The Donald Trump effect is now undeniable: How the GOP was transformed into a middle-school food fight

Remember when the Republicans used to be the "party of grown-ups"? Those days are long gone

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 22, 2015 4:25PM (EDT)

Donald Trump                  (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Donald Trump (AP/Jae C. Hong)

Ever since the infamous Democratic convention of 1968, the party has been successfully portrayed by the Republicans as a bunch of rebellious teenagers too immature and undisciplined to be trusted with running the country, a sentiment echoed in the mainstream media. In those so-called "days of rage," the entire nation saw young people beaten by police in the streets of Chicago, while network reporters were roughed up by cops inside the convention hall, at the behest of Democratic Mayor Richard Daley. It was a chaotic time in America, with the war and social change coming from every direction. Many Americans were just looking for someone to blame.

As I have noted here before, the columnist Joseph Kraft expressed his own shock at the events by exhorting the media to stop identifying with the protesters and reflect the legitimate concerns of Middle America:

Most of us in what is called the communications field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans–in Middle America. And the results show up not merely in occasional episodes such as the Chicago violence but more importantly in the systematic bias toward young people, minority groups, and the presidential candidates who appeal to them.

To get a feel of this bias it is first necessary to understand the antagonism that divides the middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovation.

In these circumstances, it seems to me that those of us in the media need to make a special effort to understand Middle America. Equally it seems wise to exercise a certain caution, a prudent restraint, in pressing a claim for a plenary indulgence to be in all places at all times the agent of the sovereign public.

The media never looked back and spent the next 40 years trying to "understand Middle America," blaming damn dirty hippies for ruining the Democratic Party. Take, for example, this description by historian Eric Rauchway of "1968," a 2007 news program hosted by former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. In it, Brokaw analyzed the Republican realignment of the South in the 1960s, which Rauchway describes thusly:

[Brokaw] shows the electoral map of 1968, saying if you add Nixon’s states to those won by George Wallace, you get something a bit like George W. Bush’s wins from 2000 and 2004. Nixon plus Wallace equals the modern Republican coalition, Brokaw says.

So far, so good: but then Brokaw tries to explain what brought this coalition together. He says, “Southern working-class whites deserted” the Democrats. Why? Brokaw goes to Nixon speechwriter and unbiased scholar Patrick J. Buchanan, who explains these voters were “Reagan Democrats ... they were driven out [of the Democratic Party] by what those kids and the rioters and the demonstrators and the denunciators were doin’ in the 1960s.”

Most people know that the most significant reason for the desertion of Southern working-class whites in the '68 election was race. It's understandable that Republicans would wish to obscure this history, but for a respected news anchor and self-styled historian to ignore that and attribute it entirely to a reaction against hippies is journalistic malpractice.

This is not to say that a conservative backlash against such "denunciators" didn't happen. It did, and it wasn't confined to the South. In fact, four years later, the image of a Democratic party in chaos was sealed with the '72 convention in Miami. What had been planned as an exercise in democracy -- by opening up the process and leeching the power of the old party bosses -- ultimately became a televised spectacle of disorganization and party infighting. As the pre-eminent historian of the period, Rick Perlstein, wrote in this piece about the convention, former AFL-CIO chief George Meany described the mood of the establishment toward convention participants with the following paraphrased version of a famous 1960s-era Reagan quote: “people who look like Jacks, acted like Jills, and had the odors of Johns about them.” The eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern, lost in a landslide which was memorialized in the press as the inevitable result of allowing the inmates to run the asylum.

The Watergate scandal temporarily diverted Richard Nixon's "silent majority" from its scapegoating of the hippies and various "interest groups," allowing an opening for the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. But by 1980, the anti-hippie backlash had come roaring back, and the Reagan Democrat was born. Barack Obama described them this way when he was running in 2008 and comparing himself to Reagan:

I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

That's a nice way of saying they believed liberal "excesses" (demands from feminists and racial minorities) had run the country into the ground, and they wanted someone to make them feel secure and prosperous again. That Reagan was going to destroy their unions and usher in decades of retrograde economic policies that created massive economic inequality was a price worth paying to put those nasty hippies in their place.

Reagan was the original Republican "grown-up," the Big Daddy figure who symbolized everything the Republican party wanted to stand for: masculinity, maturity, dominance. This simplistic archetype has characterised the media's celebration of GOP leadership since that time. When Bill Clinton, the first baby boomer to become president, first took office, there was a brief sense of excitement about the young commander-in-chief, but it immediately deteriorated into the usual anti-hippie diatribes among the media for the administration's alleged lack of "discipline" and unruly approach to governance, what with the blue jeans in the Oval Office and the like. This early Miss Manners-esque critique morphed shortly thereafter into the willingness among political reporters to pass along any and all bits of gossip and innuendo, even including dark insinuations of drug running and "murder." After all, everybody knows hippies have no morals.

And despite his own checkered baby-boomer past as a heavy-drinking hellraiser, when George W. Bush was "elected" in 2000, the entire village celebrated the return of the Republicans to the White Jouse. As pundit Kate O'Beirne famously said:

You know, remember when Bill Clinton held one of his first Cabinet meetings out of Camp David for an encounter session for his new Cabinet secretaries? Yes. You are not going to -- now the experienced grown-ups are here. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld are not going to share their inner child with their fellow Cabinet members, and I think it's about time. It's so reassuring to have grown-ups back in charge.

This has been the way the press and the establishment have looked at the two parties for nearly half a century. But recently something has been changing. Say what you will about him, but President Obama cannot believably be described as undisciplined or unruly. In fact, "professorial" and "aloof" have been the adjectives most often used to describe him amongst beltway types. Not exactly the stuff of countercultural excess.

Meanwhile, at the same time that Obama was modeling a very mature organizational style, the Republicans all took their clothes off, held hands, and collectively jumped off a proverbial cliff. Now, they aren't a youth movement by any means. In fact, they are mostly baby boomers too, members of the so-called "Silent Majority" who are having a delayed wing-nut Woodstock in their golden years. From the Tea Party town hall antics and the government shutdowns to the VP nomination of Sarah Palin, the Republicans have been on a rapid descent into crazytown over the course of just half a decade.

But they aren't stopping either. They just keep regressing. This week, we've seen the former "grown-up" party turn into name-calling pre-pubescent fourth graders, most conspicuously by way of Donald Trump's broadsides about John McCain. While the conflagration has been extensively covered by the media already, it's worth it to take a look at the back-and-forth volleys once more, because what they capture is more akin to a middle school food fight than the

Trump famously began the spat with the following dig at McCain:

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

This drew a mature retort from teacher's pet Lindsay Graham:

"I don't care if he drops out. Stay in the race, just stop being a jackass...The world is falling apart. We're becoming Greece. The Ayatollah's on the verge of having a nuclear weapon, and you're slandering anybody and everybody to stay in the news. You know, run for president, but don't be the world's biggest jackass."

Trump fought fire with fire:

"I watched this idiot Lindsey Graham on television today and he calls me a jackass! I'm trying to be nice, I'm working hard to be nice. He's total lightweight. I said to myself, it's amazing, he doesn't seem like a very bright guy. He doesn't seem as bright as Rick Perry. I think Rick Perry is probably smarter than Lindsey Graham."

Perry and Trump, meanwhile, have been engaged in their own public feud, which started when Perry took the following dig at Trump:

"Trumpism is a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense"

Trump shot back on Twitter:

"Perry should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate."

Poor Perry limply responded by saying that he's “defending conservatism against the cancer of Trump-ism."

This is the most puerile presidential campaign in American history -- and that's before we even consider candidates like Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson and Chris Christie.

For the sake of the country it's time to give them all a bottle and put them to bed. And while we're at it, lets put that moldy old meme about The Dirty Young Hippies vs. Middle America to bed too. It's usefulness as a way of understanding American politics was outgrown a long time ago. It's now The Immature Brats vs everybody else. And age has nothing to do with it.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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