The Cult of Personality 3: The Development of Polarization

With the “watchdog” press successfully muzzled (the inability of the press to get Iran-Contra onto the public’s plate proved it beyond all reasonable doubt), planners at HF, AEI, and the other conservative think-tanks were ready to move on to the next item on their agenda: the development of tactics targeted at marginalizing the impact of the left-wing and the dissemination of those tactics to the faithful and through them to the rest of the country. At the time, this looked like a much more formidable task than it actually proved to be.

Whatever their hopes or fantasies, conservative thinkers with even the slimmest of ties to political reality knew full well that Reagan’s success was predicated on his personal charm and the success of his everybody’s-Grandfather persona in pulling swing voters and center-right Democrats (the so-called “Reagan Democrats”) over the line to support him. They also knew that this support was thin, tentative, and probably temporary. The challenge was to find a way to lock in people not normally drawn to conservative causes like eliminating Social Security and corporate taxes or reversing the gains in environmental law and racial justice, the people who would otherwise desert the party when Reagan ended his second term. In other words, they had to find a way to force the center to move to its right against its current will. Support for environmental controls on corporate activities, for example, was particularly strong, as they discovered when they had Reagan appoint James Watt as Interior Secretary. His violent restructuring of Interior policies to openly and brazenly favor corporate interests started a firestorm of protest that eventually drove Reagan to replace him and taught the extremists that they were going to have to move slower than they had hoped.

But conservatives–especially extremist conservatives–as a whole aren’t much given to changing their minds once they’re made up; they tend to characterize mind-changing in negative language, calling it “waffling”, disloyalty, betrayal, or a surrender of ideals. There was little chance, despite their setbacks, that they would ever consider altering their goals or compromising on their agenda except as a short-term tactic for the sake of appearances; to do that would be to show weakness to the enemy (defined even then as “anyone who disagrees with us”), or, as the conservative/corporate-speak of the day had it, to “show them your belly.”

And, true to form, they didn’t. Instead they set about laying off their more controversial stances (except abortion) and concentrated on identifying the conservative issues that played best with the non-conservative voters who had swung to Reagan. They found three: security, tax relief, and the economy, in that order; despite the fact that history couldn’t show a conclusive superiority in any of these areas on the part of either party–both had their ups and downs–voters believed for reasons of their own that on those three issues Republicans were better for the country than Democrats. Polls also showed that the conservative Achilles’ Heel was domestic policy–in that area, voters overwhelmingly preferred the Democratic agenda: protecting the environment, affirmative action, a woman’s right to choose, worker’s rights, and so on. The message was clear: get the voters focused on taxes and foreign policy; if they’re focused on Republican issues, then they’ll naturally focus on Republican solutions.

Again, the tactic worked. Reagan made his “evil empire” speeches and Republican strategists conceived the decade’s most brilliant red herring: Star Wars, an impossible scheme technically (and everybody involved knew it) but the kind of easy, superficially sensible pipe dream that the simple-minded Reagan would embrace whole-heartedly and that pervasive advertising techniques used since the 50’s had trained the American public to lap up with a spoon. In the event, they didn’t exactly lap it up, but they took it seriously enough that it often drove domestic concerns off the front pages and served to keep public attention focused on a useless daydream for damn near 8 years while Republican domestic policies enriched Wall Street, began the dismantling of the Great Society, and allowed corporations to deliberately destroy the social contract that had held since the end of WWII, stealing pensions, blackmailing states into eliminating corporate taxes, adding millions to the unemployment rolls for the single purpose of raising the price of their stocks, breaking or minimizing the power of labor unions, and using the Federal govt as if it were their own private cash reserve. Heightening the tension of the Cold War and building up fear of a nuclear holocaust centered attention outside the domestic arena so effectively that social depredations at home went largely unnoticed by the general public until after Reagan left office.

Meanwhile, conservative efforts to hijack the media continued apace: the Mighty Wurlitzer and its echo chamber were growing, gaining in experience and expertise; conservative talk radio was becoming a political as well as a commercial force; a wave of mergers and consolidations were gradually putting all forms of media, from movies, tv and commercial radio to newspaper, magazine, and book publishing, under the control of a shrinking handful of right-wing tycoons like John Malone, Sumner Redstone. and Rupert Murdock; and direct pipelines from the media tycoons into the offices of conservative political figures like Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, and Phil Gramm were solidifying a unity of purpose and message. They were all on the same page, and each thought they were using the other. It was a perfect arrangement for all concerned–and a powerful one. A large chunk of the media became an arm of operations for a certain segment of the govt–that segment which agreed with the aims of the tycoons who owned the media–and would churn out information skewed to support the goals of that segment; in return, the segment would support the corporate aims of the tycoons, challenging, re-writing, or even eliminating laws and regulations that the tycoons found too restrictive.

The main question of this phase was, again, “How?” Now that control of the media was in their hands, how were they going to use it to best advantage to steer America in the direction they envisioned? The answer came in two parts: the 1988 campaign of Bush I, and Rush Limbaugh.

The 1988 Presidential campaign was in many ways a watershed for the conservative forces actively engaged in the effort to change America’s orientation. For one thing, they no longer had their Grandfather icon fronting for them. Instead, they had a patrician insider who was uncomfortable on television and had an unfortunate tendency to talk in clipped, unfinished sentences that were easy to ridicule and often hard to decipher. He had massive govt experience, including a disastrous stint as CIA Director the year after Nixon resigned, but little practical experience in anything but business. People, they found, liked him but couldn’t relate to him very well, nor could he reach across the Great Class Divide to them with any success. Their new candidate was a long way from Reagan’s Granddad; Bush was more like the rich uncle you saw once a year at Christmas, the one who bought cheap presents and didn’t stay very long. He was OK, but you weren’t going to share your Christmas cookies with him, and you didn’t really notice when he left. Selling him was going to be a problem.

GOP strategists decided early on to use the same tactic against liberals that had been so successful in the attack against the press: George Sr would tar his opponents with the epithet “liberal”, using it as if it were a profanity he could barely stand to utter, and counter any criticism of his policies or statements not by defending or explaining them but by attacking his critics as “liberal elitists” and suggesting (without actually saying it) that their attitudes were un-American and/or idiotic. It was during that campaign that Poppy in fact turned “liberal” into a swear by refusing to say it: “liberal” became “the L-word”, and the “L-word” became a synonym for silly, impractical, devious, and un-American. Anyone who could take that claptrap seriously, Poppy seemed to be saying, couldn’t be trusted to run that country for that reason alone.

This time the tactic was only semi-successful. Poppy, after all, was a centrist, not a right-wing devotee of Reagan’s hardcore gospel, and when he tried to sound like one he came across looking like a robot lip-synching previously prepared programming. But he undeniably struck a nerve, particularly with older white male voters disenchanted with the social changes of the last 20 years. They liked what he said even if they distrusted the way he said it, and if they didn’t exactly flock to his side, if their deepest desires weren’t set aflame with passion, if they didn’t show up at his rallies in overwhelming numbers, still they supported him and every single one of them would vote.

Poppy was helped immeasurably by the nomination of Michael Dukakis by the Democrats. The Duke, despite being the son of immigrant, working-class parents, came across looking and sounding more like a patrician elitist than patrician elitist Bush. His emphasis on his background cut so little ice with potential voters that Poppy could label him a “liberal elitist” and get away with it. In addition, the Duke was focusing his campaign on economic issues at a time when the false boom of the Reagan years had not yet begun to unravel (as it would between ’88 and ’90) and nobody was particularly feeling the need to change directions.

Duke’s concentration on the economy also left a yawning gap in Poppy’s strongest area: his expertise in foreign policy, including his pedigree as Reagan’s anti-Communist VP, Dutch’s right-hand-man in America’s on-going battle with the “evil empire”. Poppy’s media gurus figured they only needed one domestic issue if it was strong enough, and they settled on a natural: taxes. Massachusetts was called “Taxachusetts” by the rest of the nation; while the perception was inaccurate even then (a dozen or so states had higher property and income taxes than Mass), it played well everywhere else.

So while newspapers reported on and Bush talked about other things, the campaign responsible for the ads and the Mighty Wurlitzer responsible for the spin pounded away at two simple themes: Dukakis was a member-in-good-standing of the Eastern Liberal Establishment (as if there was or had ever been such a thing); and Dukakis was a tax-and-spend liberal who wanted to do to the country what he had done to Massachusetts–tax it to death. This simple, two-pronged strategy was intended to marginalize Dukakis by getting voters to perceive him as marginal: an extreme figure outside the mainstream, somebody not sensible, not serious, not realistic–somebody “not like us.”

Politicians have used the “us vs. them” tactic from time immemorial. It knits followers together as a unit, bands them together to fight “outsiders” in an echo of human experience that goes back to the cave1. In a sense what Bush and his handlers were doing was just a slightly more sophisticated and extreme version of that oldest-trick-in-the-book. It was, that is, up until the Willie Horton episode.

The Willie Horton episode is enormously important in a way that went largely unnoticed at the time in the furor over its racial implications, for in hindsight its importance doesn’t lie in its viciousness (that was a natural extension of Republican campaign advertising tactics going back to Nixon) or its blatant playing of the race card (another natural extension of Republican campaign tactics that had evolved from Kevin Phillips’ “Southern Strategy”). Rather, it’s importance lies more in its subtle attempt to link a Democratic Presidential candidate with a convict.

The subliminal message in the Willie Horton ads was the identification of Dukakis with a murderer and rapist as if they were one and the same. Ostensibly an attack on the “liberal” philosophy of rehabilitating criminals by mainstreaming them back into society, the ads made every effort, both verbally and visually, to equate Horton and Dukakis as different sides of the same coin, fellow-travelers on the fringes of society. The undertones of the ads were less racial (though they were that, too) than they were anti-social; who, after all, would release such a man unless he could identify with him? Normal people–you or I–would lock Horton up and throw away the key, but Dukakis freed him. The inevitable question in the viewers’ minds had to be: Why? Why would he do that? The answer embedded in the ads was, “Because they’re birds-of-a-feather–they’re both criminals.”

The fact that Horton was black mattered far less in this campaign than the fact that he was a murderer. It was the first time that any political ad of modern times had defined the “them” in “us vs them” in such an extreme manner that a political opponent could be described in terms formerly reserved for torturers and serial killers. It was a tactic designed not just to put Dukakis (and by extension, anyone who supported him) on the margins of society but to push him completely beyond the pale and into the Lands of the Outer Darkness, an ominous country no sane human being would visit voluntarily, a country with an eerie resemblance to the Biblical version of Hell.

The ads worked–Dukakis’ poll numbers went into a nose-dive, especially in the South, from which they never recovered. Although the backlash created by the ads was significant, it was too late; the damage had already been done. GOP strategists took careful note: Don’t marginalize your opponents; shove them over the cliff–make them Untouchables, characterize them as unclean, spawns of society’s lowest and most vicious dregs, agents of the Devil. Traitors.

It was breath-taking, the political equivalent of a gated community: a mile-high wall of barbed wire separating their political opponents from “ordinary people”, a wall that kept out the predatory animals of the Liberal Establishment and prevented them from eating you alive. And who did you have to thank for this protection? Why, the Saviors of the Right who saw the danger and built the wall, who else? So whose side do you want to be on?


But the backlash, while it came too late to help Dukakis, did accomplish one thing: it stopped the ads. They were pulled from circulation. That was a good thing for democracy but a bad thing for GOP strategists trying to get a handle on methods for turning the country around. They had a strategy–Divide and Conquer–but not the tactics to make the strategy work at a mass level.

Fortunately for them, there was Rush.

to be continued….

1. Mel Brooks put this age-old feeling into a nutshell as The 2000-Year-Old Man. Asked by Carl Reiner if they had national anthems back in the “old days”, Brooks replies:

B: We weren’t nations, we was caves. Every cave had its own national anthem.

R: Do you remember your cave’s anthem?

B: Of course! You don’t forget a national anthem in a minute.

R: Could you sing it for us?

B: Sure. (sings:)
“Let ’em all go to hell,.
Except Cave 76!”

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