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The "malaise" has metastasized as Donald Trump: Jimmy Carter presciently diagnosed the cancer in our body politic in 1979

Carter's famed "crisis of confidence" speech identified the problems in America that led to Trump's rise in 2016


Chauncey DeVega
November 8, 2016 5:58PM (UTC)

Today is Election Day. Like many of you, I am tired. I am eager for this national nightmare to be over. I am also worried and filled with dread about what may come to pass. According to noted statistician Nate Silver and his site Fivethirtyeight.com, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has about a 70 percent chance of victory.

Her chances of victory should be much higher. The Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is at 30 percent. This is no comfort. If I went to the doctor and he told me that I had a 30 percent chance of not surviving surgery, I would make sure that my will and other legal documents were in good order. Sigh and alas, this is where we, the American people, have finally been brought to on Election Day 2016.

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In these moments of stress and worry, I retreat to the movie theater. The lights go down. The projector turns on. We are transported to another place by a quirk of the human brain whereby images presented at 24 frames a second are granted the illusion of movement.

Last Monday before the wonderful new film “Moonlight," I watched a preview of an upcoming movie that contained a brief clip of President Jimmy Carter’s famous “crisis of confidence” speech from 1979. I have seen Carter’s speech many times. While I looked at it projected onto a huge movie screen at the local theater, the power and prescience of president Carter’s words dawned on me again.

On July 15, 1979, during the Middle East oil crisis, a symbol of what many Americans consider a failed presidency, Carter addressed the nation. He told the American people some harsh truths.

He began by reading letters from the American people, as he said:

This from a young woman in Pennsylvania: "I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."

And this from a young Chicano: "Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives."

"Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste."

And this from a religious leader: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love for us or our love for one another."

And I like this one particularly from a black woman who happens to be the mayor of a small Mississippi town: "The big shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first."

This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."

President Carter then continued his address, turning his view to what was at stake:

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America. . . . It is the idea which founded our nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else — public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy.

Carter then went on to warn the American people about a threat to their communal ties and of the dangers of consumerism and greed:

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In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

The America of 1979 is not the America of 2016. The country is not in the midst of “stagflation.” There is no more Cold War, as the United States and its allies triumphed over the Soviet Union. America is not in the grip of a foreign hostage crisis. But politics is fundamentally about emotion and not facts, though many inside-the-Beltway types and other so-called smart people are often loath to accept this reality. Ultimately, Carter’s analysis is prescient: It is as much about the America of today as it was aboiut 1979 — perhaps even more so.

Consider the themes: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s popularity is driven by a culture of greed and consumerism. Although his wealth and financial success are greatly exaggerated, he is an of inspirational figure for a public that confuses money with wisdom and civic virtue. Trump is also a gangster capitalist who has enriched himself at the expense of his employees and contractors while benefiting greatly from public subsidies.

America’s social institutions are suffering a crisis of legitimacy. The news media, which is supposed to function as the guardian of democracy, is viewed with distrust by 32 percent of the American public. The Supreme Court, once viewed with an extremely high amount of respect by the American public is also suffering an almost unprecedented decline in popularity. The social capital and communal ties created by associational life, family, churches and other parts of civil society have been weakening for decades.

Meanwhile, 70 percent of the American public believes that the country is on the wrong track. This feeling is greater among Republicans and Trump supporters. This sense of anger and hopelessness about the future is more acute among white Americans than black and brown Americans.

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The 2016 presidential race has been a distillation of antipathy with both Clinton and Trump being viewed very negatively by voters.

And as the American people felt in 1979, this political and cultural moment is also profoundly disorienting. This feeling is the result of several factors.

What Benjamin DeMott described as “junk politics” is a distraction from matters of substantive public policy. Matters of survival (the environment, police thuggery and brutality, wealth and income inequality, neoliberalism, the assault on the social safety net) are reduced to superficial talking points. Political candidates are made part of celebrity culture, and “both sides do it” faux journalism, which avoids speaking any truth to power, reigns.

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Anti-politics” attacks the very legitimacy of government and virtues of good governance. It also robs us of a language to accurately describe how social inequality and injustice are normalized by the news media, political elites and broader popular culture as a type of “common sense” and the natural order of things.

The present is robbed of any historical context. The present moment is also ephemeral as it erased by the endless slog of the 24/7 news cycle and a digital culture that is obsessed with the “now” and the immediacy of impulse and emotion. The American people are not allowed to process and meditate on important matters of public policy because they are immediately presented with another “crisis” before the earlier one has been resolved.

For example, the rise of the fascist Trump and his basket of racist and bigoted human deplorables to control the Republican Party is presented by the corporate news media as constituting a surprise. In reality, Trumpism is the logical and predictable result of almost 50 years of racism and white identity politics as the dominant political strategy for the Republican Party coupled with a right-wing disinformation-propaganda machine that creates an alternate reality for those stuck in its bubble.

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By removing the historical and political context for the rise of  Trump, the American people are left asking “what is happening?” as opposed to the more important and foundation question, “Why is this happening and what are its causes?”

The result of these forces is an American culture where the spectacular and the “culture of illusion” created by reality TV and other types of entertainment are made into the predominant modes through which individuals relate to the world around them. A feeling of disorientation, confusion and malaise are made almost unavoidable. In other words, our present day is a future foreseen by Carter back in 1979.

There are no easy solutions to this problem.

In the immediate short term, today we must vote against Trump. The risks are too great to allow a racist, fascist, petulant demagogue to win control of the White House.

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In the longer term, we should look at the problems so presciently identified by Carter. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision must be repealed; the power of “dark money” and the plutocrats must be blunted and rolled back. Extreme wealth and income inequality must be addressed through changes to tax policy and the federal budget. Republicans who supported Trump must be voted out of office. Liberals and progressives must focus on local and state elections in order to enact a true “we the people” democracy.

The ability of an irresponsible corporate news media to elevate Trump to the level of presidential contender and then presidential nominee must be broken by consumer boycotts and restoring laws such as the Fairness Doctrine. Our schools and other public institutions must redouble their efforts to purge racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry from the body politic. Strengthening the country’s civic culture and public education must be made a national priority in order to neutralize the growing authoritarianism among too many parts of the American public.

Unfortunately, neither candidate will do this. This is not to say, however, that the differences between Clinton and Trump are not real and substantive. Clinton is an imperfect candidate. But she believes in the standing norms, rules and priors of American democracy. Trump is a fascist. By definition, those rules and norms mean nothing to him. Trump admitted as much during the last presidential debate.

Clinton can be held accountable to some degree by the American people and pressured to live up to her promises. Trump does not operate according to the same expectations.

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Today the American people will choose between democracy with Clinton or fascism, racism and bigotry with Trump. It is that simple. Now we will discover if the American people, who largely turned a deaf ear to  Carter in 1979, will have the wisdom to make the right choice.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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