Here’s the surprising way cultural changes in the 1970s made President Trump possible
President Donald Trump suggested he will declare a national emergency on the border with Mexico as a way to use military funds to erect a wall. (AFP / Brendan Smialowski)

On Sunday, President Donald Trump appeared on "Face the Nation" to say that he wasn't sure the results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller' probe would be made public. "I don’t know,” the president said. “It depends. I have no idea what it’s going to say.” The decision to make the decision public resides with the attorney general. But the Mueller probe is not the only scandal buffeting the Trump White House.


The president has been hit by controversy over an unpopular government shutdown and for failing to deliver on one of his major campaign promises: building a border wall.He's up against a Democratic majority in the House and a crowded field of 2020 challengers. He's expected to deliver his State of the Union Tuesday, as Americans appear more divided than ever.

Raw Story spoke with Professor of History at Boston University, Bruce Schulman, whose academic work focuses on the chaotic cultural and political history of the 1970s. He brings insight into what brought about the current cultural and political moment, as well as what needs to happen for the Mueller probe to push him out of office.

Tana Ganeva: What are some similarities that you see in our current moment with the '70s, another era rocked by identity politics and political scandals?

Bruce Schulman: If you don’t mind, I’d like to re-frame your first question slightly. While you can certainly find some significant resemblances between the current historical moment and the turmoil of the 1970s (as well as differences), I think it might be more helpful to highlight the ways the present era is a product of the political and cultural developments of the Seventies, the ways in which the Seventies originated—and its legacies continue to shape—the current day.

On the most obvious level, the opening of the presidential nominating process in the 70s—the weakening of party establishments, proliferation of primaries and caucuses, and greater emphasis on candidate personality and celebrity—is what made Trump’s presidency conceivable.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic candidate for president and he won zero primaries! He didn’t even compete in them. At that time, being the candidate of the bosses—the party establishment—still made all the difference. That all changed in the Seventies, making it possible for Trump to run against his party’s establishment (and be opposed by it) and still win.

But the legacies, as your questions suggest, go much deeper than that. Here are a few further thoughts:

For over a century, mass entertainment (film, TV, Music, sports, etc) has formed the nation’s folk culture, the way Americans communicate and make sense of themselves and the world. But popular culture took on added importance in recent times. During the Seventies, as the political realm—the public sphere of government and politics—became less important, the private spheres of business and popular culture became more important.

When I ask people to name the emblematic figure of the 60s, I get JFK or Martin Luther King. But for the 70s, I hear not Nixon or Jimmy Carter, but John Travolta.

That seems trivial, but it points to a major change in American life that took shape in the 70s and continues to dominate our national identity. The merger of politics and entertainment—the collapse of the boundaries between them that took shape in the Seventies is complete today. The election of the first president who had zero previous experience of public service (either civilian and military) and also the first who hosted his own entertainment TV show is testimony to that.

We also see an important legacy of the Seventies in our era’s hostility to traditional sources of authority—the sense that Americans don’t have to defer to the mainstream media, political elites, the medical establishment, university professors, clergy.

All of those (and other) conventional authorities—that had some kind of deference—are roundly disregarded, criticized, and mocked. That’s a feature of the Seventies that extends into our own time.

Tana Ganeva: What are some significant differences?

Professor Bruce Schulman: There are many, but one that stands out is the partisan polarization of today. The 70s marked the end of a long period in which party attachments were weakening. As Americans defined themselves more and more by the mass-produced products they consume—clothes, food, movies, games—they retained little attachment to political parties, government action or established institutions.

But now, even if party organizations remain weak (witness President Trump’s easy defeat of the GOP establishment), partisan attachments and political affiliations increasingly shape the broader social experiences and cultural preferences of Americans.

Tana Ganeva: Do you think new media like Twitter, Facebook, cable news and other contemporary sources of information (and disinformation) impact people's understanding of national politics? If so, in what ways?

Professor Bruce Schulman: Yes, in the obvious ways that those venues (and I’d include talk radio on your list) have become the main sources for information, but also because they all point up the social fragmentation that emerged in the Seventies, the sense that every separate group needs its own outlets, its own autonomous, unfiltered mode of expression. When nearly every American received their news from the three TV networks and the wire services,

Tana Ganeva: With the indictment of Roger Stone, the Mueller probe seems to be circling closer to President Trump—or at least his family, since it's been documented that both Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. met with Russian lawyers.

What do you expect to happen when the results of the Mueller investigation are made public?

Professor Bruce Schulman: Historians are notoriously bad predictors of the future (we can’t even agree on what’s already happened much less on what’s next). That said, my answer would have to be: it depends. The Mueller report and even indictments of Kushner and Trump Jr. won’t change much unless some Republicans jump ship and stop supporting Trump. Despite everything, that hasn’t happened. Unless it does, talk about impeachment or substantial change seems unlikely (at least until after the next election).