I came home from the Peace Corps in 1969, so was here for the time period covered in Burns and Novick’s Episode 8: the presidency of Richard Nixon, riots and massive demonstrations in the streets, unarmed students shot to death at Kent State, the Mi Lai massacre, the deepening disillusionment throughout the country about the war — even among those who served honorably, and thought at the time that they were serving a noble cause. That was an era of deep division in our country and our culture; it’s a wonder, looking back, that we were able to heal to any extent and pull back from the brink. Some commentators on the documentary feel we never did.
Trump is exploiting and deepening a similar divisive, tribal atmosphere in our country — and he’s doing it willfully, simply because he can and because it makes him the center of attention. Ross Douthat is a conservative columnist for the New York Times, one that I often disagree with. But he has an on-point column about the Trump culture wars: they aren’t about anything of enduring value, but centered on Trump himself. Being at the center of a maelstrom of pro v. anti Trump feeling suits Trump just fine, because it fills his bottomless need to have everyone looking at him and talking about him.
I’m astonished, really, and more than a little disappointed that my young adulthood began in the turmoil of the 1960’s and 70’s, and that what a friend calls my “third act” may end in a similar period.
I saw the legislative gridlock during the Obama years, and the continued drumbeat that an African American couldn’t be a legitimate president, and the politicization of once respected institutions like the Supreme Court. But I simply didn’t see things getting this bad.