Politics as Usual
On September 2, 1974, the Wall came down.
If you were around at the time, you understood the meaning at a glance. Garry Trudeau had drawn the wall in front of the White House, a reference to “stonewalling” on the Nixon tapes. Nixon resigned August 9; three weeks was the quickest a syndicated comic strip could acknowledge the event.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” Jerry Ford had said three weeks earlier, a line that might not have worn well, but felt right at the time. Watergate was consuming, consuming in a way we wouldn’t feel again for more than forty years. You couldn’t escape it.
And then it was past.
Many long national nightmares later, we have yet to escape this one, probably won’t for a couple years. But the days of utter hopelessness, the days of one elected branch of our government colluding with another to divest our republic of its sovereignty and our citizens of their liberty are coming to an end.
Nixon faced a House and Senate run by Democrats. Trump hasn’t had the pleasure of either.
We’re not there yet, and we’ve been worrying about what shenanigans might be pulled in the waning days of the 115th Congress, but the lame-duck session has yet to bear casualties. Meanwhile, Democrats are already squabbling over their incoming leadership, and—
Well, it’s refreshing, really. Familiar. Nice and messy, the way it was before the storm hit.
Politics as usual.
The problems laid bare over the past two years remain, of course — not just the traitors holding high offices, but the illegitimacy of those offices themselves, the very structure of our national government as a perversion of the consent of the governed. The ferocity of those who hold power to deny their own citizens the right to veto that power.
And, well, the citizens themselves, some 40 percent of them, more or less, the White Tribe that is the only tribe that matters in America.
We’ve been reading Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail this week — not for the first time — written as the Watergate burglary happened and the story first broke, but not yet the story it would become.
Of the many stories Hunter Thompson tells, one sticks out in this moment: George Wallace, running in the Democratic primaries, winning Florida, and making inroads in the still-industrial Midwest. Wallace had a base, not just Southern racists, but working-class whites who wanted “their” country back, and Thompson identities in Wallace’s stump manner something no other politician could project:
“The root of the Wallace magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy — and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions.”
If that’s not familiar enough, there’s more:
“The ugly truth is that Wallace had never even bothered to understand the problems — much less come up with any honest solutions — but ‘the Fighting Little Judge’ has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap.”
But George Wallace could never break through to the broader American public. It took a former Hollywood actor to nail that trick, and, a generation or two later, a prime-time game-show host to perfect it.
And that’s what we’ll still be left with, after the nightmare ends, after the wall comes down, after politics as usual resumes, the deepest problem we face, the most enduring, the most intractable: