After Ronald Reagan was elected in the fall of 1980, I tried to ignore the fact that he was president for eight years. I assumed that after this benighted interlude we would return to the world I knew. Surely we would go right back to implementing those thrilling advances in civil rights, voting rights, and environmental protection we had accomplished in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
I know now that the pendulum of American history slowed to a stop the night of Reagan’s victory, concluding the arc that had brought my generation to adulthood. American history repeatedly careens through these swings, and whenever the pendulum pauses and begins to move away in a new arc, we can’t predict where the nation will go.
The 38 years since 1980 have produced the triumph of Reagan’s conservatism, climaxing with the swearing in of Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughEx-White House counsel interviewed Whitaker about joining Trump’s legal team: report Political polarization the critical threat to US, foreign policy experts say How much power do states have? Supreme Court holds the answer MORE. That same swing is giving us the sordid and dangerous sideshow of the Trump presidency, led by a man who uses his office to fan the flames of division. Trump has made America the opposite of great again and again.
Other writers have been pondering the motion of our historic pendulum, and each of us sees a different meaning in the moment. I believe we are at the end of an era, and today’s midterm elections will begin a reversal. I’d even use the word redemption for where we are headed next.
We know where we’ve been. Before 1980, before this long conservative backlash that’s just now ending, people power had triumphed. Social and environmental justice were on the rise. Before 1980, citizens demanded we withdraw from the tragic war in Vietnam. And we did. Before 1980 — just before — scientists focused the attention of decision makers on the disastrous impact of burning fossil fuels.
But then came Reagan, with his dismissal of government as a force for good. Over time, this attitude undermined the social conscience of America. Rush Limbaugh began screaming into our ears in 1988; Fox News joined him in 1996. An angry Newt Gingrich turned Republicans into ferocious hyper-partisans. When Gingrich rode the 1994 “Contract with America” to a Republican House majority, we grew used to Republicans questioning the patriotism of Democrats, comparing them to fascists, and accusing them of wanting to take away rights and destroy the United States.
After 1980, corporate power and money increasingly poisoned our politics. The Koch brothers and their carefully tended circle of allies began their decades-long quest to do away with all those recently passed progressive laws and regulations. They value liberty for the wealthy above all else. They have been open about their goals, cunning in their strategy, lavish with their financial resources, and remarkably successful in achieving free reign for corporations.
The fossil fuel industry spent millions to discredit science and distract us from the coming catastrophe of the warming earth, to keep us blithely burning coal and oil and generating wealth — for the few.
The radical right has achieved its greatest power with this Congress and the Trump-Pence presidency, weakening the government by cutting taxes and strangling its budgetary power to protect and nourish those in need.
The Kochs and their movement know the courts have the last word in American law. With Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFlake: Whitaker shouldn’t oversee Mueller probe On The Money: Dems mark Trump tax returns as key part of agenda | Waters defends planned probe of Trump finances after GOP backlash | Reports: Trump mulls replacing Commerce chief Ross by end of year Collins reiterates call for legislation to protect Mueller investigation MORE’s gleeful marshaling of power, the Senate is filling the federal bench with Federalist Society-trained judges who interpret the Constitution to favor business and leave the little guys on their own to succeed or fail.
I believe we have reached the culmination of this journey. This historic 38-year chapter in American history ends with the chaos of the last month — the Kavanaugh hearings, the pipe bomber and anti-Semitic murderer in Pittsburgh emboldened by the hate speech of the president. Every explosion has a blowback. We are now poised to swing into a new era.
The left is on fire. The complacent middle is aroused. With every rally, Trump’s insults stir a new constituency. His incivility should disgust just about everyone.
The president’s ignorance and dismissal of expertise and science has alarmed professionals in dozens of fields. His anti-environment pro-fossil fuel policies have angered young climate activists and aging environmentalists. Climate change is no longer a distant threat, and even children are suing the government, insisting on action.
This next interval will be messy. We have so much work to do to reclaim trust in government. Trump’s base will resist. Rising sea levels, superstorms, aridification, and wildfire will create millions of refugees and kill millions of people. Survivors will need help. They will demand justice. I have no idea how we will cope.
But I do know that the march to power led by the likes of Charles Koch and Mitch McConnell will slow. The hateful America we see Trump promoting will not prevail. The complicity of virtually every elected Republican official — their unwillingness to legislate for the good of the American people — has roused the people. The politicians’ refusal to acknowledge the needs of a healthy planet will have consequences.
The resistance takes many forms, but it’s real, and it’s growing. The new world begins today.
Stephen Trimble’s is the author of “Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America” and “Red Rock Stories: Three Generations of Writers Speak on Behalf of Utah Public Lands.”