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.