Wednesday, January 6, 2016

From Bunker to Trump (via Reagan)

So, last month I was contacted by Stephen Nessen of WNYC, a New York public radio station, and asked to comment on the parallels and similarities between Donald Trump and Archie Bunker. And I have to admit that connecting the two was not an idea that had ever occurred to me, but as Nessen pointed out, both hail from Queens, one of the five boroughs of New York City, or as it used to be called, Greater New York (on account of the fact that Brooklyn and Queens, the two Long Island boroughs, only became part of the city in 1899). As it turns out, I grew up in Queens as well, in Kew Gardens, not far from where Trump came from, which was the private, affluent neighborhood of Jamaica Estates. Archie Bunker, by way of contrast, was from the older, working class section of Corona.

Speaking of Queens, the elementary school I attended in Kew Gardens, PS 99, was the same one that comedian Rodney Dangerfield went to many years earlier. My Junior High School, Russell Sage (otherwise known as JHS 190) in Forest Hills, had boasted of future NBA player and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who graduated the year before I began there, and my high school, Hillcrest High, in Jamaica, had two major TV stars a year or two behind me, Ray Romano, and Fran Drescher (not that I was at all aware of them). Just to better establish the milieu I hail from.

And anyway, the Queens connection was just a jumping off point for making the connection between the fictional character from Norman Lear's hit TV show All in the Family (1971-1979, succeeded by the spin-off, Archie Bunker's Place, 1979-1983), and the nonfictional character (although some might debate the point) from The Apprentice (2004-2015, including seven seasons of The Celebrity Apprentice, and more recently the reality series we might as well call Who Wants to Be President?). The key similarities for Nessen and his colleagues had to do with the fact that both were labelled as bigots (Bunker quite intentionally as the comic foil in Lear's liberally minded sitcom, Trump more controversially, based on his comments about Mexicans, women, and Muslims) and both became quite popular with the mass American audience (Bunker unexpectedly, as he was intended as the subject of ridicule, not sympathy, while Trump's popularity was certainly his intended aim, but came as a surprise to many, both liberal and conservative).

So now, how about taking a moment or two to listen to the four minute story they wound up airing back on December 10th?

Or go have a look and listen on the WNYC page devoted to the story, Is Donald Trump the Archie Bunker of Today? The text that accompanies the report, which is similar but with some significant differences from the radio version, is also available on that page, and it goes like this:

Before Donald Trump ran a campaign on xenophobia and pledges to make America great again, another Queens native who feared the changes happening in America dominated television.

Archie Bunker, the cantankerous patriarch of the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, like Trump, was known for spewing anti-immigrant, unabashedly racist screeds on national TV. He told America how it is from the view of his armchair.

WNYC went to the block in Glendale, Queens where Archie Bunker's house was shot to see how residents there feel about both men.

“Lot of people think, and they don't verbalize, he verbalizes and so does Trump,” Irene Kessler, who lives in Woodhaven, Queens, said. She supports Trumps views on the economy, but not his recent comments on Muslim.

“He's saying what I believe the majority of Americans are thinking,” Joe DaSoro, 55, said of Donald Trump.

DaSoro grew up in Ozone Park, but now lives in Huntington, Long Island. He’s a registered Republican, but considers himself a moderate.

“A lot people are stuck on this political correctness, and he's not, he's just speaking his mind and being honest about it where the others are being phony,” DaSoro said.

He could be talking about Donald Trump, or Archie Bunker.

“Donald Trump is paralleling Archie Bunker and appealing to people who are simply dismayed by all the change that’s going on—by political correctness and the influx of immigrants from other parts of the world,” said Lance Strate, a professor of Communications and Media Studies at Fordham University.

Of course, not everyone in Queens is on board. Linda Morton, 84, from Glendale, thinks Trump is simply a bigot.

“I'm really worried, if he becomes president,” she said. “I really think some of the countries are laughing at us.”

No one knows Archie Bunker better than Norman Lear, the creator of All in the Family. Lear believes his creation was more lovable.

“I think Donald Trump is a horse’s ass,” he told WNYC in a recent interview. “A righteous fool. And I've always thought of Archie as simply afraid to be on the precipice of the future, progress baffled him.”

In Archie Bunker's world of the 1970s, young people were having sex out of wedlock, inflation and loss of manufacturing jobs was prevalent, and integration was firmly taking root.

“He wanted to reach back instead of forward,” Lear said. “Blacks moving into the neighbored—‘my god’—the rest of it was just simply poor education and badly informed.”

Today, many Trump supporters are upset by gay marriage, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and minorities becoming the majority.

Near the Bunker family home is a Wendy’s where Pat Ryan, 59, a truck driver from Islip, Long Island stopped for lunch. He said it’s hard to support Trump’s recent comments. But, “if he says something outlandish and at the end of the day something is done positively then I would support that.”

He said while Trump may be trying to appeal to blue collar workers like him, Archie Bunker really did speak for them.

“Archie was part of middle America, he was a blue collar worker he got to work every day,” Ryan said. “Donald Trump is basically looking down from the towers. I don't know if he has a good grasp of what people go through day to day.”

Now, when I spoke to Nessen, we were on the phone for about half an hour, so the brief quote that was used was only a small portion of my comments. And as you may know from many of my previous posts, whenever possible I try to provide you with the entirety of my comments, both to illustrate the process of journalistic practice, and so they don't have to go to waste. In this case, that's not possible, but I can tell you that I did make reference to the fact that All in the Family was all about the profound generation gap that existed between the baby boomers and what is now known as the greatest generation. That gap is what fully ignited the culture wars that exist to this day, with Archie Bunker representing what is sometimes referred to as the red states, the Republican conservative types that Trump has become so popular with, while the baby boomer counterculture types, like Bunker's daughter and son-in-law, turned into the blue state Clintons and Obamas of today (not to mention Bernie Sanders, and of course Al Gore and John Kerry).

I also pointed out that Queens has been the borough of New York that most resembles middle America, being semi-suburban, almost small town in some respects, certainly more Main Street in contrast to Manhattan's Wall Street (to use a common opposition from contemporary political rhetoric). I suspect that this is less the case today than it was in the past, because Queens has become one of the most diverse places on the planet. But at least back in the 70s, that sensibility is what contributed to Archie Bunker's appeal (although one source of misunderstanding had to do with the fact that Bunker didn't own a car, a sign of poverty almost anywhere other than New York). A working class fellow from Queens fit in very nicely with what Richard Nixon referred to as the silent majority, even though in his case, the silence was not very profound (rather profane, actually).

I did have the sense, in my comments, that I was taking Trump more seriously, less dismissively, than Nessen and his colleagues, by which I mean that I was less willing to reduce Trump to the flat stereotype of Archie Bunker, although I did note that the brilliance of Carroll O'Conner as an actor made his character more well-rounded and much more sympathetic than he was meant to be, less of a joke and more of an ironic icon that many could identify with. Even so, I think there is much more to Trump than Bunker's bigotry and rants, as much as Trump eschews both contemporary political correctness (although not entirely) and the diplomatic caution of the career politician. But the hidden ground connecting Trump to Bunker is none other than Ronald Reagan.

In my comments, I noted the similarity between Trump and Reagan quite a bit, both having backgrounds as media professionals before making the switch to politics, both revolutionary outsiders challenging the Republican Party establishment, both seemingly immune from any consequences for their gaffes, mistakes, and controversial comments. Reagan was referred to as the teflon President, because nothing would stick to him, and I'm surprised that almost no one has commented on the similarity to Trump as a teflon candidate.

Archie Bunker preceded Reagan, but the decade that All in the Family ran was the decade that saw liberalism and the counterculture political movement, aka the movement, go into sharp decline. While it was the decade in which the United States finally withdrew all of its troops from Vietnam and the odious Nixon was forced from the White House due to the Watergate scandal, it also saw the collapse of the movement in the landslide loss of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in  1972, having already been weakened by the necessities of going mainstream for the general election. Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, tried to revive American patriotism via the bicentennial celebrations of 1976, and while he gained the Republican nomination that year, he faced a very serious challenge as a sitting president by Ronald Reagan in the Republican primaries. And weakened as he was, Ford was unseated by Democrat Jimmy Carter who, although today viewed as highly liberal, was seen as a relatively conservative candidate during the 70s, certainly more so than McGovern, or Teddy Kennedy, or Eugene McCarthy, or even Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson (Carter was the first born again Christian to become president). And then came 1980, and the Reagan revolution that moved American politics farther to the right than it had been since, at least, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The increasing conservatism of American politics was reflected in the evolution of All in the Family, as Archie Bunker evolved from ironic foil to American folk hero. And in many ways, he reflected the actual demographic of what came to be known as the Reagan Democrats. This was a part of the population that had traditionally voted for Democratic candidates, but had many conservative tendencies, and had grown increasingly less comfortable with the liberalism of the Democratic Party. Reagan Democrats tended to be blue collar workers, like Bunker, who had previously supported the Democrats in conjunction with their association with the labor movement and labor unions. But while union leadership generally endorsed Democratic candidates, the rank and file more and more were ignoring those endorsements, and favoring the more conservative, Republican types; this was a remarkable shift, in that Republicans were traditionally seen as supporters of management rather than workers, and retain that association today in being the party of big business (although Bill Clinton and others in the Democratic Party shifted away from the leftist anti-capitalist stance of other Democrats, that divide now the under current in the rather subdued contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders). It was the beginning of the end of labor unions as a significant political force in American politics, and Reagan's politics were decidedly anti-union. Ironically perhaps, the blue collar workers had come to take the benefits derived from unionizing for granted, seeing them as having outlived their usefulness (and needlessly taking money, in thew form of union dues, out of their paychecks).

The Reagan Democrats were also more hawkish, as opposed to the doves that dominated Democratic politics.  The anti-war protest had resulted in Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election in 1968, with the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's Vice-President, not coming out against the war out of loyalty to LBJ until close to the end of his campaign. The protests that followed Nixon's refusal to end the war had much to do with McGovern's victory in the 1972 Democratic primaries, and while losing the election, Nixon's resignation was a victory for the left (and for basic decency I would add), putting an end to the Nixonian promise of peace with honor. Instead, anti-war pressure led to what conservatives viewed as a decidedly dishonorable pullout of our troops, followed by the fall of South Vietnam. Ignoring the fact that this occurred under Republican Jerry Ford's presidency, and putting aside various rhetorical technicalities, this was seen as the first time that the US lost a war. That loss was followed by what would appear to conservatives as Carter's mishandling of the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis. There was a sense of defeatism that accompanied these events, Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran, and also the Arab oil embargoes of the late 70s, which resulted in sudden major hikes in gasoline prices, and even more drastically, long lines and rationing at gas stations. This downward trend was exactly was Reagan vowed to reverse, and that is what Trump is echoing when he talks about making American great again, and how we don't win anymore, and how he'll put an end to that. The Reagan Democrats, being altogether patriotic, resonated with those sorts of messages, and not with the critical appraisals associated with the counterculture.

Going back to the culture wars, Reagan, while touting laissez-faire economics and minimizing government regulation and influence, liberalism in its classic sense, also built a new Republican coalition by appealing to social conservatives, including the growing evangelical and fundamentalist Christian populations opposed to lifestyle liberalism that included civil rights/equal rights for all; social programs including welfare, food stamps, etc; strict separation of church and state; easy availability of birth control options and abortion on demand; the sexual revolution; legalization of recreational drug use; etc. Bunker was nothing if not a social conservative, dismayed in fact by all of the social change going on in the culture. One point that others have made is that while the character is presented as a typical White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, still at least symbolic of the majority of the American population, in fact the kind of demographic that Archie Bunker actually reflected, the Reagan Democrats, were more likely to be Catholic than Protestant. Of course, Reagan benefited from the support of the newly emerged evangelical Protestant Christian Coalition, and Trump also seems to have gained their approval. Ironically for both, I might add, in that Reagan was the first divorced man to be elected president, and Trump also has a personal history of something less than perfect family values.

So, the bottom line here is that while drawing a line connecting Archie Bunker to Donald Trump is a clever insight, the connection itself has much to do with Ronald Reagan, and while this does not guarantee that Trump will become the next president of the United States, or even the Republican nominee, it does suggest, to me at least, that he needs to be taken much more seriously as a candidate than he has been so far. 

And that's the story, Jerry!