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A Tale of Two Donnies

I was a child of the sixties – literally, as those were my elementary school years. I grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb of Los Angeles County. We had a retarded guy in our neighborhood. His name was Donnie. He seemed childlike, because of his condition, but he was probably somewhere in his twenties when I knew him.

Donnie got around on a bicycle, which he always seemed be riding. His bike was a heavy red cruiser with fat tires, triangle seat, and upright handlebar. The unique feature was a portable transistor radio, which he kept rubber-banded to the handlebar. The radio was usually on, and Donnie was often fiddling with it, tuning in stations, adjusting the volume, or checking the rubberband rigging.

Donnie had a blocky body, close-cropped hair, perpetual five-o-clock shadow, and a heavy brow. He often wore a knit cap. Donnie's face was open and friendly unless some kids were messing with him, then he would glower as he defended himself, until his tormentors lost interest and skipped away, mimicking his howls of frustration.

If you got past your fear of his strangeness, Donnie turned out to be quite approachable. He was happy to turn the volume down on his radio and engage in conversation. His deep voice had a singsongy quality to it, like a soft cross between barking and honking. Even so, you could make out most of his words, and he would often launch into a description of something that had just happened to him, or show you some little treasure he'd just found. Conversations with Donnie didn't always make complete sense, but it was heartwarming to chat with him, because he so clearly appreciated the interaction.

One day, while playing in our front yard, Donnie came riding by. As we watched him glide past the strangest thing happened. His bicycle slowly began disassembling itself, right out from under him. The action ended as Donnie awkwardly stumbled to a stop, the parts of his bike laying in the street behind him. He looked back at us, at first with confusion and surprise, and then we all burst out laughing.

We eventually moved away, and I never saw Donnie again. But I still wonder about him from time to time.

Now, fifty years later, there's a new Donnie on the block, and he's about to become president of the United States. It all seems like a weird, bad dream. This new Donnie is also retarded but in different ways, he's more ethically and emotionally challenged. He is, in fact, a very cheesy salesmen, much like Ronald Reagan, and how Americans keep falling for these hucksters is beyond me. I never liked Reagan and I never liked Trump, they always sounded like really bad salesmen to me. But there is obviously something in the American character that keeps falling for this schtick. My guess is it has something to do with conditioning.

I think the seeds for America's downfall were sown right after World War Two, and it was partly due to the success of that particular war experience, when this country emerged, not only victorious, but also largely unscathed and, in fact, booming. Americans began to think of themselves as superior, which is always a bad sign. Watch the movies from the forties and fifties, and over and over again you'll see this absolute veneration of the American GI. The feeling was "ain't we great!" and with it came a serious blind spot.

Couple this with the advent of psychology and advertising, the science of bending people's thoughts and feelings to a darker, hidden purpose. Add the pervasive reach of television. Pour huge amounts of money into all these endeavors, and use them not just for monetary gain but also political persuasion. During the late 1970s the monied class really organized themselves for the social/political arena, and soon their Reagan doll was launched on the national stage to sell unbridled greed. And it worked! And it's still working.

I remember the bicentennial celebrations in this country, back in 1976, and during that time I had the nagging sensation that we had already peaked as a country, and what we were really celebrating was the slow downward slide that had already begun. Forty years later this appears truer than ever, and I don't think we, as a country, are ever going to recover. Not in this current form. The rot is too deep. Rome, two thousand years ago, is probably the best example of where we are heading. Perhaps the United States will break into smaller pieces to become manageable again. The prime directive in this country certainly needs adjusting. It needs to become something more than amassing wealth. It needs to incorporate important concepts like survival, health, and happiness.

I also remember the gloating that happened in this country when the Berlin Wall came down (1989) and the USSR broke up (1990), and I kept thinking how those events had unfolded relatively smoothly and bloodlessly, and perhaps that was a sign of health rather than disease. That the Soviet Union, a former superpower, was able to disband like that could be seen as a strength. The ability to transform and adapt is, after all, an important part of evolution and natural selection. Again, I wondered if we, as a country, were celebrating something other than what we thought.

Now it is really starting to feel like those old hunches may have been correct. The national psyche seems about to crack. Perhaps this new Donnie is the guy who will help usher us out of this era (he is, after all, an expert in bankruptcy). Maybe Trump is America's Gorbachev. And maybe, as the national bicycle starts coming apart, this new Donnie will find a way to get his feet on the ground and bring us to some softer landing.


  1. Jeff Costello November 30, 2016

    Excellent piece, but I can’t share the optimism of the last sentence.

    • Mike Kalantarian Post author | December 9, 2016

      Thank you, Jeff.

      Indeed, things do not look rosy on our horizon, unless you are a greedy capitalist. We’ve seen the U.S. stock market rocket to new highs, as Trump makes one horrible appointment after another, signaling certain disaster. But the money people are licking their chops anticipating the short-term spoils.

      The Donald may very well just leave a big mess in his wake. We shall see. I do expect His Orangeness to finally “bring this sucker down” as W almost accomplished. Whether Trump can summon any Gorbachev-like grace during that process is admittedly a long shot. (And apologies to Mikhail for the unflattering comparison.)

  2. LouisBedrock December 2, 2016


    This country has been a curse to the world and to its own inhabitants from the start.

    Bruce Mc. sent me a great book about George Washington: Although Washington has some qualities I can’t help but admire like charisma, courage, intelligence, and strength, he was a slave-owner, a property owner, and military officer. His career was dedicated to shrewdly serving his interests and those of the other Virginian aristocrats with whom he surrounded himself.

    And he was far from the worst we’ve ever had.

    James Madison attempted to take advantage of Britain’s latest war with France to annex Canada; thanks to General Isaac Brock and Tecumseh, Madison and The U.S. lost The War of 1812

    Andrew Jackson was the Hitler of America’s indigenous people.

    Abraham Lincoln started a civil war that was very uncivil and brutal, not to end slavery, although he would exploit this misconception for its advantages–including recruiting ex-slaves as soldiers, but to prevent the southern states from seceding from the country. Would you have given your life to prevent them from doing so?

    Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the country out of World War I, but pressured by the banks, got us involved in it, aided by a massive propaganda campaign and ruthless suppression of the opposition.

    The United States has been a disaster for the rest of the world. It was founded and built upon the dead bodies of the indigenous peoples who populated the country for about 30,000 years and built by people kidnapped from Africa and forced to work here under brutal conditions.

    It’s invaded about 70 countries–

    Donald Trump’s election, like Obama’s, will be another step in its march to the end of The Enlightenment and the restoration of feudalism.

    • Mike Kalantarian Post author | December 9, 2016

      No argument on any of this from me, Louis. An ugly past. I would only point out that the scope of my essay was largely limited to my personal perception of the rather recent dismantling of the New Deal. Born during the Eisenhower years, I was able to witness the end of that era, which was the apogee of the middle class in this country.

      For instance, the neighborhood I grew up was filled with stay-at-home moms, where the fathers were able to support families on a single income. And a lot of these guys were blue collar.

      I think domestic American politics can largely be understood through the prism of taxation. From FDR through Eisenhower the top tax rate in this country remained above 90%. Ninety percent! This effectively kept a cap on greed. Once you make your first million, the rest basically goes to government, so why keep amassing? Find something else to do with your precious time on this lovely planet.

      Anyway, JFK set the top-tax-rate erosion in motion and Reagan took it to obscene lows. Since then the big money people have gleefully poured a small portion of their ill gotten gains back into subverting our system of self-government, and have installed a propaganda machine that would make Joey Goebbels blush. And here we are in the mess we’re in.

      Anyway, that is the smaller arc I wished to illuminate. The bigger one you bring up, indeed, remains.

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