Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday March 13th, 2016

What do you make of the current American political situation? It’s a question I am asked more and more by those who know me well – or not at all. I would like to believe they ask because they think I might have a wise, or at least satisfactory response. In fact I usually end up mumbling something about being appalled.

I’ve now concluded that the real reason for the question, is that like millions of Americans, people are totally perplexed by the turn of events in the current presidential election process. Thanks largely to Donald Trump, the old rules of political campaigning no longer apply. The institutions that we previously relied upon to guide us - the pollsters, the news media, the academic experts or the old political pols – have been pretty much as clueless as the rest of us. We are all, apparently, hopelessly lost. And without a dependable road map, at this juncture in the process it looks increasingly as though the nation is moving headlong towards an electoral cliff with very possibly disastrous results.

A week ago, the political classes, led by President Barack Obama, jumped at the opportunity to say some politically positive things by paying tribute to President Ronald Reagan’s widow Nancy Reagan, who died at the age of 94. There was virtually nary a discouraging word. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the compliments. But I couldn’t help thinking that much of what was written and said about the former First Lady, was steeped in a nostalgia for better and simpler times.

As a personal aside, one of the strong themes which came through in the discussion of Mrs. Reagan’s role in her husband’s administration is something I have been writing and talking about for many years – namely how important she was to bringing about the end of the Cold War.

At the time of Reagan’s passing in 2004, I wrote of what I called the Nancy factor. I was very interested to see in Soviet President Mikael Gorbachev’s tribute to Reagan, his description of Nancy Reagan as “…wife and friend, whose role will, I am sure, be duly appreciated.”

Twelve years ago, it wasn’t. But I have long believed that it was Nancy Reagan who brought her husband around to being more flexible in his negotiations with the Soviet leader, which in turn made it possible for Gorbachev to expand the domestic reforms that ultimately led to ending Soviet Communist rule.

Her motives were not necessarily strategic. I was told at the time by a key White House insider that Nancy was furious that Gorbachev was becoming the darling of the international news media as a man of peace, while Reagan was portrayed as a cold warrior. Nancy feared this could negatively shape her husband’s place in history. (She was also jealous of the good press that Gorbachev’s wife Raisa was getting.)

We now have a much better idea that one way or another, Nancy, along with then Secretary of State George Shultz, encouraged Reagan to ease his conditions for accepting a new treaty limiting medium range nuclear missiles. With that treaty U.S.-Soviet relations became better than they had ever been, and Reagan even went to Moscow and declared that he no longer saw Gorbachev’s Soviet Union as an evil empire.

This is a Ronald Reagan that today’s ultra-conservative Republicans don’t want to hear about. Nevertheless, it’s an important part of who Reagan was. However, his legacy is now seemingly under great threat because of the schisms splitting the Republican Party. This past week, former Florida congressman and MSNBC conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough, who was part of the Reagan revolution, declared it effectively over.

While there is still uncertainty as to which two people will finally be chosen to be each major party’s presidential nominee, there is something that is now clear – the respective candidates will be facing an electorate that is remarkably different from that which we have seen over many decades.

The emotion we are seeing is not the faux-anger being stoked by Fox News in its creation of the Tea Party during the summer of 2010. Rather, it is the genuine sense of pain of those who have been the true victims of the Crash of 2008. These are the working and middle class people who often lost their homes, their livelihoods and their sense of self-worth, while they watched their well-paying manufacturing jobs being shipped overseas so that large corporations could cut their labor costs and escape paying U.S. taxes. Meantime, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the greed that came close to destroying the entire capitalist system were never held accountable and have resumed living the high life.

Then along comes Donald Trump. Yes, I agree, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is unquestionably tapping into this too, but I would argue that Sanders call for political “revolution”, is less dangerous than the mesmerizing effect of Trump. Sanders is offering some radical solutions, but is doing so within the context of the existing political system. I feel he is promising more than he would be able to deliver, but he is not doing so through the use of smoke and mirrors as is Trump.

Trump is winning, because most of his supporters have lost faith in the American dream, and have put their faith in him to restore it. He is rich, he is famous, and he is promising to fix the things bothering them. It doesn’t matter to them how he is going to accomplish this. They don’t need details. And no matter how outlandish he is - or what scandals his critics accuse him of –they don’t believe them. They believe in him.

The most troubling part of all of this is that in large part Trump is succeeding through appealing not to people’s better angels but to their worst - bigotry, racism, and misogyny among others. History tells us that while this often works, such a story never has a happy ending.

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