To those of us who cut our teeth on the protest movements of the 1960s, the Vietnam War was a dividing line. Now it is always Before Vietnam and After Vietnam. In those days there were two superpowers, and anyone who did not like what was happening at home could look to the other side for inspiration.
Unfortunately, the United States was siding with all the wrong people in the world — the apartheid regime in South Africa, colonial powers of Europe and a racist government in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). Those who wanted a better world could not get necessary support, so they thought the Soviets were their natural ally. And this kind of thinking was helpful in building the image of the Soviet system.
We had no idea how bankrupt the system was until it collapsed under its own weight. By then a lot of countries had fallen in love with the Soviet system. Many of its features, such as the five-year plan, socialism and workers’ collectives, were in vogue. Hoping for salvation, many countries were actually practicing them. When the Soviet system collapsed, it created a helpless situation all around and there was nothing to fall back on. Americans remained the only superpower standing. So every country had to adjust its relationship with the lonely superpower.
Ronald Reagan, the architect of the breakup of the Soviet system, was an unapologetic supporter of capitalism and democracy. In an unorthodox way, he challenged bureaucracy and involved more private contractors in performing public good. It nurtured a new mindset where making money by any means was OK. At the same time, he also had a deep feeling for those who needed help. Although Reagan and Clinton differed in solutions, their attitude toward the poor was the same. They wanted to help them and lift them upward. Their own background helped them. The conservative capitalism of the Bush era was the direct descendant of a mindset developed by Reagan and Clinton.
Over a period of 28 years — from the beginning of the Reagan presidency to the end of the George W. Bush administration — the government at any level was seen as an institution to help people. There was plenty of criticism of the bureaucracy, but it was respected as an institution. Barack Obama used bureaucracy to advance certain goals he thought were in the best interest of most people. Gun control, universal health care, and controlling pollution were some of the things that was supposed to help Americans. But many did not see it that way. Sen. Mitch McConnell made it clear that it was the Republicans’ job to make Obama a one-term president. When that did not happen, the level of anger rose higher and spread everywhere.
In 2016, while Hillary Clinton was running for president, Donald Trump was running to win the presidency. And he won with questionable help from outside. Because he did it then and got away with it, he could do it again. For that, he is being impeached. Regardless of what happens in the end, the country has to deal with some strange behavior that has taken root in the public arena. You can’t tell children not to lie, because the president does it all the time. Nepotism is no longer taboo, thanks to Jared and Ivanka in the White House. Religious groups whose job it is to keep the country’s morality upright are split in the middle over the behavior of the president. Providing help to those who need it in Puerto Rico or Haiti is meaningless. There is no place for sacrifice or altruism. Everything is transactional. There are many other devaluations of American values. Whether they are dangerous or sad, I do not know. But they are there and we have to deal with them, whether Trump stays or goes.
Anadi Naik writes from Frederick.