George Will’s Thursday attack on Bill O’Reilly is not really about Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It is an opening salvo in a fight for control of the Republican Party. In a blistering op-ed—an op-ed, mind you, not a book review—Will savaged the newest book in O’Reilly’s killing series: Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault that Changed a Presidency. Will loathed O’Reilly’s contention that John Hinckley’s assassination attempt started Reagan’s descent into dementia only 70 days into his presidency. But that questioning of Reagan’s mental capacity is not what’s at the heart of Will’s attack on O’Reilly. What’s really going on is that establishment Republicans want to cut the extremists away from the party.
It may be too late.
Will’s criticism of Killing Reagan indicts O’Reilly for, well, making shit up. The book, Will notes, is “a tissue of unsubstantiated assertions.” Neither O’Reilly nor his ghostwriter actually did any research. They did not visit the Reagan Library; they did not interview any of the key players in the Reagan White House. Will calls the book “a no-facts zone,” and condemns it as “nonsensical history and execrable citizenship.” Will uses the inexcusable deficiencies of Killing Reagan to attack “today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.” In other words, Will has had it with politicians who lie and then bully people into believing in their fantasy world.
The irony of Will’s outrage is that it was President Reagan who enabled such political storytelling to take over the Republican Party. After the second World War, when party leaders tried to resurrect the free-for-all economy of the 1920s that had collapsed into the Great Depression, President Dwight Eisenhower stepped in to articulate instead a new vision for the Republican Party. He led Republicans to back the New Deal consensus. Eisenhower agreed with Democrats that the government must regulate business, provide for social welfare, and develop the nation’s infrastructure, and he believed that bringing labor leaders, businessmen, and intellectuals to the same table—sometimes literally, as he invited men to dinner—to debate would enable political leaders to reach the best possible outcome for the nation. Eisenhower insisted on grappling with the complexities of reality and begged his opponents to do the same.
But businessmen who had thrived in the unregulated economy of the 1920s could not stomach the New Deal consensus. To combat it, they could not use reality-based arguments, for those arguments invariably led voters to government activism. Instead, in the 1950s, those opposed to the New Deal consensus began to create a cartoon version of reality. They laid out a storyline in which America was under siege by secular New Dealers. These “Liberals,” were ushering communism into America by insisting on an activist government that destroyed American individualism and religion.
They sold that storyline with bluster and bullying. Wisconsin’s Sen. Joseph McCarthy led the way. In his highly publicized attacks on supposed communists in Eisenhower’s administration, he presented himself as an outsider defending America from the communists who had infiltrated the government. He hectored witnesses, he bullied, he shouted, he made dramatic—and demonstrably false—statements. By the time fact checkers caught up with old lies, McCarthy was on to new ones. Movement Conservatives noted his techniques.
Still, those who opposed the New Deal consensus made little headway with voters until 1954. That year’s Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision requiring desegregation enabled Movement Conservatives to link racism and anticommunism into a storyline that would dominate American politics until the present. In this powerful narrative, an activist government redistributed wealth from hardworking white taxpayers to lazy African Americans. When President Eisenhower sent troops to integrate Central High School in Little Rock in 1957, this narrative had an illustration. According to Movement Conservatives, the integration of Central High School was not about fulfilling America’s great promise to guarantee equality of opportunity and legal equality to everyone in America. It was a story of the downfall of the nation. Grasping, lazy minorities were gaining rights through force, thanks to a bloated American government that paid for troops and bureaucrats with white tax dollars.
The image of the downfall of traditional America at the hands of grasping minorities was false, of course, but it had legs. It was that image on which Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign ran, with his insistence that Brown v. Board—which the Supreme Court decided unanimously under a Republican Chief Justice-- was unconstitutional. It was the image on which Richard M. Nixon ran in 1968, when he adopted the Southern Strategy to appeal to white voters who believed their tax dollars were being wasted on inner-city black thugs. Then, in 1970, with his popularity slipping badly, Nixon expanded the list of American freeloaders to include women and minorities in general, as well as young people and anti-war activists.
Reagan, whom journalist Will prepped for his 1980 debate against President Jimmy Carter, brought to that image a softer, folksier tone that made its harsh division of the nation into us and them seem inviting. Reagan gave America the “Welfare Queen,” an evidently African American woman who used 80 names, 30 addresses, and 12 Social Security cards, as well as collecting social security, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and veteran's benefits on four imaginary dead husbands. Reagan’s Welfare Queen rolled women and African Americans together as the enemy undermining good Americans by stealing tax dollars.
Reagan strategist Lee Atwater was bluntly clear in an interview about what the president was up to. In an explanation that was so laden with the “n-word” that it cannot be quoted, he explained that as America became more racially tolerant, previously acceptable racial language would no longer fly. Instead, Nixon replaced old-fashioned racial words with “forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.” By the time of Reagan’s administration, the narrative was becoming abstract. “You’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things,” Atwater said. But the storyline remained the same. And it propelled Reagan to victory.
In 1987, those repeating the Movement Conservative storyline gained the right to operate in a bubble. In that year, the FCC abandoned the “Fairness Doctrine,” which had required that media operating with a public license provide arguments from different sides of an issue. Movement Conservative talk radio took off. Within a year, hosts like Rush Limbaugh were electrifying audiences with warnings that America was under siege from socialists, communists, Liberals, minorities, and femi-nazis. They hectored callers and screamed down opponents.
In the summer of 1988 the Willie Horton ads revealed just how elemental the storyline was becoming. When Republican candidate George H. W. Bush was running almost twenty points behind Democrat Michael Dukakis, Bush’s team fell back on the Movement Conservative narrative to breathe life into their campaign. Inspired by Lee Atwater, who had become George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff, and produced by Roger Ailes, the Willie Horton ads showed a mug shot of a convicted black murderer who had stabbed a man and raped his girlfriend after Governor Dukakis had allowed him a weekend furlough. In fact, the furlough program had been initiated by Dukakis’s Republican predecessor and the most liberal program in the nation at the time was the federal program under Reagan and Bush, but the ads encapsulated the idea that a bloated “liberal” government endangered white Americans by catering to dangerous minorities. The Willie Horton ads boosted Bush to the White House.
The Clinton administration drove Movement Conservatives further into their own imaginary world. The Fox News Channel, established in 1996 under the direction of Roger Ailes, pushed the simple storyline of Movement Conservatives. It described an America in which the values of hardworking, traditional, white Christians were being undermined by lazy, godless, grasping minorities and feminists, all of whom wanted the government to give them something for nothing. Fox anchors refused to entertain alternative views, and pushed their own storyline by badgering opponents. This distorted view of the world permeated the Republican Party and led even “respectable” journalists like George Will, into bizarre territory that attacked the weakest members of society as dangerous to America. In 2014, for example, Will accused college rape survivors of wanting the “coveted status” of victimhood, which “confers privileges.”
By the time of the George W. Bush administration, the Movement Conservative storyline had become so divorced from reality that disillusioned members of the administration called it out. In October 2001, John Dilulio resigned from the Bush White House, complaining that his colleagues lacked “even basic policy knowledge.” They were obsessed with the press, communication, and media rather than substance. They “consistently acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.” Another disillusioned Bush official, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, concluded that members of the administration were operating solely on ideology “not penetrable by facts.” Another member of the Bush team agreed. Politicians no longer operate in “the reality-based community,” this man told journalist Ron Suskind. “We create our own reality.”
During the Obama administration, Movement Conservatives became so wedded to the narrative that traditional America is under attack by a big government that wastes tax dollars on grasping minorities and women that they utterly untethered themselves from reality. That dislocation was so evident in September’s second Republican presidential debate that the astonished New York Times editorial board mused: “It felt at times as if the speakers were not longer living in a fact-based world.”
Welcome to the party.
George Will is right to note that a historical narrative that relies on no real-world evidence can only be seen as “nonsensical.” The same can be said for a political narrative that relies on no real-world evidence. But for more than a generation, Republicans have gained power by pushing the false storyline of Movement Conservatives and bullying opponents to keep them from challenging that narrative with facts. It has been a long time coming, but George Will’s attack on Bill O’Reilly shows that this year’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has forced even Republican leaders finally to recognize that the fantasy world of the Movement Conservatives is “execrable citizenship."