NOEL TURNBULL. Where did it all start?

Jul 10, 2019

“From whence and whereof cometh yon Trump? From some distant time or world?” Well that’s how it might be put in cod Elizabethan dialogue.

Yet reading Taylor Branch’s trilogy about America in the King Years (the author has finally finished the 3000 plus pages of the volumes after more years than it took Branch to write all three plus some other books) it is remarkable how much the divisions in the US in the 1960s through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, JFK and Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War are still resonating today in a way which makes Trump less of a new phenomenon and more a throwback to, or logical outcome from, another era. Indeed, in many respects they make today’s America look just like a distant time or world or at least one formed in that distant time and world.

Racial conflict, interminable wars, shootings, widespread domestic spying on activists, bullying semi-literate politicians making violent and outrageous claims, vicious and hateful political rhetoric, great poverty in the midst of wealth, racism among populists, officials whose foreign policy option is primarily military – it seems as if little has changed in the 50 odd years since those times.

The most profound changes since then are probably structural, global world view and political ones: the Democratic loss of the South over civil rights and the region’s shift to Republican domination underpinned by ongoing racism and deprivation of voting rights to African-Americans; the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs; the failure of the Johnsonian attempt to build on the FDR progressive policies; the emergence of systematic promotion of conservative views backed by millions of dollars; the substitution of terrorism and Islamophobia for anti-communism; and the abandonment of even the pretence of political and social civility.

Most importantly new forms of populism have emerged – much of it however still inspired by fear and anger which are projected on to the ‘Other’ but magnified by modern technology and the national mobilising capacity of powerful and rich reactionaries.

There is much to admire about 60s politics. JFK and LBJ were brilliant in politics as both substance and theatre and pioneered much of modern political rhetoric – albeit with more wit and coherence than present day US leaders. They were part of a generation including Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Republican Senators and Congress members who reached across the aisle to discuss and shape policy as well as staffers (while partisan in terms of their era) who were professional and able to tender unpalatable advice on most subjects other than Vietnam.

Many of the young risked their lives to campaign for civil rights and many of them lost them doing so rather than just clicking on a campaign site dedicated to catching and punishing the still at large Joseph Kony as many in the current generation do.

But it is also arguable that the 1960s societal fissures and changes were forerunners of fundamental contemporary changes and trends. Indeed, it is a bit like history repeating itself, as Marx said, first as tragedy and then as farce. The novelist, Julian Barnes’, has written that “History was repeating itself: the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy.” Noam Chomsky summed it up as: Trump is history repeated as farce. The Barnes formulation captures something which is missed in the focus on the farce that is Trump and the new fissures and changes – they are not funny and farcical but instead tragic in their impacts.

For what the outcome might be it is always worth turning to Nietzsche. A recent Guardian review of John Kaag’s book Hiking with Nietzsche cited a passage from Nietzsche’s 1874 Untimely Meditations which might be apposite to the US today. “The nations are again drawing away from one another and long to tear one another to pieces. The sciences, pursued without any restraint and in a spirit of the blindest laissez faire, are shattering and dissolving all firmly held belief; the educated classes and states are being swept away by a hugely contemptible money economy. The world has never been more worldly, never poorer in love and goodness … Everything, contemporary art and science included, serves the coming barbarism.”

And in Walt Whitman’s bicentennial year it is also worth remembering that prophetic character’s comments on the US and another US politician. Brenda Wineapple has edited Horace Traubel’s nine volumes of conversations with Walt Whitman down into one book – Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality and the Promise of America – which has recently been published in the Library of America series. In an edited version of her introduction to the new volume, published in the NYRB (18 April 2019), a few extracts have been cited. For instance: “America must welcome all – Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not – all, all without exceptions: become an asylum for all who chose to come.”

And speaking of Jefferson Davis, as he might have spoken of either Trump or a modern southern Republican who before the Civil Rights Act might have been a Democrat Whitman said: “ Davis was a damn bad type – of the type who liking cabbage….or onions, would damn whoever does not……I have seen Davis often – we measured him long ago. It would not be well to have an America of such men.”

Trump’s Presidential hero is apparently Andrew Jackson and may never have heard of Jefferson Davis, or has confused him with a Founding Father, but neither is a model for the 21st century.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at

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