. So here’s my theory, such as it is.
      I too have wondered why certain people who should know better, online and in real life, have become Trump apologists and defenders. How can they be so blind? Well, maybe they aren’t. Maybe there’s something else going on, something much deeper seated than objective reality.
      I watched the inauguration in bits and pieces, and one scene really stuck out for me. You know that odd boy, what’s his name, Baron or something? He was in the presidential box awaiting the parade. He looked really sad, but then he always does. He was playing with his device when some uniformed officer approached with his hand out in greeting. The boy looked up and recoiled as if he were going to be smacked. Hard.
      Oh jebus, I thought. That boy’s been beaten. Severely abused. Probably by both his mother and his father. Jebus. I started looking at the other kids, watching their behavior, and I think a case could be made that all of them, including his darling Ivanka, have been equally severely physically and emotionally abused. The boy is a wreck, and I don’t think it’s autism, though it might be brain damage. The others are functional – more or less – but how badly damaged they are is anybody’s guess.
      This explained a lot – if it’s true.
      Trump has a really over the top persona, much of it show business in my estimation, but some of it, the constant underlying threat display, is real. There are so many testimonies about the way he is, the way he’s been since he was expelled from his first private school and sent to the New York Military Academy. It’s not just bullying. It’s sadism, designed to compel obedience through physical and psychological cruelty. He’s a pretty classic abuser-type.
      I think what happens is that a lot of people who have been abused or who are abusers themselves key into that and respond to it the way they’ve been conditioned to. People who have been abused defend him in part out of a survival instinct. They figure if they cower and grovel sufficiently, they’ll be OK. Well, until they aren’t, and nobody knows when that time will come, and when it does, there’s nothing they can do anyway.
      On the other hand, people who are abusers would want to align with the Alpha+ male, toadying. It does them no harm to do so, and they might get tremendous, tremendous rewards. Gold and diamonds and girls. You never know, but never get anything at all if you don’t try.
      That’s my theory. I don’t know whether it’s right. But when I saw that boy react the way he did to a hand held out, a lot of things that made no sense suddenly did.

  2. Delurking to offer that it was Joe, not Eugene, McCarthy!

    1. Gracias. Yet another of my increasingly frequent brain fartz.

  3. Damn, my comment disappeared as soon as I hit publish. Argh.

    Anyway, see these links for some telling interactions between Trump and his wife.:

    1. Just so you know, I wrote that "theory" in Word then copied and pasted here. It's frustrating.

      Thanks for the links. Curious relationships, that's for sure.