In one of our earlier installments, I attributed much of the bad behavior in our recent experience to Jerry Springer. It was Springer, the former mayor of Cincinnati, who became a television talk show host of a different kind, inviting participants to come on television to reveal their innermost, darkest secrets—and to brawl with each other on camera if they felt like it. So, we got a mother-daughter dominatrix pair, a man who married a horse, another man who amputated parts of his body himself, a mother who slept with her son, etc. Cheating boyfriends and girlfriends were also featured. Frequently physical fights erupted.
Jerry Springer’s importance was to lower the standards for what was acceptable to be shown on American television. In that sense, we can say that there is a direct line from Springer to Donald Trump. Springer didn’t cause the bad behavior on his show, but not only did he allow it, he encouraged it.
By the same token, Donald Trump didn’t create the anger and discontent that he tapped into on his way to the White House, but he certainly permitted it and even encouraged it. What happened on January 6 was a direct result of Trump’s actions.
What Trump and Springer have in common was and is the demagogic ability and willingness to detect and exploit the wellspring of emotions that produce bad behavior. Springer profited by displaying it publicly; Trump exploited it to amass more power and money.
But if Springer and Trump had never existed, that wellspring of human emotions would still be there. It’s inherent in human nature. That’s not to say that everyone harbors those emotions, or that those who do exhibit them all the time. But they are there. That’s why we have police, traffic lights and speed limits. That’s why when natural disasters occur, the authorities call out the National Guard to prevent looting. And that’s why, when civil order breaks down, riots often occur.
William Golding wrote about the breakdown of civilization in Lord of the Flies. The absence of authority unleashed the darker side of human nature.
The English philosopher and political theorist Thomas Hobbes wrote about this phenomenon more than 300 years ago. He described what life would be like in the absence of government, in the state of nature as he called it:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
Jerry Springer gave us a glimpse on a small stage of what life could be like without government. Donald Trump presented the reality—in smaller ways, initially, but in a very clear way on January 6. We blame Trump for the insurrection—and he certainly bears responsibility for what happened—but we shouldn’t overlook what gave him the opportunity, the innate potential for evil that we all possess.
America has always had a problem with government. We know we need it, but we don’t entirely trust it. Our country was founded on hostility to government, tempered by a combination of appreciating its necessity and an insistence that it be directed by the people it was governing.
James Madison noted the necessity for government in Federalist No. 51:
But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
Whether gradually or grudgingly the great body of the American public has accepted government as a necessary evil for most of our history. One of the great attractions of America, for those of us born here and for others who were not, is the orderliness of American society. We may jaywalk when the light is red, but we’re basically a law-abiding country. We’re that way not necessarily because we fear punishment but because we appreciate orderliness.
America is and has been a conservative country. We have rejected radicals and radicalism of all types. William Jennings Bryan ran for president three times on a platform of free silver and lost each time. In the depths of the Great Depression the Communist Party failed to attract the great body of working men and women. Despite the broader ambitions of some Vietnam War opponents, their primary accomplishment was ending American involvement in Vietnam; but they succeeded only when our war effort threatened to draft large numbers of suburban white boys.
What Richard Nixon liked to call the “silent majority” remained steadfastly behind the government throughout.
The silent majority supported the status quo which included shared prosperity and white dominance. Shared prosperity is slipping away thanks to a bunch of causes, not the least of which is a series of Republican-enacted tax cuts favoring the wealthiest Americans. White dominance is slipping away because of civil rights legislation protecting minorities’ right to vote, access to education and the assertion of their rights by oppressed minorities.
The status quo has been changing and not to the liking of many Americans. But that’s not the only thing that’s been changing. We’ve had a cultural change in the last sixty years. Sixty years ago baseball was the national pastime. Now football is. Baseball, as George Carlin noted, is pastoral; football is martial.
It’s no accident that football has eclipsed baseball as the most popular spectator sport in America. Football reflects the growing machismo in America’s male population, and perhaps to a lesser extent in our female population as well. Baseball has a kind of poetry to it; football is violent.
We’re confronted by a kind of chicken and egg situation. Our movies, our video games and most notably our public behavior has become more aggressive. Is that a cause, or an effect?
Life was simpler 60 years ago. There were fewer of us. We had only three television networks. The Internet did not exist. People had to communicate in person, on the phone, by telegram or by U.S. Mail.
Life was simpler then but not necessarily better, and it didn’t even seem better for African Americans. Lynching was not yet a federal crime. Public spaces and services were segregated by law throughout the South and by practice throughout much of the North. Racial discrimination was commonplace, leaving African Americans little legal recourse.
Women faced many of the same barriers that minorities encountered. Women were paid less than men doing much the same work. Rural areas were declining as younger people left for greater opportunities in urban areas.
In the meantime, life has gotten more complicated. Our population has doubled. Some of our cities have become more crowded. Small town America is disappearing as rural towns and villages empty out. As the population of the United States has grown since 1960, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas has steadily declined; and, in absolute numbers, the rural population has been slowly declining for the past 20 years.
At the same time public behavior seems to have gotten worse.
Taking the most obvious first: We are suffering from an epidemic of mass shootings. They used to be rare; now they’re commonplace. I don’t blame Jerry Springer for them, but the National Rifle Association, Donald Trump and the Supreme Court bear some responsibility.
Our language has become coarser. Words and phrases like “asshole”, “pissed off”, “pussy” and the f- word show up on the radio and television as well as genteel publications like The New Yorker.
Movies and television have become more graphically violent. Drivers have become more aggressive. Boxing has been supplanted by Ultimate Fighting Championship, an even more violent sport. Members of Congress now shout profanities at the President as he gives the State of the Union address and describe him using disgusting terms. Some of them would like to paralyze our government, somehow believing that government isn’t just the problem but the enemy.
Waiting in the wings are the same men and women who stormed the Capitol on January 6. Convicted felons are celebrated for their effort to overthrow the election. Racists and white supremacists now parade openly, displaying neo- and Nazi insignias, encouraged by a sitting president. This isn’t only a case of “What Became of Standards?” but rather a lowering of civilized behavior, obviously because those doing it believe they have a following.
I am writing from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The country is calm and orderly today; the people seem gentle, good-natured and welcoming. Almost 30 years ago, however, one million men, women and children were brutally tortured and murdered here over a three- month period for reasons difficult to fathom. It’s hard to picture that it could happen here; but it did, and there’s every reason to believe, despite the calm and orderliness, that it could happen again.
Lest we think we are immune, recall the violent, racist destruction of a prosperous black community in Tulsa a century ago. Violence, racism, anti-Semitism, aren’t simply abhorrent and dangerous expressions of human behavior. They are a reflection of what Thomas Hobbes, James Madison and William Golding understood all too well—the reality of human nature.