The historical roots of America’s discontent

This is the first of two columns to address this disturbing fact. Seventy-five percent of Americans believe the US is headed in the wrong direction. And the Gallup Poll reported that last year between 75 percent and 81 percent of Americans were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the state of their lives and conditions in the U.S. Why?

This column explains how we got here. Next week, I’ll be suggesting how to change course.

Just 60 years ago, roughly the same percentage of Americans believed the nation was headed in the wrong direction as were dissatisfied. (77 percent in the 1964 Gallup poll), trust the US government and most institutions. Today, the number is 20 percent. What happened to America along the way to turn citizens against the government and generate massive dissatisfaction with life?

And it’s not just the government that is being ignored. Name one institution or group – from the law and the police to the clergy, the media, teachers, politicians, Scouts and Brownies, to the army – that is seen favorably today.

This tragic story began on August 4, 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam. It is amazing that an unfortunate military incident would set the US on a path of destruction. Several days earlier, the US destroyer Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. Maddox was not hit.

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In company with the destroyer USS Turner Joy, Maddox was ordered to resume Patrol DeSoto 100 miles offshore. At night, both ships reported radar contacts that were believed to be an aggressive PT boat raid and opened fire. Aircraft from the carrier USS Ticonderoga were called in and found no North Vietnamese units. The second attack was not.

On August 7, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing the war. Only two of the 535 members of Congress voted against the bill. We would be lost and leave ten years later.

The Johnson and Nixon administrations later got together and lied about the war. The end of the tunnel was always in sight. The first 30,000 or 40,000 more troop increases would bring the war closer to success. Fifty-eight thousand American deaths and countless Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians later, the North won. America was never the same

A litany of events would continue to erode and ultimately erode trust in government. Watergate shocked the nation. The Carter administration was seen as incompetent. A failed raid to seize American hostages seized from the US embassy in Tehran and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan made America look weak. The misery index of inflation and interest rates soared above 20 percent, underscoring a flagging economy. For a short while, the Reagan administration tried to reverse this malaise, a term President Carter did not use but was used against him. But the embarrassment of the Cabinet, his mental capacity and the Iran-Contra fiasco almost killed Reagan, and the demand probably saved him from impeachment. All this hurts the public’s attention on the government.

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George HW Bush was perhaps the most successful of the post-war presidents since Ike. He not only redeemed America’s military position with the extraordinary “first hour” campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Bush presided over the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. And Bush’s economic policies were about to provide a boost. He was not re-elected.

President Clinton was impeached because of an affair he denied. The young Bush invaded Iraq with weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. Under Barack Obama, rifts with Republicans worsened. And Donald Trump’s personality could only inspire hostility, even with Republicans.

At the same time, the Congress lost its way. Bipartisanship gone. The other side was the enemy, not a party in government.

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President Biden’s term is idiotic. About half the community is against it. And the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, as well as the mishandling of classified material, has hurt.

What to do? Without bringing Professor Pangloss, the mentor to Candide in Voltaire’s inspired book of the same name first published in 1759, to life, the list is not long. The derivative “Panglossian” means overly optimistic about real hardships. But can hope work in today’s murky and damaging politics?

One can reject or accept Pangloss’s optimism. Today, however, opportunity provides the basis for hope. That means taking advantage of technology. The hard part is doing that work. Stay tuned for how to do that.

Harlan Ullman is a senior consultant at the Atlantic Council and the lead author of “shock and awe”. His most recent book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Gollest Disruption Into Residual Danger to Divided Nations and the Greater World.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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