Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? As an unrepentant 1960s radical, I’m continually astonished how the Trump administration has made it more complicated to answer this simple question. The political center of gravity has shifted sharply to the right.
Take the FBI, for example. In the ‘60s, I viewed the FBI as one of the bad guys. Through the COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) operations, they spied on the legal activities of the movement against the war in Vietnam and tried to disrupt their activities. They spied on Martin Luther King and other leaders of the civil rights and black liberation movements and tried to prevent the “development of a black messiah.” In conjunction with local police departments, the FBI destroyed the Black Panther Party.
My own FBI files from the early ‘70s branded me as an enemy of the state and part of a list of dangerous people to be rounded up in case of a national emergency. Back in the day, we (especially men) saw having a file as a status symbol and often compared our files to see whose was longer and how many misstatements it contained.
Today, President Trump sees the FBI as part of the “deep state” that is conspiring against conservatives like him. Meanwhile, the mainstream media now portrays the FBI agents as apolitical good guys who are trying to do their jobs to uphold law and order. Former FBI director James Comey is seen as a hero who has to be protected against attacks from the president. Of course, FBI spying on American Muslim mosques, Palestinian solidarity activists, anti-ICE protestors and environmentalists is usually forgotten.
A similar transformation in the perception of the CIA has also taken place. In the 1960s, the CIA was known for helping to overthrow progressive governments in Latin America and around the world — think Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), Iran (1953), etc. The CIA tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Ho Chi Min in North Vietnam and was also unsuccessful in defending the corrupt and unpopular government in South Vietnam in the 1970s. The CIA attack on Cuba in 1963 also failed.
The CIA also spied on progressive social movements within the United States until the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee specified a clear division of labor in 1975: The CIA would spy on progressive groups and countries outside of the United States while the FBI would concentrate on spying within American borders.
Today, President Trump sees the CIA, like the FBI, as part of the “deep state” and ignores its recommendations to promote U.S. imperial interests around the world. Former CIA directors James Clapper and John Brennan have become pundits on mainstream media networks like CNN and MSNBC. Indeed, they sound likes voices of reason compared to Trump administration officials. Of course, the CIA is still doing its nefarious work like trying to overthrow the Sandanista government in Nicaragua and the troubled Maduro government in Venezuela. From my perspective, they are still the bad guys, but they are seen as good guys compared to Donald Trump.
Neo-conservatives like Bill Kristol and Norman Podhoretz supported the CIA in its cold war policies around the world through publications like Commentary, the National Review and, later, The Weekly Standard. I’ve always viewed them as bad guys. Now, they, too, seem like the voice of reason as TV pundits, even though they are criticizing Mr. Trump for not having stronger policies against Russia and against a range of progressive countries. I cringe every time I see Bill Kristol, even though I appreciate his anti-Trump politics.
Some past presidents I protested against in the 1960s and 1970s now seem relatively tame compared to Mr. Trump. Lyndon Johnson escalated the unjust war in Southeast Asia, but he also signed laws promoting civil rights and anti-poverty programs. Richard Nixon, aside from Watergate, Vietnam and his racist law and order policies, promoted a moderate form of affirmative action, especially regarding minority businesses. It’s crazy that Trump makes these people seem not too bad.
I’m still an unrepentant 1960s radical although I like to think my politics are more sophisticated some 50-plus years later. I plan to vote for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and I’m optimistic that things can improve. But the Trump administration has shown me that things can always deteriorate.
Maybe it is more accurate to say that there are good guys, bad guys and worse guys.
Fred L. Pincus is (email@example.com) is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.