Outtake from the Revolution

President Nixon bowls with the winners of the 7th International Bowling Federation Tournament (not pictured)
Nixon bowling, 1971.

AFTER NIXON ANNOUNCED the invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, masses of students at all the respectable colleges in America went out on strike. Santa Monica City College, however, was not a respectable college, so while protests were escalating around the country, often into violence, and many campuses were effectively shutting down, at SMCC a few activists set up a table next to the lawn with fliers and stickers urging people, unsuccessfully, to stay out of class. I mean, they had to do something; it was embarrassing. Everybody at SMCC had an inferiority complex; in California, if you were with it in 1970, you were at Berkeley, or Santa Cruz, or San Francisco State, where there was turbulence and the feel of revolution in the air, where people were changing and growing and discovering and radicalizing their little faces off, or Sonoma State if you wanted to get mellow, or UCLA or plenty of other places if you just wanted to go to a good school with smart people. But SMCC? It wasn’t even a real college, it was a two-year junior college. (It had been called “Santa Monica Junior College,” then they’d changed “Junior” to “City,” and later they would get rid of “City.” Real social climbers, these people.) Its image was of a school for dumb white kids with good tans, for surfers trying to learn a job skill. So the student body couldn’t sit out the strike entirely, it would just confirm our reputation as losers.

Still, I was hoping it would peter out because I had no conviction for this. Chanting “on strike, shut it down”? Hollering at the school’s administrators, whoever they might be? Raising students’ consciousness to see the connection between SMCC and napalm? I was always absolutely against the war, and totally in favor of protesting it, but I never really got why we were supposed to target the schools we attended. Which put me in a bind, because for college students in those years, protesting the Vietnam War meant protesting your college. I wasn’t in favor of the strike, but I couldn’t bring myself to go against it, either, because that would have meant siding with Nixon and the war’s supporters, and because at age 19 I couldn’t think clearly enough and wasn’t brave enough to reach a conclusion and make a decision that could 1) put me on the side of my nemeses, the conservatives, and 2) turn me into an outcast.  So I was left with my confusion.

GOD, I HATED that school. It seemed more like a shopping center than a college, sitting on Pico Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, wedged in between blocks of convenience stores, ice cream parlors, pet shops, burrito stands and traffic. In the middle of campus was a broad lawn where hardly anyone ever sat, and it was flanked by low-rise, peach-colored, plain modern buildings, which were flanked by bungalows, which were flanked by parking lots. The place had as much character and atmosphere as a Jack in the Box.

I was there for two years, and I remember exactly one class session, in economics, that I found interesting, the lecturer being a good one. How interesting that class was during the rest of the semester, I can’t say, because I hardly ever showed up. I cut classes like crazy. I dropped or was dropped out of so many courses that I lost my student draft deferment. (I wasn’t worried; anybody who wanted could beat the draft, which I did.) I had no business being in college; I didn’t know what I wanted to study, couldn’t concentrate in class, couldn’t read the books at home. I was there because I was afraid to outrage my father by quitting, and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I’d been the same sort of student in high school (except in literature and history), which I barely graduated, so I didn’t have the grades to get into a regular four-year college, only a two-year junior college, whose admission requirements were that you be a current California resident and be alive for at least 18 years. SMCC cost $6 a semester, it was close to home, so what the hell. When I did show up, I walked around campus feeling like that character on the bridge in the painting “The Scream.” I didn’t talk to or even look at anybody. When I did go to class, I sat in the back and daydreamed.

AS FOR THE student strike across America, it didn’t peter out. Nixon invaded Cambodia on a Thursday, and on Monday the National Guard killed four students at Kent State. Even at SMCC, things started to heat up. Meanwhile, my confusion about whether or not to strike classes became acute, turning into a feeling of paralysis. Loitering at the strike table, feeding my confusion all the more, I saw an old acquaintance from high school named Freddy checking out the material. Freddy had been one of those unassuming, unathletic boys whom the late ‘60s turned into a star: He’d become one of the kings of our high school’s dope-smoking scene. He smoked marijuana and hashish all the time, and developed a doper’s laughing eyes and anarchic sense of humor. He also sold dope, but never became a profiteer; he had a good soul. (Hamilton High School, in middle-to-upper-middle-class, heavily Jewish West L.A., had a very active dope scene, mainly grass and hash, when we were there. In 1968 or 1969 a survey found it to have the highest proportion of dope smokers of any high school in the city. The day this made the news, we walked around campus chanting, in imitation of UCLA basketball fans, “We’re number one, we’re number one…”)

Freddy, who at SMCC still looked like your friendly neighborhood dope dealer with his thin beard and granny glasses, never struck me as a political type, but he told me he’d stopped going to class. I don’t know, I said, and started describing my angst, and he said, C’mon, let’s go for a walk. We went into the campus’ new amphitheater, which was empty, sat high up in the bleachers and Freddy lit up a joint, passed it to me, and he began trying to convince me to join the strike. It didn’t matter about college, he said, forget that shit, the point is that something’s happening, it’s getting bigger,  and everybody’s gotta do his part, and then it’ll keep on getting bigger, and it’ll spread to outside the colleges, into business and all that shit, and little by little the straight people will join, and then Nixon won’t be able to run his fucking war anymore, get it?

Freddy was high as a kite, fairly ecstatic, which was normal for him. But this was my first time ever getting loaded on campus, high school or college, and I was now a different person. Freddy didn’t convince me, he converted me, he baptized me. I was imbued. I’d crossed over, become radicalized. The air was charged. Finally, I felt free. And I guess I was in the mood for a fight, because from there I went into my Psychology 1 class, which I especially hated because of the professor, whose name I can’t remember but who sticks in my mind as a slightly stockier, balder version of Ray Walston playing a comically pompous, ill-tempered prof.

The lecture hall was shaped like an amphitheater, too, there were about 40 students in there, and as usual I sat in the back, by myself. The professor, wearing his regular tan sports coat and tie, starts lecturing and at some point a student raises his hand, and the professor took the question, as he often did, by saying, “What’s your problem?” He wasn’t mean, he was just patronizing in a way he probably thought was cute. Or maybe he’d thought it was cute once, and now he just did it out of habit. The student got a little flustered, but he got his question out, the professor answered and went on lecturing, a couple more students asked questions, the professor again broadcast his impatience in taking them, again the questioners swallowed it, and this just went on. Nobody objected, they continued scribbling or flipping pages or staring into space. Normally I would have been staring into space, too, but I was really stoned, and thus hyper-aware of what was going on, and I couldn’t take it. I was scared, but I raised my hand, the professor recognized me, and I asked, very audibly, “Why are you always belittling people?”

The whole class turned around to look up at me, then they looked back down at the professor as he began denying that he was belittling anyone. “Yes you are,” I said, “people ask you a question and you say ‘what’s your problem’ and that’s belittling people.” The professor kept denying, kept defending himself – and then other students in the class started opening their mouths. A hippie sitting near me made the hippie point that it was all a matter of opinion, which only agitated the professor more. It was us against him, everyone talking at once, and soon the professor, who looked very small down there in the pit of the lecture hall, was pointing up at me, his whole self seeming to vibrate, his face screwed up in a rage, and he shouted at me, “Sit down!” Which surprised me – I wasn’t aware that I was standing up. I sat down, the fight dissipated and soon the class ended. On the way out, a couple of students congratulated me, and a few others smiled at me. Everybody was aware of my presence. I’d become class hero for a day to some, and class celeb for a day to the rest. Not bad! Well, between this and my radicalization an hour and a half earlier, it was clear I wouldn’t be attending any more classes for awhile. I was on strike.

WHAT DID YOU do in a student strike? You joined one of the strike committees. A big thing in those days was “relating to the community,” which meant the poor blacks and Chicanos of Santa Monica and Venice, and that always had huge appeal for me, so I joined that committee. I spent an afternoon in Venice swapping very ambitious ideas with the black guy who headed a local “grassroots organization,” and that was the last we ever heard from each other. Another time I took a ride with the white chairwoman of our committee to get some leaflets made, and she told me proudly, “I can only really be myself around black people.” The highlight of my “work” was attending a service at a large black church in L.A. and hearing the gospel choir sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” long known as the “Negro national anthem.” If there were a musical equivalent to hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech up close at the March on Washington, that would have been it.

In his book “The Sixties,” Todd Gitlin wrote that in the 1970 nationwide student strike, 30 ROTC buildings – the military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps sites on campuses, which had long been the focus of protests – got torched or bombed. At 26 colleges, violence occurred between police and student demonstrators. At 21 colleges in 16 states, the National Guard was called in. Back at SMCC, the climax of the strike was a march by about 100 of us along the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard, stopping for red lights, to City Hall, where we demanded that the mayor send a letter to the White House in which he would demand an end to the war in Southeast Asia, to repression on campus and to several other things. The mayor came out, heard from our leaders, accepted our written demands, smiled and went back inside. (This was when Santa Monica was still a pretty conservative town, shortly before the hordes of cool people arrived.) We marched back to campus for our closing rally, where one of our leaders read the statement from the mayor’s office, which said the mayor had sent a letter to the White House saying that we striking SMCC students demanded an end to the war, repression, etc. We cheered our victory, and the rally broke up. (It went unnoticed, or anyway unmentioned, that the mayor himself hadn’t demanded a thing from the White House, he’d just passed along our message. Whatever.)

SOMETHING ELSE I did during the strike, in response to the call by the leadership, was to try to convince other students to join. I thought I might still have a little pull in my Psychology 1 class, so I walked in one afternoon while it was in session, and took a stance in the middle of the aisle next to the rows of students. There were more empty seats than before; evidently the strike had had some effect. I’d made a tactical error, though – by this time, all the students had made up their minds one way or the other, and anybody who was still in class wasn’t going to come out now. Again, everyone was aware of my presence, including the professor.

“Yes?” he called out to me.

“I want to ask people here if they want to join the strike, if they want …”

“Leave this class right now.”

“I just want to ask them …”

“Leave this class, immediately.”

“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave.”

“I said leave this class!”

“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave!”

Then what seemed like all the students in the front rows turned around in their seats, and they were glaring at me. “Leave!” they yelled.

That had a disarming effect on me, but still I managed to say, with some defiance, “All right, I’ll leave!” and strode back up the aisle and out the door.

Summer was coming, so the strike couldn’t go on much longer. (Certainly not at SMCC, where you could smell the waves.) It didn’t stop the war, of course, but the antiwar strike of 1970 was still a memorable experience for all who participated. Toward the end, a new demand was raised by striking students at all the colleges: that they not be penalized for missing classes and tests, and be given credit for having passed those subjects. Most if not all the colleges agreed, including SMCC. For me, then, the big protest turned out, even academically, to have been worth the effort.

Have Trump’s working-class whites really embraced ‘class warfare’?

Trump rally in New Hampshire
Trump supporters at rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, December 28, 2015. Photo: Marc Nozell

For liberals, one of the lessons of the Trump campaign is that they and the Democratic Party have to start paying more attention to the economic pain of America’s white working class, which Trump has turned to his advantage in such a startling way.

These people without a college education are the ones left behind by the Obama recovery, left behind by the modern global, high-tech economy in general, and the Democratic Party, which used to speak for this class, doesn’t any longer and this has to change, according to the new liberal consensus.

I don’t doubt the economic pain of people who have no job security, whose salaries and benefits have steadily declined, and whose prospects for the future look no better. What I do doubt, though, is that Trump’s economic pitch – to bring back the good old days of American factory work – is up there among the main reasons why he’s getting such huge support from these people.

I doubt it because blue-collar America didn’t just start declining now; it started in the 1980s, and even a little before. Where have these working-class whites been all this time with their demands to reverse free trade?

These Trump voters are Republicans and right-leaning Independents; why have they been supporting pro-free-trade, pro-1%, anti-union, anti-safety-net Republicans for decades? Why did they, and why do they still, worship Reagan, who broke the mold on this economic policy, and who did more to screw American workers, not to mention the American poor, than any other president?

GOP’s old name for Trump’s economics

Before Trump, the Republicans had a term for the complaint that workers were getting hammered and Wall Street was the enemy: “class warfare.” Only Democrats preached class warfare, and the white working class wasn’t having it – if they voted, they voted Republican.

So why have they suddenly woken up? Why, for the first time since they left the Democrats and flocked to Reagan in 1980 (if they hadn’t left as part of Nixon’s “silent majority” in 1968, or as part of his 1972 landslide over the Bernie Sanders of the day, George McGovern) are they talking like proletarians?

Because the new, working-class economics that Trump is serving them comes packaged in the good old Republican wrapping that they always grab for – hatred of Washington, politicians, the media, the Democrats, Obama, the Clintons, immigrants, Muslims, as well as blacks, women and gays who aren’t grateful for all their advantages.

Plus, many if not most of them really like Trump’s style, which is also new. Many respect his wealth, seeing it as proof of his ability and believing he’ll use it to get them a better break. Many also see his beautiful women and his exciting life, and hero-worship him.

Take away Trump’s Republican political and social themes, take away his personality, his billions and his celebrity and make him a Democrat running against free trade and for bringing back factory jobs to America – would working-class whites be interested? I don’t think so.

Sander NY rally
Sanders at rally in Manhattan, September 18, 2015. Photo: Michael Vadon

I know, Bernie Sanders also appealed to working-class whites with the same basic approach to trade and jobs. But I’m convinced that many of these people didn’t know he was a holdover from the late-‘60s New Left, and that once they found out – as they most certainly would have in a general election – they would have fled in droves to the Republicans, to the Libertarians or stayed home.

By and large, America’s working-class, high-school-educated whites are not proletarians, or anyway that is not an important part of their identity. No, they’re nationalists. And nationalists need enemies. That’s what the Republicans have given them, it sure as hell is what Trump has given them, and this is the decisive reason they love Trump.

Protectionist economics? That’s icing on the cake.

I have to wonder if these voters even believe it, if they believe there’s something a president can do to get their jobs back from overseas, to rebuild the factories and revive industrial unions and guarantee their employment, good wages and benefits, regular raises and the rest of what was once on offer in blue-collar America. It’s gone. It’s been dying in pieces for almost 40 years. The technological revolution and globalization killed it off; how do you reverse that combined force?

Anybody who tells Americans with no more than a high school diploma that there’s a way to get them into the middle class – other than by upgrading their education – is lying through his teeth. Leave that to Trump; Democrats don’t have to imitate him.

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For further reading:

Shhh, don’t tell Donald: Trump is not the first Republican to champion white working class, MarketWatch

Millions of ordinary Americans support Donald Trump. Here’s why, The Guardian

Head of the class, New Yorker

New data: Why white working class voters back Trump, Newsweek

What Democrats still don’t get about George McGovern, New Republic

 

 

 

 

Finally, America taking sharp left on economics

trump rally
Trump rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona, March 19, 2016. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Protectionism, raising minimum wage, raising taxes on rich – this, by popular demand, is economic platform of GOP’s new leader.   

It’s ironic: America has been moving left on social issues in recent years because there are more minorities and “millennials” in the population, yet the country is finally, in this election campaign, moving left on economic issues as well because of white, generally middle-aged Middle Americans – mainly those who support the fascistic Donald Trump.

These are the people who, ever since Reagan, exasperated the liberals by consistently acting against their economic self-interest and voting for a Republican Party that so clearly favored the rich and disdained the working class and poor. The reason they voted Republican was the social issues, the symbolic issues, the ones that involved their likes and dislikes, that pitted their culture against liberal, cosmopolitan culture. These are patriotic, traditional Americans, and the Republicans talked like their kind of people, while the Democrats talked like big-city college kids who didn’t know how to change a tire. On economics, these voters said they hated government and taxes, and the Republicans said they did, too, so it was a perfect match – even though the GOP-style economy left these people further and further behind while the rich kept getting more obscenely rich.

But this year the alliance between Middle America and Republican economics broke apart. It happened mainly because Trump jettisoned the GOP’s laissez faire dogma, and instead told Middle America’s inadequately educated whites, “I’ll save you. I’ll get your jobs back. I’ll stop all those businesses from leaving the U.S. and they’ll have to hire you, at good wages.” In other words, protectionism. Prohibitive taxes on foreign imports, and confiscatory taxes on U.S. businesses that dare defy the government. What Republicans call socialism, totalitarianism.

And the salt-of-the-earth white folks of the heartland loved it. Meanwhile, on the social and cultural issues, Trump threw them more raw meat than any serious presidential candidate ever had – the ugliest racism and nativism, the worst abusiveness, the most fuck-you brand of hell-raising – and between that and his economic wonder drug, he left the Republican free-market purists in the dust.

PROTECTIONISM IS AN idiotic idea in this day and age – among other awful effects, it would lose America billions of foreign customers for its exports, and thus cost more Americans their jobs than Third World competition ever did – but the important thing is that Trump, by making this idiotic claim so successfully, has separated Republican voters from Republican economic doctrine. Which is a great thing, because Reaganomics, which has held sway in America since the 1980s (the big exception being the passage – and success – of Obamacare), has helped expand the country’s pool of have-nots, strike fear into the middle class and give the upper class an abominably large share of the nation’s wealth.

Trump – purely by accident, because he doesn’t have an economic idea or principle in his head – has torn down the Republicans’ facade and allowed the party’s educational lower class to acknowledge, very loudly, that economic freedom isn’t working for them, and that they want somebody in charge – say, the next president – to give them economic security one way or the other.

As a result, Trump has had to keep moving left economically – now he’s changed his mind and come out in favor of raising the minimum wage, which is the sort of thing that would have gotten a Republican hanged as recently as last year. In another forced reversal, he’s even talking about raising taxes on the rich. Protectionism, minimum wage hikes, higher taxes on the wealthy – this, by popular demand, is the economic platform of the Republican Party’s new leader.

After this, after Trump’s exposure of the dissatisfaction in party ranks with laissez faire, is any Republican going to try to sell voters on Milton Friedman or the Laffer curve again? I don’t think so. That way has failed, first economically, now politically.

TRUE, IT’S NOT only Trump and his white Middle Americans who are moving the country left on economics; it’s also Bernie Sanders and his white Middle Americans, along with his millennials who believe in equality, and who also believe they shouldn’t have to pay so damn much to go to college. They’re right, of course, and hopefully their nudging of Hillary and the Democrats leftward (except on free trade, where they’re as wrong as Trump), will be a lasting thing. But by far the most significant development – the shredding of America’s economic Right – has come from the heart of the Republican electorate, driven forward by a sociopathic billionaire. If that’s not ironic, I don’t know what is.

This isn’t too good to be true, either: After Reagan, it was Bill Clinton who said “the era of big government is over” as the Democrats joined the Republicans in keeping taxes low, slashing welfare and in general burying the party’s New Deal legacy (until Obamacare). For 3½ decades, American economic policy has been moving one way, right. Now, from the force of reality and the advent of Trump and, to a lesser extent, Sanders, the pendulum is swinging back.

So, assuming that Hillary Clinton wins the November election, which I think is a very safe assumption, the 2016 election campaign should go down as a turning point for the better in American economic history. (And assuming that Trump gets wiped out electorally, which I think is a likelihood, this will have been a healthy year for American national life all around.)

I don’t know if Hillary and the Dems will make things better for average-income and poor Americans; if they don’t, the Repubs could come back to power later – but not with more of their economic bullshit. They can’t make life much easier for the rich or much harder for the poor and working class without turning America into something like a Third World country itself – and without chasing more and more voters away.

The Republicans are going to have to deliver the goods to their struggling supporters, because these people won’t listen to promises of trickle-down anymore. The GOP has no choice but to rejoin the Western world and accept that a mixed economy, one that includes reasonable taxes and reasonable government intervention, is necessary for a fair society.

Remember Nixon’s wage and price controls of 1971? There really was a time, and not so long ago, when even a Republican could have an idea like that. Such times appear to be coming around again.