The more they stay the same. Well, not exactly.
I’ve been winnowing my old files. The stuff I come across sometimes amazes me, things I wrote that I don’t remember or don’t remember saving or why. Two recent discoveries remind me that over the decades I have witnessed an amazing span of history, technological developments, a world that has evolved with increasing complexity and interconnectiveness. Yet, still, some of the old political issues are not old at all. They have merely festered and changed their spots.
I found copies of two letters I wrote in my salad days, the first to the New York Times commenting on their editorial on Barry Goldwater’s nomination, a man who, in retrospect, seems tame by today’s conservative / tea party crowd. However, at the time of his presidential candidacy in 1964, he had not ruled out the use of tactical nuclear weaponry against our Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union, and anyplace where communism was being supported. Johnson beat him badly in 1964. Interestingly Goldwater moderated in his later years as a statesman, and in my mind redeemed himself, although always a staunch conservative in the classic intellectual sense, not the bible-thumping variety of today.
In any case, at the height of Goldwater’s rise to the nomination in 1964, the twenty one year old me wrote the following to the New York Times:
July 19, 1964
New York Times
New York, New York
To the Editor:
“Disaster at San Francisco,” indeed, may yet become a disaster for America. Your firm editorial stand against Senator Barry Goldwater must be continued to help defeat this dangerous radical, so that we may prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that “it can’t happen here.”
As Hitler made use of Germany’s post-World War One frustrations, Senator Goldwater is a political demagogue who similarly, but more subtly, intends to capitalize on the frustrations of many Americans, frustrations that have arisen in the ashes of domestic racial problems and the tensions of the Cold War. Goldwater tells us, as Hitler told Germany, that we are the strongest country in the world and we should stand up to the opposition (who he vaguely refers to as “the Commies”). This simple, but realistically absurd suggestion, appeals to those who are unable to bear the responsibility of living in these modern times. Unfortunately, there are still many “good citizens” of America who believe that if we act as if it is still the “good old days,” we will recreate those days.
If we are to preserve democracy in our country and continue to encourage democracy abroad, we must condemn political extremists who present oversimplified, irresponsible, and inherently contradictory solutions to complex issues, solutions which would isolate us from our friends abroad and which, conceivably, could destroy the world as we know it.
Its contents mention some of the same issues Americans face today, particularly as espoused by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The latter of course bills himself as a true conservative, but he is the very kind of conservative who I think Goldwater himself would have condemned. In fact where is Barry Goldwater when we need him : -)? Here is something Goldwater said to John Dean in 1994: “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them.” How profound is that, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Cruz?
And my files coughed up a letter I wrote three years later to Senator J. William Fulbright during the height of the Vietnam War. Again, different times, different war, but still relevant in many ways:
August 6, 1967
Senator J. William Fulbright
Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
United States Senate
Dear Senator Fulbright:
I am just finishing your book THE ARROGANCE OF POWER and I felt obligated to immediately express my support of your thesis.
The Vietnam situation is truly tragic. The noble ideals of our great country are belied by our actions. How can we expect the world community to look to America for leadership while we drop millions of tons of bombs on a small country of mostly peasants, support dictatorships, even as we seem incapable of resolving many of our own domestic problems?
While I do not feel that we can just abandon our Asian commitments, we need to discard our military’s “search and destroy” philosophy in favor of seeking a solution over a conference table – which may demand compromise, but ones also compatible with democracy.
In addition, I believe that the United States has more to lose by endeavoring to become the world’s policeman. An Asian conflict should be resolved, in the most part, by the Asians and/or the United Nations, with the encouragement of the world’s great powers. Our military involvement in the affairs of other nations only tends to weaken the fabric of the U.N. and secures the animosity of other nations toward us.
I encourage continuing your efforts to reestablish the system of checks and balances provided for in the Constitution so a more realistic foreign policy can be devised and implemented.
With great admiration of the courageous and sensible stand which you have taken, I am,
So, there you have it: the “mini- me” of some five decades ago writing about some of the same issues of today.
And now the present brings us into a political environment ripe for extremism, as evidenced by the unexpectedly strong primary showings of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, polar opposites but in many ways playing to the same base, the disenfranchised. In early December I wrote a piece It Can’t Happen Here? (the very words I wrote to the NYT fifty two years earlier) suggesting that Trump was merely a Trojan horse for Ted Cruz. Still might be (or for Rubio), but now two plus months later Trump is not only still in the Republican race, he’s in command of it, and in fact could be much closer to becoming the Republican nominee after today’s primaries.
And who knows where Hillary might be if her email morass deepens, but assuming she is the nominee, what if some of Sanders’ supporters, particularly the disenfranchised young, join up with the Trump crowd (who Trump now likes to celebrate as being the short, the tall, the skinny, the fat, the rich. the poor, the highly educated and the poorly educated – making a particular point that he LOVES the poorly educated). Those two groups could become a potent base.
Trying to connect all the dots in my mind – how can a phenomena such as a Trump come into being? An epiphany: I remembered my long-ago reading of Eric Hoffer’s classic The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements. For a more detailed recollection, I went to Wikipedia’s description. Hoffer is eerily on the mark. It could serve as a textbook explanation of Trump’s appeal, other than the merger of “reality TV” and the presidential primaries. From Wikipedia…..
Hoffer states that mass movements begin with a widespread "desire for change" from discontented people who place their locus of control outside their power and who also have no confidence in existing culture or traditions. Feeling their lives are "irredeemably spoiled" and believing there is no hope for advancement or satisfaction as an individual, true believers seek "self-renunciation." Thus, such people are ripe to participate in a movement that offers the option of subsuming their individual lives in a larger collective. Leaders are vital in the growth of a mass movement, as outlined below, but for the leader to find any success, the seeds of the mass movement must already exist in people's hearts.
While mass movements are usually some blend of nationalist, political and religious ideas, Hoffer argues there are two important commonalities: "All mass movements are competitive" and perceive the supply of converts as zero-sum; and "all mass movements are interchangeable." As examples of the interchangeable nature of mass movements, Hoffer cites how almost 2000 years ago Saul, a fanatical opponent of Christianity, became Paul, a fanatical apologist and promoter of Christianity. Another example occurred in Germany during the 1920s and the 1930s, when Communists and Fascists were ostensibly bitter enemies but in fact competed for the same type of angry, marginalized people; Nazis Adolf Hitler and Ernst Röhm, and Communist Karl Radek, all boasted of their prowess in converting their rivals
It is unlike any presidential election cycle I’ve ever known, even the Goldwater era which from this point in the future looks placid, even sane. The macho trash talking of the Republican “debates” leaves me bewildered, but that testosterone also extends into policy – make America “great again” by building up the military (we should be building our infrastructure instead). A highly recommended read on the topic is written by an ex-military man himself, Jim Wright: The Latter Days of a Better Nation
An afterthought, the relevancy of art as expressed in Your Beliefs by Jani Leinonen -- displayed at the recent Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
― Mahatma Gandhi