For 60 years now, the Republican party has managed to hold together an unlikely coalition of the business elite with angry, xenophobic, racist lower- to middle-class white voters. The GOP has maintained the veneer of a normal, respectable political party while plumbing the depths of hatred, crassly manipulating public opinion and spreading outrageous conspiracy theories. Like a seemingly distinguished man hiding a secret life of sin, the GOP has managed to conceal its more openly ugly side in plain sight – greatly enabled by the media and years of false equivalence reporting.
Today the media is struggling with how to tell the story of Trump’s demolition of the GOP, having spent so many years playing down the role of the nativist faction of the party in the interest of “balance” – i.e., the terror of ever being accused of being liberal. It is therefore important that we be as clear and straightforward as possible in exposing and demanding coverage of the truth.
No, Trump and his hateful minions did not suddenly descend from outer space to invade America in 2015. Rather, they have been purposely and assiduously cultivated by conservative elites since the 1950s. Indeed, the conservative base is so secure in its convictions, so well organized and so motivated precisely because they are the armies of voters that the GOP has been training and empowering for decades.
In other words, what we are seeing in the Republican party today is not truly a war of two opposing factions but the spectacle of the faction that has long been used by the other finally claiming the driver’s seat. Election after election, Republicans have stirred up their masses with all kinds of absurd propaganda in order to get them to vote for policies that overwhelmingly favor corporations and the wealthy. This time, the nativists want to put their man in the White House to make sure they don’t get fooled again.
That said, it’s important to realize that their actual agenda is only marginally different from the corporatists, as the conservative noise machine has done such a fantastic job getting poorer whites to accept and internalize the agenda of the 1%. The nativists still dutifully believe that climate change is a hoax, just as Exxon-Mobil and the Koch Brothers taught them; they still support tax cuts tilted to the super-rich and deregulation to let corporations continue to rip them off and poison their air and water.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear that if Trump were sane, stable and savvy, the GOP would back him unequivocally rather than in the reluctant and awkward way they are doing now.
If we do not push the media, academics and others to tell the real story of the GOP, you can guarantee they will once again be allowed to play their double game two or four years from now. Rather than letting them blame whatever happens in the 2016 election solely on Trump, we need to do our part to make everyone understand how the Republican party purposely built the politics of hate, fear and ignorance – before it rightly blew up in their faces.
Today’s Republican party is built on nativist, hateful mass movements from the Red Scare of the ‘50s to the Massive Resistance of the ‘60s to the Moral Majority of the ‘80s and the Tea Party of the ‘00s. Trumpism is just the latest such incarnation – just the only one that (so far) refuses to be co-opted or controlled.
From McCarthy to Trump
The Awkward Marriage of Eisenhower and McCarthy
The lineage from Senator Joe McCarthy to Donald Trump is shockingly direct, as both Trump and his despicable consigliere Roger Stone are longtime protégés of McCarthy hatchet man Roy Cohn. If you think Trump’s style looks familiar, you’re not imagining it.
Much like Trump today, McCarthy latched onto popular fears and exacerbated them for political advantage. His claims that the Federal government was infiltrated by countless Communist spies attracted enormous media attention while giving the nativist masses of the time scapegoats on which to focus their ire.
If McCarthy was the ugly, embarrassing face of the GOP in the 1950s, it had a much more prominent, distinguished face in President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While there is no question that Ike thought little of McCarthy, he refused to publicly rebuke him.
Eisenhower’s stated reason was that the president should not stoop to the level of the mudslingers. But this set an unfortunate Republican party precedent of failing to stand up to its worst elements – while the party has steadily reaped the political benefits of the mob fervor whipped up by those elements.
In fact, while McCarthy’s career flamed out quickly – from his rise in 1950 to his censure in 1954 and early death in 1957 – the spirit of the Red Scare lived on in his party for many years to come. Just look at the man Eisenhower chose to be his VP…
Nixon & the Harnessing of White Rage
Joe McCarthy was neither the only nor the first Republican politician to shamelessly use anti-communism as a political weapon. Before McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) – which a young California Congressman named Richard M. Nixon skillfully leveraged to use to advance his career.
In 1948, Nixon made headlines by calling as witnesses to HUAC a former Communist party member, Whittaker Chambers, and the State Department official Chambers claimed to have been his fellow Communist spy, Alger Hiss. Nixon built on his reputation from that case to run for the U.S. Senate in 1950 against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas – by attacking her as a Communist “Pink Lady”. As the author of “The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas”, Sally Denton, put it:
In a carefully orchestrated whispering campaign of smear, fear, and innuendo that would go down in American history as the dirtiest ever—while also becoming the model for the next half-century and beyond—Nixon exploited America’s xenophobic suspicions and reflexive chauvinism with devastating consequences.
If this again is sounding familiar, note that Nixon’s campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, taught his dirty tricks techniques via “GOP Schools” to countless Republican operatives – including Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
In 1952, the beloved General Eisenhower chose the untested Senator Nixon to be his vice-presidential running mate – gaining Nixon’s rabid supporters while somehow failing to dent Ike’s towering reputation. Thus did the double life of the Republican party first besmirch the White House.
Nixon, who grew up poor, was a master at stirring up the resentments of working class whites – then sometimes known as “the Hard Hats” – against the East Coast “elites.” In his 1968 presidential campaign and afterwards, he infamously stole the political fire of Alabama governor/presidential candidate George Wallace by incorporating the racist white backlash against LBJ’s Civil Rights Act into the Republican party via the infamous “Southern strategy.”
Nixon hired an advertising executive, H. R. Haldeman to be his Chief of Staff and learned how to use the new tool of television to help appeal to what he called “the Silent Majority” – thanks in part to the media coaching of a young aide named Roger Ailes.
Nixon’s skillful exploitation of the resentments of the common man blew up in the GOP’s face as his cynical dealings and dirty tricks were exposed with the twin disasters of Watergate and Vietnam. But the crooked alumni of Nixon’s school of dirty tricks went on to incorporate his crooked innovations into the political operations of the Republican party for years to come – including not just Ailes but such guttersnipes as Roger Stone.
Reagan and the Mainstreaming of the GOP’s Double Life
While many of Nixon’s domestic policies were actually quite liberal by current Republican standards (e.g., founding the EPA and proposing a national health insurance policy), his successors figured out how to use his tricks of manipulating the masses to more effectively support the agenda of the Republican party’s core constituencies, corporate America and the wealthy.
While Hollywood may not have been the best outlet for Ronald Reagan’s acting skills, he flourished as a spokesman for General Electric from 1954 to 1962. In fact, he never really stopped being a corporate pitchman to the masses after that point – but just kept moving up to more prominent venues.
While the awkward, scowling Nixon had been easy to hate, the grandfatherly Great Communicator was the opposite. Reagan made the double life of the Republican party a non-issue by making even the most outrageous right-wing policies sound mainstream.
Whether scapegoating “welfare mothers,” firing striking air traffic controllers en masse, trying to shut down agencies from the EPA to HUD, or invading little countries like Grenada, he still came across as a gee-whiz nice guy with our best interests at heart. This even as he was employing some of the most despicable dirty tricksters in American politics to polish that image in the eyes of Nixon’s Silent Majority – Roger Ailes, Roger Stone, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, etc.
It was during this period that Christian fundamentalists became such an important part of the Republican base. Televangelists brought another powerful style of communication and persuasion into the GOP, one that made the party even more effective at preaching to the masses. The obscene contradictions of “family values” and conservative policies favoring the wealthy – e.g., supply side economics – were all smoothed over by Reagan’s soothing voice.
Many in the media and elsewhere were taken in, leaving such blatant dog whistles as Reagan speaking on “state’s rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi – a few miles from where three civil rights workers were killed in 1964 – during his 1980 campaign mostly glossed over. Reagan was, in short, the kind of charming, distinguished guy who could get away with that shocking double life.
Bush I vs. Gingrich: the GOP Chooses the Dark Side
Following Reagan’s presidency, his vice president George H.W. Bush promised a “kindler, gentler” approach. That did not include the manner in which he made it to the White House – for which he employed the same old dirty tricks crowd, Lee Atwater in particular, stooping as low as the outrageous, racist Willy Horton commercial tying his opponent Mike Dukakis to a paroled murderer.
Beyond those political skeletons in his closet, the famously preppy Bush I had one of the stronger claims to outward respectability among postwar Republican leaders. He had a long resume, appointed some praiseworthy department heads (Jack Kemp, Bill Reilly, Colin Powell, etc.), signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and a major expansion of the Clean Air Act, and wisely stopped the Persian Gulf War after its primary objective was accomplished.
Yet to a conservative political establishment and rank-and-file increasingly responding to the angry voices of Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio hosts, he failed to toss the red meat they had grown to expect. After Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge in a balanced budget deal with the Democrats, conservatives turned on him, in a foreshadowing of the Republican base’s rejection of the GOP establishment in 2016.
Indeed, I consider this the pivotal moment leading up to today’s downfall of the GOP – a sort of coup within the ranks led by one Newt Gingrich. As House Republican Whip in 1990, Gingrich killed Bush’s budget deal – and helped sink Bush’s chances in the 1992 election against Bill Clinton.
As soon as the Republicans became Gingrich’s party, their fate was set. His strategy of almost never compromising – and in fact, doing everything possible to block a Democratic president from achieving anything – remains Republican doctrine. And while it has helped Republicans gain the loyalty of its increasingly angry and cynical base of white middle- to lower-class voters and thereby win many elections until now, this has proven the ultimate example of Pyrrhic victory.
In the process of applying Gingrich’s strategy, Republicans have prevented the United States from dealing with countless issues from immigration to the environment to criminal justice reform. Today their party finally is feeling the pain of its failure to deliver anything but more extreme, misplaced anger to their base.
Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” (2004) arguably did the best job of summing up this strategy as it stood in the 1990s – employing the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck to rile up the Republican base to fight cultural wars against “liberal elites” while disregarding their own economic interests. But a moment’s reflection should reveal that this sort of scorched earth approach is, by its very nature, unsustainable. Hatred and anger cannot feed, clothe or house anyone – unless they are taken to the most horrific extremes of ethnic cleansing, where the means of existence are stolen from other groups in the most barbaric manner.
And that brings us to Trump.
The GOP has been heading toward moral and ideological bankruptcy for quite some time now. With the Tea Party driving the Republican clown car into a brick wall over the past decade, it is hard to see how the party could have avoided turning to a leader like Trump. Every incentive in the American conservative universe has been for the party and its representatives to be less rational and reasonable, not more so. The idea that any leader could rise up out of this swamp and lead the party in any sort of constructive direction is absurd.
“Garbage in, garbage out” is not applicable simply to computer programming, but to human beings as well. If you feed your people a diet of conspiracy theories and idiotic, illogical talking points every day, don’t expect them to make thoughtful, reasonable decisions. People convinced through years of brainwashing that their president is a Muslim plant and that all the world’s scientists are in conspiracy against them will elect a Trump, not a Churchill. Could anyone expect otherwise?
The bottom line, then, is that, once the dust from the 2016 election settles, we must not allow the GOP and the media to peddle the same snake oil about today’s Republicans being just another mainstream party. No, this party has allowed itself to rot down to its core, and pretending otherwise will only continue to severely damage a country that cannot tolerate its problems being blocked by blind, inchoate white rage anymore.
Trump is just a symptom, and a predictable one, of the cynical, destructive misinformation and ideology of which the GOP has promoted the spread for six decades now. This is why Trump losing will not by itself solve all of the GOP’s or the nation’s issues. To be sure, if he is beaten in a big enough landslide to send a resounding message, it will help.
But it’s time to demand that the media stop looking the other way as the likes of Fox News, Republican leaders, the NRA, etc. fill people’s heads with more and more hateful nonsense. Trump is a sign of where this approach inevitably leads. We, and the media, must expose the ugliness of the Republican’s double life every single day until they are forced to leave it behind and once again become the mainstream party they’ve so long claimed to be.
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