History of a Calamity: America's Decades Long March to Trump and Cold Civil War

Human beings calibrate time in strict mathematical progressions. But seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years, decades and centuries are no more than an attempt to impose order on chaos.

In reality, we thinking animals experience time's passage in oscillations. Time doubles back like a tidal bore, the past overwhelms the present.

We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past - actually, someone else wrote that - and as you get to the point in middle age where, when you face forward into the future, you can actually see the finish line, the past becomes a more congenial place to visit.

This return to a remembered time of happiness is the source of the psychological condition we call nostalgia. Therapists’ offices are filled with people whose equilibrium is completely ruptured by nostalgia. They are dealing with neurotic feelings that begin with the idea that things were better in the past.

The problem for someone who writes history and occasionally its subset, autobiography, is: what if things really were better in the past?

What if, by chance, you were born and grew up in a time and place of unprecedented economic growth and stability and physical safety. Not just in your home - because one’s early memories should be of stability and being loved - but in the society that you don’t yet know or understand?

For those of us born in the US in the numerical middle of the American Century, this problem of deciding whether we are ruled by nostalgia or historical fact is acute. For us things really were better. Economically, this is certainly true. We were born at the beginning of the greatest economic expansion in American history.

But in other ways, beyond economic statistics, things really were better. We didn’t understand in childhood but we were surrounded by an optimism bred in victory and this belief that right always overcomes evil would, as we grew older, drive social movements that would bring in groups from the margins of American society - racial minorities, sexual minorities. It would get women more equal access to the world at large.

Even before Covid struck so much was in retreat in the US - stagnant economy, much social progress being reversed - it seemed like my childhood memories belonged to a never to be repeated golden era.

Then came the catastrophe of Donald Trump.

By the time Trump was elected I was three decades gone from the US. Voluntarily. An ex-pat for all the reasons, positive and negative, that lead a person to take the painful step of leaving the country of their birth for another, with no job and just the vague hope that things will be better in the New World.

In 1986, a year after I arrived in London for what has turned out to be forever, The Guardian newspaper ran an editorial noting that America, a country many of its readers thought they knew well, had become a strange place. Whoever wrote the unsigned editorial was referring to the US’s extreme turn to the right politically.

In response, I wrote a piece for the paper that read in part:

“The changes the Guardian notes and doesn’t comprehend are real and are caused by a confluence of three things: a hideous decline in the quality of education; the dramatic shift of population from the northeastern quarter of the country to the south and southwest; and the oligarchical control of the media.”

That was in 1986. The piece went on:

Europeans come to the US to visit the great metropolises of the East and West Coast or rough and windy Chicago. They see on the streets recognizable faces and shapes of lives and assume that US life is like their own.

Forget it. That isn’t the way most of the country lives.

Visitors don’t go out to the junctions of the interstate highways, to the communities sprung up along the ringroads surrounding the Sunbelt cities whose existence is owed to the coming of the six-lane blacktop. Sitting out there are great, sprawling developments of mock-Tudor, mock-Spanish houses with a neon strip of shopping malls and fast food franchises.

These sprawling places which have sprung up in the last 20 years are inhabited primarily by refugees from the mill towns of the rust belt and small farming communities of the upper midwest.

The people who were forced to move are primarily white, working and lower middle class. With the recent exception of Bruce Springsteen, they traditionally have had no mainstream cultural voice.

There is a block of the body politic, wrenched from their roots and home soil, not by bombs, but by distant political events and the painful reality of overpopulation in a post-industrial age … With the life they grew up expecting to live no longer possible they try to set down roots in windswept desert soil and fail.

They come home from work and put on the TV and see a relentless stream of evangelists offering simple ideas about how to feel better and about salvation ... The evangelists invite them to become part of a community (and please send $10 to my ministry). And many do.

So there it is. You have a population under 40 who can absorb data but can’t think, living isolated from their roots in sprawling ex-urbs of hideous sameness seeking a sense of community not in each other, but by what they get through the tube.”

In October 1992, the BBC World Service let me write and read an essay about the state of America during that year’s Presidential contest between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. I based most of the talk around an evening in a cafe near Blue Hill, Maine. The summer folk were gone, it was just townies in the restaurant that night. I listened to one story after another of disaster: a retired fellow who died before his time because he had no health insurance; a single mother from a blue-blood background living near the poverty line because her ex wouldn’t cough up child support and she couldn’t afford a lawyer; the waitress being hammered by a decline in tip revenue because of the recession.

I had left an America drunk on Reaganism and these stories were tales of the hang-over.

The following year the World Service sent me back for two weeks to drive around the Midwest. I heard more stories of disappointment. I wasn’t looking for them. These were the stories people wanted to tell me.

Throughout the decade, while working as NPR’s London correspondent, I would burn a couple of weeks of annual leave and do these trips for the BBC. In Mississippi and along the US-Mexico border I heard stories of lingering racism and economic discontent and alienation from the country people saw on their televisions. You didn’t have to look for these discontents. These were just the tales of ordinary people that any traveler, curious about the lives of others, would hear.

The 1990s were America’s unipolar moment, the US was the global hegemon, and the Washington/New York media did not report these stories of alienation from the small towns and geographically isolated parts of the country. My colleagues were swept up in the glory of working in the Imperial capitals. The provinces were no longer of interest. They could not imagine what was going on in ordinary American lives.

I banked the impressions from those trips and in January 2016 just before the primary season began with Donald Trump as the Republican front runner, I made a BBC radio documentary explaining why—although the professional political pundits were dismissing him—he was very likely to win the nomination. Because Trump seemed the logical endpoint to the decay I had been observing since before I left the US.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the early 1950s.

My memories of the dawn and then morning of my life fade in without a story attached to them for they are not yet continuous:

Staring at a large wooden cabinet, with a tiny television screen in it, probably in Millington, Tennessee where my father was stationed during the Korean War.

Aged three and a half, crying because I was not allowed to accompany my mother when she went into the hospital to give birth to my brother. The wonder of looking at him in his bassinet the day he came home, his head peeking out from a skyblue blanket, his name in a little bracelet on his wrist.

In the middle of the night in our three room walk-up apartment in New York on East 93rd Street, I awake and look out the window and watch the moon disappear behind a black disc. An eclipse is in progress. I get up and wander into the living room, where my parents sleep on separate bits of the sofa and try to wake them up to tell them the moon has gone away.

From this interior world of memory I become more aware of the outer world.

New York 1954. Slats of honey light coming through the railroad tracks of the elevated train that runs above Third Avenue half a block away. Step in and out of light, stand half in shadow, half in sun. Hear the dopplering gdung-gdung of the trains as they approached and departed, a sound that never stopped because in New York the subway never sleeps.

Over the whole of my world the smell of toast and urine - the smell of the Ruppert brewery a block and a half away. The same smell, but with cool air behind it, coming from the Irish bars underneath the Third Avenue El.

Sometimes we rode the train to the Bronx. On a summer evening, light steamy and diffuse, glimpse other lives in the apartments overlooking the tracks. Edward Hopper’s elevated point of view into other people’s lives. Hopper was still painting the City in this time I am telling you about.

Sometime in late 1954 or early 1955, we moved from the walk-up flat to 114 east 90th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. “Just off Park,” as my mother and grandparents preferred to say. It sounded more impressive. And it was. We had gone from 3 rooms where the loo was en-suite to the kitchen to a classic 6, a six room apartment in a pre-war building.

It was a step into privilege.

Our presence there was a beachhead, the latest established by a conquering army of immigrant Jews relentlessly riding the fortunate decision to leave Europe behind.

These words are written at a distance of six decades, but a mere five decades previous to our arrival “just off Park” my grandparents were living in small villages and towns in the eastern sections of the Austro-Hungarian empire or in tenements on the Lower East Side with a toilet on the landing and only cold water to wash with. The thrust and dynamism of American society had in just 45 years brought their successor generations to “just off Park”.

When my grandparents rode the subway down from the Bronx every Friday night for Shabbos, bringing challah and cake; when my mother ceded the honour of lighting the Sabbath candles to my grandmother and she prayed and made the circular gestures with her hands, trying to pull the light into her soul, did my grandmother remember her childhood forty-five years earlier on a farm in Pobych near Sassów in Galicia? Did she wonder at how her son was a doctor with an apartment off Park Avenue and an office just off Fifth?

From my vantage point of more than six decades I can recall my apartment, my block, the shops, the total environment in vivid detail. Did my grandmother remember with the same acuteness the layout of her family’s home and the muddy lanes in her shtetl, where more than half the 3500 inhabitants were Jewish when she left in 1910 and every single remaining Jew was dead by the end of 1942?

She spoke of Lemberg, today L’viv, with awe but not of her village which she left at the age of 10. All her experience in the US was of progress and her memories were of progress: From a Lower East Side tenement on Pitt St. to leaving school at 14 and working in sweat shop in a loft on West Broadway; marrying a dentist and living on the Upper West Side and progressing onward through having children and moving to the Bronx and a modest degree of comfort that was far beyond a 10 year-old in Galicia’s wildest imaginings.

All children think that where they live is the center of the known world but I ask a question similar to the one I already posed. What if where I lived actually was the center of the world? New York in the 1950’s really was the heart of things. Much of Europe was still a wreck, the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China had withdrawn behind their ideological walls. Culture, finance, and diplomacy - all were headquartered on the island where I lived.

Things become reinforced for a child in odd ways. How you figure out you live in the center of the world: In a cab on a rainy day with my mother and her mother in 1956. The radio playing a news report about a UN Security Council debate on the Soviet invasion of Hungary. I ride past the green, gleaming monolithic UN building frequently. I glimpsed it on the television news as this or that crisis was being debated inside. The report drones on. My grandmother who had left Vilmany in northeastern Hungary as a young girl says, “The poor Hungarians.”

I am connected to the UN differently than most people are because of these memories.

My local park was Central Park. In dry weather we went there most days. My father taught me how to catch and throw a football on a little hill behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The hill disappeared a long time ago when the Museum built an extension so it could house the Temple of Dendur from Egypt. This wasn’t an act of robber baron expropriation. The Dendur Temple was saved from drowning when the Aswan High Dam was built. It was given to the US in thanks for its efforts in rescuing the many ancient monuments along the Nile that would otherwise have disappeared beneath Lake Nasser.

I could bore you forever about becoming self-aware in the center of the world: ice skating in a rink in Madison Square Garden’s annex, where the New York Rangers practiced, when the Garden was on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets. Standing with my mother and little brothers watching the spaceship shape of the Guggenheim Museum rise up over Fifth Avenue.

But having been lucky enough to be born into the edges of privilege, living just off Park Avenue, isn’t the reason I say things really were better back then.

It was the freedom I had. People visiting New York are usually thrilled by its energy but also a little frightened by it. But by the time I was seven and a half I could wander wherever I wanted to in the neighbourhood. The city was my pastoral, instead of walking through woods or sitting by a creek throwing stones or exploring natural flora, I wandered around and explored human fauna.

The wealth slid quickly away once you headed east off Park Avenue. Lexington Avenue was a commercial street and across 90th St and heading to the corner of Lex were some turn of the century walk up apartment buildings.

Sheila and the boys from her building used to hang out on the stoop and they let me hang around as well. We played box ball, a game where you bounced a pink rubber ball off the wall and, well, the rules are too complicated to explain.

I think I understood that Sheila and her gang were not quite like me and my other friends but I was too young to understand class and cultural difference.

New York’s streets are a constant show of such differences. I walked to school, P.S. 6, on the corner of 81st and Madison. To get there I had to walk down Park Avenue past another school. Boys in blazers hung around the entrance to Ignatius Loyola. They were were far too rough to be Jewish, although I could not have told you what it was they were exactly.

In the spring of 1958 I got a student bus pass and started riding the bus down Madison Avenue to school - in those days Madison was a two-way street. Standing at the bus stop in warm sunshine, a sense of place, no fear. Not even a suspicion of fear. That’s not the case any more

Chronology is an attempt to impose order on chaos

May 25, 1979, sitting in my apartment on west 15th Street, watching the early evening local news. A 6 and a half year old boy, Etan Patz, has gone missing. In the photo released by his parents—his father was a professional photographer—he is a beautiful archetype: the innocent child. Day after day, local television news plays the story for all its worth. There are so many angles to explore.

Etan went missing in SoHo, the part of the city where my grandmother worked in a sweatshop. By 1979 it is an artists’ neighbourhood that has gone from impoverished bohemian to bourgeois bohemian and has become an aspirational lifestyle hotspot.

Etan’s family is Jewish and in New York that means a lot.

But beyond that there is the most frightening fact about his vanishing: It was the first time he had been allowed out on his own. The New York Times reported he had begged his mother to let him walk the two blocks to the place where he caught the school bus. She had reluctantly agreed. It was a nothing stroll through the neighbourhood, the doorways and shops and people in the street all familiar to him. A journey made by tens of thousands of school-children every day, the same one I made to Madison Avenue: two blocks to the bus stop and then on to school.

Days rolled by and there was no sign of Etan. A local news story became a national news story and then an obsession. One child’s disappearance via the media became a national fear. Are our children safe?

The search went on and turned up nothing. A year went by. No Etan, dead or alive, had turned up. Another year, then another. On the fourth anniversary of his disappearance, President Ronald Reagan declared the day, National Missing Children’s Day.

Nearly three decades later, after a failed investigation, the case was re-opened, in 2012 a suspect was arrested having confessed to the crime. His mental health was brought into question by defense attorneys. In May 2015, 36 years after Etan’s disappearance, his trial ended in jury deadlock. The self-confessed killer walked free.

The case marked a watershed in how Americans raised their children and viewed their society. All over the country - not just in New York - parents curbed young children’s freedom to roam.

The month before the Etan Patz jury failed to reach a verdict, a brother and sister aged 10 and six were taken into protective custody - because they were walking around Silver Spring, an upper-middle class suburb of Washington DC, on their own. Their parents said they were allowing them some “independence”.

The fact is that abductions of children are infrequent, several hundred a year, and the overwhelming majority of those are by relatives or close friends of the family: parents and grandparents fighting over child custody, taking matters into their own hands when the courts won’t give them help.

A second trial of the man accused of the crime took place in 2017. This time he was convicted.

The terrible tragedy of Etan Patz is blessedly rare, only 12 other children in New York have disappeared without trace in the 41 years since Etan was last seen. That is statistically insignificant. Yet the panic created by the relentless coverage of his murder has shaped American life ever since.

Since May 1979, in the United States of Anxiety, a bogeyman is around every corner waiting to snatch a child. As this New York Times article from 2015 makes clear: fear is the default setting for parents.

It’s a long slide for a society from the glow of victory that permeated the 1950s to the siege mentality of today and not just about children’s safety. Like I said, things really were better when I was a child.

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

(now read on to Chapter Two)

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 1 of History of a Calamity, the story of America’s decades long march to Donald Trump and a state of Cold Civil War.

It’s a story you think you know but you don’t. Donald Trump’s presidency was not an aberration; the transformation of the Republican Party into a radical faction that stands against democracy and the Constitution is not a recent event.

On and off for the last 30 years I have been recording the history of my (our) calamity for BBC radio in documentaries and recorded essays. The view back to America from across the Atlantic gives me a unique perspective on how the country got into its mess.

As an author, I have written two books of history. The first was on a contemporary subject: the Iraq War, which I covered as an unembedded reporter. The second was on the creation of modern Jewry starting in the French Revolution and ending a century and a half later with the Nazi seizure of power in April 1933.

This substack will over time be the equivalent of a third book. The history of America’s calamity, from 1950 to today. Why am I publishing it here? Because the process of getting a book commissioned has become so cumbersome and time consuming that I can no longer wait to be granted permission by a publisher to write it.

Twice a month, I will put out a chapter. The chapters will eventually be for paid subscribers.

Please, let me know what you think.

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