Things Got Weird: On the Early ‘90s Crack-Up

Americans are good talkers these days. Prodigious at least. Our screens and links and tabs are filled with it. Talk, talk, talk. Streams of mouthy TikTokers and YouTubers. News channels transformed into neverending panel discussions. Novels dictated by insistent first-person narrators. Besides the economics of an easily replicable product—talk is cheap, we’re always told, usually in prelude to a fight—what accounts for all the blather? Is it because everyone has something to say? Or is it because regardless of the question—gaping income inequality, an increasingly irritable biosphere, or the appeal of a red-faced demagogue promising retribution to red-hatted crowds—nobody seems to have a good answer?

Things were not that different at the end of George H. W. Bush’s presidency, according to John Ganz’s When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s. An eye-opening history of a similarly fractious, talky time populated by mountebanks and manias after the exhausted conclusion of Reaganism, it tells in both widescreen and granular form how the country’s final cover Early ‘90sera of consensus was blown to smithereens. Ganz’s book fits with recent works on American conservatism like Jacob Heilbrunn’s America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators; both track the movement’s authoritarian tendencies and find parallels to the present moment. But When the Clock Broke is more compelling when depicting a country weirding itself into uncharted waters.

Ganz starts with Klansman David Duke’s successful 1989 campaign for the Louisiana state legislature (a “little Hitler […] emerging in the swamps of the Deep South”) and ends in 1992 with Pat Buchanan’s white supremacist advisor Sam Francis invoking Antonio Gramsci to call for an all-out assault on what he termed “the enemies of American civilization.” (A call which was picked up nearly unchanged decades later by the current breed of smash-it-all culture warrior.) In between, Ganz tells a story not only about racial revanchism but how the populist waves unleashed by economic tumult and general malaise crashed around the country in unexpected, harrowing, and darkly comedic ways.

coverAs a scholar of chaos and the right, Ganz also shares much with historian Rick Perlstein (whose exhaustive, spectacular Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980 shows the planting of the seeds that sprouted in early 1990s America), though using a less pointillist approach. Ganz is drawn to big characters: “the gang of ‘paleoconservative’ malcontents, Patrick Buchanan, the billionaire-populism of Ross Perot, survivalist cranks in the Rocky Mountains, the transformation of John Gotti into a folk hero.” It’s a rich tableau. But the star of this show is Perot and the fractured milieu that tossed him into the spotlight.

It can be hard to recall, at a time when a Kennedy reeling off cracked theories on raw milk and 9/11 barely rates a headline, what a gobsmackingly odd, only-in-America phenomenon Perot was. Termed “Little Caesar” by Maureen Dowd, Perot was a reedy, runty, and wildly wealthy Texas businessman who presented as a down-market Barry Goldwater-style bootstraps libertarian with all the usual contradictions (though talking big about small government, he built his computer-business fortune on Medicare contracts).

An eager and quippy performer always yammering away on Larry King Live, Perot picked up on the country’s angry disquiet with the status quo. He cunningly let himself be drafted for a third-party presidential campaign while on air. Ganz quotes Rush Limbaugh, another big talker channeling the country’s garrulous id, describing Perot as a kind of on-air insurgent: “Talk media is to the dominant media institutions what Ross Perot is to the dominant political institutions.”

For all the attention given to a comparatively narrow movement like Occupy Wall Street, the boiling fury described by Ganz in 1992’s presidential campaign makes it pale in comparison. The intersection of deindustrialization, stagnant or declining wages, and the upward rush of capital made for an ugly mood. One political scientist quoted by Ganz compared it at the time to the “revolutionary wave” preceding the European revolts of 1848. But rather than rushing the citadel or demanding changes to the tax code, Americans veered in downright inexplicable directions. Such as toward the billionaire Perot, who “became synonymous with revolt” because he was up for anything, didn’t have much to lose, and his slightly cracked viewpoint seemed closer to that of the electorate than that of his fellow candidates.

With his passionate pursuit of the mythical POW/MIA cause in the 1980s, Perot had not only dabbled in paranoia and conspiracy theories but elevated so many fringe theories and self-styled anti-establishment carny Rambos like Bo Gritz that for everyone involved, “the boundary between fantasy and reality had deteriorated.” (Despite some later spackling, that boundary was never quite reconstructed.) Faced with the end of a punishing Cold War and an opportunity to build something new and not beholden to old conflicts, the country took a different path, much like Perot’s ill-considered and unserious yet shockingly popular presidential bid. 

cover Early ‘90scover Early ‘90scoverThis path of paranoia and fantasy was not only easier, it was also a well-trod one for Americans. In Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, Kurt Andersen convincingly argues that “being American means we can believe any damn thing we want.” The early 1990s, with its over-earnest talk TV and signal-heavy factional political warfare, capitalized on that facile openness quite well. In The Nineties, Chuck Klosterman illustrates the period’s eagerness for newness after the exhausting collapse of Cold War certainties, as well as the decade’s plummeting church attendance, via the popularity of The X-Files: “It was not just that Mulder was convinced that conspiracies were real—he wanted them to be real, as both an explanation for how the world worked and a confirmation of his own sense of self.” In such an atmosphere, anything is permitted. Militias, cults, Internet utopians, and the carnivalesque alternative histories of underground anthologies like Apocalypse Culture all found fertile ground in the 1990s.

cover Early ‘90sA similarly exuberant mania reared up in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, published in 1992. Following the discovery of the body of a murdered student at a remote fictional college, , the narrator shows how easily people at  the college turned millenarian by describing what happened when the civil defense siren was set off as a prank:

People screamed, wept, gave away their possessions, huddled in small groups for comfort and warmth[….] Factions formed, leaders rose from the chaos. Though the world, in fact, was not destroyed, everyone had a marvelous time and people spoke fondly of the event for years afterward.

Is this part of the answer for why the clock broke in the early 1990s? Did people just need something to do, if not believe in? 

Ultimately Ganz is more comfortable as a political than cultural historian. He is most engaged and engaging when breaking down the electoral cutting-and-parrying as the candidates surfed the tide of populist anger through xenophobic America Firstism (Buchanan), triangulating conservatives with welfare reform (Bill Clinton), and bafflement (Bush). Though Ganz delves into the warp and woof of the period’s cultural chaos as it was refracted through the ever-more raw confessional talk shows where people sounded off and signified nothing, it is not his primary focus.

Though one of the more dramatic and illuminating political histories of modern America, When the Clock Broke still plugs into something essential about this “time out of joint” by taking a Neil Postman-informed view of its many distractions and how familiar they seem today. Ganz vividly renders the early 1990s’ shouty yet blankly confused alienations along with the endlessly gassy and vituperative “whither America?” debates. The period’s angry shallowness tended to favor   headline-grabbing non-events like whether or not writer and rapper Sister Souljah’s work was indeed (as Clinton charged) anti-white racism for delving into the systemic issues that laid the tinder for the 1992 Los Angeles riots:

People wanted to be pissed off, but the specifics were too irritating and difficult: the details of urban policy didn’t get people going, dwelling on the scenes of burned-out Los Angeles was too depressing and hopeless. Reality had to be left behind. People wanted to talk about something else while seeming as if they were still addressing the serious issues. As always, symbols—actors, rappers, songs, movies, culture—were needed to stand in for complex issues. 

Then as now, talk is cheap. But it still has a price.

Chris Barsanti
is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society. His writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Hollywood Reporter, and Publishers Weekly, among other outlets. He has written books about Keanu Reeves, presidential elections, and topics in between. Musings can be found at and Eyes Wide Open.

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