“Is it me or are a lot of people struggling with depression and insomnia right now?” When a friend in the United Kingdom posted this question a while back, most commenters focused on the winter weather there. I didn’t have that excuse. It’s almost always sunny in the Arizona desert. But that isn’t helping me this year, I responded, because “Trump creates his own weather.”
I wanted to make light of the fact that I keep finding myself wide awake in the middle of the night, when I should be sleeping, and listless during the day, when I should be most productive. The more I thought about it, though, the more I perceived deeper significance to my comment. While I have always been something of a night owl — I was already going to bed after 11pm in primary school — my sense of being out of sync has been much more pronounced since Donald Trump was elected the United States’ forty-fifth president. But it wasn’t until Mary Tyler Moore passed away that I started putting all the pieces together.
Growing up near the East Coast of the United States, where the winters tend to be nearly as gloomy as they are in northern Europe, I had definitely suffered from what would later be termed Seasonal Affective Disorder. When the clouds parted, I would felt better. Yet there are years that I remember as unrelentingly gray, even though they were probably not that much worse than others.
This was during my early teenage years, shortly after my family had moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland. Admittedly, adolescence is a time when it’s normal to feel miserable. And I had more reason than most, singled out for bullying almost every day. But when I reflected back on those years, this explanation didn’t seem sufficient. Something else was also to blame.
Although I might have been depressed during that period for predictable teenage reasons, it was the political climate that really made me feel hopeless. From the start of seventh grade in the fall of 1980, coming as it did on the heels of runaway inflation, the Iran Hostage Crisis and the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics, those years were dominated, first by the frightening spectacle of Ronald Reagan becoming president and then by the even grimmer reality of his time in the White House.
Yes, I know that many of my fellow Americans were delighted with this regime change. Despite Donald Trump’s claims, Reagan’s inauguration was watched by more television viewers than any other. And even in the middle of his first term, when unemployment had reached record levels and the prospects for an economic turnaround were far from certain, he remained remarkably popular, not only with the ideologues of his own party but also the so-called “Reagan Democrats” who had been responsible for his surprisingly large margin of victory in 1980.
But I hated him. Even though my political convictions had not yet hardened into habit back then, I still knew that Ronald Reagan was the enemy of everything I cared about. His popularity only increased my animosity, for it seemed to confirm that the sense of marginalization I was experiencing at school also represented my place in the United States — or, more accurately, my lack of one — in microcosm.
The nation I had celebrated growing up, one that had supposedly learned from its mistakes and was moving forward into a more decent future, in which sexism and racism were gradually being overcome and ecological consciousness was an integral part of long-term planning, had given way to the perverse attempt to restore a more cruel and close-minded past. Progress, at least as I understood it, no longer felt inevitable. It had stopped short and there was no guarantee that it would ever resume.
So what does this have to do with Mary Tyler Moore? Let me explain. For much of Reagan’s presidency, I was plagued by sleep rhythms completely out of step with the schedule I was supposed to be following. I would return home from school most afternoons, after another hellish ride on the school bus — that’s where the bullying was worst — and fall asleep like I’d been drugged. My parents would force me to get up a few hours later to join them and my sister for family dinner. But it sometimes took hours for me to shake off the slumber. I’d sit there for the length of dinner, listening to them chew, feeling disgusted about life. If I was lucky, I might wake up enough to enjoy my dinner by 9 or 10pm. Many nights, though, it wasn’t until the nightly news was over that I would finish. Right as my sister and parents were getting ready for bed, I would just be approaching full alertness.
This made for a strange existence. For the most part, I only interacted meaningfully with my family on weekends, when I could sleep in until the middle of the day. And I certainly wasn’t able to devote as much time to my schoolwork as I should have. If I had a major assignment due, I might spend a few hours on it before bedtime. But most nights I would turn my attention to whatever had to be done as late as possible, fitfully working on my homework while I tried to soothe myself with late-night television.
I remember the routine so vividly that it makes me queasy. Usually I’d have The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman on, in the background. Sometimes I’d mix things up by tuning into public television’s late-night fare, which was usually British comedy. On almost every week night, though, I would conclude my viewing with reruns of two shows that ran back to back, as they had during their primetime run in the previous decade, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show.
Neither Mary Tyler Moore nor Bob Newhart were particularly radical. Both had been major stars in the 1960s playing roles — she on The Dick Van Dyke Show and he in his stand-up comedy routines and the massively popular records that derived from them — that were deliberately “square”. And their eponymous shows of the 1970s, while reflecting how much network audiences had changed in the wake of the tumultuous decade that preceded them, were still fashioned with an eye to making viewers feel safe. In a sense, the psychologist whom Bob Newhart played on his show embodied both programs’ social function, transforming what might otherwise be scary into something that could be coped with through humor.
Those shows were like the grown-up equivalent of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the children’s program my mother had liked to sit me down in front of during my pre-school years because, as she later told me, “It always calmed you down.” And, at a time when I almost always felt out of sorts, unsure of who I was or where I was headed, watching those two sitcoms gave me something I could depend upon. Ironically, even though part of the Mary Tyler Moore theme song that made the biggest impression upon me was its opening line, “How will you make it on your own?”, hearing those words signaled to me that I wasn’t, as if the television to follow were answering this existential call.
That’s why the news of Mary Tyler Moore’s death had such a powerful impact on me. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way, either. Scores of my friends paid tribute to her along similar lines, confessing that they had relied on her for emotional sustenance in dark times. The confidence her character Mary Richards projected, even while dealing with all the casual discrimination that single women endured in the workplace back then, had helped them cope with the sense that they were outsiders.
For my part, although I was born into a privileged position in American society, white, male and middle-class, I still felt marginalized because I wasn’t like most of my peers. Years later, when I found out that a former classmate was gay, I was surpised to learn that he had always assumed that I was as well, simply because I radiated so much “outsiderness”. What set me apart, though, were my political and cultural preferences, particularly at a time when the dominant trends in society were conservative. I used to joke that the most New Wave girl at my school had been expelled for liking REM. That wasn’t technically true — she was failing Chemistry — but it captures the sense I had that being into socialism and “Euro-fag” music like Depeche Mode marked me as irredeemably other.
The genius of Mary Tyler Moore was that she managed to balance the impression that she was a sensible representative of Middle America with the feeling that she was waging a guerrilla campaign against all those who refused to take her seriously because she was a woman over thirty without a husband. And that’s also how her show and, to a lesser extent, Bob Newhart’s came off. Like the support group depicted in the first episode of the latter, these shows were gently prodding viewers who suffered from “fear of flying” to travel out of their comfort zone. Their approach was anything but radical, but that’s why it got results.
But even those baby steps turned out to be too scary for many Americans. They simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of a society in which single women could make it on their own and even the most seemingly well-adjusted people, like Bob’s wife, might suffer from the same psychological maladies as the “head cases” he saw in his practice. So they panicked, supporting the insurgent presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan in 1976, when he lost a narrow primary race to the incumbent Gerald Ford, and then, in greater numbers, his successful bid for the White House in 1980. They wanted him to restore the boundaries that had traditionally separated men from women and “normal” Americans from the minorities, particularly gays and lesbians, who threatened their self-understanding.
In a way, the United States has never really recovered from the effect of this backlash. Wave after wave of politicians have tried to reinforce the Reagan agenda, even as the tide of progress keeps rolling in. At times during the years Barack Obama spent in the White House, it almost seemed like the sandcastles of conservatives were about to be washed away for good. But, as the election of Donald Trump demonstrates, the tenacity of those eager to preserve those fragile structures has not slackened. They are convinced that they can win, once and for all, now that the Republican Party dominates both the federal government and most statehouses.
As the GOP leadership in Washington is discovering, however, power has a way of generating opposition precisely when it seems most secure. For every individual who hearkens back to a time when men were men, women were women and people who looked or acted “unusual” had to constantly watch their back, there is someone who remembers, instead, a time when Star Trek showed us the kind of society we were capable of creating, if we only opened our hearts and minds to difference. And, not infrequently, they are the same person, torn between fear of the future and hope for a better life.
Nearly two months into Donald Trump’s presidency I still find myself, like a great many of my friends, overwhelmed by gloominess. Even on a gorgeous day like today, when the scent of orange blossoms fills the air and I’m preparing to plant tomatoes and chile peppers, I find it difficult to see anything but gray. And I still can’t sleep when I should be sleeping. But I’m consoling myself with the realization that a lot of the older voters who won the election for him spent their younger years watching shows like Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show, Sesame Street and ABC’s edgy after-school specials, Star Trek and M*A*S*H, or maybe even, for those adventurous enough to watch PBS before bed, Good Neighbors and Butterflies.
The memory of engaging with that content, however deeply repressed, is still there. Under the right circumstances, it might even be reactivated. But those of us who still believe in the vision of progress that seems to be further dimmed by each outrage of the Donald Trump Era are not going to be able to prevent its disappearance if we simply retreat into our own “comfort culture”. Our task, instead, is to find a way to show the people we disagree with that they are capable of taking comfort in the sort of culture that now troubles them and, indeed, that they probably did so in the past.
Shortly after I started to reflect on the role Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show played in my life, I remembered that other landmark of early 1970s television culture, All In the Family. I used to watch that one when I was very small, often with my New York City relatives who looked and acted a lot like Archie and Edith Bunker. I’m sure, like all situation comedies, it exaggerated and oversimplified the people it depicts for laughs. But to me, as a precocious pre-schooler, it felt all too real: the imperious working-class patriarch, his sweet and long-suffering wife, the daughter and son-in-law whose college education put them constantly at odds with their elders. I didn’t laugh because, quite frankly, Archie terrified me. Like my uncle, he always seemed to be on the verge of unleashing a tirade against anyone who crossed him. I was sure that, if he ever drank as much as my relatives did, his veneer of irritated bemusement would give way to humorless rage.
And yet, when I had the chance to watch All in the Family later on, first in reruns when I was a teenager and in recent years through the miracle of digital content, I was struck by how tender I often felt towards the characters, especially Archie. His resistance to progress – at least in the way that I have always understood it – seemed to come from a place of insecurity now. In short, I felt a sympathy for him that was not possible when I was younger. But I am certain that this reexamination of his character was far more profound because I had been forced to cope with his scariness when I was a four-year-old. That earlier experience was lying dormant inside me, ready to transform into something useful.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect some Trump supporters to revisit the cultural experiences of their youth in this way. But I am absolutely certain that many of the people who voted for him are more torn than they let on. Something inside them dreams of a future that doesn’t look like the past, where they can become the people they want to be instead of trying desperately to remain the people they already are. Accessing it, though, will only happen if they realize that they don’t have to make it on their own. Love is all around, if you know where to look, like the sun peeking out from behind a cloud. Our task is to point the way, no matter how depressed we may feel. Because once you stop saying, “Look!”, you start losing the ability to see for yourself.
Images courtesy of Mary Tyler Moore Productions. All rights reserved.