It was summer almost half a century ago when I got into this Volkswagen and began my journey through the country with Peter, a photographer friend of mine. I officially did so as a reporter for a small intelligence agency in San Francisco after being sent out to tap into the mood of the nation at a politically tense moment. The Vietnam War, with all its protests and domestic unrest, was just ending. North Vietnamese troops would invade Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, soon enough. The President of the United States, Richard Nixon, was then caught in an escalating scandal called “Watergate”.
And here was the strange thing. I felt trapped too. In a way, I felt lost. As I put it at the time (and it should sound familiar, even if I was only referring to the TV version of the news in 1973): “This screen has haunted my life. Somehow I wanted to destroy it and discover new, more human points of reference, a real focus. “I had the urge to break out of my world and do the All-American, that Jack Kerouac thing: Go “on the street”.
So Peter and I made our way to this famous American road, driving from campsites to fast food restaurants, halfway through Carnival to Old Faithful, to find ourselves in the so-called “increasing corporate control not just over the workers, but to be found in the captive society during the holidays, in the free time. “I interviewed and photographed what I considered to be the“ population of disoriented nomads ”- mostly lower-middle-class and working-class Americans, confused and angry,“ pushed aside ”, as I wrote at the time, by“ forces they feel are outside of them Control.” It turned out we were completely on someone else’s street.
In Milwaukee we would be accompanied by Nancy, who later became my wife, and then spend weeks following those overly unromantic highways (with no Jack Kerouac in sight) interviewing anyone who would speak to us. In the end, a 29-year-old attempt to break free from his own life and find out “where (or if) I fit in American society” became my first book. Out of our control: America in the mid-1970s. In retrospect, this book of our strange journey to a land reorganized for the perpetual consumption and welfare of giant corporations became what I would call my own “dream document unearthed from our recent past.”
And yes, so long ago it was a troubled moment in a troubled country. I have to admit, however, that I didn’t look Beyond our influence In years, not until a friend recently found, read, and emailed a copy of it, he quoted my own old text to point out how eerily relevant it still was and how – in a sense – Trumpian parts of this America from 1973 were already.
He particularly highlighted an interview with “Frank Nelson” near the end of this book – I’ve changed all the names, so who knows now which was his real one – what more about in a moment. This letter frightened me. I had forgotten all these Frank Nelsons and maybe also Tom Engelhardt, who interviewed them so long ago.
Curious about my long-lost self and the world I lived in then, I took this old book and read it again to meet the young Tom Engelhardt on the street in another American universe. And how strange this journey back into my own – and our – past was.
The right wind is sweeping the plain
So if you have the patience for a little time travel, come back with me to July 1973 and let me tell you about Frank Nelson, whom I met with his wife and three children at a trailhead in Yellowstone National Park. He was “a responsible, personable family man” with – regardless of how much I depressed him – “no vision of a better future”. As a plumber and union administrator from Cleveland and chairman of the union negotiating committee at his factory, he proudly told me, “I’ve been committed to and believe in the labor movement my entire life.”
Even then, he spoke of the growing “conservative approach” of the trade union movement and the possibility that it would, he believed, be destroyed by the “racial problem”. He was clearly both anti-Semitic and racist. (“As I know, I would prefer continued white supremacy over this impending homogenization.”) And while he was talking to me about a growing American crisis, he also told me that “Your liberals believe in a world government … and your Conservatives “- whom he clearly believed -” believe in America first, in American rule. ”
And remember, this was July 1973, not July 2019. It was Richard Nixon’s America, not Donald Trump’s.
Frank and his wife Helen were open, talkative, and so pleased with the interview experience that she gave me her address and asked me to send them copies of everything I wrote. In other words, he didn’t say anything he thought was inappropriate. When I left, I reacted as follows: “To me, this interview seemed to be the crescendo on which the parts of our journey were built.”
As I found out in those weeks of the interview, Nelson, like so many others on this vacation loop, was brimming with half-spoken and unspoken fears about a future in which, as I said at the time, “the [corporate] Pushers will survive, maybe even benefit. It is these people that we have spoken to, the great mass of middle-class people who have barely found a household in the system and who are being cut off at their knees. And to be addicted [on that system]They don’t know what to do. ”
Then when I thought of Nelson (and others like him that we had met) I added:
“The next step for Frank Nelson could get out of this passivity and take to the streets … The motivation, the frustration, the anger is there. Even a new ideology, the ideology of race and nationalism, is emerging. All that is missing is the right wind blowing in from the plain, a combination of forces at the top of society ready to mobilize Frank Nelson.
“… Sinking people usually don’t have an accurate analysis of reality. All they need is a promise that their hard-won status will not go down the drain. And an explanation, any explanation to hang their hopes on. The American society leaves people so confused and reality so disjointed that almost any formula that purports to put the pieces together and appeals to what people consider to be their self-interest may prove acceptable. “
On these pages I had already mentioned Weimar-era Germany – the moment before Hitler came to power – and then I added:
“In Germany in the thirties the formula was anti-Semitism, anti-communism and a mad nationalism, combined with full employment and a return to internal stability. If Frank Nelsons is a criterion, the formula here couldn’t be so much different … Nationalism could be the banner under which the struggle and inevitable sacrifices will come, and run the bogeyman like Jews were in Germany. For Frank Nelson, the identifiable (black) arms are the symbol of what he has to lose, what could be snatched from his hands. And he will defend himself against it even if he has to ally himself with “the Jews and rich Gentiles” to do so.
“Frank Nelson and millions of other Americans are prepared for the harvest when a group at the top sees profit in the harvest.”
Welcome to a more extreme world
In the age of Donald Trump, the Proud boys, and the Wolverine WatchmenMuch of it should feel oddly familiar. However, if my reporting was prophetic in any way, I must admit that I haven’t realized it in all these years – not until my friend wrote to me. Still, in retrospect, it should be obvious that, as bizarre as the present moment may be, it didn’t come out of the blue, not weak. How could it be?
Donald Trump didn’t arrive out of the blue either. He did it just a few months after I returned to San Francisco from our cross-country foray his first appearance on the front page of New York Times. He was 27, two years younger than me and already President of Trump Management Corporation. The headline, Shadow of the Future Donald and the White Nationalism that Accompanied him, read: “Big Landlord Charged with Antiblack Bias in City.” The Justice Department accused his father, Fred, of refusing to “rent or bargain for race and color” in the buildings they owned and managed at the time. And his first words, appropriately quoted in this paper about these allegations, were: “They are absolutely ridiculous … We have never discriminated against and never would.” Of course not! And since then, what has not been always ridiculous Trumpian about our all-American world?
If you think about it, even looking at that moment in 1973, Trump could be reinterpreted as an extreme combination of Richard Nixon (a man with his own) Reveal ribbons as The Donald) and George Wallace. The racist governor of Alabama and a third candidate in Nixon slipped over The Democrat Hubert Humphrey, who first won the White House, Wallace was a man best known for the phrase “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”.
Nixon took the presidency in 1968 and 1972 with his own form of racism, the “Strategy of the South,” first launched in 1964 by Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater (and then called far more fragrant).Operation Dixie”). In a racially coded and clearly nationalist manner, Nixon finally brought southern whites into the republican fold in the formerly democratic bastions of the south. Until 1980, Ronald Reagan would not think twice about launching his own presidential campaign with a speech on “State Rights” (then a code for segregation) near Philadelphia, Mississippi, just miles from the earthen dam where three civil rights workers were found buried in 1964. And in the intervening years the Republican Party has also gone a lot south (so to speak) and into one Form of illiberality that was noticeable enough in the Nixon era.
Until 2016 this southern strategy was of course more of a national strategy in the (Pussy grabbing) Hands of Donald Trump.
In the meantime, the corporatization of the country Peter, Nancy and I were traveling through was well underway – I might have thought of it as fast foodization. At the same time there was a new kind of all-American inequality in those years just started make yourself noticeable. Today, with the first billionaire in the White House and other billionaires even in the middle of a pandemic, continues make an absolute mint With so many Americans suffering, the inequality that so desperately troubled Frank Nelson and his colleagues has never really stopped rising breathtaking levels.
Believe me, even if Donald Trump has to leave the Oval Office on January 20, 2021, we will still be in his America. And 47 years after my long, strange journey, I can guarantee you one thing: if it had not been for the pandemic that has taken hold of this country and kept so many of us from taking any path, a young reporter, crazy and unhappy, would always move still be able to walk on a 21st century “street” and find updated versions of Frank Nelson galore (a surprising number of them could be well armed and angry).
Welcome to America! There is no question that for so long after Peter, Nancy and me on this not-so-open road, our lives and this country are far beyond our control.
When I wrote about the people I interviewed at the time (who I knew nothing about, with the exception of a single museum director I met in Twin Falls, Idaho) I said, “I don’t doubt they, like me, still reluctantly moving towards a future that really makes the summer of 1973 seem unreal and makes us all wonder: Could life really have been like this? ”
In Covid-19 America with the west coast still burns, Colorado in historical flames, one Record 11 Storms on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere this hurricane season and heat of all kinds is rising all overDo not think for a second that the phrase “out of our control” may not have a new meaning in the decades to come.
Welcome to a more extreme version of the world Frank Nelson and I lived in as early as 1973.