How did America get to such a place that someone like Donald Trump can command a lead in the Republican primaries? Trump is the product of a deliberate Republican strategy, adopted by Richard Nixon’s people in 1968, to attract voters with an apocalyptic redemption story rather than reasoned argument. It has taken almost 50 years, but we have finally arrived at the culmination of postmodern politics in which Republican leaders use words to create their own reality.
After World War II, President Dwight Eisenhower and men like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller led the Republican Party with policies based in reasoned argument. They used the government to regulate the economy and to promote social welfare, much as Democrats did, although with a philosophy that emphasized social unity rather than class conflict. The policies of these “Me Too” Republicans infuriated Movement Conservatives on the far right, who insisted that all government activism was communism. In 1964, Movement Conservative spokesman Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination when Rockefeller’s womanizing spectacularly imploded his candidacy. Movement Conservatives used their hero’s nomination to advance a new kind of politics.
America’s moderate consensus was enormously popular, but Phyllis Schlafly, the president of the Illinois Federation of Republican Women, flat-out denied that reality. In her famous book “A Choice Not an Echo,” she insisted that studies showing that voters opposed Goldwater’s extremism were part of a “propaganda machine” that used fake polls, radio and newspapers to destroy anyone but the chosen candidates of an elite cabal. She explained that all government activism outside of military buildup was a conspiracy to bankrupt regular Americans. Financiers and banking interests fed off expensive policies pushed by an educated Eastern elite, and together these men were dragging America into the web of communism.
The world was really quite simple, Schlafly insisted, and it could be understood without any fancy education. It was divided in two, black and white, Communism and Freedom. Eggheads complained that Goldwater “had one-sentence solutions” for complicated problems, she wrote, but simple solutions were the answer. What should America do about communism? Stop it! The very fact that establishment Republicans opposed Goldwater’s nomination proved that he was the right man for the job. He was the “grass roots” candidate, the candidate for the little guy who voted his principles, not because he wanted a payoff.
Goldwater’s candidacy crashed and burned, leaving Republicans in trouble in 1968. To candidate Richard Nixon was left the task of pulling together mainstream Eisenhower Republicans and upstart Movement Conservatives. How could his team attract support for an unlikable candidate who needed to bridge a fundamental ideological gulf? Nixon’s handlers used new media to play to Schlafly’s script. They ignored people’s brains and went for their guts.