Fox News, liberal-baiting and the politics of populist fear: Here's where it all began

The roots of our modern nightmarish politics can be found in Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon's early campaigns

Published November 28, 2015 1:00PM (EST)


Excerpted from "Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism"

Tricky Dick

In early 1946, in Orange County, an area that would become a hotbed of right-wing activism, a group of businessmen launched a search for a charismatic candidate who would represent their interests in Congress. The manager of a local Bank of America branch suggested Richard Nixon, a lawyer and Navy veteran. Hoover and his son Herbert Jr. traveled to Pasadena to meet this promising young man and urge him to run for the House of Representatives. Nixon would always remember the meeting fondly and revere the former president for his role in jump-starting his career.

Nixon won his first campaign by ousting Congressman Jerry Voorhis, the idealistic Social Gospeler and former Socialist who, as a supporter of striking lettuce workers, had been menaced by angry vigilantes in front of an El Centro hotel in 1934. Nixon painted Voorhis as a stooge of labor unions and the Soviet Union. He repeatedly denounced him for his supposed alliance with the Political Action Committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its “communist principles.” It did not matter to Nixon that Voorhis had written a tough Communist registration law in 1940, or that the CIO Political Action Committee had actually refused to endorse Voorhis. “Mr. Nixon had to win. Nothing else would do at all,” Voorhis wrote later.

Nixon admitted privately that he misrepresented his opponent’s beliefs, but he made no apologies for doing so. “Of course, I knew that Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a Communist,” he told one of Voorhis’s aides. But political candidates, he said, needed to play rough sometimes. “The important thing is to win,” he explained. “You’re just being naïve.” Nixon enjoyed support from the same California business interests that helped defeat Upton Sinclair in 1934. Oil companies, movie studios, and agribusiness conglomerates were among his biggest backers. Grower Robert Di Giorgio contributed to Nixon’s earliest campaigns, while Philip Bancroft and a friend formed “Farmers for Nixon” to help funnel agribusiness money to him.

The Los Angeles Times, a longtime enemy of California liberals and radicals, championed Nixon’s career from the beginning. The Times’s political editor, Kyle Palmer, believed that he saw the potential for national greatness in the Orange County native. Nixon understood that portraying Democrats as dupes and traitors could help put the Republicans back in power.

Once in office, Congressman Nixon served on the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he played a major role in the exposure of an actual Communist spy. Alger Hiss, the one-time nemesis of the growers at the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, was investigated by the committee and ultimately convicted of perjury for denying that he had been part of an underground Communist group in the 1930s. Journalist Whittaker Chambers swore that Hiss had been a spy as well as a secret Red. Much later, documents from the former Soviet Union confirmed that Hiss had indeed passed information to the Communists while working in various government agencies, including the State Department.

The conviction of Hiss, a New Dealer known for his public support of farmworkers in the 1930s and international institutions in the 1940s, gave conservatives ammunition for their charge that the New Deal was, at its core, a Communist project.

Opponents of Hiss from his days at the AAA were thrilled by news of his conviction. “Time has caught up with our enemies,” chortled one cotton grower to another. Herbert Hoover felt vindicated. “At last the stream of treason that existed in our Government has been exposed in a fashion that all may believe,” he wrote Nixon. After the Hiss case, conservatives recognized Nixon as “AMERICA’S GREATEST ENEMY OF COMMUNISM,” according to a flyer advertising one of his speeches.

Nixon continued to battle against real and imagined Communists and their alleged liberal enablers when he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1950. In a television commercial for his race against Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, he promised voters that he would “represent you and your interests in Washington and not the half-baked theories of left-wing intellectuals at pinko cocktail parties.” He labeled Douglas the “pink lady”; she called him “Tricky Dick.”

Douglas had no idea how tricky Nixon could be. Years later, in 1962, the California attorney general seized General Van Deman’s secret files in San Diego, saying they had been used “by unauthorized persons for political purposes.” Democrats charged that the unauthorized persons worked for Nixon, and their purposes had been to smear Voorhis in 1946 and Douglas in 1950. These charges were never proven, but left-liberal California Democrats continued to view him as a reckless and sinister Red-baiter.

As Nixon rose from senator to vice president, he fulfilled the dreams of Hoover and other business conservatives who had chosen him back in 1946. When Vice President Nixon won reelection in 1956, Hoover congratulated him and expressed his sense of personal satisfaction. “Ever since our interview in Pasadena years ago when I added my urging that you should run for Congress,” he wrote Nixon in a private letter, “I have grown stronger and stronger in my belief in your immense value to the American people. And they have now shown their full acceptance of that view.”

Hoover also grew stronger in his belief that the Democratic Party tolerated and even nurtured treasonous ideas. In 1960, as GOP presidential nominee Nixon prepared for a debate against John F. Kennedy, Hoover wrote Nixon that Kennedy’s goals were “evil.” To left-liberals, Kennedy’s policies of tax cuts, increased spending on defense, and indifference (at the time) to civil rights seemed to put him at the center or even slightly to the right on the political spectrum. But to Hoover, Kennedy’s agenda was nothing more than “socialism disguised as a ‘welfare state.’ ”

Nixon’s top aides, who followed him to the White House, learned their craft in California’s culture of frenzied Red-baiting. Murray Chotiner, a protégé of Clem Whitaker and known for his mantra of “attack, attack, attack, and never defend,” served as Nixon’s consultant or manager for most of his campaigns from 1946 through 1972. His fellow UCLA graduates John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman—the latter the grandson of a founder of the anti-Red group Better America Federation—worked on Nixon’s unsuccessful 1960 run for the presidency and later became his chief advisers when he won the White House eight years later.

Along with his virulent anticommunism, Nixon’s attention to the politics of image marked him as a California product. With its weak party system, fondness for Hollywood glitz, and rootless, diverse residents, the state helped nurture a style of campaigning that emphasized appearance over substance. “What they’ve got isn’t a party,” a Democratic official told Theodore White in 1956. “It’s a star system, it’s a studio lot. They don’t run candidates—they produce them, like movie heroes.” Nixon was one of the first politicians to “embrace the new tools of political artistry” and “foster our current image-obsessed political culture,” as historian David Greenberg has said. Nixon and his public relations staff created an image of the candidate as a “populist everyman” and helped to unite the wealthy with the disaffected middle classes in a broad, successful coalition.

Reagan’s America

Ronald Reagan, who would preside over the transformation of America’s political economy in the 1980s, owed his start to the same California business conservatives who supported Nixon. Reagan’s earliest backers included drugstore magnate Justin Dart, oil men Henry Salvatori and A.C. Rubel, steel tycoons Earle Jorgensen and Leland Kaiser, banker Charles Cook, car dealer Holmes Tuttle, and entertainment mogul Walt Disney. Some of these men had close ties to California agribusiness: Kaiser and Rubel’s firms had extensive investments in agricultural land, as did Reagan’s lawyer, William French Smith. Strongly opposed to the New Deal from its earliest days, these Western millionaires saw potential in Reagan, a former actor and corporate spokesperson who shared their loathing of Communism and their suspicion of the liberals who failed to see its dangers.

The labor struggles in California in the 1940s had shaped Reagan’s hard-line anticommunist views. During his term as president of a relatively conservative union, the Screen Actors Guild, Reagan grew convinced that Communists were plotting to take over Hollywood. The Reds’ goal, he wrote later, was “to gain economic control of the motion picture industry in order to finance their activities and subvert the screen for their propaganda.” Publicly, he testified as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee; privately, he worked as an informant for the FBI.

In 1964, Reagan attracted a national political following when he delivered a televised speech for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater on the virtues of free-market capitalism and the dangers of liberalism. “So we have come to a time for choosing,” he said. “Either we accept the responsibility for our own destiny, or we abandon the American Revolution and confess that an intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”

Like Nixon, Reagan drew on the political vocabulary Hoover and Campaigns Inc. used in the 1934 elections. He castigated the elite on the other side of a cultural, not economic, divide—an elite of eggheads, not fat cats. When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, he directed his fire at the intellectual elite at the state’s public university system. Candidate Reagan blamed a “leadership gap in Sacramento” that “permitted the degradation of the once great University of California.” He built on decades of populist attacks on the taxpayer-supported university as a cesspool of political radicalism and moral degeneracy, teeming with Reds, pinks, and queers. At Reagan’s first UC regents meeting, the majority voted to fire Clark Kerr on the spot.

Given his hostility to unions and support from agribusiness, it was not surprising that Governor Reagan strongly resisted a new organization effort in the California fields. After labor and civil rights groups finally succeeded in killing the bracero program in 1965, fruit and vegetable pickers tried to organize collectively for the first time since the Great Depression. The goals remained the same—higher wages and union recognition. But the new, non-Communist organizers aligned their cause with the national, nonviolent movement for racial justice and civil rights for minorities. As a result, the United Farm Workers (UFW) was not just a union; it was La Causa. And its leader, Cesar Chavez, knew how to appeal to urban consumers for support.

Chavez helped organize pickers at the largest grape vineyards in the Central Valley and encouraged them to strike for higher wages. When the growers refused to negotiate, he launched a nationwide boycott of the two biggest producers, Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation and Schenley Industries. The grape boycott linked middle-class consumers to the workers and helped Chavez build a broad coalition of backers.

Reagan opposed Chavez and farmworkers’ unions from the first day of his campaign for governor. During the speech announcing his candidacy, he held a catsup bottle and predicted that 28 million fewer would be manufactured if the state and federal governments were allowed to “finish their experiments in reform among farmworkers and completely cancel out the Bracero program.” Once elected, he helped farm operators break the strikes by authorizing the use of temporary guest workers, chain gangs, and welfare recipients to pick the crops. He filled the top agricultural posts in his administration with growers. The governor also worked with President Nixon to lobby for a federal bill proposed by California senator George Murphy that would have made agricultural strikes and boycotts illegal.

As the boycott gained national and international support, both Reagan and Nixon ostentatiously ate grapes on television. The conspicuous consumption of the fruit became a public badge of honor for conservatives. Growers paid $4 million to Whitaker and Baxter for a nationwide advertising campaign that encouraged Americans to exercise their “consumer rights” and “Eat California Grapes, the Forbidden Fruit.” After leaving office in 1974, Reagan would continue to combine populist, visceral appeals to racial and gender conservatism with a libertarian reverence for an unfettered market.

Reagan’s vision of a free market still included government support for agribusiness, however. Like most prominent California Republicans and Democrats, Reagan endorsed government programs that benefited the growers, including state and federal irrigation projects and guest worker programs.

Despite Reagan’s opposition, Chavez and the United Farm Workers did win some contracts and a few legal, legislative, and moral victories. In 1975, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave state protection to farmworkers’ unions. Chavez became a civil rights icon. The California legislature proclaimed his birthday a state holiday in 1995. And in 1999, city officials in Sacramento renamed Plaza Park, where union organizers in the 1930s had waved the Red flag and denounced capitalism. The new name is Cesar Chavez Plaza.

But the UFW’s victories were short-lived, and more symbolic than substantial. The union failed to win the allegiance of many workers, and its organizing efforts were complicated by the increased flow of undocumented workers to the California fields in the 1980s. By 2014, only a few thousand members remained in the UFW, down from more than fifty thousand in 1970.

Reagan’s campaign against the UFW was central to his appeal to California voters. His opposition to the grape boycott helped him rally his followers against the mostly Mexican-born workers and the “intellectual elite” who presumed to shame them into giving up the consumption of a favorite food.

The Reagan coalition of Western business elites and social conservatives backed him for his unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1976 and his ultimate victory in 1980. As president, Reagan could now finish the counterrevolution that California conservatives had worked for since 1933.

Excerpted from "Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism" by Kathryn S. Olmsted. Published by The New Press. Copyright 2015 by Kathryn S. Olmsted. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Kathryn S. Olmsted

Kathryn S. Olmsted is chair of the history department at the University of California, Davis.

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