This is first in a series of essays exploring how we got to this, our Great Divide.
Division, like coming together, is part of human nature. It’s part the history of any people or nation, including “we the people” of the United States. American history is replete with divisive events, but for this series I focus on four because they occurred during my lifetime so are part of my history. Each of them was divisive in its time, yet their repercussions merge today, leading to what could be among the most divisive moment in our history.
Two of those events, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, coincided over the two decades of 1955–1975. Two singular and separate events occurred in 1973: the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade and the Senate Watergate hearings. I begin with the latter.
On May 17, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee began hearing testimony in its investigation of the 1972 GOP break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
President Richard Nixon was running for reelection at the time of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and office complex. Much of the questioning during the hearing focused on what Nixon knew about it and, more important, when he knew about it and if he had participated in a coverup.
On May 9, 1974, impeachment hearings began before he House Judiciary Committee. On August 9, Nixon resigned from office, his impeachment imminent. The Supreme Court had ruled that Nixon must release all his tapes of secretly recorded conversations he’d had with members of his administration. These tapes, especially the last one discovered, showed the world Richard Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up. Nixon became a major embarrassment to Conservatives and the Republican Party, a condition they’ve worked hard to overcome.
Since the Watergate scandal, Republicans have been steadfast in their effort to portray Democrats as evil and in all ways worse than Republicans.
During Jimmy Carter’s third year in office, on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students overtook the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Over time, the militants released 14 hostages, but 52 remained captive 444 days, until minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981. Carter had failed to negotiate a release of the hostages. A military rescue attempt ended in disaster—with eight Americans killed—because of mechanical failure. Republicans held Carter personally responsible. Republican scorn handed Carter a humiliating defeat by Ronald Reagan after one term
Compare the Iran hostage situation with the Iran-Contra scandal. Members of Reagan’s administration secretly traded weapons with Iran and used the proceeds to support Nicaraguan “contras” during that country’s civil war. Nothing came of this scandal for reasons that had more to do with concealing evidence and with pardons than with innocence.
Conservatives’ balanced their hatred for Carter (despite his many accomplishments) by their adoration of Ronald Reagan as the exemplar of the Republican ideology and character.
Republicans hounded Bill Clinton with investigations of one manufactured scandal after another—not to say there wasn’t one or two real scandals during his time in office. The Republican House did impeach Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the Senate acquitted him.
Yet Republicans had nothing to say about George W. Bush’s devastating invasion of Iraq justified by lies about weapons of mass destruction.
Republicans spent eight years obstructing Barack Obama, earning the epithet “the Party of No.” Among other things, they tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act some 60 times, even though it was based on a plan developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Upon Obama’s election Republicans insisted he would be a failure. They worked against him to make sure he failed. In the end they insisted he was a failure. They could not bring themselves to acknowledge any of Obama’s accomplishments or his character.
On September 11, 2012, members of Ansar al-Sharia attacked the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including the US Ambassador to Libya. The Republican-led Congress heaped blame on then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Seven investigations, including one 11-hour stint of questioning of Clinton produced no evidence of misconduct on her part or President Obama’s. Strong suggestions emerged from Washington that the investigators’ intention was to discredit Clinton and hurt her chances of a possible run for president.
One of the most blatant examples of elevating Republicans by disparaging Democrats is Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion in 2013 that the attack on Benghazi was “one of the worst incidents, frankly, that I can recall in my career.”
This is the same Vice President Cheney who was in office on September 11, 2001, serving under President George W. Bush. The Bush administration disregarded several warnings in the spring of that year of a likely attack by Al Qaeda on American soil.
In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did away with the Fairness Doctrine, which compelled television and radio broadcasters to give equal time to controversial viewpoints. This newfound freedom opened the way for daily broadcasts by Rush Limbaugh to go unchallenged. Over the past 30 years, Limbaugh has directed his diatribes against everything Liberal. Dozens of vitriolic voices have since amplified the message of hatred for the Left and a mistrust of all media other than those which reenforce the Party line.
Today, the larger sociopolitical environment is so toxic the misinformed shout down reasonable rebuttals as lies and “fake news.” The Right considers Liberal thought cancerous, a disease with eradication the only solution. The Right lays claim as the sole possessor of patriotism, morality, and as the true heir of the American Experiment. Their “values” are the only ones that count. Hatred is now one of those “values.” Republicans use outright lying and trafficking in conspiracy theories and false equivalencies as valued tactics.
This unchallengeable rhetoric and impenetrable mindset, built over the past 44 years, have enabled Donald Trump’s ascension to power. His supporters believe he will upset the world as he puts “America First.” But it’s a world created, to a large extent, by the very people who boosted him into power.
For Part 2: Roe v. Wade go here.