I am hardly the only person to observe that Trump’s election was a predictable consequence of the fact that, over a number of years, the GOP has morphed into something bearing very little resemblance to a rational, center-right political party.
Political pundits differ on when the changes began. Certainly, Nixon’s “Southern strategy” laid the groundwork for the GOP’s growing appeal to racial grievance. Stuart Stevens’ recent book It Was All A Lie detailed five decades of “hypocrisy and self-delusion” dating all the way back to the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s.
A recent article from Pressthink, a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, reminded readers of the 2004 Ron Suskind article about the George W. Bush White House–the article that gave us the now-ubiquitous quote about the “reality-based community.” Suskind was writing about concerns voiced by so-called “establishment” Republicans who were increasingly encountering what Suskind called “a confusing development” within the Bush White House. Suddenly, asking for corroborating evidence, expressing doubts, or raising facts that didn’t fit an official narrative were considered disqualifying or disloyal acts for allies of the President.
Knowing what you know now, about candidate Trump, listen to these quotes from 2004…
* “He dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts.” —Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan and Bush-the-elder adviser.
* “In meetings, I’d ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!” —Christie Whitman, head of the EPA under Bush.
* “If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information.” —Paul O’Neill, Treasure Secretary under Bush.
* “Open dialogue, based on facts, is not seen as something of inherent value. It may, in fact, create doubt, which undercuts faith. It could result in a loss of confidence in the decision-maker and, just as important, by the decision-maker.” —Suskind’s words.
* “A cluster of particularly vivid qualities was shaping George W. Bush’s White House through the summer of 2001: a disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners.” —Suskind.
* “You’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way [Bush] walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!” — Mark McKinnon, media adviser to Bush, explaining the political logic to Suskind.
That last quote, by Mark McKinnon, goes a long way toward explaining the root emotions of today’s Trump supporters, whose overriding need is apparently to “own the libs”–no matter what the cost to the country or their own prospects.
Suskind’s article was about the growing tensions within the Republican coalition. When he talked to Bruce Bartlett, Christie Whitman, Paul O’Neill and other loyal Republicans, they conveyed alarm over what he termed “the retreat from empiricism.”
It wasn’t only Republicans who were retreating from empiricism and reality–liberals had their anti-vaxxers and people hysterically opposed to genetically modified foods–but they lacked the influence on their party that climate change deniers and birthers had in the GOP, and that asymmetry posed a “false equivalence” problem for journalists trying to be (excuse the phrase) fair and balanced.
Worse, fact-checking Trump had little effect, because he wasn’t trying to make reference to reality in what he said. He was trying to substitute “his” reality for the one depicted in news reports.
The goal of totalitarian propaganda is to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power. Its open distortion of reality is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
On November 3d, creating an alternate reality worked for 70 million Americans.
Houston, we have a problem.