Beyond the Messy Truth
America Betrayed— By Both Parties
Before we can find the right solutions to our present distress and pain, we must properly define the problem. As painful as it might be to confront, we must acknowledge that the dominoes that knocked over the entire political establishment in 2016 were in place—and beginning to tip over—decades ago. The grievances and frustrations that allowed Donald Trump to take power have been gathering force since elites in both parties pushed through policies that helped to wreck America’s middle class. Now we are all paying the price. In this chapter, we look backward to better understand where we need to go and what we need to do now.
My awakening to the discontent and divisions in America began when I started law school at Yale University. Yale gave me my first peek behind the curtain to see real power and privilege—and how it operates in this country.
When I arrived on campus, I had never been out of the United States. Before seeing the Atlantic Ocean on my trip north, the biggest body of water I had ever seen was the Mississippi River. Suddenly I had to navigate a universe in which my classmates were world travelers who had been attending the world’s top educational institutions since they were little kids. Many were “legacy admits”—meaning that their parents or grandparents had graduated from Yale. They felt completely at home among those Gothic buildings and other highborn children. A few students on the broader campus came from legendary families whose surnames were fixtures in American life.
I came from a small town in the rural South. The son of two public-school teachers, I had attended public schools myself—with no prior exposure to the upper crust of American society. My only claim to fame came through my maternal grandfather. When I was young, the Ebony magazine list of the top 100 most powerful African Americans always included my mother’s father, Dr. Chester Arthur Kirkendoll. The president of Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, from 1950 to 1970, he was also—by the time I was in junior high school—the senior bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). In my teen years, he was our small denomination’s equivalent of the pope. It came as a small surprise when I realized that none of my Yale classmates had ever heard of Lane College, the CME Church, or my granddad.
The biggest shock for me was the way in which wealth and racial differences separated Yale students from urban youth who lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus. Being a super-nerd, I had stayed out of trouble in high school and college; to this day, I have never tried drugs or alcohol. So I was stunned to find that some students at Yale did use illegal drugs; there was even a place on campus called “mental hygiene,” which seemed to function as a detox or rehab center. But when New Haven’s urban youth—some of whom lived in housing projects just a short walk from the campus—did the same drugs, they didn’t get to go to a rehab center. They went to prison. And when they came out, they were labeled drug felons—for life. How could young people in the same age group, breaking the same laws, in the same town, be treated so very differently? This struck me as the opposite of the ideal of “equal protection under the law,” which I was reading about in the law library every night.
My disillusionment with the system was already growing.
Then came April 29, 1992.
That night, Los Angeles exploded in blood and flames in reaction to the refusal of an all-white jury to convict four white Los Angeles Police Department officers who had been videotaped savagely beating an unarmed black motorist named Rodney King. The stunning verdict sparked protests and disturbances in dozens of U.S. cities. President George H. W. Bush sent troops into L.A. to impose order. I watched the L.A. rioting on television from where I sat in San Francisco, shedding tears born of rage and sorrow. Though we were hundreds of miles north of the violence, San Francisco’s mayor, Frank Jordan, declared martial law.
The jury’s decision and subsequent uprisings were the defining events of my young adulthood. When I first saw the video, I felt that I could have been Rodney King. I winced at every blow that landed on his prostrate body. Had the jury convicted the officers, I would have celebrated—thinking that America was finally confronting the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality” that Dr. King denounced in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Instead, the U.S. court system seemed to be giving a green light to every police officer in America. In my mind, the verdict read: “It’s open season. Do whatever you want to do to black men. Film it, for all we care!”
I wanted to do something. A week later, I got my chance.
I was spending the spring semester away from Yale, working as a law student for a Bay Area civil-rights legend, Eva Jefferson Paterson. She asked a young staff attorney and me to go to San Francisco’s Mission District and act as legal monitors at a peaceful “Justice for Rodney King” rally in Dolores Park. Our job was to stand to one side and note any incidents or irregularities, in case there was trouble. As a twenty-three-year-old law student, I was excited to go represent her.
Within forty-five minutes of arriving there, I found myself handcuffed in a police van, along with hundreds of nonviolent protesters and other bewildered legal monitors.
Everything happened so fast. At the end of the rally, the crowd of thousands had poured out of the park, marching down the street without a permit. After several blocks, the police had stopped the demonstrators and ordered everyone to leave the area along a route they had designated. Many protesters—hundreds, actually—had flagrantly disobeyed police orders and simply scattered in all directions. I was appalled.
“They are making themselves look really bad,” I thought. So I resolved to professionally and peacefully follow all police instructions. After all, I was there to represent my boss’s public-interest law firm—not as a protester. Perhaps I was naïve to believe that my desire to do things the “right way” would guide me away from handcuffs. But my dad had been a cop in the military; his younger brother was a police officer in Memphis. I knew there was a right way and a wrong way to deal with law enforcement.
So hundreds of marchers (and a few legal monitors, like me) obeyed the police orders. We dutifully flowed down the street that the cops had directed us to walk on. We got about one block. Then dozens of cops emerged out of nowhere, surrounded us, and arrested us all. It was a trap. They had been planning mass arrests the whole time.
With white plastic handcuffs cutting off the circulation to my hands, I ran through a disturbing checklist of everything I had seen so far. A terrible videotaped beating. An awful verdict. Riots everywhere. Cops stopping a peaceful march. Police jailing everyone who trusted them and followed their orders.
Well, that was enough for me. I came from a good Christian home. I was a student at a top law school. I had a bright future in America. But even I found it impossible to continue believing in the system at that point.
I graduated law school in 1993 as a man on a mission. You might assume that, to advance my progressive agenda, I went out and did battle with conservatives and Republicans. But you would be wrong. The truth is that I rarely fought a Republican until I was in my forties, when I worked a short stint in the Obama White House. In my twenties and thirties, my major battles were mostly against Democrats, including the likes of Bill Clinton, Willie Brown, and Jerry Brown.
People forget that Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party in the 1990s was a very different breed of donkey from the one we have now. Clinton and his ilk loved Wall Street and catered to corporations. They aggressively favored expanding the prison industry. They backpedaled hard on welfare and affirmative action. Meanwhile, Republican powerhouse Newt Gingrich had a coherent governing agenda, a strong Congressional majority, and the political skill to pull both parties to the right.
In those days, if you cared about vulnerable communities, you had to swim against the strongest currents in both parties.
I decided to try. In 1996, to fight police abuse and prison expansion, I co-founded a grassroots organization in the San Francisco Bay Area called the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Over our first decade or so, we got a renegade cop fired. We helped to sue many problem officers, precincts, and practices. We helped reform the San Francisco Police Department. And eventually we helped to close five abusive youth prisons.
But to win, we often had to take on California’s liberal establishment, including Willie Brown and Jerry Brown. I learned how to fight for people who were suffering—regardless of whether the obstacle to justice was a Republican or a Democrat.
In those days, the problem wasn’t just that both parties were promoting “tough on crime” policies that turned out to be “dumb on crime.” There was a two-party consensus for dumb policies across the board.
The Four Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse
In the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix, a man named Neo tried to free humanity from mysterious brutal overlords. His actions made him a hero. But nearly every real life “Neo” at the dawn of the twenty-first century turned out to be ruinous for everyday people. For instance:
•Neoliberal economic policy led to trade deals like NAFTA, which helped to wipe out hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing jobs.
•Neo-draconian social policy escalated the “war on drugs,” which failed to shrink drug use but mushroomed the prison population.
•Neoliberal economic policy (again) led to the deregulation of Wall Street—which resulted in the 2008 crash that wiped out trillions of dollars in value and cost millions of Americans their homes.
•Neoconservative foreign policy led to the disastrous U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
You might call these four policies the Four Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse. The powers-that-be in Washington, D.C., had converged on a set of ideas that would have terrible consequences for the country and ultimately set the table for the Trump takeover. Taken together, they created intolerable conditions for millions of Americans, most of whom suffered silently for years. The worst part of it was that top Democrats and top Republicans embraced every one of these policies. Therefore, the stage was set for a massive backlash—inside both parties.
Most unfortunately for her, Hillary Clinton embraced all four of these ideas. By 2016, public opinion had flipped on every issue—from trade deals to criminal justice—so the very programs that made her husband a hero made her a goat.
Jeb Bush suffered a similar fate. His brother, George W. Bush, should have stayed out of Iraq and instead spent the Clinton-era budget surpluses on infrastructure and job training. Instead, Dubya squandered a trillion dollars on an unwinnable war—and left office with an approval rating in the toilet. When his younger brother, Jeb, ran for higher office, Americans had no appetite for putting another Bush in the White House.
I find it ironic that both the Clinton and Bush dynasties were swept off the board by a bipartisan grassroots backlash against what had once been the bipartisan establishment consensus.
There’s a fifth horseman we can point to, as well, one born of lack of policy: The political elite in those days never created a sane approach to immigration. Bad trade deals plus no immigration reform meant that money could travel the world freely, but human beings could not. Capital could cross borders safely; people could not. Newcomers came anyway—contributing much, but risking everything.
About 75 percent of America’s 12 million undocumented immigrant workers are Latino. Millions of them work every day, but they have few rights and live in fear of being deported. Meanwhile, a segment of mostly white native-born Americans seethe at their presence, fearing that they steal jobs, commit crimes, and alter American culture. In this way, the failure of the two parties to create a fair, workable immigration system placed another log on the smoldering fire of American resentment—both for liberals who wanted to see America embrace the newcomers and for the conservatives who wanted to send them back.
The 1990s Origins of the Trump Campaign
Pundits celebrate the 1990s as a “positive” decade of peace and prosperity, a triumphant high noon between the depths of the Cold War and the horrors of 9/11. Back then, they tell us, despite the rancor and even an impeachment, politicians like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich came together and “got things done.” Those were the good old days.
This upbeat narrative persists, in part, because the “winners” always write the official histories of their times. The “losers,” for the most part, do not. Those people whose wallets and worldviews were on the upswing at the dawn of the twenty-first century cherish their version of the 1990s. It puts a halo around their achievements. It justifies their ascension. And it conceals their treason.
Because this story always had another side. With one hand, America’s bipartisan elites were raising a toast to celebrate the new economic order. With the other hand, knowingly or unknowingly, they were shoving tens of millions of their fellow Americans overboard, to sink or swim in the shark-infested waters of the global labor market. Many Americans sank straight to the bottom and drowned—consumed by joblessness, homelessness, and despair—with barely a peep of protest (and no effective help) from these same brilliant national leaders.
From the very beginning, though, many Americans read the handwriting on the wall and tried to fight back. In 1999, tens of thousands of (mostly) nonviolent protesters shut down the city of Seattle, to derail a meeting of the World Trade Organization, an entity designed to accelerate the agenda of global corporations. I was there, one of the peaceful ones. And let’s not forget that opposition to the global corporate agenda was already so fierce in the 1990s that it impacted the presidential election in 2000. Most people remember nothing about that campaign—except for the hanging chads in Florida. But if you were paying attention, you could see signs that the backlash against the new corporate order would someday be fearsome.
On the right that year, Pat Buchanan ran for president on the Reform Party ticket. He rang the alarm over America’s loss of economic and cultural sovereignty. (I despised his racial, religious, and gender chauvinism. But his fears about America’s economic decline struck a chord with me and with many others.) Trump’s campaign can be seen as the direct heir to Pat Buchanan’s message—sixteen years later.