Dissects U.S. history from 1974 to the present to prove that Trump is not some historical anomaly, but the result of decades of societal pressures and the legislative dismantling of the post-World War II policies that gave America the potential to be great.
Admit it. Over the last two-plus years you’ve found ways to cope with the fact that an unhinged septuagenarian man-baby became President of the United States and surrounded himself with sycophants, ninnies, Judeo-Christian proto-fascists and aged industrialists hellbent on dismantling any and all progress the country made throughout the entirety of the 20th century. Yes, the election of Donald J. Trump, failed businessman/reality television star, was absolutely shocking, but it was just an aberration, you tell yourself. The blue wave of 2018 was encouraging. We’ll get ‘em in 2020. If you believe those last two sentiments, do I have a book for you.
Fault Lines, by Princeton professors Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, dissects U.S. history from 1974 to the present to prove that Trump is not some historical anomaly, but the result of decades of societal pressures and the legislative dismantling of the post-World War II policies that gave America the potential to be great. Like Thanos, an incurious, bullying, authoritarian-adjacent narcissist with a deep affection for spray tans, was inevitable.
Based on a course the authors created and co-lectured as early as 2012 (therefore pre-Trump), the book states plainly that the country has always been divided along lines of race, economic opportunity, political affiliation, gender and sexuality. A robust federal government, a thriving middle-class economy and powerful unions acted as countervailing forces, holding those divides in place, but then the ‘60s happened. Political assassinations, battles for racial, gender and sexual equality, as well as the endless tragedy of Vietnam unraveled constructed social norms and consensus about the nature of power and who wields it. Rather than listen to oppositional voices and build a more just society, Americans became more entrenched and tribal in their affiliations. Combine that with a Conservative movement intent on dismantling unions and regulatory statutes created to dampen the sociopathic excesses of undeterred capitalists and you have a society ripe for a devastating reordering.
While not a considered a fault line, the transformation of the media landscape redefined truth so extensively that we now live in a moment where the president admits to a crime on camera, commits it again, commits another and powerful voices deny that it ever happened. Five decades ago, the media landscape and American’s media diet were vastly lighter. Daily newspapers and the nightly news of the three major networks fed the nation’s appetite for knowledge. There was an accepted truth filtered through a white, cisgender and male lens, but that fractured with the advent of CNN and the 24-hour news cycle in 1980. The Reagan administration removed requirements that media companies perform a public good with news and children’s shows, moving such programming from write-offs to profit generating enterprises. The Clinton regime “modernized” media ownership restrictions, making it possible for conglomerates to own as many television and radio stations as they could afford. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp was the driving force behind this legislation, so Clinton helped create the very monster that would seek to destroy his presidency. The greater the control of viewpoints meant the greater malleability of facts. Technological advancement further fractured the media landscape, giving conspiracy theorists equal footing with scholars and committed journalists.
Kruse and Zelizer work decade after decade, citing the events that deepened the fault lines in American life. They use a very textbook construction to prove their thesis, moving from Watergate and stagflation of the ‘70s to the Reagan revolution, the persistent rise of the Religious Right and the end of the Cold War in the ‘80s. The ‘90s began with the first Gulf War and ended with fears of the Y2K computer glitch. Those were years of dotcom optimism that led to the unprecedented election of 2000. Soon, 9/11 followed, and the 21st century is currently highlighted by the War on Terror, the election of Barack Obama, the fight for gay and transgender rights and our great undoing, the election of Trump. Kruse and Zelizer gives each aspect of their thesis its due, but a history that should feel alive at times grows leaden in the telling. And this reviewer can’t discern if that’s a personal problem.
It is a fascinating experience reading a history of the world in the time you’ve been a part of it, a veritable “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” except this time you feel like part of the arson. You want to believe that all the villains in history hold opposing political views, forgetting what has been done in your lifetime in the name of progress. Then there is the continuing education of the cisgender, white male that involves forever learning that you lived in a privileged alternate reality that most people didn’t experience due to a different set of adjectives. You always feel like you were listening and paying attention, but were never doing enough of either. What Kruse and Zelizer prove inarguably is that we are looking in the wrong directions for the people to blame for the current state of our country. We are living through the conclusions of a decades-long project to dismantle our social protections to make a society that is less equal and more divided. If we survive it, may we never have to hear the bluster of another conservative politician, nor may we ever feel the disappointment of the middling policies of another moderate Democrat. What was the line from “Battlestar Galatica”: This has happened before and all this will happen again? That is where we are. Hopefully we build something better this time.