Trump’s Capitol Insurrection as Radical 1960s Street Theater

Trump’s Capitol Insurrection as Radical 1960s Street Theater—with real guns and goals.

“If you can remember the ’60s you weren’t there.” (Anonymous)

I entered college in New England in 1968 as a fresh-faced freshman from the Midwest—just in time for the most tumultuous year of a genuinely tumultuous decade.

The Anti-Vietnam War movement was in full swing, as was the Black Power movement, the Feminist consciousness-raising movement, the Free Love movement/The Pill, the Environmental movement, the Psychedelic turn-on-and-drop-out movement, the Back-to-the-land commune movement, the Transcendental Meditation guru movement, and more.

This was later augmented in the 1970s by the Human Potential movement such as Esalen Institute, EST (Erhard Seminars Training), and the New Age movement of “love, light, & spirit”. I lived in Palo Alto and Berkeley during that less-than-beguiling decade.

My deep and sustained immersion into the American Left counter-culture scenes in elite university towns did not turn me into either a radical or a Yuppie with a taste for cocktails, crudités, and revolution à la Che Guevara.

Rather, that “age of discontinuity” made me into a confirmed skeptic of Utopian schemes, human perfectibility, and anyone trying to provide enlightenment for a price.

What I saw from roughly 1968 to 1981 was a lot of academic posturing for the imminent revolt of the masses, emanating from the safe and secure tenured faculty lounges of the ivory towers… and savvy, streetwise con artists manipulating the naive for their own financial gain and, often, sexual gratification.

Basically, these radical entrepreneurs and self-appointed leaders were like televangelist “prosperity preachers” for the over-educated and privileged.

The radical left, for all its serious high-mindedness, had a theatrical flair for stunning media-grabbing antics like the YIPPIES throwing dollar bills onto the trading floor of the New York stock exchange (which was actually a pretty hilarious piece of political theater).

Both the “radical chic” phenomenon and the raging-and-ragged street anarchists reached their zenith around 1970 with the bombing of the math building at the University of Wisconsin in Madison; the bombing of the Bank of America near Santa Barbara; and President Nixon’s order to invade Cambodia.

Four years later, Tricky Dick resigned after the Watergate scandal. The Vietnam War finally ended in America’s humiliating defeat at the hands of impoverished Third World revolutionaries. And, perhaps of most importance, the military draft ended in early 1973. I suspect that there would have been little or no campus protesting if there had been a voluntary military like today. Neither the Iraq or Afghanistan wars provoked college or populist protests worthy of media attention—even though they cost the American taxpayer trillions of dollars, and tens of thousands of combatants and civilians were killed.

The radical left’s utter contempt for virtually all the respected bulwarks and bastions of American life questioned the legitimacy of everything from the paternalistic nuclear family to the importance of professional success—and capitalism itself. Their stigmatization of our most basic and powerful institutions, including the Presidency, Congress, Military, Big Business, Police, and University, went mainstream. The country fell into psychological and social free fall, and something of a funk.

But there is a backlash to radical change of almost any sort. And there was something of a counter revolution brewing under the surface of the anomie of the 1970s that lead to the election of Ronald Reagan and a very different Republican establishment in 1980.

During all the societal craziness 1960s and 70s, the East Coast Republican establishment still maintained a polite, proper, and buttoned-down public persona. It had the content and confident upper class WASP ethos of “never complain, explain, or apologize”. It was not an especially talented elite, but they would buy their brains from the best and the brightest at elite universities.

This arrangement worked rather well—except for the mess in Southeast Asia. Nationally, there was a high level of technical competence in most aspects of American life. The successful NASA lunar landing and moon walk in July of 1969 epitomized this uniquely American “can do” spirit. The populist philosopher and longshoreman, Eric Hoffer, described the Apollo space program as “a triumph of the squares”.

This was in sharp contrast to the unkempt, wild-eyed-let-it-all-hang-out revolutionary look of the far left. The media-savvy radical activist Abbie Hoffman personified this childlike cluelessness when asked about the charge of conspiracy at his famous Chicago 7 trial. He replied— “Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn’t agree on lunch.”

For me, the most astounding quality of American capitalism is its ability to absorb, re-engineer, and monetize any fad, fashion, trend, or even adversarial political ideology. Hippie granola becomes snack bars. My little Ford Maverick was painted an “Anti-establishment Mint” green color. The ideals of self-actualization and personal fulfillment over traditional nostrums of duty and thrift were easily integrated into Ronald Reagan’s “Morning In America.” These included absurdly low taxes on the rich while continuing government spending on social programs that were an anathema to the far right of the Republican party.

It is important to note that Reagan, as the GOP’s front man, was America’s first divorced president. He was a former left-leaning Catholic FDR Democrat, and president of an influential actors’ union. As governor of California he had a pronounced proclivity for compromise with Democratic lawmakers.
But there was the dark underbelly to all the sunny optimistic talk. It was the emerging “Southern Strategy” with all its racist and anti-black dog whistles like “welfare queens”, “family values”, and “law & order”.

Perhaps Reagan’s most memorable meme was: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’ ”

Basically, this advocates the dismantling of the welfare state and social safety nets—something every democratic, technologically advanced country takes for granted.

It is hard for many young people to believe that the Jim Crow segregationist South was solidly

Democratic from after the Civil War until Ronald Reagan’s presidency. In many ways, the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s did for America’s far right what the Counter Culture Revolution of the 1960s did for the far left. It changed and polarized the country with an emphasis on media rhetoric rather reality-based governance.

It was more about big talk than tackling the big tasks diligently in a bi-partisan fashion. Both political creeds are more about “me” than “us” as a nation. Both are decidedly anti-democratic and pro-authoritarian.

The Republican and Democratic parties each currently control about half the popular votes in the country. If it were not for white fear and hatred of people of color, the country would probably swing to the left and give the Democrats a lock on the electoral college. What the GOP learned from the radical left is that outrageous photogenic antics and crazy statements matter and motivate. And can be used to manipulate popular opinion and undermine democratic norms.

At its best, the radical left wants to transform the policies of a democratically elected government and make things nominally more fair for all citizens—especially the poor and those of color. At its worst, it is an intrusion into our personal lives and a draconian redistribution of wealth.

At its worst, the far right wants to set up a militarized, non-democratic state dominated by Big Business, Evangelical Christians, and avowed White Supremacists.

The radical right’s contempt for real American values, which are beautifully expressed (if imperfectly implemented) in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, is demonstrated by the storming of the U.S. Capitol by the fanatical supporters of former president Donald Trump.

Those men and women are more than insurrectionists; they are traitors and a genuine threat to our democracy, as were Confederate officers, soldiers, and politicians.

Trump’s zany insurrectionists are also heirs to the worst excesses of the radical left of the 1960s that ultimately weakened democratic norms of civil behavior. The self-styled Che Guevaras of the 1960s just wanted to end involuntary military conscription to an unwinnable and unpopular war. Today’s militant right is highly armed, organized, and has real goals and means to implement them.

The solution is to find common ground—pretty damn soon.


Technical Notes

All the mixed-media collages were created on 100% cotton rag Epson Hot Press Bright White ink jet paper with archival pigmented inks. All adhesives are acid-free and permanent. Handmade and hand-painted papers are included in the art. The dimensions are 8.5x11 inches and 9x12 inches.