Ever since Donald Trump’s victory—a phrase I still find hard to write—I’ve been trying to soothe freaked-out millennials by telling them: (1) I can remember a time that may have been worse, and (2) don’t worry, our local leaders, like Mayor Rahm Emanuel, won’t abandon us in this fight.
Hey, I’m trying to stay optimistic.
We’ll get to the mayor in a moment. But first, for the benefit of younger readers who may be shell-shocked over say, Trump naming Stephen Bannon, champion of the white supremacist alt-right, as a senior White House adviser, let me say this: as terrifying as the prospect of a President Trump may be—and it’s pretty freaking scary—you’re not the first generation of left-of-center idealists scared shitless by a presidential election.
To prove my point, let’s go back to the 1972, when President Richard Nixon, old Tricky Dick himself, won reelection.
For those who might be thinking, Oh, but Nixon wasn’t as bad as Trump is, I urge you to read Tim Weiner’s book One Man Against the World, which is based largely on transcripts of conversations Nixon secretly recorded in the White House.
Weiner reveals President Nixon to be a hard-drinking, paranoid insomniac who stayed up late spewing bile about his enemies (he kept a list) and “the Jews,” and vowing to “bomb the hell out of the bastards,” i.e., the people of Vietnam. His aides nodded along with these screeds, either because they agreed with him or because they were too afraid to object.
One of the most disturbing moments of Nixon’s reign came in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. Israel was at war with its Arab neighbors, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed headed for a confrontation as a result. During one late-night moment of crisis, Nixon was largely out of commission, unable to talk to America’s allies because, as Henry Kissinger, his chief foreign policy adviser put it, “he was loaded.” As in wasted. As in drunk.
Not all of these details were known during the 1972 campaign. But Nixon was already well-known as a nasty, ruthless, red-baiter—indeed, Trump once bragged that he planned to take a page from Nixon with a tough-on-crime campaign. And yet he easily defeated liberal South Dakota senator George McGovern in the ’72 race.
Actually, it was worse than that. Nixon annihilated McGovern, winning every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. And the District of Columbia isn’t even a state.
On election night Nixon came before a cheering crowd of well-lubricated Republicans chanting “12 more years”—an allusion to vice president Spiro Agnew, who was as loathsome in his race-baiting rhetoric as Bannon is now, and who was presumably waiting in the wings to carry on Nixon’s legacy.
It was all too much for one 16-year-old high school student named Benny. That night, he retired to his bedroom sobbing. The next morning, fortified by a couple of chocolate Pop-Tarts, he wrote the following excerpt in his diary.
Yes, young Benny kept a diary.
“Wed. Nov. 8, 1972—In my life, I’ve had a few setbacks. But nothing can compare to my inner feelings as I watched the political disaster nicknamed—the United States Election. George McGovern stood for everything I thought was right, while Nixon was something evil. . . . Look out America. I hope we survive.”
I could go on, but I think that’s enough from Benny’s diary.
Again, my point here isn’t to say that Trump doesn’t pose a grave threat to American democracy—he does—but rather to say that we’ve faced such threats before.
Democracy is fragile. Voters are routinely bamboozled by hucksters. Crushing defeat often follows jubilation. Progress comes in spurts, if it comes at all.
But just when you think all is lost, everything can turn around.
In the case of Nixon and Agnew, they were gone within two years.
Agnew resigned in disgrace within a year of the election after being indicted for accepting bribes while governor of Maryland. So much for 12 more years.
Then, in 1974, Nixon himself stepped down—one step ahead of impeachment—as the Watergate scandal unraveled. Someday, if you’re lucky, I’ll treat you to Benny’s diary entries on that.
That brings me to Mayor Emanuel and the other local elected officials to whom we now look for guidance and leadership in this most Democratic of cities.
Some officials, like 47th Ward alderman Ameya Pawar, have been forceful in their resistance to Trump’s more extreme proposals, like banning Muslims and deporting Mexicans and other immigrants.
“We know what it feels like to be seen as ‘the other,'” Pawar wrote in a letter to his constituents. “Economic policies, widening income inequality, and a lack of investment in communities manifested itself in the results on Tuesday night. We must deal with these issues and hear people before suffering forces more people into the arms of a demagogue.”
Others have been more cautious. Alderman Patrick O’Connor was advising Chicago not to get on Trump’s bad side even before the election, on the grounds that Trump is a vindictive SOB.
Historically, Chicago’s mayors have favored the O’Connor approach to dealing with Republican presidents.
Nixon had a strong affinity for Mayor Richard J. Daley—the Daley in charge of Chicago back in ’72. Indeed, Nixon benefitted from a rift between lefties like McGovern and Democratic bosses like Daley.
Then, his son, Richard M.—the Mayor Daley most of you remember—was especially chummy with President George W. Bush. In fact, when Dubya won reelection in 2004—speaking of sickening election-day outcomes—Daley said national Democratic leaders had it coming for being antireligious.
As for Rahm, he’s been cautious in response to Trump. Generally lightning quick in response to major news events, the mayor’s press office was uncharacteristically quiet about the election for almost a week. He seemed reluctant to get into a war of words with the president-elect, maybe because Trump could, as O’Connor suggested, pull millions of federal dollars from Chicago.
Then, on Sunday, the mayor issued a statement underscoring his commitment to protecting undocumented immigrants in Chicago—even if that meant a loss of federal funds.
“I want to assure all of our families that Chicago is and will remain a Sanctuary City,” he said. “Chicago has been a city of immigrants since it was founded. We have always welcomed people of all faiths and backgrounds, and while the [presidential] administration will change, our values and our commitment to inclusion will not.”
Well, that’s good to know.
Emanuel’s statement came several days after similar declarations had been made by mayors from New York City to Seattle to Los Angeles. But better late than never.
I now find myself hoping that Emanuel will finally put his talents to good use in the fight against Trump. In this struggle, we’ll need all the help we can get. v