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How the Bad Guys Won

The archetypal stories and myths that we read as children followed a clear story arc. Good characters met evil ones, and while things looked dire during the middle part of the tale, the situation was resolved positively at the end. Thus, Little Red Riding Hood escaped the clutches of the wolf, and the Ugly Duckling turned into a beautiful swan.

Similarly, the narrative of American history is often told on a continuum of progress. We have become a more egalitarian society, and rights have steadily expanded during over two centuries of our existence.

But these stories evade a harsh reality: Despite what we wish to believe, the bad guys often win out in the end.

How is this possible? How do they win? And what can we do about it?

To be a successful bad guy in American history, you need to have two characteristics: a cold-blooded ruthlessness and an indifference for how you might be judged down the road. Thus, John Wilkes Booth goes down as one of our greatest scoundrels for his assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but the effects of his deed far outweigh his mortal reputation. He effectively ended any hopes of successful Reconstruction after the Civil War, and he helped lay the seeds for at least a century more of racial oppression and violence.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald, we don’t have as long a perspective by which to judge long-term impacts, but I can speculate a bit. A character in Stephen King’s alternative history novel 11-2-63 posits that a great deal of good would have ensued had Kennedy lived. While JFK did send troops into Vietnam, he may not have been as gung-ho in fighting the war as LBJ was. A lesser conflict in Vietnam may have avoided the social upheavals that occurred in the 1960s and 70s, JFK almost surely would have won a second term, and Richard Nixon would likely not have risen from the political dead. While JFK obviously he had a number of personal faults, I would have taken my chances with eight years of his administration, as opposed to the Nixonian presidency that followed--characterized not only by Watergate, but also by the Southern Strategy and evocation of the “silent majority”, which began splitting the country along racial and geographical lines.

In 2001, 19 deluded bad guys plowed commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, murdering almost 3,000 innocent people. I don’t know what the motives were, but if it was to weaken the United States, the abettors who survived them must feel relatively satisfied. I felt like I was alone in questioning President Bush’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan. It made no sense to me; I always believe that war unleashes a web of unintended consequences, beyond its intended consequence of killing a number of innocent people. I think events have proved me correct. We’re still involved in Afghanistan, with no prospects of leaving anytime soon. And the Bush team compounded this error by launching their invasion of Iraq.

I’ve done enough speculating on what might have happened in alternative circumstances. Let me just focus on what Americans actually did in response to each of these situations:

  • After the Civil War, rather than seek a moderate way to integrate the country, radicals in Congress sought to punish the South. Once Reconstruction ended, rather than expanding rights and opportunities throughout the region, Southern Democrats conducted a brutal campaign against Black citizens and anyone who supported them.

  • In the wake of JFK’s assassination, rather than focus efforts on his “Great Society” and the War on Poverty, LBJ and his cabinet escalated the Vietnam War, with horrific consequences. Republicans suffered a stinging defeat in the 1964 presidential election and were shut out of power in the Senate and House. Rather than seek to heal their party and invoke successful leaders such as Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, they played on racial hostility and embraced Southern race-baiters and segregationists. Rather than try to understand the perspectives of their fellow citizens, Americans split along social and generational lines, to the point that many turned their back on veterans whose only fault was to get drafted into an unjust war.

  • After the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, George Bush at first was generous in stating that we had no issue with Islam itself, only with terrorism. Then, rather than build on this magnanimity and capitalize on world sympathy following 9/11, his administration decided to double down on unwinnable foreign ventures. Rather than realize our strength comes from our diversity and ability to rebound from setbacks, government reduced civil liberties and ramped up domestic surveillance.

It goes on, even with no direct prodding from the bad guys:

  • Rather than limit outrageous corporate financing of elections, the Supreme Court chose to consider corporations as “people” and allow them to exert profound and unprecedented influence on the electoral process.

  • Rather than cooperate with President Obama, Senator Mitch McConnell explicitly stated that he and his party would work against him and make his presidency unsuccessful. He and his party failed to hold hearings for President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, claiming it could not do so during his last year in office.

These are just a few examples, and I haven’t gotten to Donald Trump. The point, as I’ve made previously, is that we weakened and divided ourselves, leaving a giant breach through which a populist could drive his wedge message.

All of the above may read like a partisan screed, but I do believe that there are more examples of Republicans playing the politics of division. From Nixon to Gingrich to McConnell to Trump, there is simply more evidence that the GOP is more ruthless and committed to scorched-earth political warfare. The Democrats don’t quite have the stomach for it.

The bad guys attacked us, and rather than rise to the occasion, we turned on each other and sapped our own energy and promise. So to John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the 9/11 terrorists: Congratulations! You achieved your results. You weakened this country, and we let you do it.

Next post: What can we do about it?

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