How did America get to such a place that someone like Donald Trump can command a lead in the Republican primaries? Trump is the product of a deliberate Republican strategy, adopted by Richard Nixon’s people in 1968, to attract voters with an apocalyptic redemption story rather than reasoned argument. It has taken almost 50 years, but we have finally arrived at the culmination of postmodern politics in which Republican leaders use words to create their own reality.
After World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower and men like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller led the Republican Party with policies based in reasoned argument. They used the government to regulate the economy and to promote social welfare, much as Democrats did, although with a philosophy that emphasized social unity rather than class conflict. The policies of these “Me Too” Republicans infuriated Movement Conservatives on the far right, who insisted that all government activism was communism. In 1964, Movement Conservative spokesman Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination when Rockefeller’s womanizing spectacularly imploded his candidacy. Movement Conservatives used their hero’s nomination to advance a new kind of politics.
America’s moderate consensus was enormously popular, but Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women, flat-out denied that reality. In her famous book "A Choice Not an Echo," she insisted that studies showing that voters opposed Goldwater’s extremism were part of a “propaganda machine” that used fake polls, radio and newspapers to destroy anyone but the chosen candidates of an elite cabal. She explained that all government activism outside of military buildup was a conspiracy to bankrupt regular Americans. Financiers and banking interests fed off expensive policies pushed by an educated Eastern elite, and together these men were dragging America into the web of communism.
The world was really quite simple, Schlafly insisted, and it could be understood without any fancy education. It was divided in two, black and white, Communism and Freedom. Eggheads complained that Goldwater “had one-sentence solutions” for complicated problems, she wrote, but simple solutions were the answer. What should America do about communism? Stop it! The very fact that establishment Republicans opposed Goldwater’s nomination proved that he was the right man for the job. He was the “grass roots” candidate, the candidate for the little guy who voted his principles, not because he wanted a payoff.
Goldwater’s candidacy crashed and burned, leaving Republicans in trouble in 1968. To candidate Richard Nixon was left the task of pulling together mainstream Eisenhower Republicans and upstart Movement Conservatives. How could his team attract support for an unlikable candidate who needed to bridge a fundamental ideological gulf? Nixon’s handlers used new media to play to Schlafly’s script. They ignored people’s brains and went for their guts.
“Voters are basically lazy,” one Nixon media adviser wrote. “Reason requires a high degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…. When we argue with him, we… seek to engage his intellect…. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable….” Nixon’s people hired advertising executive Harry Treleaven, who believed the new medium of television had changed the nature of politics. For him, politicians were no longer policy wonks; they were actors with a narrative.
Under Treleaven, Nixon’s people ignored policy positions and instead used television to create a candidate with a simple message: America was on the brink of disaster, and only Nixon could save it. They hired a brilliant young photographer to put together a series of television ads from stock photographs strung together to create a sense of doom; at the end a voice intoned “Nixon” over an iconic image of the nation. At the end of every ad ran the words: “Vote like your whole world depended on it.”
The campaign also hired a young television producer named Roger Ailes to stage “town hall” events for the candidate. Ailes hand-picked “regular” people to question Nixon in carefully managed shows from which the press was excluded. Ailes arranged applause, the set, Nixon’s answers, the camera angles, the crowd cheering the candidate, the careful shading of Nixon’s makeup. “Let’s face it,” he said. “A lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass.” But carefully managed television could “make them forget all that.”
It did. And so, after 1968, Republicans increasingly relied on their apocalyptic redemption story. America was in terrible trouble, because grasping minorities, women and workers wanted government policies that would suck tax dollars from hardworking white people. Democrats backed those policies because they would do anything to buy votes. It was up to Republicans to restore America to its former glory. In a time of dramatic economic and social upheaval, this story reassured voters left behind in the new conditions that the answers to their problems were simple, and that coming up with those answers required no great education or thought. It simply required the right principles.
The Movement Conservative story was never based in reality. Facts repeatedly gave way to the narrative that America was on the ropes because of Democratic social welfare policies that sucked tax dollars and threatened the nation’s safety. Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen represented the misuse of tax dollars for lazy African-Americans, for example, but he also incorrectly insisted that President Carter had slashed the nation’s military budget, and warned in his inaugural address that the nation was in a crisis that rivaled the Great Depression, a crisis created by government activism.
To avoid niggling fact-checkers, in 1987, President Reagan’s FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, a decision that meant that public broadcasters were no longer required to provide their audience with opposing viewpoints. Within a year, talk radio had taken off, with hosts like Rush Limbaugh hammering home the vision of a nation gone to ruin, awaiting redemption from the latest Movement Conservative candidate. In 1992, Limbaugh began to broadcast a television show, produced by Roger Ailes, to take the story to viewers. By 1994, the show was carried by 225 television stations. Two years later, Ailes would become the CEO of a new media channel, Fox News, which used the same formula—albeit updated—that Ailes had used to package Nixon’s story almost 30 years before.
By the time of the George W. Bush administration, the Movement Conservatives had erased the line between image and reality. In 2004, a senior adviser to Bush famously dismissed “the reality-based community” to journalist Ron Suskind. Gone were the days when politicians could find solutions based on their observations of the careful study of discernible reality. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore…. When we act, we create our own reality…. We’re history's actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do,” he said.
This disregard for fact in favor of narrative appears to have become so accepted in the Republican Party that it is now openly driving Republican presidential candidates. Trump’s celebrity candidacy follows the formula. According to him, America is in free fall, with GDP below zero, unemployment at 18-20 percent, and the country overrun by minorities—his venom reserved primarily for Mexicans who, he says, are drug dealers, criminals and rapists.
“Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger by the day and we as a country are getting weaker.” Politicians can’t “make America great again” because they are “controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests.” Trump promises to be a “great leader” who has simple answers: He will bring back jobs, make sure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons, reduce the debt, in short, find a way to do everything fast and well. “Sadly,” he says, “the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before."
Trump is the most cartoonish of the Republican candidates, but he is far from being the only one to bend reality to image. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told a group of Republican donors that British Prime Minister David Cameron had said he had no faith in President Obama’s leadership, a claim Cameron categorically denied. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal insists he has slashed spending 26 percent, a claim professor Robert Mann has eviscerated. Journalist Tom Moran at the Newark Star-Ledger says simply of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, “he lies.”
Perhaps most disturbing is that Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Scott Walker and surgeon Ben Carson, Republican candidates all, have taken to attributing false quotations to the Founding Fathers. They deny the reality of America’s founding principles and claim instead that America was conceived in the image that they have constructed, the same image that has given us Donald Trump as a leading candidate for the presidency.