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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Guns, Extremism, And Threats Of Escalation

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator.

 

Afriend writes, “For basically the past six months or so I’ve been trying to tell my lefty friends in so many words, ‘Hey, there are a bunch of people on the Internet who are waiting for someone to tell them it’s okay to start shooting at you.’” He became concerned when a thread at the non-political firearms-enthusiasts website he regularly follows became filled with comments in all caps referring to liberals as enemies who must be shot. Developments both online and off following Donald Trump’s election have caused me to share his concern.

In December, an author at the biggest and most explicitly non-political gun site, the Firearms Blog (its tagline is “Firearms, not politics”), recounted his experience with an outfit that offers tactical training based on the methods of the Israel Defense Forces. The moderator soon had to begin deleting comments. One that remains protested, “as if through the millennia, hundreds of nations, principalities and city-states reached the same conclusions,” and urged the curious to check out Judaism.is/genocide.html where one can watch the film Jewish Ritual Murder Revisited: The Hidden Cult.

Four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, a community member on a moderate firearms law site, PAGunBlog, a civil redoubt welcoming “active participation by both firearms enthusiasts and people who hate them,” described his shock from that morning’s web-surf when “a long-time commenter who I recognized as right-leaning but mostly moderate commented that ‘The Jews own and control everything in America…’ Not many months ago no one except a flaming neo-Nazi would have dreamed of expressing such an opinion, but today it seems to have become an acceptable element of our discourse. I noticed that no one replied to or castigated the comment.”

Then came February 1 in Berkeley and things really started getting scary.

The saga of what happened when Milo Yiannopoulos came to speak at the flagship campus of the University of California has since become foundational, not just with the alt-right but with quite nearly the entire right. Alt-right provocateur Yiannopoulos was turned back by violent protests, which culminated in the burning of a portable generator. Stuffed down the wingnut memory hole are the events that preceded the mêlée. The violence was, in fact, preceded by peaceful protests by approximately 1,500 Berkeley students, until they were waylaid by a tiny handful of off-campus “Black Bloc” and “antifa,” or anti-fascist, cadres who believe racist speech licenses violent resistance. It was also preceded, less than two weeks earlier, by the shooting of a Milo protester in Seattle, by a gunman who has yet to be charged with any crime.

The Battle of Berkeley accelerated the construction of a body of mythology: the left has escalated its resistance to Trump into literal war, so Trump supporters must be prepared to resort to violence to oppose it.

How afraid of this should you be? The most interesting answers to that question do not come from the left. They come from concerned voices on the right, who’ve been monitoring the chatter with mounting alarm, going public with pleas to liberals to still the antifa renegades before bodies begin piling up. The most convincing evidence that they have a point comes in the ensuing comment threads, where the need to prepare for armed force is taken as gospel.

The proprietor of Being Libertarian, a Facebook community with 438,888 likes, wrote of Berkeley, “This was a riot,” and urged liberals to “BE LOUD” and renounce the rioters: “Conservatives are going to have a field day with this. If you just sit there quietly, you’re essentially letting yourself be associated with campus-pillaging barbarians.” He added, “You should consider yourself lucky nobody shot you.”

Clearly, this man knows his audience. The comment, “When someone has set your car on fire and is chasing you around with a blunt object, you get to make an executive decision regarding your continued existence,” got 1,403 likes. The conviction that this would be acting in self-defense was affirmed by the man who wrote, “these riots that have been occurring are what got my ass in gear to get the final steps of my pistol permit application completed. My unrestricted carry permit can’t come soon enough.” Someone reminded him a gun license “is not a license to kill.” His response: “Yes I’m aware. I just refuse to end up a helpless victim when crazy shit like this goes down.”

Oleg Volk is an advertising professional and Second Amendment activist based in Nashville. He wrote on a Facebook wall about the Berkeley events: “Rioting? That’s how you get Freikorps reenacting the demise of the Bavarian Republic with full approval of the majority of the population.” The Freikorps were volunteer paramilitaries set up by German World War I veterans that violently put down Communist uprisings, piling up bodies by the thousands; the movement officially came to a close in 1933 when Freikorps leaders surrendered their battle flags in loyalty to the Nazi command. Volk made it clear that he was opposed to such escalation. Commenters responding to his post were not. “Trying to decide if I will be unhappy or happy to don Freikorps attire. Then what to bring to the party,” said one. Others discussed appropriate armaments—“Ill see your 308 and raise you a 45-70” [sic]—until one Richard Carter trumped them all: “see you all that crap 50 bmg.” He was referring the .50-caliber Browning machine gun, a weapon useful for downing low-flying aircraft. After all, another commenter observed, “The Brownshirts are all liberals now.”

Another commenter offered a “Side note: Ever notice they don’t try that shit somewhere like Texas or Florida, where the odds are good that Joe Public will ventilate their asses when assaulted.” As it happened, one month later events provided a natural experiment to prove or disprove his hypothesis.

 

March 4 was national “March 4 Trump Day.” It was also Confederate Flag Day—though whether coincidence or not is always a difficult question to answer in Trumpland, where what the president’s “respectable” partisans would prefer to keep hidden in the basement is only a dog whistle away.

A prelude to the March 4 Trump events played out on February 19, when a complement from the “III% Security Force” armed with rifles stood guard over a pro-Trump rally in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park. The next day, National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre went online with a video advertising his appearance at the following week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The video opened with the words “THEY COULDN’T HANDLE IT,” interposed with clips of Michael Moore calling Donald Trump a fascist and Nancy Pelosi intoning “white supremacist,” then the words, “SO THEY STARTED A WAR,” “AGITATION,” “INSURRECTION,” and “ANARCHY.” All this was interspersed with chaotic images of fire, vandalism, and Madonna at the Women’s March explaining, “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” Thereupon LaPierre pledged the NRA would be the spearhead of the counter-resistance: “On Friday, February 24, we fight back.”

March 4 was national ‘March 4 Trump Day.’ It was also Confederate Flag Day—though whether coincidence or not is always a difficult question to answer in Trumpland.

Then in Austin on March 4, a blogger who calls himself Morgoth, after the J.R.R. Tolkien character often interpreted as a stand-in for Satan, filed a dispatch from the pro-Trump rally at Wooldridge Park, sprinkled with pictures of dudes with signs like the one featuring the alt-right iconic image of Pepe in a pilot outfit with the legend “FREE HELICOPTER RIDES” and the silhouette of a woman falling from the sky. “The only contribution we received from the Republican Party was some Trump Pence and MAGA signs,” he boasted. “Quite unlike the AstroTurf leftist protests where professional agitators are organized, bused in and often paid by shadowy group funded for George Soros or the Democratic Party.” [sic] Morgoth was impressed with organizers doing “everything possible to dispel the notion that Trump or his supporters are in any way racist. After all, speakers at the event included a black woman . . . and a Mexican woman who had just obtained U.S. citizenship. Amusingly, the Mexican lady’s speech was largely drowned out by long and raucous chants of ‘build the wall, build the wall!’”

Morgoth estimated the alt-right contingent at 10 to 20 percent of the crowd. He celebrated their chants, including “Free helicopter rides for commies” and “One people, one nation, one leader.” He reported, “The Alt Right were well turned out, many wearing shirts and ties, well groomed, well informed, physically fit, and well versed in their arguments. They stood in stark contrast to the weak degenerates of Antifa . . .” He said the whole thing made him feel as glorious as when he participated in an Orange Walk—those marches where Ulster unionists would parade menacingly through Catholic neighborhoods to celebrate the 1690 defeat of Irish Catholics. He thrilled to what he claimed was evidence that “even mainstream conservatives” were moving “toward us.”

He also confirmed the accounts of about a dozen anti-Trump protesters that one of them, Austin radical journalist Kit O’Connell, received a concussion when he was smashed against a post by a former Marine after touching his flag.

O’Connell was arrested and charged with a crime. The attacker was not. O’Connell’s assailant, wearing an American-flag windbreaker, carrying an American flag, and sporting two small American flags in his MAGA cap, can be heard in a video boasting, “He was so light, I thought he was a girl. But I hit him against the pole, and I felt sorry for him so I stopped. . . How do you justify attacking somebody with an American flag? . . .They went after my flag.”

Morgoth’s blog post in praise of this fine patriot featured a screen grab of O’Connell’s Facebook message. Morgoth’s comment: “Here is a post of the glass jawed communist made on Facebook the next day showing him still in this hospital bed whining about his treatment at the hands of the fascist police state. You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. . . . Antifa pussy, straight from central casting.” The screen grab contained the name of the hospital, should any local neo-Nazi—like the fellow who recently charged into an Austin anarchist bookstore and threatened to burn them out—wish to visit him. When I reached O’Connell by phone, he told me, “There’s a real feel in the Austin left, especially the far-left, that this counter-resistance is becoming frighteningly organized.”

And why not? They believe they’re only fighting back.

A Morgoth commenter who calls himself Gentleman Jim Crow praised the “virile young Alt-Rights clashing with clapped out retrograde commies. The future belongs to us.” Another commenter responded to that, “They will still escalate.” Morgoth himself wrote, “While looking for footage of the Austin march to accompany this post I came across this footage of the violence at the March 4 Trump in Berkeley, California. . . the Trump supporters seem to be more physically capable, but the weaker leftists are prepared to up the ante by introducing cowardly devices like tasers and pepper spray.”

Students of fascism will recognize the fantastical confusion of tropes: the enemy as a terrifying horde, raising the stakes ruthlessly beyond all civil bounds; but also the enemy as pitiful (“glass jawed”) weaklings— sometimes both within the same utterance. Such language is how students of fascism know that they are in its presence.

 

I’ve seen the Berkeley footage Morgoth is referring to. That’s how I made the acquaintance of Stick Man.

Berkeley’s March 4 Trump was organized by a man named Richard Black, who announced that members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists were banned. Among those who did not get the memo were Moshe Daniel, who goes by the nickname “Kilt Man.” Daniel depicts himself on Facebook with a giant serrated knife and a T-shirt featuring the face of the late Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, the legend “PHYSICAL REMOVAL,” and another of those silhouettes of people being dropped from helicopters—a Pinochet-favored method for dealing with dissenters.

The march turned into a “small riot,” as gun-rights blogger Bob Owens, one of the most widely read on the web, and a cool and clear-thinking moderate, described it after reviewing the available documentation. “Both sides came to this incident prepared for a fight,” he wrote, concluding it was impossible to see “who threw the first punch.” In my mind, however, there were at least two moments where the person who threw the first punch was starkly evident. In both cases it was an individual who wore all black, from boots to baseball cap, and carried a distinctive black shield emblazoned with a “V” for victory, and an American flag. The man in black also wore a gas mask, surely in response to a widely disseminated urban legend that antifas are routinely attacking protesters with pepper spray. In one video he whacks a downed anti-Trump protester with the long wooden stick he carries (with two tiny American flags attached, thus he can call it a flagpole). In another, he can be seen smashing his stick down so hard on an unarmed protester’s head that the stick breaks in half.

He’s since become a right-wing folk hero, and, after Berkeley police arrested him on several felony charges, naturally, a right-wing martyr.

The Mexican woman’s speech was largely drowned out by long and raucous chants of ‘build the wall, build the wall!’

Morgoth declared an image of Stick Man in his getup to be his “picture of the week.” Wrote the proprietor of a blog called Ride the Bomb!, who calls his hero Captain America: “For those who are not aware, the Antifa jerks have been bringing flags to violent protests so that they can use the flag poles to beat Trump supporters over the head. This gentleman’s ‘flagpole’ was a great FU to all of them. My personal favorite video . . . shows Captain America breaking his ‘flagpole’ over the head of an Antifa member. . . . Let us hope now he understands that it was foolish to think that a beta male Liberal wussy boy like him who has never been in a fair fight in his life could brawl with men. I believe that going forward Captain America will serve as in [sic] inspiration for us all. More than anyone else he will be remembered as the symbol of the turning point represented by the Berkeley ‘March 4 Trump.’”

Stick Man’s real name is Kyle Chapman of Daly City, California. On Facebook, he can be seen dipping bullets into bacon, apparently for use against Muslims. His favorite books include March of the Titans: A History of the White Race. He likes the Nordic-Germanic Front, Nordic Beauty, Soldiers of Odin USA, and RT. He also has a long criminal history, including felony convictions for charges that include robbery and grand theft. Following a crowdfunding campaign to aid with his bail and defense, he wrote, “The out pouring of support has nearly brought me to tears. I do not consider myself a hero. I’m a patriot that loves freedom and my fellow countrymen. I have long embraced my inner warrior as many of the warrior patriots that have fought along side me. Could not have done it without them. The decadence of the West has made us soft. We must reverse this if our republic is to survive. Let 3.4.17 be the beginning of a new revolution.” Among those who have joined the crowdfunding crusade is Richard Black, the organizer of March 4 Trump, who had banned white nationalists and the alt-right.

Bob Owens’s post about the March 4 Trump in Berkeley is entitled “Can Trump Supporters Legally Shoot Left-wing ‘Antifa’ Attackers?” He wrote it in response to a Tweet directed to him, noting a moment where three antifas got in three light kicks at a downed Trump supporter, asking, “Looks like lethal self-defense could be justified. Opinions?” Owens assured his readers this was indubitably not so. He reviewed California’s statute on the use of deadly force, which requires a shooter to “reasonably believe” he or she “was in imminent danger of being killed or suffering great bodily injury,” then to use “no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against that danger,” and that “belief in future harm is not sufficient, no matter how greatly or how likely the harm is believed to be.” He concluded, “Both sides acted childishly and violently, but there was no violence that came close to justifying the use of firearms to stop a deadly force attack,” Introducing firearms, he wrote, would have been “frankly stupid, as you’re much more likely to hit innocent bystanders downrange than you are likely to hit the person you’re shooting at in such dense crowds.”

To which his commenters replied: to hell with that, we’re shooting anyway. They’re not ashamed. They use their real names, and sometimes list their hometown; and, in one case (a firefighter in a small Florida town), their employment, which I confirmed. Then, they say things like this:

“[W]hen the law says you must die why would you care about the law.”

“It’s far better to be judged by 12, then carried by 6.”

“If you physically attack someone you can legally be shot. Doesn’t matter what Kool Aid you drink.”

“[I]f a person, or persons, are a threat to you or someone else . . . Act accordingly to protect life. Everything else, including the target’s well being, is a by product that is not my concern.”

Brian Hart, of Springfield, Ohio: “If deadly force isn’t reasonable then why do the cops show up armed???”

And last but not least: “But let’s face it legalities put aside, killing these ANTIFA douches would probably make America a better place.”

Just chest-thumping boasts? My friend, a liberal and a Second Amendment advocate, isn’t sure what to think. He hopes “they have jobs and mortgages and kids and so on . . . They have way too much to lose to start shooting at anybody.”

“But then there’s another part of me that knows how men (and they’re mostly men) of this type are. When you have that much invested in some hardware, and they do have a lot invested as a percentage of income, then you want to use it.”

Maybe it’s all just idle Internet chatter. But didn’t they used to say that about Munich beer halls once, too?

 

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent and a student of right-wing movements.

 

New Press Corps At Sean Spicer’s White House Circus

Reprinted with permission of The Washington Spectator.

With so many garish spectacles to feast your eyes on at the 33-ring Trump circus, some clowns are easy to miss. Especially the ones performing in proximity to Sean Spicer. Pry your eyes away from the Pagliacci of the Pressroom for a moment, however, and look hard at some of his supporting buffoons. They may not have attracted the notice of Saturday Night Live yet. But now that the White House is blocking outlets like The New York Times, BBC, and Politico from some press briefings, the ones who are still there are becoming an increasingly important part of the story.

Meet “Trey,” for instance—Trey Yingst, Washington correspondent of the “One America News Network,” a cable channel begun in partnership with the Unification Church’s Washington Times, which has since gone independent. One America owner Charles Herring explained why he started the venture: “There’s nothing wrong with Fox. The problem is that if you take the [standard cable] channel lineup, the sources of national news tend to lean to the left . . . and all we have is Fox.” One America’s Foxier-than-Fox programming includes “Jihad: The Grand Deception,” “Escape from Iran,” “Target America,” and an interview show, “On Point,” once hosted by Sarah Palin. One America was included in the press briefing from which The New York Times and BBC were banned.

And Spicer sure likes One America’s man in Washington. During Trump’s first month in the White House, Spicer called on Trey four times. The third time, after he answered Trey’s stumper—“What is the President willing to do to investigate further to determine where these leaks are coming from?”— and the press gaggle started shouting out their own questions, Spicer sounded for all the world like a wounded first-grader. “Hold On! Trey gets a follow up! Everyone else got one!”

Lars Larson is a better-known figure. He’s the top conservative talk radio host in Portland, Oregon, and an occasional fill-in for Rush Limbaugh. Larson was the second person called upon via webcam the day the White House Press Room’s “Skype seat” was inaugurated. Lars first thanked “Commander Spicer” for taking his questions (Spicer has never served in the military), then said, “Thanks for your service to America.” Next came the probing questions. “Does President Trump want to start returning the people’s land to the people? . . . Can he tell the Forest Service to start logging our forests aggressively again to provide jobs for Americans, wealth for the Treasury, and not spend $3.5 billion a year fighting forest fires?” These stinging queries surely came as welcome relief for Spicer, who had just got through dodging dagger thrusts from Kristen Welker of NBC, about what the White House meant when it claimed to have put Iran “on notice.”

And on February 14—Valentine’s Day—when Spicer found himself in a sweat keeping his stories straight about the firing of General Flynn, he went to the Skype seat for a save from “Jason Stevens of the Federalist Paper in Ashland, Ohio.” It turns out to be nearly impossible to identify this particular media juggernaut via Google, but your humble correspondent’s embarrassingly boundless knowledge of right-wing institutions is helpful. I recalled that there is a small right-wing college in Ashland, Ohio, which is how I learned that Professor Stevens’s “Federalist Papers Project” fulfills its mission of purveying “The History & Civics Schools Don’t Teach”—not only by giving away free e-books about the Founding Fathers but via articles like “WATCH: Maxine Waters UNHINGED; Goes Insane on Live TV” and “BREAKING: Feds Stop Nightmare Scenario ISIS Style Attack,” all underwritten by pop-up ads for survivalist meal plans with “25-Year Shelf Life, ‘Disaster-Proof’ Packaging.”

Another Spicer favorite is Katie Pavlich. Don’t know Katie? She’s the extremely blond Fox News regular and Townhall.com correspondent who authored such timeless classics as Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and Its Shameless Cover-Up and Assault and Flattery: The Truth About the Left and Their War on Women. Pavlich was called on three times within a fortnight to confront Spicer with riddles like: “Is President Trump planning to ask the Senate to expedite legislation allowing for the swift firing of bad VA employees?” And, concerning “a declared genocide by ISIS against Christians and other minority and religious groups . . . what specifically is the administration planning to do to comply with the legal obligations of protecting these groups under the U.N. 1948 treaty?”

Returned Spicer: “That’s a great question!” They always are, when Sean’s valentines are doing the asking.

When a former male escort named Jeff Gannon ( James Dale Guckert) began popping up in George W. Bush’s White House press room during the Iraq War, representing a not-quite-legitimate news organization called “Talon News,” which turned out to be operated by the Republican National Committee, and asking questions that sounded suspiciously like plants —“How are you going to work with [Senate Democrats] who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?”—it was a minor scandal. Regarding most matters Republican and scandalous, our concerns from a dozen years ago almost seem quaint.

“That’s a great question!” They always are, when Sean’s valentines are doing the asking.

Now the ones routinely asking the questions are “news organizations” like The Daily Signal, published by the Heritage Foundation; Breitbart News, which White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon used to run; and the London Daily Mail, which was banned as a source by Wikipedia for its “reputation for poor fact-checking and sensationalism.” Now, we have a Gannon-league loon as press secretary.

When Sean Spicer’s college newspaper printed his letter to the editor complaining about campus smoking regulations over the name “Sean Sphincter,” he complained, “The First Amendment does uphold the right to free speech, however, this situation goes beyond the bounds of free speech.” Then he more or less sued the paper, attempting to bring it up on charges before college authorities.

Today, Spicer has opened the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to “journalists” who have made their reputations “beyond the bounds of free speech.” The now-disgraced alt-right poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos, whose defense of pedophilia cost him a book contract and a speaking gig at CPAC, once got credentials to attend a White House press briefing. The aggressively incorrect hate site Gateway Pundit has a permanent seat, which is occupied by serial doxxer Lucian Wintrich. He has no previous journalistic experience, though he curated a “Twinks4Trump” art exhibit that included homoerotic photos of shirtless men wearing “Make America Great” caps. The Twinks exhibit included works by Yiannopoulos, James O’Keefe, and indicted “Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, I kid you not.

But we should focus on more than just the personalities, because there is method behind this madness. The “Skype seat,” for example. The people representing major news organizations in the White House press room, whatever their faults, are at least seasoned media veterans whose professional amour propre depends on their willingness to follow up when the answer is evasive. Spicer often finds the questions asked by these White House reporters challenging.

On February 2, for example, in the wake of the massacre at a Quebec City mosque, Spicer was asked what Trump would do to make sure “homegrown violence doesn’t happen within our country.” His loopy response began, “Well, there’s a lot of things. Number one, he’s talked cyber — I mean, he’s looking at it from every angle. I think the first thing is to make sure that we look at our borders.”

He continued, “I mean, so there is a holistic approach to both immigration and there’s a direct nexus between immigration and national security and personal security that he has to look at.” Then he promised the administration would be “working with the NSA and FBI to be ahead of the curve”—either ignorant or indifferent to the fact that the National Security Agency is (for now) legally enjoined from spying on Americans.

“If I may,” came the follow-up, “these are homegrown—Oklahoma was an American kid.”

Non-sequitured Spicer, “That’s what I’m saying. . .”

Quicksand like that is why it’s handy to have on tap the cream of the nation’s crop of blow-dried Ron Burgundies. The Skype seat opens White House press briefings to representatives of local network affiliate news organizations, whose business model is fundamentally compromised and corrupt. As John Nichols and Robert McChesney document in Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America, the rapidly dwindling number of conglomerates that own network affiliates earn staggering windfall profits selling ads to political campaigns, as much as 35 percent of their revenue in election years. Senator Bill Bradley once described election campaigns as “collections agencies for broadcasters. You simply transfer money from contributors to television stations.” In 2012, for example, Fox’s Washington, D.C., affiliate added a half hour to its newscast—not to report more campaign news, but to accommodate more campaign advertising.

It’s worth noting, too, that local broadcast outlets receive their licenses to use the public airwaves (and to print money) from the Federal Communications Commission. If they fall too far afoul of the Trump administration, they may be putting their licenses at risk.

So the Skype seat is not exactly a formula for hard-hitting accountability journalism. It’s more likely a clever ruse to crowd it out.

To be fair, some of the local folks have given it the old college try. Kim Kalunian of WPRI in Providence, Rhode Island, and Courtis Fuller of WLWT in Cincinnati asked tough questions about what Trump’s promise to withhold federal funds from “sanctuary cities” will mean for their cities. John Huck, of what Spicer called “WKVVU,” asked how rolling back financial regulations would not expose Las Vegas homeowners once screwed by lending practices that led to the 2007 crash “to the risky behaviors that tanked our economy last time.” Joyce Kaufman of WFTL-West Palm Beach (home to Mar-a-Lago) zeroed in on Trump’s lax security at dinner there with the Japanese prime minister.

Love sours sometimes, Mr. Spicer. Nobody loves a lying sad clown.

And if the outlet is a station like WMUR of Manchester, New Hampshire, well, no worries there. Can you imagine what a license to blast campaign commercials day and night in election years is worth to its owner, the Hearst Corporation? “Hey, Sean, thanks for taking the question,” opened a friendly February 3 colloquy with WMUR’s Josh McElveen. “I know you’re looking forward to the Patriots coming down in a couple of months. . .”

And don’t expect Skype seaters from Sinclair Media regional outlets to challenge Spicer. The second largest owner of television stations in the United States, Sinclair’s consistent history of attempts to sabotage Democratic (and democratic) campaigns goes back at least to October 2004, when it was announced that all 62 Sinclair stations (it now owns 154) would preempt primetime programming to air Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s anti-John Kerry propaganda documentary Stolen Honor. The Democratic National Committee sued, and the show never ran. Sinclair’s CEO David Smith, in an article on how his company was tripling investor expectations in 2012, gushed, “the political business . . . is an ever-expanding business . . . I don’t see any evidence that it’s ever going to go away.”

Not, certainly, with Smith laundering influence directly through the president. As I wrote here in January, a fact not reported anywhere else, Smith’s yeoman work on behalf of the Trump campaign was rewarded with a guest of honor slot in the inaugural parade, which the network CEO used to promote a new Sinclair-financed cable station. Less than a month later, Trump called Scott Thuman, of Sinclair’s Washington, D.C., ABC affiliate by name for the first question in his press briefing with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. That was the one where Trump suspiciously did not entertain a single question regarding the resignation General Mike Flynn. (Jonathan Karl of ABC shouted one out. “He sure seemed to hear the question but did not answer,” he tweeted later.) Reported AdWeek’s “TVSpy” column, “It’s rare that a local TV news reporter would be called on during such an event. In fact, other White House reporters wanted to know if Thuman had been told he was going to be called on. He says he wasn’t, but that he was advised to attend.”

Next it was Kaitlan Collins, of the right-wing site the Daily Caller, who brought the heat: “What do you see as the most important national security matter facing us?” Kaitlan’s been another Spicer valentine, though possibly not for long. After the White House blocked the New York Times, CNN, and Politico from a press gaggle in Sean Spicer’s office, but allowed in Breitbart News, she publicly posted everything Spicer had said in the closed-door briefing.

Love sours sometimes, Mr. Spicer. Nobody loves a lying sad clown. When you’ve lost Kaitlan Collins, Mr. Spicer, what’s next: Breitbart News?

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s National Correspondent. 

Corrections: An earlier version of this story erroneously said “Spicer has never served in the military.” In fact, Spicer claims 17 years of experience as a public affairs officer in the Navy reserves.

This article also has been revised to remove an inaccurate description of legal charges brought in 2010 against James O’Keefe. In an earlier published version, a parenthetical phrase entered by the editor mischaracterized a crime to which O’Keefe pled guilty after he entered U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu’s office in January 2010. O’Keefe was not, as we reported, “convicted of breaking into a U.S. Senator’s office to gather news.” He, in fact, pled guilty to a misdemeanor.

As the Associated Press reported at the time of sentencing in May 2010:

“O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan were arrested on January 25, 2010, in the offices of Senator Mary Landrieu on felony charges, but federal prosecutors later reduced the charges.

“O’Keefe, 25, and the others pleaded guilty on Wednesday to misdemeanor charges of entering federal property under false pretenses…They were sentenced to probation, community service and fines. O’Keefe received the heaviest sentence, three years probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,500 fine.”

Trump’s Minister Of Propaganda And His ‘Occupy’ Film

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator.

Everyone has been asking me how Donald Trump can possibly thrive politically once his voters discover that what he said on the campaign trail was categorical bullshit. I respond by pointing out that people only know what they know, and what they know about Trump will be determined by a campaign of White House disinformation to rival Joseph Goebbels, abetted by a political media willing to serve uncomplainingly as its transmission belt. For instance, when the CIA reported its conclusion that the Russian government intervened to try to seal Trump’s victory, his transition team responded with a statement that said: “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history.” The Washington Post quoted it verbatim, like it was precipitation data from the National Weather Service—though in actual fact Trump’s Electoral College margin was in history’s bottom quartile.

Our media gatekeepers act like they’re unaware that our president has chosen as his chief strategist a fellow who’s made disinformation his political vocation, whom no less an authority than the late Andrew Breitbart once labeled the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party.” Though maybe I shouldn’t be so self-righteous. Until not too long ago, I’d forgotten that I’d seen Steve Bannon’s Triumph of the Will. Then I remembered, and watched it again—and my respect for anyone who’d take this White House on good faith plummeted below Dante’s ninth circle of Hell.

It happened this way. Covering the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, I decided to test my theory that at any Republican convention, the true face of the party is revealed outside camera range. After braving a security gauntlet far tighter than the conventions, I visited a gleaming white air-conditioned tent devoted to showing movies produced by Citizens United, the organization made famous by the 2010 Supreme Court decision that green-lighted the laundering of unlimited corporate funds to finance propaganda like I was about to witness: a film called Occupy Unmasked, written and directed by one Stephen K. Bannon.

The name meant nothing to me then. The experience, however, was indelible. I tried to record the soundtrack on my phone. An undercover security operative swooped down and made me erase it. That might have been for the best, I wrote at the time, because “the distinguishing feature of Occupy Unmasked’s soundtrack was an unceasing, loud, dull, dissonant . . . well, you couldn’t call it music. It was more like a deep rumble, the aural equivalent of a laxative to loosen one’s critical faculties.” Upon reflection, I couldn’t be sure that the similarity with the cinematic technique described by George Orwell in 1984 (about the Two Minutes Hate) was intended or accidental: “The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room.” What I do know is that if I knew then that the man responsible for this sickening Orwellian conflagration would 29 months later be running the White House, I might have considered doing what I never dreamed of during George W. Bush’s reign: getting my emigration papers in order. Which maybe we should all be doing right now.

The film begins silently, an innocuous epigraph filling the screen—

July 2011
Following the historic tea party victory in 2010
The nation is in a heated debate
On raising the debt ceiling.
President Obama’s approval rating
Sinks to an all-time low:
39%

—then comes a windshield’s eye view of a gorgeous California coastline. An unpromising overture for a political thriller.

Until—a car plunges over a cliff, followed by a frenzy of images: worried politicians, newsmen narrating the looming fiscal crisis, a bank machine sorting bills, blindfolded children boxing (and then Senator Barbara Boxer, her voice horrifically distorted); sheets of hundred dollar bills rolling off a printing press, then piling to the sky—the car arcs downward—a racing clock, hundred dollar bills behind a beeping EKG, a man on his hospital deathbed, a little girl batting a piñata, Where is the leadership of this White House to guide the country out of the debt mess we’re in? —Then piles more money and a cardiologist’s paddles on a heaving chest, a racing “debt clock” and credit cards, and a braying Chris Matthews and panic and panic and more panic. The American people are going to pay the price and the EKG flatlines and the car hits the rocks and bursts into flames and Anderson Cooper announces the downgrading of the nation’s credit.

Which resolves into an image of Barack Hussein Obama in the Oval Office to render plain the reason for the frenzy: “An organizer,” words begins spooling “must stir up dissatisfaction and discontent. . .”—and then the letters S-A-U-L and A-L-I-N-S-K-Y emerge, with the “A” in the villain’s last name filled in when the familiar red anarchist-A in a circle stamps itself onto the screen.

Andrew Breitbart appears, explaining, “The battle for the soul of America took an interesting turn in September of 2011, when out of the blue, according to the mainstream media, one finds a group called ‘Occupy’ occupying town squares, city halls, and Zuccotti Park. Who were these people?” [The screen shows a foul dreadlocked, doo-ragged white guy with an “Occupy” fist pinned to his coat.] “Are they just college students that matter-of-factly just show up in Zuccotti Park?” [A ragged tent city, pocked by garbage bags, from which a woman pulls out a shoe.]

“Are these just mom and pa, coming like they did at the Tea Parties?”

“No, no. No, no. This is the organized left.” [The camera lingers on a sign reading “Workers World Party.”] “The Occupy movement is the organized left.”

The plot that follows defies summation. We learn how in August and September, 2011, thanks to the Republicans, the nation was finally verging toward fiscal sanity until the Occupiers appeared just in time to sabotage the whole thing. We learn how the conspiracy was planned in a 2011 email chain that included an MSNBC personality and the political editor of Rolling Stone, where “kids learned how they could orchestrate a movement from scratch,” tutored to be “as amorphous as humanly possible,” the better to “draw in as many naïve people as humanly possible.” But also that it was orchestrated a year earlier “by the SEIU.”

But also that the conspiracy was planned in 2008, at the Republican National Convention.

And, yet more diabolically, in the ruins of New Orleans in 2005: “To most people Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster,” one of the film’s stars explains. “But to the far left, Hurricane Katrina was about the occupation of the Ninth Ward. It was the first time all of these different groups came together under one banner to work together. You had the eco-terrorism group under Scott Crow; the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts. . . . You had Code Pink; you had the Black Panther Party. . . . You had different movements from around the world coming in. They saw it as a means to work together, finally, for the revolution. . . because people were mad at the U.S. government.”

“And from that, those same people, those same dollars, those same funders, those same leaders—they started the Occupy Movement.”

The insults to linear logic only enhance the film’s effect: this is sense-rape, meant to disarm critical faculties. But if the storyline is, well, as amorphous as humanly possible, the characters are etched sharply. For that is what this game is all about.

There are bad guys, like a man in a bank in a suit. “He’s texting,” one of the story’s narrators explains footage of a scene where filthy marauders invade a Bank of America. “I say, ‘Do you work for the bank?’ And he says, ‘No, I work for the United Autoworkers.’ So the unions are choreographing things, and they’re obviously texting back and making sure it’s going right. But who ends up getting arrested are the students.”

The students: those useful idiots. A fellow holds a sign reading “THROW ME A BONE, PAY MY TUITION.” He’s asked by a Breitbartian why he believes himself to be exploited by elites. “We get taxed more than they do,” he answers. “That’s not true,” the interviewer comes back, matter of factly. The kids responds, incredulous: “That’s not true?”

The faceless, pillaging marauders—some in Guy Fawkes masks, the movie’s main visual motif, others wearing black hoodies, or bandanas over their faces, staving in windows, assaulting cops, dancing by the light of the flames.

The media, some of whom are Occupy puppet masters in disguise—like a writer named Natasha Lennard, who covered the movement freelance for The New York Times, then got radicalized and noisily quit the straight media, but whom under Steve Bannon’s directorial gaze is rendered both a walking, talking embodiment of the Gray Lady herself, sent out to pull the strings of the media’s useful-idiot contingent, like Bill Maher, shown enthusing “Everyone was extraordinarily well-behaved” over an image of a man shitting on a car.

President Obama, that most useful of idiots. (He delivers what the film calls his “Occupy State of the Union” in 2012, his voice distorted like a zombie: “No American company should be able to avoid paying its fair share of taxes. . . . Restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot.” You thought these words were innocent. You are so, so naïve.)

The good guys are the film’s narrators: former members in good standing of the left, who’ve seen the conspiracy from the inside and have emerged to tell the tale.

There is a young man named Lee Stranahan, identified as “Former Writer, Huffington Post, Daily Kos.” He explains, “I actually trace some of the roots of Occupy back to Saul Alinsky and the 1930s . . . his mentor was Frank Nitty, the enforcer of the Capone gang. . . What had happened was, Prohibition had ended, so the mob needed a new way of making money. So what they did was, they moved into—labor. They moved into the unions. So the BSEU was one of the unions they were involved with, and that became the SEIU.” [Cue picket sign: “HEALTHCARE WORKERS / WE’RE PART OF THE 99%”] “The thing that ties in the anarchist movement, and the Obama administration, are the unions.”

A woman named Pam Key, who has been to hell and back: “I was there with them, getting fed some poached salmon, when I was with some anarchists doing ’shrooms discussing whether they were going to assassinate people and when that might happen.” She explains that “They are holding back violence until it is going to work at its maximum capacity,” and that—onscreen, Oakland occupiers take over a vacant warehouse: coming soon to a suburb near you—“that’s the next step, to occupy properties, and homes.”

Brandon Darby, who infiltrated the 2008 RNC protests for the FBI: “. . . the same old far left players who are part of what happened in New Orleans, the same old far-left players who are part of what happened in Seattle . . . arson . . . terroristic acts . .  . Gaza flotillas . . . the convergence of all these disparate groups, let’s attack the United States strength through environmental policies, let’s attack the United States law enforcement, let’s attack the criminal justice system—everything came together for Occupy.”

Anita MonCrief, an African American woman who used to work for ACORN, explains why this list does not, yet, include any black people: “Because they’re being readied for part two. And that is race warfare.”

Now you, my dear fellow member of the Reality Based Community, remember what Occupy actually was: a lightning strike, a miracle, and a tragedy—the kind of uprising the left had been dreaming about for years after the banking system crashed itself then got the government to rescue it (that was why Bannon was able to collect so much footage of left-wing leaders saying Occupy-like things before the event); but which soon spent its promise by fetishizing the absence of organization and the controlling of public space as a perverse end in itself. Which was what allowed some of the encampments to become crime-riddled shit piles, a process hastened, in New York’s Zuccotti Park, when police began directing homeless people to camp there.

Ah, but that’s what they wanted you to believe. Here’s David Horowitz, the New Left leader turned right-winger. The left, he explains, “wants to create chaos. Because out of chaos, they can get power.”

Thus does the film palpitate toward its frenetic conclusion: Epileptic cross-cuts between the chaos of the late-stage Occupy marches and encampments and the violence in cities like Oakland, alternating with images of Stalin, Che, Fidel, and Mao; riots in, perhaps, South America; and the Black Panthers braying that it is “time to pick up the gun,” followed by a screaming 1960s SDSer: “We gotta build a strong base, and some day we’re gonna knock those motherfuckers who control this thing right on their ass.”

Then comes Horowitz again to explain how it is all going exactly according to plan. “The left learned one thing from the 1960s—from its failures in the ‘60s. And that is: don’t telegraph your goals. Don’t tell people that you want to overthrow the government, that you have been working to overthrow American civilization for 40 years. You pretend to be interested in issues. . . . Your goal has always been the same: to destroy a society that you’re alienated from, that you basically hate.”

The film ends with the testimony of a small businessman, “barely making ends meet,” who had the bad luck to get in the revolution’s way. You’re next.

To read it on the page in front of you, it can only seem perfectly ridiculous. You have to fill in the violent chaos of images in a way that—well, as Orwell did when he described the televised “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984.

The Hate rose to its climax. The voice of Goldstein had become an actual sheep’s bleat, and for an instant the face changed into that of a sheep. Then the sheep-face melted into the figure of a Eurasian soldier. Who seems to be advancing, huge and terrible, his submachine gun roaring, and seeming to spring out of the surface of the screen …

That movie ended with the words:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

This one ended with Andrew Breitbart crying with heroic earnestness to the riffraff all around him, “Stop the raping! Stop the raping!”

Andrew Breitbart is dead now: long live Andrew Breitbart. Donald Trump is Lord, and Steve Bannon is his prophet—with the U.S. Treasury at his disposal to tell fairy tales like this about anyone who dares cross him.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

IMAGE: White House Senior Advisor Kellyanne Conway smiles with chief strategist Steve Bannon in the Oval Office.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Meet The Press: The Hustlers, Hucksters, And Hacks Who Helped Elect Trump

Reprinted with permission from the Washington Spector. 

I was curious, so I did a bit of research on theories about why great civilizations fall. Some scholars point to the danger of overextended militaries, others on overwhelmed bureaucracies. Sometimes the key factor is declines in public health, often caused by agricultural crises. Political corruption is another contender, as are inflated currencies, technological inferiority, court intrigue, rivals taking control of key transportation routes, or an over reliance on slave labor. Others point to changes in climate, geographic advantages won and lost, or the ever-popular invasion by barbarian hordes.

None I could find, however, mentioned what may become future historians’ most convincing explanation for America’s fall, should Donald Trump end up her author and finisher: bad journalism.

America’s media establishment endlessly repeated Republican claims that Hillary Clinton was a threat to the security and good order of the republic, because she stored official emails on her own server, and erased about 33,000 of them she said were private. The New York Times ran three front-page stories about FBI director James Comey’s surprise review of another set of emails found on the computer of Anthony Weiner’s wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin. This second review, however, like the first, ended up showing no wrongdoing.

The elite gatekeepers of our public discourse never bothered with context: that every Secretary of State since the invention of the internet had done the same thing, because the State Department’s computer systems have always been awful; that at the end of the administration of the nation’s 41st president a corrupt national archivist appointed by Ronald Reagan upon the recommendation of Dick Cheney signed a secret document giving George H.W. Bush personal, physical custody of the White House’s email backup tapes so they would never enter the public record. (A federal judge voided the document as “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to law.”) The White House of his son George W. Bush erased 22 million of its official emails, including those under subpoena from Congress. Newspapers archived by the Lexis-Nexis database mentioned Hillary R. Clinton’s 33,000 erased private emails 785 times in 2016. I found six references to George W. Bush’s 22 million erased public ones: four in letters to the editor, one in a London Independent op-ed, another in a guide to the U.S. election for Australians, and one a quotation from a citizen in the Springfield (Ohio)News-Sun.

And now we have Donald Trump, elected in part because of his alleged tender concern for the secure handling of intelligence, making calls to world leaders from Trump Tower’s unsecured telephones.

Trump boogied his way to Pennsylvania Avenue to the tune of the extraordinary finding by a Washington Post-ABC News poll that “corruption in government” was listed by 17 percent of voters as the most important issue in the presidential election, second only to the economy, and ahead of terrorism and health care—and that voters trusted Trump over Clinton to be better on the issue by a margin of 48 to 39 percent, her worst deficit on any issue. This is the part of my article where rhetorical conventions demand I provide a thumbnail sketch of all the reasons why it’s factually absurd that anyone would believe that Donald Trump is less corrupt than Hillary Clinton. I have better things to do with my time than belabor the obvious.

Yet somehow, the great mass of Americans believed Clinton was the crook. Might it have something to do with the myriad articles like, say, “Smoke Surrounds the Clinton Foundation,” by The Los Angeles Times’s top pundit Doyle McManus? This piece, all too typically, despite endeavoring to debunkTrump claims of Clinton corruption, repeated charges like “Doug Band, who helped create the Clinton Global Initiative, sought access to State Department officials for Clinton Foundation donors”—even though donors did not get that access). And that donors harbored the “assumption” that they would “move to the head of the line”—even though they never did.

And what were pundits like McManus smoking? The vapors from a cunning long-term disinformation campaign run by the man Donald Trump appointed as his chief White House political strategist. Steve Bannon chartered a nonprofit “Government Accountability Institute,” whose president, Peter Schweizer, hacked out an insinuation-laden tome, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, then offered its “findings” on an exclusive pre-publication basis to the Times, which shamefully accepted the deal—with, predictably, the public’s perceptions of Clinton’s trustworthiness cratering in tandem with our national Newspaper of Record’s serial laundering of Steve Bannon’s filth.

Now we have a president-elect who boasts of his immunity from prosecution for leveraging his office for personal gain (“The President can’t have a conflict of interest”). This after having telegraphed, in 2000, his intent to use a presidential run to “make money on it,” for all America’s journalists to see—and ignore. At the Republican convention, Michael Mukasey, the former United States attorney general under George W. Bush, drew appreciative applause for the line that Hillary Clinton would be the “first president in history to take the oath of office after violating it.” No reporter I’m aware of had the initiative to track down Mr. Mukasey to follow up: what do you make of accusations that Donald Trump is laying the groundwork for a day-one violation of Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution (the “Emoluments Clause”), which proscribes any elected official of the United States government from accepting any present, emolument, title, etc. from any foreign state or foreign leader? Trump has already done so several timesthat we are aware of. These include reports that the government of Georgia has since the election green-lighted a new Trump property there, a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which Trump promoted his Turkish business partners, and all the foreign dignitaries renting rooms at Trump’s new hotel in Washington at $850 a night.

It was a steely Fox News correspondent who earned a reputation as Donald Trump’s most fearless media adversary: “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” Megyn Kelly said to him in an August 2015 debate. “Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president . . . ? Camp Trump savaged her in response, but she continued, apparently undaunted—so much so that by January, Bill Maher said she was doing such a good job keeping Trump on his toes that she should be one of the Republican candidates. In October, she brought Newt Gingrich to the verge of apoplexy by pointing out that Donald Trump was by his own admission a sexual predator. “You’re fascinated with sex and you don’t care about public policy,” Gingrich shrieked in return. Kelly, with astonishing sangfroid, responded that she was in fact “fascinated by the protection of women, and understanding what we’re getting in the Oval Office,” and coolly suggested Gingrich should work on his “anger issues.”

And there, finally, it was: hiding in plain sight, a media superstar who actually understood her vocation. That the job of the Fourth Estate in the run-up to an election is to inform the citizenry about what they need to know about the choices before them, without fear or favor, even at risk of their own careers. Which appeared a serious risk indeed, given that this brave truth-teller was an employee of the Trump-fluffing Fox News.

Except, no. Next came what to my mind was the most bone-chilling revelations of the entire campaign season: that Kelly’s personal safety had grown so precarious that a Fox news executive had to caution Donald Trump’s personal lawyer about emitting further who-will-rid-me-of-this-meddlesome-priest–style messages—before the Fox anchor got capped by some fevered Trump fanatic. (“Let me put it to you in terms you can understand: If Megyn Kelly gets killed, it’s not going to help your candidate.”) Kelly also reported that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski “specifically threatened me if I showed up at the second debate hosted by Fox News.” She also pointed out that Trump’s social-media manager had tweeted, “Watch what happens to her after this election is over.” Problem being, Kelly revealed all this after the election was over. In coordination with the PR campaign for her brand new book. Until those interests aligned, apparently, America did not need to know that the minions of one of the candidates for president were flirting with loosing vigilante assassins upon a journalist.

For the likes of Megyn Kelly, it’s just a business opportunity. Same with CBS chairman Les Moonves, who observed, back in February: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Or, yet worse, a game. Moonves again: “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

For CNN, Trumpland’s been an entire off-the-shelf business model. Their president, Jeff Zucker, was the executive who green-lighted “The Apprentice” while head of NBC Entertainment. He’s a cocktail-party pal with Donald, and has been accused by Huffington Post and BuzzFeed founder Ken Lerer, who knows the media business inside and out, of turning the Trump campaign into the very backbone of their 2016 brand as “a strategy, a programming strategy.”

It’s certainly not, for the Cable News Network, a news story in any recognizable sense, which would imply some sort of responsibility to inform. How could CNN possibly do that after hiring Corey Lewandowski to comment upon a man, Donald Trump, whose emoluments he still received, and who was under a binding legal agreement never to inform the public of anything disparaging about him?

So where are we now? At the razor’s edge. The Trump transition has put in stark relief the very foundations of the profession of journalism in modern America—whose fundamental canon is that there are two legitimate sides to every story, occasionally more, but never less. In a political campaign, they are structured on an iron axis. The Democratic side. The Republican side. Any critical attempt to weigh the utterances of one as more dangerous than the other is, by definition, the worst conceivable professional sin.

Then, the picture that results is presumed to map social reality on a one-to-one basis.

Thus, the crisis. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” as Upton Sinclair once observed. But by now, the conventional operation has been yielding distortions so palpable that even some mainstream professional journalists and editors are starting to understand it.

But sometimes, they have not.

It’s been a 50-50 sort of thing—and this is the hinge moment I suspect historians will bore down upon with particular intensity some decades hence.

They will study, from the evening of November 17 on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a searingly courageous and astringent interview with white supremacist Richard Spencer, no punches pulled. He wanted to talk about how school kids naturally sort themselves into races in the cafeteria, and how New Yorkers eye each other warily on the subway: nothing more. Then, for any listener who might find temptation to locate this within the warm bounds of civic reason, reporter Kelly McEvers very effectively and patiently relocated him to the chilliest corners of a civic Antarctica. The edit of the interview led with him pronouncing, “What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a space effectively for Europeans.” Her probing then revealed his affection for the swastika—“an ancient symbol”—and his approval of “people who want to get in touch with their identity as a European”—just not via “physical threats or anything like that.”

This was journalism. This told the truth.

Then came NPR’s “Morning Edition” on November 18—where Steve Inskeep interviewed reporter Scott Horsley on three major Trump appointments, Jeff Sessions for attorney general, and Mike Pompeo for head of the CIA, and Michael Flynn as national security advisor, a series of lies of omission.

Inskeep blandly introduced them as “Trump loyalists,” who “mirror some of the positions that the president-elect himself took during the campaign.” Flynn sharing Trump’s “concerns about radical Islam,” Sessions “a real hard-liner when it comes to illegal immigration.” Flynn—“a Democrat”—“took some flak for taking payments from Russian state television,” and believes “we must be able to deal with Russia.” But, we were reassured, “still describes Russia as a grave threat.” Pompeo, Inskeep observed, “is going to be wading into quite a challenge,” because “Trump has said that he wants the United States to get back into the torture business.”

But Senator Mark Warner was brought in to reassure us: “Hopefully, that hypothetical will—we won’t have to address.” Added Horsley, “the CIA director is a post that is subject to Senate confirmation, as is the attorney general’s post.”

The National Security Advisor, however, is not.

NPR’s producers brought in a former colleague of General Flynn’s, named Sarah Chase.

Inskeep: “How closely did you work with General Flynn?”

Chase: “We shared an office. Our desks faced each other.”

“Well, what is he like as an office mate?”

“Fun, for starters . . .”

You see, she explained, he reminded her of the character in “Peanuts,” Pig Pen.

Inskeep almost giggled: “O.K., the kid who was a little dirty, O.K. So you’re saying that things were a little chaotic around General Flynn. But you found this guy to be extraordinarily enthusiastic . . . .”

They kibbitzed like that for a little while longer. Inskeep seemed pleased to learn she had never heard anything prejudiced from him. He asked how she felt when she heard about his selection. She answered, “My heart sank.”

Inskeep sounded surprised: “Really? Why?”

“Everything I just said”—meaning, she hadn’t been joking. Inskeep had plainly thought it all was a jape. She put it bluntly: “The NSA is an institution that, first of all, has to keep the trains running. That’s the first job of the National Security Advisor—is to make the National Security Advisor run.”

Inskeep, impatiently: “O.K.”

Chase, starkly: “Flynn can’t make anything run.”

Which, considering that she was saying he was objectively unsuited for the job he was to fill—the NSA’s job is to organize, and Flynn is staggeringly disorganized—sounded like something they could have dwelt upon at greater length than what “Peanuts” character he most resembled. But no: “O.K., Sarah, got to stop you there because of the clock.”

Hard break. The show was over. No time to squeeze a word in about Flynn leading the cheers to “Lock Her Up” at the Republican convention, concerning Hillary Clinton’s dodgy email server, though Flynn himself routinely broke security rules he considered “stupid,” including having a forbidden internet connection installed in his Pentagon offices. Nor what security reporter Dana Priest described as his reposts of “the vitriol of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim commentators.” And in another instance a tweet concerning Clintonite “Sex Crimes w/Children, etc.” Nothing mentioned about the book Flynn co-authored with conspiracy theorist Michael Ledeen, which spread the insane far-right conviction that Islam is not a religion but a conspiracy aimed at destroying Judeo-Christian civilization. (Priest: “I’ve asked Flynn directly about this claim; he has told me that he doesn’t have proof—it’s just something he feels as true.”) Nor his business ties to Turkey, on whose behalf, without disclosure, he has written op-eds advising extradition of an enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime. Nor that he not merely “appeared” on Russia’s state-sponsored English-language station RT but was a paid speaker at their anniversary gala in Moscow. Nor that he has stated, “I’ve been at war with Islam”—he corrected himself, for political correctness’s sake: “or a component of Islam”—“for the last decade.”

He’s General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. Yet listening to NPR, you’d think he was a disheveled version of Lawrence Eagleburger.

Media on the razor’s edge between truth and acquiescence. Consider two more case studies: The Washington Post and Time magazine.

The Washington Post: it had some great investigations on Trump, for instance the stunning, meticulous reporting of David Fahrenthold demonstrating how the Trump Foundation operates as an elaborate self-enriching scam. The editors loved it. But when columnist Richard Cohen reported that Trump said to someone Cohen knew, about then-13-year-old Ivanka, “Is it wrong to be more sexually attracted to your own daughter than your wife?”, the words, which appeared in an advance draft circulated for publication, were excised in the published version.

It’s almost like they keep score in editorial offices. Only a certain number of horrifying—which is to say, truthful—things can be allowed in a major publication about our president-elect every day, which then must be balanced by something reassuring. Which is to say, something not true. Like the headline the Post circulated for its daily promotional email on November 24: “Trump Looks to Diversify His Cabinet With Latest Picks.” Which, remarkably, was precisely the same angle The New York Times played: “Trump Diversifies Cabinet.” Both were referring to the same individuals, Nikki Haley, and Betsy DeVos. You’d think the lead about Trump’s appointment of Haley would instead be the extraordinary irresponsibility of picking someone without a day’s foreign policy experience in her life as America’s ambassador to the United Nations. Or, concerning Education Secretary-designate DeVos, the fact that she married into a family that built an empire on industrial-scale fraud (the family business, Amway, paid $150 million in 2011 to settle one class action suit), that the company founded by her brother Erik Prince was responsible for the most lawless American massacre of the Iraq war (and then, when contracting with a country with a functioning rule of law got to be too much, turned to building a mercenary air force for rent to Third World nations, in cahoots with China’s largest state-owned investment firm).

Or, you know, that she has no education experience, except if you count writing checks to advocate its privatization.

Time magazine: they just ran a very illuminating piece by historian David Kaiser exposing Steve Bannon’s alarming interpretation of a theory advanced by amateur historians Neil Howe and William Strauss in books like The Fourth Turning: An American Prophesy, that every 80 years or so the United States endures a nation-transforming crisis: “More than once during our interview,” Kaiser wrote of an earlier interview with Bannon, where “he pointed out that each of the three preceding crises had involved a great war, and those conflicts had increased in scope from the American Revolution through the Civil War to the Second World War. He expected a new and even bigger war as part of the current crisis, and he did not seem at all fazed by the prospect.”

That the president elect’s closest adviser both welcomes apocalyptic conflagrations, and will soon be well-positioned to bring one about, is the kind of news you’d think a more responsible national press would be pursuing. I haven’t seen much mention of the fact, beyond my Bolshevik friends on Facebook, however. From the warm and fuzzy confines of Time’s editorial offices, however, I received the following reassuring missive by way of balance:

“5 Potential Quick Victories for President Donald Trump: Few have high expectations for the President-elect’s foreign policy. But he could make some big improvements.”

Click the link. Print it out. Seal between two six-inch thick plates of Lexan glass and bury it 50 feet deep in a lead-lined bunker. Future archaeologists are going to need it. It will help them explain how a once-great civilization fell.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

From Nixon To Trump: Democracy and Indecency

This January marks my 20th anniversary writing about the American right wing as a historian and a journalist. Wearing my historian’s hat, I’ve documented lunatic John Birch Society members convinced that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”; underground militias stockpiling guns against imminent Communist invasion, threatening death to congressmen who dared abet the evil socialist agenda; drunken louts in a Queens, New York, bar describing Richard Nixon’s impeachment as a liberal coup, opining, “If I was Nixon, that’s what I’d do—I’d shoot every one of them.” I stroked my chin, and explained how such maniacal, anti-democratic, and violently anarchic rage had always been part of the story, though really only at the margins of the American conservative movement.

At the same time, as a citizen and as a journalist, I documented that margin encroaching on the center, until, with Donald Trump’s apotheosis, it seems now to have consumed the entire damned thing.

Let’s look at the score.

1994 was the year I started obsessing myself with conservatism. When I heard that G. Gordon Liddy had advised his radio listeners that when they fired upon agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests,” I actually wasn’t surprised. I’d been listening to a lot of right-wing talk radio, where the notion that the federal government was a tyrannical occupying army had become a commonplace. Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries took over Congress that year, trained by a memo called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” to dehumanize their Democratic opponents by using words like “sick,” “pathetic,” and “decay” in reference to them. Two weeks later, gracious in victory, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina—nicely enough on November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s assassination—said President Bill Clinton “better have a bodyguard” if he visited Helms’s state.

Clinton didn’t need more bodyguards. He needed better lawyers—to keep him from impeachment on the heels of his persecution by a power-mad, right-wing special prosecutor, and a Republican Congress determined to fight their 1996 loss of the presidency by any means necessary.

Having tried and failed to turn oral sex into the pretext for a Constitutional coup, they attempted another bite of the apple after the 2000 census. The following year, Republicans in control of state legislatures redrew legislative boundaries with unprecedentedly partisan bad faith—and then, after this increasingly Grotesque Old Party took over the State House in Texas, Rep. Tom DeLay violated a century-old norm to redraw Texas’s Congressional districts without waiting for the next census, in a manner so vicious, a staffer boasted in a 2003 email, it “should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.”

Came the tragedy of September 11, 2001, which the un-popularly elected president appointed by a right-wing Supreme Court envisioned as an opportunity. Vice President Cheney, as a congressman, had authored a Republican “minority report” to the 1987 Congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. It asserted: “To the extent that the Constitution and the laws are read narrowly, as Jefferson wished, the Chief Executive will on occasion feel duty bound to assert monarchical notions of prerogative that will permit him to exceed the law.” Now, licking his lips, he advised the Chief Executive to do exactly that—illegally creating military commissions housed solely within the executive branch, inventing the category “enemy combatant” to evade the entirety of Article III of the Constitution, authorizing warrantless surveillance, inventing out of whole cloth a causus belli in Iraq, and authorizing a torture regime that the Justice Department’s John Yoo affirmed would encompass the crushing of an infant’s testicles, if the president so desired.

Honoring election results became optional, especially if they threatened to traduce white privilege. My first big reported journalistic piece was on the campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis of California in 2003. In the Golden State I discovered voters terrified to the point of palpitations by Davis’s proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses: for safety reasons. That fact notwithstanding, a talk radio host (once described by a cynical GOP operative I interviewed as one of his “precinct captains”) explained to listeners that the purpose of the driver’s license was to allow immigrants to vote, in order to turn California into “the northernmost province of Mexico.” Largely, upon that lie, an election won by Davis (in which the Republican finisher won only 42.4 percent of the vote) was overturned; and Republican brazenness vaulted to the skies.

In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina, which the conservative movement literally heralded as a “golden opportunity” to overturn as much of the liberal state as they could manage under the cover of storm-induced darkness. “Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked: a real sense of crisis that places his political opponents in an awkward position,” Tod Linberg, editor of the right-wing flagship “intellectual” journal Policy Review, rejoiced in the Washington Times. “He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrote that Katrina “has introduced a valuable forum to promote the triumph of our ideas and solutions for government over the crumbling and outdated policies of the Democrat-controlled Congresses of past decades.” Jack Kemp spied opportunity to suspend “onerous regulations imposed by the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese coauthored a Heritage Foundation report subtitled “Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities.” The principled solutions included “Waive or repeal Clean Air Act (CAA) regulations that hamper refinery rebuilding and expansion,” and “immediately exempt Katrina victims from paying death taxes”—democracy be damned.

Democracy and decency. In the spring of 2007, I reported on a spate of right-wing terrorism and attempts at terrorism, including accounts of a Liberty University student preparing napalm-bomb attacks on protesters at Rev. Jerry Falwell’s funeral, a deadly shooting spree by white supremacists at an Idaho courthouse, and an unexploded bomb left at an abortion clinic in Austin. A simultaneous raid by 150 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers in four counties that yielded 130 grenades and a rocket launcher belonging to the Alabama Free Militia. This convergence was ignored by the media.

For me, 2007 was the watershed, not 2009: that was when I began stating as a matter of fact that millions of Americans now considered a government controlled by Democrats de facto illegitimate. How illegitimate? In March I got a fundraising letter from the National Conservative Campaign Fund signed by the estimable Mr. Meese referring to the two contenders for the Democratic nomination as a potential “‘President’ Obama” and “‘President’ Hillary Rodham Clinton”—“president” in quotation marks, designating them as illegitimate before either of them would win the election. In September, I cited a 327-post thread on FreeRepublic.com “Preparing for the ‘Big What If,’” What sort of weapons to stock in the event of “the breakdown in social order such as happened with the Rodney King riots,” if Barack Obama were to lose. That prediction was subsequently endorsed by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who can now be seen on television casting himself as the right’s preeminent #nevertrump voice of reason.

Obama won; and on November 25 I totted up Facebook groups dedicated to impeaching not-yet-President Obama. I lost count before I got to a hundred.

What happened next should be fresh still in most readers’ minds: a South Carolina congressman shouted “You Lie” during Obama’s September 9, 2009 joint speech to Congress; members of Congress were shouted down by “death panel” fantasists at the healthcare town halls of 2010; and Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012 on what the overly decorous New York Times called “a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites.” Then came a tsunami of electoral-democracy-repressing statutes passed by Republican state legislatures following the Republican Supreme Court’s overturning of key tenets of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Now Trump. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.

So what happens next, after January 20?

I was asked this in an interview the day after the election on the British network Sky News. Having cemented myself to my bed three hours after my morning alarm rang, then consuming my customary two daily cigarettes over the next 15 minutes, chased with a generous gulp of rum, I was finally jolted out of my lethargic depression to conceive of an answer. Donald Trump had made scores of promises he could not possibly fulfill. The second biggest was an economic miracle: the dormant Main Streets of Middle America humming with dynamism in the blink of the eye. The biggest, only made implicitly, was the same one fascist strongmen always offer: transcendent national renewal, built upon the cleansing of dangerous untermenschen from the body politic. Then there were the more minor miracles: bringing back the coal industry. Building the wall (Mexico will pay for it). Etc., etc.

None of these things, however, are possible.

So what happens next? His worshipful admirers cannot blame Trump for the stymying of this agenda: Trump is a god. It must be the people he told them to blame who are actually responsible. The lying media. The quisling Democrats. The sellout Republican establishment. Mexicans, of course. The more Trumpism fails, the more, and more violently, scapegoats will be blamed. And only some kind of stalwart resistance will stand between America and fascism.

I got ready to say this. Made my way two sentences in. Then heard, “I’m sorry, Mr. Perlstein, our time is up.”

Maybe it was Hillary Clinton’s fault: her concession speech came at the interview’s scheduled time. Maybe they didn’t like the direction I was heading; Sky News, after all, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, same as Fox. Or maybe I’m just being conspiratorial: Trump may soon be doing that to all of us. The margin has become the center. Paranoia strikes deep.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent and author of bestsellers including Before The Storm:Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001) and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

The Unmaking Of The Presidential Debate

Published with permission from the Washington Spectator.

A friend of mine, the ace political journalist Tom Zoellner, writes of last week’s vice-presidential debate, “So Pence lies like a bad carpet and he’s proclaimed ‘the winner’ because he said it in a smooth way and avoided important questions?” Which, as we bate our breath for Sunday’s “town hall” tilt between Clinton and Trump, raises a puzzle wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma: how did an institution meant to elevate presidential campaigns end up making them even stupider than before?

The history of the modern presidential debate goes back to 1948, when New York Governor Thomas Dewey and Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen, contending for the Republican nomination, faced off in a radio studio over the question, “Shall the Communist Party be outlawed?” Stassen argued the affirmative, while Red-baiting Dewey about the number of Communists in New York. Dewey came back with the memorable line, “You can’t shoot an idea with a gun.”

Dewey’s anti-demagogic response—and the fact that Dewey won the nomination—suggested a promising precedent. Adlai Stevenson had been thoroughly dismayed with his experience running for president in 1952, especially by his opponent General Eisenhower’s television commercials, which Stevenson’s advisers hoped he would make, too. “The presidency is not a box of cornflakes,” high-minded Adlai responded. (His governor’s mansion in Springfield only had one TV, which was usually on the blink; when he wanted to catch a ball game he went to a friend’s house). Running again in 1956, he found himself disgusted by the specter of electioneering via “the jingle, the spot announcement, and the animated cartoon”—not to mention the endless recitation of the same ghost-written speech, which made no sense to him in the era of coast-to-coast network TV. He wanted to propose a series of televised joint discussions. His advisers talked him out of it, lest Adlai come off in debate against genial old Ike like the pompous egghead elitist of popular legend. (An apocryphal story has it that a woman yelled out to him at a campaign rally, “Governor Stevenson, you have the vote of every thinking American!” He answered, frowning, “Yes, but I need a majority.”)

The egghead returned to the idea in a magazine article in 1959: why not “transform our circus-atmosphere of presidential campaigning into a great debate conducted in full view of all the people?” Why not “a discussion on the great issues of our time with the whole country watching”?

“And we can decide them not after canned rhetoric and TV spectaculars but only after intelligent discussion which the candidate and the networks can provide.”

Intelligent discussion: why not indeed? First, because the TV networks had no interest in providing it. Newton Minow, Adlai Stevenson’s law partner, who went on to become the chairman of President Kennedy’s Federal Communications Commission, tells the story in his coauthored 2008 book Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future. He recounts that the networks didn’t want to give away the air time.

At hearings held by Senator John Pastore’s Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Governor Stevenson implored, “The television stations are licenses of the public, they enjoy monopolies, granted by the public of great value, they already have an obligation to provide public service programs, to broadcast in the public interest.” To argue against the idea, the networks wheeled out 84-year-old Herbert Hoover—who as Calvin Coolidge’s Secretary of Commerce had helped write the 1927 Radio Act—to argue that compelling free air time was “government censorship of free speech.” Broadcasting magazine said it violated the Fifth Amendment (“. . . nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”). And a witness from the National Association of Broadcasters called it “favoritism by the federal government in providing free platforms as between candidates of major and minor parties.”

They had a point, one that federal law already recognized. Section 315 of the 1934 Federal Communications Act mandated, out of simple fairness, that “if any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall provide equal opportunities for all other such candidates for that office.” Which presented a sticky problem for Pastore’s subcommittee if they wanted to pave the way for a televised presidential debate in 1960: upwards of a hundred candidates ran for president every four years. What to do about a fellow like Lar Daly, the Chicago eccentric who campaigned in an Uncle Sam suit? Talk about a “circus atmosphere”!

Of course, they did manage to overcome it. Here’s how: Congress voted a temporary suspension of Section 315 for the 1960 presidential election. What happened next, of course, made history: the “Great Debates” between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, celebrated forevermore as a high-water mark in the history of American electioneering. InThe Making of the President 1960 Theodore White called it a “revolution . . . born of the ceaseless American genius in technology,” a “simultaneous gathering of all the tribes of America to ponder their choice between two chieftains in the largest political convocation in the history of man.”Huzzah!

So if 1960 was so great, why didn’t it happen again until 1976? Because of Lyndon Johnson, that old son of a gun. He had no interest in elevating the stature of that buffoon Barry Goldwater by appearing with him side by side on stage. It was hardly an afternoon’s work for him to lean on Pastore’s subcommittee to smother any possible cancellation of Section 315 for 1964 in its cradle. It provided a precedent: incumbent Richard Nixon and semi-incumbent Hubert Humphrey, in 1972 and 1968, had no trouble working the same trick, public interest be damned.

Minow and his coauthor Craig L. LaMay narrate the next chapter of the saga with relish. Keen legal minds figured out a loophole: if a third party staged the debates, not the networks or the campaigns themselves, the networks could cover them—could not but cover them—under a 1959 decision that suspended the equal-time mandate when it came to coverage of “bona fide news events,” which the first face-to-face presidential debate would indubitably be.

The League of Women Voters stepped up as the third party. They drafted Newt Minow to co-chair the proceedings. He rang up another former FCC chair, Dean Burch, then working for the Ford campaign, to ask if they were willing. They were. Yes, Ford was the incumbent; but following the Democratic convention, Jimmy Carter was way, way ahead. “Newt,” Burch explained, “when you’re 32 points behind, what else are you going to do?”

And then, remarkably, Carter’s ensign responded to the same invitation: “We know we are 32 points ahead in the polls, but Jimmy doesn’t think the country knows him.”

The debate was on. But for that miraculous concord, who knows whether there ever would have been another one again.

I wrote about what happened next in my last piece here at the Spectator: the goofy technical glitch that saw both candidates standing stock still for 27 minutes, live on the air. Why that happened helps explain why presidential debates became less than great. The conventional wisdom was that you couldn’t win a debate, only lose one, so the best tactic is to prepare within an inch of your life and risk nothing. The results are hilariously recounted in a wild and unjustifiably obscure campaign chronicle by a charismatic old D.C. fixture named Victor Gold, who is still with us. Considerable effort was expended in the Carter camp on how Carter should address his adversary. (“Mr. Ford,” they decided: neither too deferential nor too disrespectful.) Mr. Ford practiced for a week in an exact mockup of the set, with—an innovation to be repeated—figures like Alan Greenspan and Brent Scowcroft standing in behind Carter’s podium in practice sessions, recorded it with the cameras set at the show’s precise angles so Ford’s TV adviser could better instruct the Leader of the Free World precisely which postures—literal postures—it would be best to assume.

Then, as the real-life stand-ins were not sufficient, the debate-prep team devised the following loopy workaround: a TV set was perched on what would be Carter’s lectern, which played Carter’s answers on shows like Meet the Press,which Ford would respond back to in turn.

Carter endured a painstaking regimen of his own. Between the first and second debates he was apparently conditioned to look at the camera more and smile. Four communications researchers at the State University of New York in Buffalo, The New York Times reported, “attempted to quantify what they described as an ‘analysis of 4,458 specific nonverbal behaviors and 628 verbal references’ in the first and second debates. After 500 hours of work on the subject, they have now reported that Mr. Carter looked at the camera 85 percent of the time in the second debate compared to only 26 percent in the first,” and amped his smileage totals to “95 slight smiles in the second debate and 14 broad ones.” This compared to 42 and four respectively for the guy who kept charge of the nuclear codes. This was plainly not the political revolution Teddy White had in mind.

What the TV debates have given us instead is a revolution in impression management. By 2004, a 22-page memo of understanding between the John Kerry and George W. Bush campaign stipulated what names the candidate would address each other by, what they and the moderators were or were not allowed to say (“. . . In each instance where a candidate exceeds the permitted time for comment, the moderators shall interrupt and remind both the candidate and the audience of the expiration of the time limit and call upon such candidate to observe the strict time limits which have been agreed upon herein by stating, ‘I’m sorry . . . [Senator Kerry or President Bush as the case may be]. . . your time is up’ . . .”). And also, for the vice-presidential debate, that the “Commission shall construct the table according to the style and specifications proposed by the Commission.”

Another precedent was introduced in these 1976 proceedings. Ford, supposedly, made a doozy of a blunder when he said “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe . . .” The subject, actually, was complicated (you’ll have to wait for my next book for the details about why, or can read about it here or here). Basically Ford was restating settled U.S. foreign policy. He was also, with daring nuance, saying precisely the sort of thing these debates were supposed to be introducing into presidential electioneering. Early soundings showed that viewers thought their president had done just fine. The media, however, seized upon the out-of-context and nuanced quote, insisting it proved Ford was a feckless buffoon, convincing voters to believe them and not their lying minds.

Thus did the revolution of Teddy White’s dreams also become a revolution in nit-picking impression-control by the media, an obsessive patrolling for “gaffes” that guaranteed the debates would become progressively less open and less edifying.

Gaffes, and “zingers” were Ronald Reagan’s unique contribution to the devolution of the presidential debate. A Carter speechwriter once told me that the White House was absolutely confident that if they could only get the boss onstage with the doddering old actor then Carter’s superior intelligence and technical mastery would be obvious, and he would run away with the election. Not only did they misjudge their opponent, they misjudged the medium, which by then seemed almost purpose-built to favor the candidate who was better with the snappy quip.

In 1980 it was “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Not a bad question, and a fair one. In 1984, however, Reagan hit a grand slam off 62-year-old Walter Mondale, when asked by the moderator whether he had any doubt that he could go with very little sleep for days on end, as John F. Kennedy did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Reagan responded: “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt. And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

That put to bed the issue that Reagan was then almost 72 years old, and that many believed he already was suffering the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Because he made everyone laugh, even Mondale.

Adlai Stevenson rolls over in his grave. Insert your own absurdity here: Michael Dukakis neglecting to lustily assert his desire to rip his wife’s hypothetical murderer’s heart out through his chest; Al Gore sighing wrong. Whatever. The egghead from Illinois had somehow midwifed a political medium that ended up as American politics’ quintessential vehicle for glib numbskullery, the very essence of Aristophanes’s parody of rhetoric as the art of making “the weaker argument prevail over the stronger.” Just ask Tim Kaine.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent. His books include Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

Photo: Carter-Reagan debate, October 1980. 

Kingmakers Beware: Phyllis Schlafly’s Never-Ending Campaign Outlives Her

Published with permission from the Washington Spectator.

Phyllis Stewart Schlafly (b. 1924) did not invent the practice we now call “trolling.” (Richard Nixon had been pretty good at it since the 1940s.) She just lowered it to unprecedented depths of perfection. In 1975, in response to complaints from conservatives about the ideological uniformity of Illinois’s Commission on the Status of Women, the governor appointed her to the body, which at that point had unanimously supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly began publicly referring to it as the “SOW Commission.” When others took offense, she affected surprise: thatStatus of Women—was its acronym, after all. And besides, “these women who are complaining are the same ones who call men chauvinist pigs.”

She was born to a devout Catholic family in St. Louis. Her father lost his job as a heavy equipment salesman in 1930; he had to send his wife and two daughters to live with relatives. Her mother worked in a department store—a humiliation, for Odile Stewart craved respectability. So did her daughter. By the time Phyllis was 13, she had lived in six different homes, all rented. When Phyllis joined the Girl Scouts, she piled up merit badges. When she was 13, she single-handedly produced her public school’s newspaper. At her Catholic high school, she graduated as valedictorian with honors in classical languages and French, and wrote in her diary: “I’ve been very lucky in being in such a class at such a school, where the girls were not only gifted, and really nice, but who came from the good, long standing St. Louis families, whose homes I was always proud to visit.” Her own family, meanwhile, could not afford store-bought dresses.

Her father finally found steady work as an engineer for the War Production Board, and then with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Even so, he hated FDR for his “war on the free-enterprise system, this planned economy, and the welfare state he was building.” In 1946 he hit it big with a patent for the rotary engine he’d been tinkering with in his spare time. Biography was allegory: conservative values, and capitalism, would provide—no government meddling necessary, thank you very much.

Phyllis won a scholarship to a local Catholic college; not finding it challenging enough, she matriculated at Washington University, working full time on the four-to-midnight or midnight-to-eight shifts testing rifles and machine guns at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant. Then she began morning classes. And attended summer school. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in three years.

In 1946, a St. Louis alderman running for Congress was called upon by this 22-year-old Washington University political science graduate. “I had to keep looking at her to remind myself I was not talking to a fat old cigar-chomping ward heeler,” he later remembered of Phyllis Stewart, so impressed by her knowledge of St. Louis ward politics and “plain good political sense” that he hired her on the spot as his campaign manager.

She accepted a fellowship to Radcliffe, earning a master’s degree with straight A’s. She also won first prize in a national essay contest sponsored by the Washington Daily News. Her argument opposed postwar America’s version of affirmative action: “The cards are stacked against the enterprising and ambitious person and in favor of the mediocre adults or the unqualified veteran.” That was one of her knacks: harnessing ideological principle to advance her own career.

She moved to Washington, taking a job at the center of the resistance to the New Deal, the American Enterprise Institute, the capital’s most important conservative think tank, where she refined the skill of crafting conservative arguments. When she returned to St. Louis, she hoped to teach at Washington University. A dean refused her application: a girl could never “handle a bunch of tough-minded, battle-scarred GIs.” The alternative, however, proved fortuitous: a job publishing the newsletter of the St. Louis Union Trust Company, under the tutelage of a conservative boss who mentored her in the arts of small-scale publishing. She had found her calling.

Then she found the man of her dreams. John Frederick Schlafly was a 39-year-old lawyer, right-wing activist, and scion of a banking family in the small Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois. “Life for Phyllis Schlafly in these years was nearly perfect,” her biographer Donald T. Critchlow wrote: six children in quick succession, a summer home in Michigan; satisfying volunteer work with the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Illinois Federation of Republican Women; board member of the YWCA, president of the St. Louis Radcliffe Club. She had finally reconciled grasping ambition with the cult of ladylike bourgeois respectability she had fetishized since her days of the embarrassing homemade frocks.

Despising feminism would come much later. First she would cut her teeth as a Cold Warrior. In 1952, the angry isolationist conservatives of Illinois’s 25th Congressional district drafted her to take on the internationalist quisling of the district’s Republican machine in a congressional primary. Press reports called her the “powderpuff candidate.” Not quite: one newspaper described how she “offset the distracting influence of her femininity by . . . speaking with conviction as she exhibited various charts and maps”—her integrated strategy for winning the Korean War, unspooling facts and figures all the while, for instance, on China’s mortar canons, which she said outranged America’s by a full mile.

And come to think of it, why did China’s mortars outrange ours by a mile? Maybe it had something to do with what she called, to the biggest ovation any speaker earned at that year’s Republican state convention, the “striped-pants diplomacy of the New Deal, including the vertical stripes worn by Dean Acheson and the horizontal stripes now worn by his good friend Alger Hiss.” She won the primary. A picture of “Mrs. Phyllis Stewart Schlafly . . . preparing the morning-after breakfast at her Callahan Drive home” then ran in newspapers across the region. It intimated what would become Schlafly’s trademark: her insistence that the Biblically ordained role of wifely subservience, and a life of political activity and accomplishment, could be perfectly harmonious—no feminism needed, thank you very much. She caused quite a stir in the 1970s when she began her anti– Equal Rights Amendment speeches, “First of all, I want to thank my husband Fred, for letting me come—I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!” She also liked to say it because her conservative ladies adored it. The example she set—squaring the circle of Christian duty and worldly ambition—was the greatest gift she provided them.

She would go on to lose the general election by nearly 30 points. But, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said she had “rocked Madison and St. Clair Counties like a minor tremor.” Another editorial declared her “the best twister of facts who has appeared on the local political scene”—Dorothy Parker and Joe McCarthy, all rolled into one; and now Phyllis Schlafly was ready to rock the world.

She began organizing like-minded women into what she called the “pro-American underground.” God had told Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah would be spared if 10 just men could be found in each city, so she would find just women in groups of 10. “Our Republic can be saved from the fires of Communism which have already destroyed or enslaved many Christian cities, if we can find 10 patriotic women in each community,” she wrote. She got to work churning out pamphlets, study guides, and newsletters, hosted the Illinois DAR’s anticommunist radio show; and in 1964, devoted herself full time to the election of Barry Goldwater.

Her most lasting contribution was writing up her theory of how presidential nominations were stolen from conservatives—in a self-published little paperback, 123 pages long. She persuaded rich angels to buy and distribute cartons in bulk. Then she fired up the underground. Soon, delegates to the 1964 Republican convention were receiving copy after copy in their mailboxes—50 copies in one case. By fall, there were 3.5 million copies in circulation.

A Choice, Not an Echo explained how “a few secret kingmakers based in New York selected every Republican presidential nominee from 1936 through 1960, and successfully forced their choice on a free country where there are more than 34 million Republican voters. . . . The strategy of politics, like an iceberg, is eight-ninths under the surface.”

Her own conspiratorialism, which informed her book, had been redoubled by her husband Fred’s experience as a delegate for conservative candidate Robert Taft at the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago: “The Madison Avenue public relations firms, the big national magazines, and four-fifths of the influential newspapers in the country turned themselves into propaganda organs to build the Eisenhower image.” They “brought about a change in the rules under which every previous Convention had functioned. . . . Taft headquarters received reports of Delegates who were bodily put on the train for home, leaving their alternates to vote for Ike. Delegates were threatened with loss of their jobs and calling of their bank loans unless they voted for Eisenhower. Money flowed in great quantities everywhere,” via “the diverse financial contacts of the New York kingmakers.”

She included a passage from Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent to describe the process that would take the nomination from Senator Taft and deliver it to Eisenhower. “All the vast publicity machine that always goes into concerted action for a liberal cause had gone to work . . . an operation so honed and smoothed and refined over the years that none of its proprietors even had to consult with one another. The instinct had been alerted, the bell had rung, the national salivations had come forth on schedule.” That was just what they did.

The penultimate chapter probed below the tip of one of those icebergs, detailing the author’s discovery of “a secret meeting on . . . St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, held at the King and Prince Hotel, February 14-18, 1957 . . . David Rockefeller signed many of the bar checks. . . the U.S. kingmakers were joined on St. Simon’s Island by a similarly select assortment of foreigners.” What we have come to know as the Bilderberger Group was comprised of “not heads of state, but those who give orders to heads of state.”

“Highly placed New York kingmakers,” she wrote, “work toward ‘convergence’ between the Republican and Democratic parties so as to preserve their America Last foreign policy. . .”

Yes, Phyllis Schlafly knew how these things worked. She was, therefore, well prepared when, in 1967, the kingmakers went after her.

By then she was national vice chair of the National Federation of Republican Women—a job that usually led to the national chairmanship. But not this time. Schlafly officially announced her candidacy, with Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen Reagan Stills at her side. The opposition found a Goldwater supporter they could work with to run against her, a famous aviatrix. Schlafly then learned from a phone call from “one of the extreme left-wing newspapers”—she was referring to The Washington Post—that the moderates on the NFRW board had conspired to move the national convention from 1966 to 1967, and from Southern California, a conservative stronghold, to Washington, where the party establishment could keep tabs. She sent out the word to her network: the steal was on.

The opposition spread rumors that Phyllis was a member of an armed underground right-wing militia—and that, raising six children and running a national political organization, she was guilty of “child neglect.” Schlafly’s side charged her opponent had claimed to be for Taft in 1952 while secretly conspiring for Eisenhower. The New York Times described it as “one of the bitterest political fights now under way in the nation.” Barry Goldwater said the split was so weakening the party in Arizona that it was ruining his bid to return to the Senate—women volunteers, after all, being the lifeblood of the Republican Party.

At the convention, Schlafly’s ladies wore eagle pins. (Isaiah 30:31: “They that wait upon the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings as eagles . . .”) Buses from the liberal Northeastern states delivered un-credentialed women to vote against her. (The infiltrators were instructed to say they were “from Rochester.”) For her part, Schlafly deluged delegates with expensive gifts, and during parliamentary proceedings her forces so abused moderate delegates (“Rockefeller whores” was one of their epithets) that a 72-year-old grandmother from Chicago said it reminded her of newsreels of Nazi Germany.

Schlafly lost. Her army of eagles, all 3,000 of them, crowded into a basement convention hall to deliberate upon what to do next. One had already drafted a charter for a breakaway women’s federation. An impassioned speech from Maureen Reagan Stills, the future president’s daughter, begging for Republican unity dissuaded them. Instead, Schlafly collected the names and addresses of her rump group. They were her arsenal. A newsletter, The Phyllis Schlafly Report, began publication later that year. It went out every single month for the next 50 years—first with those original 3,000 subscribers, then 10,000, then tens of thousands.

The ladies sporting the eagle pins would become the Eagle Forum, today an advocacy group of 80,000 with an annual budget of more than $2 million, their initial mission defined by Schlafly.

And in 1972, the year she founded the Forum, The Phyllis Schlafly Report announced a new crusade. It’s always been a bit of a mystery to Phyllis-watchers why she turned to fighting feminism with such ferocity. I think the answer to the puzzle might be just this. In those days, the vital center of women’s politicking was still the housewives’ luncheon clubs, “respectable” moderate Republican wives of “respectable” Republican kingmaking husbands were the backbone of the ERA effort. These were the women who had so cruelly unhorsed her. Cutting the ERA off at the knees became a species of revenge.

“What’s Wrong with ‘Equal Rights’ for Women?” asked the headline of the lead article in the February 1972 issue of The Phyllis Schlafly Report. Just about everything, it answered, in an argument that sprung forth fully formed and never changed until victory was won: American women possessed precious gifts, and feminists wanted to take them away.

What exactly did the feminists want to take away? She began with an axiom derived from Catholic doctrine: that the family was “the basic unit of society.” She argued that the way it was enshrined in “the laws and customs of our Judeo-Christian civilization” assured “the greatest single achievement in the history of women’s rights”: the right of a woman “to keep her own baby and be supported and protected in the enjoyment of watching her baby grow and develop.” There was the “Christian tradition of chivalry,” which obliged the support of women by men. The American free enterprise system, which had “stimulated the inventive geniuses” who rendered women’s lives a paradise of labor-saving miracles. Freedom from military conscription—which the ERA would terminate “absolutely and positively.” A “woman’s right to child support and alimony.” And more.

Schlafly would always claim she had no problem with legislation providing women equal access to jobs, education, and fair compensation. She would point to laws already passed, like the 1963 Equal Pay Act, and, later, the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act. She would argue that she would be glad to support more laws like those. But that was not what the feminist movement wanted. As her 1972 ur-text explained, “It is anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion. It is a series of sharp-tongued, high-pitched whining complaints by unmarried women. They view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” And since they could never get anywhere admitting any of this in public, because “most women want to be a wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role”—they doled out lies about ERA as a lulling “sweet syrup, which covers the deadly poison masquerading as ‘women’s lib.’”

Then she concluded, as she always did, with a call to action: “But let’s not permit these women’s libbers to get away with pretending to speak for the rest of us. Let’s not permit  this tiny minority to degrade the role that most women prefer. Let’s not let these women’s libbers deprive wives and mothers of the rights we now possess. Tell your Senators NOW that you want them to vote NO on the Equal Rights Amendment. Tell your television and radio stations that you want equal time to present the case FOR marriage and motherhood.”

And, with angry immediacy, they did.

Women Who Want to Be Women; Mississippians for God, Family, and Country; North Carolina Against the ERA; Florida’s NEVER (“No Equality Via Equal Rights”); Mississippi’s FIG (“Factually Informed Gals”); Arizona’s HOW (“Happiness of Women”); Utah’s HOTDOG (“Humanitarians Opposed to Degrading Our Girls”); “Operation Wake-Up” in New York and Women for Responsible Legislation in Oklahoma: “Schlafly took scattered ad hoc organizations,” wrote the most incisive scholar on the anti-ERA movement, sociologist Ruth Murray Brown, “folded them into a national one, coordinated their activities, facilitated communication among them, made sure that the members were provided with new suggestions, trained them in lobbying and speaking, and encouraged them to persevere.”

As Phyllis Schlafly had written in 1964, politics, like an iceberg, is eight-ninths under the surface; and so they were. Until, that is, a state legislature put the ERA on the docket. Then, suddenly, Phyllis’s eagles were everywhere. Legislators who were on the fence were deluged. Lawmakers who voted right got thank-you cards. In Oklahoma in 1975, the eagles started hand-delivering loaves of homemade bread to lawmakers on the first day of each legislative session, wrapped in anti-ERA poetry. The idea took off, and the bread-bakers started showing up everywhere.

Annually, she gathered her eagles in St. Louis for workshops from Friday to Sunday afternoon with speakers in between—including during meals. Pastors and priests were brought in for services on Sunday (“so you couldn’t get away from her,” one volunteer laughed). Awards ceremonies recognized local heroes; one token of Phyllis Schlafly’s organizational genius was that “Eagle Award” nominees were chosen by others from the nominee’s home state, the better to cement a sense of autonomy among her far-flung constituency—though actually, everything was run with Phyllis’s approval, every chapter leader personally approved by her.

All worked without pay, no rent was required for offices—the offices were kitchen tables. The cost of postage, phones, and office equipment was subsidized by husbands, pressed into solidarity by pillow-talk pleas that their very patriarchal authority itself hung in the balance.

At Eagle Forum conferences, a hotel suite would be equipped with a TV camera so conferees could practice Phyllis’s methods, for analysis on videotape. In Texas, a sociologist found that 56 percent listed as their primary reason for joining the movement that the ERA was “against God’s plan for the family.” But that’s not what they said in their state legislators’ offices; instead, they deployed Schlafly’s road-tested arguments, like the one that the ERA might place women’s Social Security benefits at risk.

Meanwhile, their leader: merrily she trolled along. When celebrity psychotherapist Dr. Joyce Brothers appeared on the “Merv Griffin Show” with Schlafly, things got heated, as Dr. Brothers, who had had quite enough, exclaimed: “The idea that a woman can go sit home and be supported by her husband, that has long ago died out!” Came back Schlafly, calm as always: “Forty million women are being supported by their husbands today.” The retort stunned Brothers into a glum silence. Her adversaries’ fury at her baiting was her most powerful weapon. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan bellowed during a debate in 1973. And Schlafly coolly responded: “I’m glad you said that, because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA.”

Schlafly’s tone was never intemperate; that would be unladylike. That was the soul of her brilliance. Her 1977 book, The Power of the Positive Woman, was a stunning rhetorical masterpiece. With nary a conspiratorial word, it framed the battle over ERA as a choice between two self-identities: A woman could choose a bitter, shrunken identity as “just another faceless victim of society’s oppression.” Or she could join the ranks of the women whose “positive mental attitude has built her an inner security that the other people can never fracture,” with “a capability for creativity that men can never have.”

She won the ERA battle. She lost the feminism war: Do even conservative women believe becoming some man’s wife is the pinnacle of female accomplishment? And yet, somehow, this astonishing, indefatigable ideological warrior still stayed relevant, until the end, in the last dramatic act of her political life: her avid endorsement of Donald Trump. The final chapter in a strikingly coherent life. It’s still that same old story: what the Republican “establishment” despised, she must affect to love. She’d get back at those kingmakers yet.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Hillary’s Reckless Off-Ramp Strategy

Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.

published an article on August 22 arguing against a dangerous strategy apparently being pursued by the Clinton presidential campaign, as revealed in a hacked email discussion between DNC officials last spring. In an effort to expedite the defection of Republicans offended by their party’s nominee, the campaign was building up Speaker Paul Ryan as an exemplar of the GOP’s sensible, “normal” wing—all while wedging off Donald Trump as a dangerous exception to Republicanism past. I said this violated a sterling principal of sound politics: when your opponent—in this case the Republican Party—is drowning, you throw them an anvil, not a life raft.

At the time, I had no idea the Clinton campaign was busy inflating that very life raft. On August 25, Clinton’s strategy came to the fore. In a speech in Nevada, she officially anointed Ryan as the exemplar of the Republican Party’s sensible, “normal” wing, sidelining Trump as the dangerous (“alt-right”) exception. All this, of course, was intended to expedite the defection of Republicans offended by their party’s nominee.

The speech, I was dismayed to discover, proved quite popular among liberals, some of whom singled me out for not understanding the sublime cleverness of the “off-ramp” Clinton had provided for indignant Republicans. After all, the person who wins the most votes wins the presidential election. (I know, I know, Mr. Gore, I mean usually wins the presidential election.) Additionally, a president with more friends in Washington has a better chance of advancing her agenda than one with fewer friends—and that, simply, was all Clinton’s speech was about.

But it’s not so simple. For decades, the Democrats’ Achilles’ heel has been an obsession with strategizing to win this election, often at the expense of building strategic capacity to keep winning elections and control the agenda for the next several elections—and decades—to come.

Conservatives have always been better at that. “Hell, the catacombs were good enough for the Christians,” National Review publisher William Rusher intoned after Richard Nixon sold out conservatives at the 1960 convention, and sent them hunkering down once more for the long term. Four years later, organizing sedulously, they managed to nominate Barry Goldwater. They did not retreat after Goldwater’s landslide defeat; instead, they set to laying the groundwork for Reagan 16 years later. The annals of conservatism are replete with 30-year plans, self-described “Leninist” strategies, and campaigns to lard the federal bureaucracy with stealth conservatives and the law schools with quiet ideologues disciplined enough to keep their records clean from embarrassing pronouncements that might sour Senate judicial confirmation hearings long in the future.

Democrats, meanwhile, are just glad to pull off the next presidential election. The fact that the presidential victory is often followed by an agenda-crushing defeat two years later always comes as a surprise.

This year, we see the same short-term thinking in the celebration over the Republican apostates pledging their hearts to Hillary.

The latest Republican big fish to go Clinton is James Glassman, the George W. Bush Institute’s founding executive director. He’s also the con man who co-authored the book Dow 36,000. The paperback version came out shortly before the 2001 recession, just in time to tank the portfolios of the credulous who believed his buncombe that “Stock prices could double, triple, or even quadruple tomorrow and still not be too high.” Even so, Glassman was able to catapult from bestseller lists to the editorship of the online business site, Tech Central Station, which specialized, reporter Nick Confessore explained in 2003, in taking “aggressive positions on one side or another of intra-industry debates.” Which side it took depended on the interests of the Washington PR and lobbying firm that owned the site.

Because conservatism is fundamentally corrupt, Glassman was rewarded with the editorship of the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine, where he helped pump up the housing bubble with arguments for George W. Bush’s “ownership society” that home-buying should be made easier and that taxes on dividends must be cut. As he wrote in 2005: “People who own stocks and real estate—who possess wealth of their own—have a deeper commitment to their community, a more profound sense of family obligation and personal responsibility, a stronger identification with the national fortunes and a personal interest in our capitalist economy. (They also have a greater propensity to vote Republican.)”

For his slithering service, Bush named him his Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and put him in charge of selling the glories of the American way of life to the Middle East. After Bush’s second term ended, Glassman snagged his current position as executive director of the George W. Bush Institute.

But what’s the harm? Don’t right-wing grifters’ votes count the same as horny-handed tillers of the soil? Won’t the news that famous Republicans are breaking for Hillary help ordinary Republicans stomach the switch, too? It’s not like Glassman is going to be her treasury secretary. Democrats have an election to win, and it’s less than two months away—doesn’t Team Clinton want to pile up as many supporters as it possibly can?

The flaw in this argument is that it overlooks something: the potential problems come in the longer term. Large numbers of supporters of only glancing or provisional commitment to your governing agenda, shoehorned into your tent in time for Election Day, can become quite the liability for effectuating that agenda when it comes time to govern.

Just ask Jimmy Carter.

Carter was elected president in 1976 by riding a wave of disgust with untrustworthy government, a victory foreshadowed in 1974 by the election of a passel of what became known as Congress’s “Watergate Babies.” Many of these fresh-faced political youngsters retired as legendary liberal lions: Representatives George Miller and Henry Waxman, Senators Tom Harkin and Chris Dodd. A lot of them, however, were explicitly like Gary Hart. As I wrote in my book on the period, The Invisible Bridge:

Hart was the rock star of the 1974 Democratic candidates. . . . His outmaneuvered opponent, the once-popular two term conservative incumbent Peter Dominick, said he seemed to be “trying to get to the right of Attila the Hun. . . .” His stock speech, “The End of the New Deal,” argued that his party was hamstrung by the very ideology that was supposed to be its glory—that “if there is a problem, create an agency and throw money at the problem.” It included lines like, “The ballyhooed War on Poverty succeeded only in raising the expectations, but not the living conditions, of the poor.” That was false: the poverty rate was 17.3 percent when LBJ’s Economic Opportunity Act was enacted in 1964 and 11.2 percent as Gary Hart spoke. But such claims did speak to the preconceptions of people whom Hart claimed must become the new base of the Democratic Party: the affluent suburbs, whose political power had been quietly expanding through 1960s via redistricting and reapportionment. He called those who “clung to the Roosevelt model long after it had ceased to relate to reality,” who still thought the workers, farmers, and blacks of the New Deal coalition were where the votes were, “Eleanor Roosevelt Democrats.” He held them in open contempt.

The 1976 elections brought even more not-so-liberal Democrats to Capitol Hill, while in the White House, Jimmy Carter wore contempt for the pet causes of the Eleanor Roosevelt-types (Keynesian deficit spending, unions) on his sleeve.

All in all, it was a complicated, transitional time in the history of the party. Carter also came into the White House pledging fealty to some ambitious liberal goals: a landmark full-employment bill that would include a government jobs program if unemployment fell below three percent; national health insurance; a law making it easier to join a union and harder for bosses to get away with punishing workers who did so; a federal agency devoted to advocating for consumers.

When the 95th Congress convened in January 1977, with 292 Democrats and 143 Republicans in the House and only 38 Republicans in the Senate, the universal presumption was that all of Carter’s initiatives would pass. None of them did.

There were many reasons for this. One of them was because Jimmy Carter simply didn’t want some of these laws to pass: that was the case for the full-employment measure. He nominally supported it because his advisers told him he had no choice if he wanted to remain a credible leader of the Democratic Party, as was the case with labor-law reform. He was foursquare for the consumer agency, however. He was even more passionate—it was his favorite campaign promise—about passing a progressive reform of the tax code.

In the end, each failed more miserably than the last. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill “passed”—in a form so eviscerated that it earned the nickname the “Humphrey-Hawkins-Hatch” bill, after conservative Republican freshman Orrin Hatch, who successfully gutted it with amendments. Consumer agency and labor-law reform fell to what were at the time the most aggressive corporate lobbying campaigns in history.

The tax-reform story was the most extraordinary of them all. In January 1978, Carter announced his ambitious plans to revise the tax code in order to make the rich and corporations pay their fair share. He was delivering on his most aggressive campaign promise: he would fix a tax code that he called, on just about every stop on the campaign trail in 1976, a “disgrace to the human race.” Ninety-six percent of the population would have seen benefits from the reforms he proposed. Drafting off their shocking success scuttling the consumer and labor bills, the right wing doubled down. Republicans introduced a radical reduction in corporate tax rates, promising the loaves-and-fishes deception that would become so familiar in the Reagan years—that the benefits would trickle down to enrich all Americans.

It didn’t even take Reagan’s election to get there. In October 1978, a Congress with more than two-to-one Democratic representation voted for the first time in history to make the tax code more regressive. In each of the progressive measures that was defeated, the deciding votes came from first- or second-term Democratic congressmen. The reason for this poor fortune for the New Deal legacy, paradoxically, was precisely what was understood to be the good fortune of the Democratic Party: habitual Republicans disgusted with their party after Watergate were voting for Democrats for the first time. Many of the Watergate Babies represented traditionally Republican suburbs. They went to Washington and voted their constituencies. It was one of the reasons—though there were many—that Jimmy Carter geared up to run for his second term with the albatross of a failed presidency around his neck.

The parallel to Hillary Clinton is partial, of course. If she wins, there will almost certainly be a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, not a Democratic supermajority. Unlike Jimmy Carter, all evidence—despite what the conspiracy theories of Hillary-haters on the left suggest—points to her as a politician who is publicly committed to a far more Rooseveltian vision of the economy. In a little-covered speech in August to the Detroit Economic Club—an audience of business people, as New York magazine reported—she “reiterated her opposition to the TPP in the strongest terms she’s ever used on that subject,” and “called for a public health-care option in all 50 states, free public-college tuition for the middle class . . . and paid family leave.”

Yet, as Politico reported, Team Clinton was simultaneously pursuing “a behind-the-scenes recruitment effort that’s been months in the making,” winning over Republicans disgusted by Trump, like failed Hewlett-Packard CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, and Matt Higgins, former press secretary to Rudy Giuliani and McCain 2008. Leslie Dach, a former executive at Walmart (which just happens to be the most savagely anti-union corporation in America), has headed these outreach efforts since last spring. Was Dach vetted for her accord with the position, as Clinton put it in the Detroit speech, that “strengthening unions doesn’t just serve members, it leads to better wages and working conditions for all employees”? Would Higgins, the Giuliani flack, feel comfortable in a room with the Mothers of the Movement, the collective of mothers of victims of police violence who spoke so eloquently at the Democratic National Convention? Does the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute expect Clinton to aspire to the sterling example of George W. Bush’s public-policy accomplishments, in exchange for the votes Glassman intends to deliver?

Iwish I saw evidence that Team Clinton even cared about these concerns. As a campaign senior strategist said, “Campaigns are always looking for ways to build your coalitions of voters. To the extent we can add to that by appealing to some moderate Republicans and some Republican-leaning independents—that’s worth some energy. It’s not going to consume the campaign, but it is worth the energy.” You know when it’s not worth the energy? When it weakens your party in the long term.

Or, if it attenuates the coalition of legislators on Capitol Hill that will be needed to get done what Hillary Clinton says she wants done—if not in 2017, perhaps in 2019, when a Democratic House majority might be within more realistic reach. That was the fear expressed by the DNC’s communication director in the May 2016 email I wrote about in August: efforts “to embrace the ‘Republicans fleeing Trump’ side, but not hold down ballot GOPers accountable” might be great for getting more votes for Clinton, but these come at the price of fewer wins for Democratic congressional candidates.

What might pose even greater danger is success: if the Clinton people are right and Democrats up and down the ticket harvest greater-than-expected dividends with a “we’re not Trump, come on in, normal Republicans, the water’s fine!” message. Politicians are greedy and short-sighted, almost always placing electoral victory ahead of long-term legislative accomplishment. If Democratic congressional candidates outperform their own expectations and attribute their success to cross-over voters who are ideological twins of the Higginses, Glassmans, and Whitmans, once in office they may work to hold on to those voters.

If that happens, here is an all-to-predictable eventuality for 2018. Political parties are greedy, too, and it’s not a stretch to imagine that the party could begin recruiting candidates who “build your coalition of voters” by “appealing to some moderate Republicans and some Republican-leaning independents.”

As I’ve written, we have been down that sad road before. In 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, “aggressively recruited right-leaning candidates, frequently military veterans, including former Republicans.” Democrats won the battle, taking the House back from the Republicans for the first time since 1994. But they lost the war:

The 2007 majority proved to be a rickety one. Critics argue that, even where Emanuel’s strategy succeeded in the short term, it undermined the party over time. One of his winners, the football star Heath Shuler, of North Carolina, would not even commit to vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House, and was one of many Rahm recruits to vote against important Obama Administration priorities, like economic stimulus, banking reform, and health care.

The adventure ended with the biggest Republican House majority since the 1920s.

People will say this is an argument for purity. It’s actually a plea for practicality. Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win the presidential election on November 8. That’s merely the battle for today, when anti-Trump votes come cheap. But this election is not just about rescuing the nation from Trump. It’s about rescuing the nation from conservatism. That’s the long march. It cannot be won with conservatives in tow.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo: Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent

Diverse And Perverse: The Coalition That Trump Built

The convention began with a prayer for God to bless his chosen political party, from a black preacher who announced it was fitting and proper to do so “because we are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.” And because “our enemy is not other Republicans, but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.”

Rev. Mark Burns is a devotee of the “prosperity gospel.” At a Trump rally in March, he had said: “There is no black person, there is no yellow person, there is no red person, there’s only green, people! Green is money!”

The game Trump and Burns are playing is an old one. A candidate, party, or movement can’t be racially divisive if black people are out front spouting its praises. Early in the 1960s, the John Birch Society toured a black former Communist Party member who affirmed that, yes, Moscow did really intend to turn America’s Southern states into a black-run colony of the Soviet Union—and that this whole civil rights thing was all a communist plot. In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan had a black loyalist on the Republican National Committee, Dr. Gloria Toote, to help him make his case that the “Negro has delivered himself to those who have no other intention than to create a Federal plantation.”

Even George Wallace kept a pet Negro for the same purpose: Clay Smothers, a state legislator from Texas who once introduced a bill to ban homosexuals from public university campuses. In 1977, when the federal government sponsored a historic national women’s convention in Houston, chock full of feminist and gay rights activists, Smothers spoke at the massive counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly organized across town. “I have enough civil rights to choke a hungry goat. I ask for public rights. . . . Let’s do something about these misfits and perverts over in the Sam Houston Coliseum. I want to segregate my family from them!”

In Cleveland, Pastor Burns had competition. Sheriff David Clarke Jr. of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, a black version of Arizona’s Joe Arpaio, took the stage on the opening night. Dressed in full formal cop regalia, Clarke bellowed, “Ladies and Gentleman, I would like to make something very clear. Blue! Lives! Matter!”—predictably dragging in Rev. Martin Luther King’s “seamless garment of destiny” to make the case. Clarke calls Black Lives Matter a “hate group,” and is one of the rare law enforcement officials to ally with the National Rifle Association.

He likes riding in parades on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat, and posing with rifles. In 2006 he forced his deputies to sit through mandatory evangelization sessions from something called the Fellowship of Christian Centurions. In a series of radio advertisements in 2013 he advised residents of Milwaukee that because the local constabulary could no longer protect them they should arm themselves. He hosts a “David Clarke: The People’s Sheriff” podcast on Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” platform.

Clarke was such a hero in the House of Trump that one of the biggest draughts of applause on the final evening of the convention came when his face merely appeared in the film clip introducing the candidate.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re still on Night One. Let me tell you what else happened, in case you couldn’t bring yourself to watch. Or, if you did, some madness you might have missed.

There was the pimping out of grieving parents: three of them, all identified on the telescreen above a chyron that read: “VICTIM OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS.”

Two of the three had lost children in car accidents for which undocumented immigrants were responsible—and as everyone knows, red-blooded, native-born Yankees never are. “I call them illegal aliens,” Sabine Burden said, to roars. The driver only got 35 days in jail for the accident. Because Obama.

“We are electing a man in Donald Trump who believes in the name of Jesus Christ.”

In Berlin, 80 years ago, the sign would have read, “VICTIM OF JEWS.” It’s always someone.

On Tuesday I spent an emotional morning with my hosts, Henry Halem and Sandra Perlman Halem, who have lived for 48 years in Kent, Ohio, where Henry was an art professor at Kent State University and was on campus on May 4, 1970, when four students at a Vietnam War protest were shot to death by National Guardsmen. Henry and Sandra relive the day like it was yesterday.

Sandra is a playwright and the oral historian for the Kent State Memorial. I studied Kent State closely for my bookNixonland. On April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon went on TV to deliver an Orwellian argument about how he was shrinking the Vietnam War by expanding it, by invading neutral Cambodia. He had no choice, he explained: “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years . . . great universities are being systematically destroyed . . . If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”

A few days later, to a gathering of employees in the halls of the Pentagon, Nixon sharpened the contradictions between those Middle Americans and their sons fighting loyally in Vietnam—“I’ve seen them, they’re the greatest”—and “these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses.”

A politically opportunistic Republican governor named James Rhodes barked out a briefing to visiting journalists: “They’re worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.

And I want to say this: they’re not going to take over a campus.” That rhetoric set the table for Middle America’s response to the wave of student protest that followed.

Some veterans of Kent State, desperate to wrench meaning out of the meaningless, cling to an interpretation of what happened next as some sort of elite conspiracy: the president passing down an order through his loyal janissary Rhodes, down through the ranks of the National Guard units he commanded, to stage a useful little massacre to show the homegrown dissidents who was boss.

Sandy Halem, who has interviewed hundreds of witnesses on all sides of the tragedy, knows better. These scared, poorly trained weekend warriors were not crack cadres of centurions, but ordinary people who read their newspapers and watched their Walter Cronkite and heard students preaching about revolution and anarchy. Saying things like, as Jerry Rubin had on the Kent State campus a month earlier, “Until you are prepared to kill your parents, you aren’t ready for revolution.”

The young protesters naively presumed the guardsmen’s guns could not possibly have been loaded (the black students, better schooled in the ways of the world, knew they were, and had already high-tailed it off campus). They threw rocks, tossed back tear gas canisters, and mocked the soldiers. The guardsmen who loosed the volleys of 67 shots almost certainly believed they were acting in defense of their lives. They had been conditioned by their president and their governor to believe they were facing down monsters.

Recalls Halem: “The next day, when I returned to school, in Akron, Ohio, a teacher came to me, and he swore that he knew somebody at Robinson Hospital who said, ‘Allison Krause had syphilis, and a knife on her leg.’ I was told that!”

Allison Krause was one of the four students killed that day.

“I said, ‘What are you saying? That that’s a crime? Because, if she did have syphilis, that was a reason to shoot her?’”

Which is where Donald Trump comes in, Halem observed. This is how political violence works. “You begin to take all kinds of ways of changing people’s perception: who the Other is. And as soon as you can lower the Other—which, you know, Trump has done wonderfully. He’s used the word rapist. That’s a horrible word. Murderer . . . One group has been lowered; a different group has been raised. And the difference is that the one group can tell the other group to leave. Put on buses and taken away.”

“Those of us who understand what that kind of language did in World War II are thrilled that the Germans gave up war—because they were good at it. They understood that ability to lower the human threshold.”

What she said next might make us wonder whether Trump isn’t, in a certain respect, worse.

“My concern today is that he has no understanding of the power of his words. My fear is that he doesn’t understand he has a book of matches in his hand. And any time he dehumanizes a group—a group, not an individual—he allows people who are either in charge or are supposed to keep the peace, or the police, or whatever, he makes them afraid just enough that the hair trigger pulls.”

I ventured to the convention hall, to hear who would be dehumanized next.

“You know, it used to be called ‘invasion.’ Now it’s called illegal immigration.”

I’m interviewing a minister of Christ’s Gospel from Cleveland, Janet Porter, who in the 1990s had been a spokesperson for John Kasich’s House Budget Committee. Back when “he was a conservative,” she says. Chris Christie has wrapped up his already-infamous speech that had delegates braying for Hillary Rodham Clinton to be hanged from the neck until she is dead. For sins like once saying that Assad of Syria was a “reformer,” a common, bipartisan opinion at the time. Yet the Torquemada of Trenton piled at her feet the 400,000 corpses who died “at the hands of the man Hillary defended.”

“We must ask this question: Hillary Clinton, as an awful judge of the character of a dictator-butcher in the Middle East, guilty or not guilty?”

“GUILTY!” of course.

Guilty of not overthrowing Assad in Syria; though the mob had already also found her guilty of not not overthrowing Qaddafi, rendering her responsible for “Libya’s economy in ruins, death and violence in the streets, and ISIS now dominating the country.” Then she was charged with personally arranging the kidnaping of “hundreds of innocent young girls two years ago [who] are still missing today.”

For haven’t you heard? The crimes of Boko Haram that happened after Hillary Clinton was secretary of state are hers alone to answer for, because she had complied with the request of the Nigerian government and the pleas of academic experts on Nigeria to refrain from designating Boko Haram a foreign terrorist organization, in part because that would make it illegal for NGOs to even communicate with members of the group to urge them to renounce violence, or to conduct scholarly inquiry.

And, of course, she was the one who planted the bomb that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi.

I observe to my interviewee that, as a historian, I’ve never observed this intense lynch-mob mentality at a political convention.

“Well, you know, what’s interesting is, if we look at the facts, Hillary Clinton is really getting away with murder.”

What does Rev. Porter mean by “murder”?

“Well, look at our ambassador in Libya. And by the way, he was an open homosexual. She should be prosecuted for a hate crime. . . . She turned her back on our American ambassador and let him die.”

I ask her how this all compares to 1983, when during Lebanon’s civil war the Reagan administration ordered sentries at the U.S. barracks in Beirut to keep their weapons unloaded and the gate wide open, and a truck bomb killed 241 U.S and 58 French servicemen and six civilians.

I ask her about Reagan’s response—“Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.”—after a second jihadist attack killed 24 at an embassy annex in Beirut the following year because security precautions requested by Congress had not been completed. (I can be mean that way.)

She mumbled, “Well, you know, everyone makes mistakes.” Then moved on to Clinton’s “pattern, of not mistakes, but actually things that are systematically costing American lives.”

I later do a little research. Rev. Porter’s rap sheet at People for the American Way’s “Right Wing Watch” reveals that she advocates for a law to outlaw abortion from the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Her “Don’t Target Our Daughters” campaign has focused on Target’s “invitation to predators”— by which she means the retail chain’s nondiscriminatory restroom policy. She has, “long warned that increasing acceptance of gay rights will turn Christians into criminals who will eventually be rounded up and tossed in jail.” And she produced a documentary arguing that LBGTQ activists should be criminally charged for “grooming” children for homosexuality.

And this was just someone I buttonholed at random for a reaction to Chris Christie’s speech. Throw a rock in this crowd, and you’re likely to hit someone who pines for the days when justice was served by throwing rocks.

I sought out a moderate Republican state legislator from Illinois I had interviewed the previous Friday and asked what he thought about Chris Christie’s auto-da-fé.

“The Democratic convention, the Republican convention,” he responds, “let me tell you, Rick, they come here and they drink the Kool-Aid.” That’s just the way it is.

I ask if he was comfortable with the chants.

He pauses uncomfortably.

“It’s a political convention.”

I tell him about the chilling interview I just did with the minister.

You’re gonna hear some crazy stuff at both conventions. That’s just somewhat part of the game.”

I think of a quote from a wise old conservative that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

A few other acts were on the undercard on Wednesday:

Laura Ingraham, always leading the party’s anti-immigrant crusade: “I asked, ‘Mom, why are people burning the American flag?’ And she looked at me, and she answered, ‘Honey, because their parents didn’t teach them about respect.’” The radio hate-talker belies her panegyric on respect by describing Hillary Clinton as “the woman who orchestrated America’s decline.”

Phil Ruffin, a magnate in casinos, dog tracks, petroleum, convenience stores—and real estate deals like the Trump International Tower in Las Vegas: “If Donald tells you something, put it in the bank.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Biondi: “Lock her up—I love that!” A phrase she would be wise to avoid after accepting a $25,000 donation from the Trump family foundation four days before announcing she would not be joining a probe of Trump University.

A Hispanic state senator from Kentucky: “Hispanics believe what Republicans believe.” (Did I hear a boo?)

Another black preacher, naturally.

A fracking magnate, lying about “American energy independence.”

A pyramid scheme huckster. (I’m saving a whole article for her.)

On Thursday, when Ivanka Trump introduced her father, I returned to the most haunting thought that Sandra Halem left me with.

“You have to be able to be willing to walk through sewage to go where these people are going,” she observed. “It scares me. It really gets scary.”

She had disappeared into a dark place then gathered herself to say, “I come from a family where there was sexual abuse.” She recalls Donald Trump saying were Ivanka not his daughter, he would want to date her because she’s so hot.

“You don’t ever talk about your daughter sexually. Ever. . . . He is sexualizing her. He is giving her away sexually. He is putting her in a box.”

“Why does he do it? It makes you more powerful.”

You shudder when you hear something like that, when you write something like that down.

Donald Trump spoke.

Then the Most Reverend Roger W. Gries, auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese, prayed.

He began with a cackle: “You brought another championship to Cleveland tonight,” he said, in direct address to God and the Republican Party, which then received his benediction as God’s one true holy political vessel.

He prayed for “those about to be born, and those about to see You at the end of life.” He prayed for those present to be imbued with “the courage to bring the pro-life platform of this 2016 platform of the Republican National Convention to fulfillment”—the kind of right-wing homily Catholics hear at Mass every Sunday. He prayed for “all our beloved safety forces.” He prayed for “all our men and women in uniform.”

Boilerplate, really.

He sought God’s blessing for “all those who seek to serve the common good by seeking public office, and especially Donald J. Trump and Michael Pence.” Then he prayed that “we will bring America back to life, bring America back to work, and bring America together, one nation under God.” I wondered if he meant that this Trumpian God he worships believes that America under Barack Obama is dead.

I told myself I was being ungenerous, and kept listening. And recalled something I thought I heard earlier in his benediction.

I reviewed the tape. And there it was: a Catholic bishop had indeed beseeched the Almighty to make Donald Trump and Mike Pence “worthy to serve you, by serving your country.”

His country.

God is a Republican.

America is his chosen land.

Donald J. Trump is his prophet.

These thugs actually believe it. God help us that they might be stopped.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Don’t Save The Speaker—Let Him Go Down With The Trump Ship

Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.

When your opponent is drowning, the old saying goes, throw him an anvil. Is Hillary Clinton throwing hers a life raft instead?

In May, the Democratic National Committee’s communication director Luis Miranda wrote to the DNC’s chief operating officer, Amy Dacey, with a serious complaint. The e-mail, part of the trove released by WikiLeaks, began this way:

The Clinton rapid response operation we deal with have been asking us to disaggregate Trump from down ballot Republicans. They basically want to make the case that you either stand with Ryan or with Trump, that Trump is much worse than regular Republicans and they don’t want us to tie Trump to other Republicans because they think it makes him look normal.

They wanted us to basically praise Ryan when Trump was meeting Ryan, or at a minimum to hold him up as an example. So they want to embrace the “Republicans fleeing Trump” side, but not hold down ballot GOPers accountable.

That’s a problem. I pushed back that we cannot have our state parties hold up Paul Ryan as a good example of anything. And that we can’t give down ballot Republicans such an easy out. We can force them to own Trump and damage them more by pointing out that they’re just as bad on specific policies, make them uncomfortable where he’s particularly egregious, but asking state Parties to praise House Republicans like Ryan would be damaging for the Party down ballot.

What a document!

Rarely has the tragedy of the Democratic Party across these past several decades of Republican radicalization been rendered in such crystalline form. Continues Miranda, “We would basically have to throw out our entire frame that the GOP made Trump through years of divisive and ugly politics. We would have to say that Republicans are reasonable and that the good ones will shun Trump.” He concluded, “It just doesn’t work from the party side,” then added a P.S.: “It might be a good strategy ONLY for Clinton (which I don’t believe), I think instead she needs as many voices as possible on the same page.”

You read this, and 20 years of Democratic Party history flashes before your eyes.

You see the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton, kneecapped by his botched initiative to welcome gays into the military, the defeat of his healthcare plan in 1994, and the Republican takeover of Congress the same year, responded by taking Dick Morris’s advice and defining his administration via the neologism of “triangulation”—living halfway between the screaming lunacy of Newt Gingrich on the one side, and the Congressional liberals in his own party on the other, thus enshrining a false equivalency that Democrats fighting to preserve the social safety net and perhaps to even expand it must be, well, just as extreme as the guy who said, “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”

There was 2004, when John Kerry’s Democratic National Convention team—at the height of the Iraq debacle, a faltering economy, and a series of corporate scandals capped by the collapse of a fraudulent company called Enron, run by one of George Bush’s old pals—vetted all speeches to make sure they didn’t criticize George Bush. (“Bush will come up this week,” explained Kerry spokesman Stephanie Cutter, “but we don’t have to tell the story of George Bush because the American people are living it every day. What we’re talking about is the future.” Only old man Jimmy Carter, God bless him, exercising a former president’s prerogative, dared defy the ukase.)

Then there was 2008 when, waking up to the smoking ruins all around them, the American people repudiated conservatism so thoroughly that Republican pundits like David Brooks began opining that their party’s “stale, government-is-the-problem, you can’t trust the government” rhetoric was “a disaster for the Republican Party.”

And when, instead of throwing ’em anvils, our new president made Kerry’s 2004 mistake all-but-official party policy. As he put it of our friends on the other side of the aisle in 2010, “no person, no party, has a monopoly on wisdom,” and it was time to find “common ground.”

Republicans, of course, do things differently. On the campaign trail in 1984, Ronald Reagan would say of the previous, Democratic, administration, “We were being led by a team with good intentions and bad ideas—people with all the common sense of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.” He called the Democrats’ ideology “snake-oil cures.”

The economy had bounded back that year from 10 percent unemployment, thanks to the delayed effect of austerity policies put in place by Jimmy Carter and his Fed chairman Paul Volcker. Reagan endorsed that course by continuing it, while making hay politically by assigning responsibility for every bad thing that had ever happened to the other party, and every thing good to his own.

This was his political job as he saw it: etching the Democratic Party in the minds of the electorate as not normal.

That’s the key word in the e-mail I quoted above: “normal.” That Clinton’s advisers “basically want to make the case that you either stand with Ryan or with Trump, that Trump is much worse than regular Republicans and they don’t want us to tie Trump to other Republicans because they think it makes him look normal.”

It would take more pages than there are minutes in the day, of course, to document fully the ways Paul Ryan Republicanism—“regular” Republicanism—should not in any way, shape, or form be considered “normal.” Let one example stand for zillions: the time even-handed Ezra Klein scoured and scoured Ryan’s 2012 vice-presidential acceptance speech, worried he’d be seen as unfair if he ran an article by one of his colleagues that found only one true statement in the entire text—but was forced to admit that even that one statement was an exaggeration: “even the definition of ‘true’ that we’re using is loose. ‘Legitimate’ might be a better word. . . . Ryan’s claims weren’t even arguably true.”

And, of course, Paul Ryan’s Republican Party nominated Donald Trump. The party did so with Paul Ryan’s eventual blessing. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign’s new campaign chief Steve Bannon publishes a web empire, the Breitbart News Network, that made its bones savaging Ryan—which renders him more vulnerable within his own party than at any time since he came to Congress in 1999. At best, he’s treading water. Now is not the time to help him swim.

You can understand why Hillary Clinton feels she needs to preserve a relationship with Ryan. If she becomes president, after all, she needs to work with the Speaker of the House. But if the eight previous years have taught us anything, it’s that the Speaker of the House (if the Republicans hold on to their majority) will not believe he needs to work with her. There’s a scenario, of course, in which he might be forced to work with her: if the verdict this November 8 is so devastating for the Republicans, up and down the ticket, that even Paul Ryan knows there must be a reckoning with his party’s radical past.

But it has to come up and down the ticket. Republican congressional candidates have to be tied to a Trumpism that is understood as the apotheosis of the recent history of the Republican Party. Because if they are not, it would be oh so easy for the survivors to say, on November 9: It ain’t me, babe. I’m a Ryan conservative, not a Trumpite. We Ryanites are normal, respectable folk. After all, even Hillary Clinton says so. And, when we utter that oath of office once more in January, and take our seats in the Capitol, we promise to go back to doing normal Republican things: treating the Democratic President as an illegitimate imposter; treating the responsible media as terrorist-abetting, lying cheats; making sure the economy works for the one percent, and shredding the government functions that work for the rest.

Congratulations, President Clinton. On that day, you will have “won.” But you will also have lost the best chance we’ll have in a generation to do what Franklin Roosevelt did: turn the Republican Party into pariahs.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Trump’s Chump: The Self-Soiling Of Christopher Christie

Published with permission from the Washington Spectator.

Ah, those craven fiends atop the Republican Party, whoring before power and calling it “unity.” Consider the man Donald Trump used to call “Little Marco,” a “disaster for Florida” who “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” He might not be qualified to catch dogs, but he sure does a convincing imitation of one. He now says he’s “honored” to help Donald Trump become the most powerful man in the world, no matter that he once labeled him a “con man” who would “shatter and fracture the Republican Party and the conservative movement.”

Or Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump days after calling his fine thoughts on the judge in the Trump University case the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Carly Fiorina, who formerly found Trump “pathological,” Bobby Jindal, who once judged him an “egomaniacal madman,” Rand Paul, who made this writer jealous by coining the phrase “orange-faced windbag.” They too have all leapt aboard the Trump train. As has Rick Perry, who has forgotten to remove his 2015 campaign brief “Defending Conservatism Against the Cancer of Trumpism” from web. Also the tender-hearted John McCain, forgiving the man who thought his sacrifices in the Hanoi Hilton marked him as a pathetic loser. Even Old Man Cheney, who once upon a time thought Trump “sounded like a liberal Democrat.”

Then there is Chris Christie, in another category altogether. We haven’t seen political hypocrisy this flagrant since Richard Nixon savaged Harry Truman in 1960 for uttering the word “damn.”

This whole sorry spectacle has me thinking a lot about Chris Christie, because not too long ago I had imagined myself voting for the guy.

Well, not myself, precisely. One cold February morning at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, New Hampshire, I was so dazzled by what looked to me like the gritty authenticity of the man we now know as Trump’s Trenton lap dog that I told myself that if I were a Republican, there was no question that Chris Christie was the man to protect us from the evildoers. He was 300 pounds of pure, unadulterated, Here-I-Stand-I-Can-Do-No-Other.

Republican Rick Perlstein wanted Chris Christie to be his president. Hell, he wanted him to be his daddy.

To be sure, I was in a daddy sort of mood. When I was growing up, my father operated a courier company in Milwaukee. As kids we played in the grimy warehouse; the summer after I turned 16 I began working as a clerk in the dispatch office, hanging out in the break room with burly Rust Belt truck drivers, tough on the outside, sweet underneath, and spending a lot of time with my favorite employees, the two dispatchers, who were women, and burlier—sweet on the outside and tough underneath. Summers during college I worked as a driver, and most of the places I delivered to were factories, leather tanning plants, foundries, and metal fabrication shops—exactly like Gilchrist Metal, whose dusty tannic smell of machine oil took me back to my youth so thoroughly I shook with emotion when I entered. Then, as I left, I shook again when I chatted up a guy in a flannel shirt and baseball cap.

“Do you work here?” I asked. He answered, pointing, “That’s my machine.” The Jeffersonian moral majesty—Americans making things—felt so palpably evident it could have turned Larry Summers into a protectionist.

Then, backed by Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend,” proprietor Jack Gilchrist kicked things off in front of a giant American flag and oversized New Hampshire license plate. He opened his mouth and brought me back to earth. In fact, the Marxist Rick Perlstein wanted to puke.

“What this country needs is a boss!” Gilchrist said.

What could be more sickeningly Republican. No surprise that Gilchrist had starred in a Mitt Romney commercial broadcasting the Republican’s 2012 signature attack against Barack Obama: “President Obama, you’re killing us out here. My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? My hands aren’t building this company? Through hard work and a little bit of luck, we built this business. Why are you demonizing us for it?”

Further research revealed that Gilchrist had actually benefited from millions of dollars in government subsidies.

But back in Hudson, the next speaker was Bartolo Valastro, proprietor of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken and star of the TLC reality show Cake Boss. Valastro looks, sounds, and acts exactly like a younger version of my ex-father-in-law Hank from Jersey City, so by the time the star took the stage I was back in my pater familias reverie, the perfect emotional register for Boss Christie to sucker Republican Rick Perlstein plumb out of his mind.

Then the governor took over, and immediately began mocking his audience—all those New Hampshire voters who cunningly monopolize the nation’s attention by insisting they are “undecided” even up to the moment they pull the voting booth curtain. It was 34 hours until the polls opened. “I can only imagine what the stores look like here on Christmas Eve,” he said, with an edge. “People jammed in the stores. Sayin’ ‘It’s finally time to buy. . .’”

I’d been in New Hampshire for two days, watching candidates abasing themselves kissing Granite State ass. Hearing one supplicant say how he actually felt was so bracingly refreshing.

Then he gloated about besting poor Marco Rubio in the debate the previous night—the one where Rubio kept robotically repeating the same line, which Christie held up as the perfect example of the programmed inauthenticity of Washington politicians—and turned it into a lesson about executive responsibility. “Jack Gilchrist wouldn’t hire him to manage a shift here. Let alone be the president of the United States.

Rubio, after all, was a senator. “Everybody telling you what to do and what to say. And they give you a list of questions before hand, tell you how to vote. That’s not how it is being governor. . . .”

“No one calls at 4 a.m. to tell you the bill you thought would be posted in the subcommittee today is not going to be posted until next week.”

“They call you that a police officer was shot and killed.”

Or “when the second worst disaster in American history hits your state. It’s the governor people look to to build that state. . . . 365,000 homes in 24 hours. People’s lives and businesses were ruined. And when you’re sitting there as governor, no one gives you an instruction manual on how to do that. Except to dive in and roll up your sleeves. We don’t know what crises will face the next president of the United States, but there’s one thing we know for sure: there will be a number of them.”

That was, more or less, his prepared remarks.

 

He fought terrorism

Then came the main event. Practically all of Christie’s New Hampshire events were open-ended town halls. Sometimes they lasted as long as two hours. The governor took off his coat in preparation, handing it to his wife Mary Pat—Mary Pat, he noted, had promised always to hold his coat. Then he called on a woman who turned out to be a former flight attendant who on the morning of September 10, 2001, had worked the same United flight that 24 hours later struck the North Tower, incinerating some of her best friends.

“Good, sweet girls,” she began. “And very young. They were all young. And there was a lot of survivor guilt. Because I could have been their mother. And I wasn’t afraid to die. I was so angry. And so sad. And that combination did me in. I had to quit. And I loved flying. I mean, I started in the 1970s. . . . People would take cookies. Or apples off their trees, and brought them for the girls.”

She had us all in her thrall. Then she asked her question: “How are you going to keep us safe?”

(It could not possibly have been a set-up. Could it?)

Christie’s answer went on for almost 10 riveting minutes. “I’m the only one on that stage who fought terrorism,” he began. “The only one.”

He explained that he had been appointed as a federal prosecutor the day before September 11—which was a lie. But Republican Rick Perlstein didn’t care about that. And when he next intoned how at that moment “your job as a federal prosecutor—your only job—was making sure that it wouldn’t happen again.” And that because “it was no longer acceptable to catch these guys after it happened,” he had with hell’s own fury put in jail an awful man who had purchased shoulder-fired missiles to attack civilian planes, and convicted those six monsters from South Jersey planning to attack Fort Dix.

Republican Rick Perlstein didn’t care to litigate his claims. Even though a searing This American Life investigation had revealed that the arrest of hapless Hemant Lakhani had been a propaganda operation so sickening it would have made George Orwell’s Big Brother blush, and the Fort Dix case was even worse. Republican Rick Perlstein hasn’t heard ofThis American Life. Republican Rick Perlstein just wanted someone to keep his family safe, so Republican Rick Perlstein was, at the moment, riveted.

Though, sure, his eyes glazed over at the policy details. But he perked up again at the governor’s take on Syrian refugees. “While I care about the Syrian people, and so do most Americans, I’m president of the United States of America, and I’ll protect America first. If you can do that while helping other people, I’m all for it. But my first job is to protect you and your family.” And his pledge to take the ISIS fight to the enemy. “We can’t just sit back here and play defense. We have to play offense. . . . ISIS needs to know that it’s not just America who wants to destroy them. But that it’s the civilized world that wants to destroy them.”

He pivoted, no transition required, to an attack on Black Lives Matter. (It’s always useful to remember that on the right, fears are fungible: one fear always functions interchangeably with any other.) “Here in our country we also need to know—we need to support our law enforcement officers. . . . We can’t have law enforcement officers afraid to get out of their cars because they’re afraid they’re not going to be supported by their political leaders…. 99.9 percent of police officers in our country, men and women, are doing selfless things, and they need to be supported. They need to be supported by our political leaders. And I will do that in the White House.”

By the time Christie wound up for his peroration, Republican Rick Perlstein couldn’t imagine voting for anyone else.

“But in the end you need to know that this is personal. . . . The reason I’m the best prepared to sit in that chair is because I’ve experienced it, and I’ve lived it.”

“I’ve watched my wife go into the city on September 11. . . . My younger brother also. And you don’t ever take that for granted. . . . You need to understand, every day you wake up as president, your number one job is to protect the safety and security of the American people.”

He locked eyes with the former flight attendant:

“So I want to thank you for reminding us in a very personal way how important this is.”

The flight attendant responded. She said she was afraid the country had forgotten all that, and was grateful he had not.

And Governor Christie took that cue to add one more clinching thought: “When I talk about this I normally don’t mention these folks, but you brought it up, so I will.”

He told the story of a dear friend of his who died that day in the World Trade Center offices of Canter Fitzgerald. He talked about the community center in their parish named after him. He talked about his widow, and the son they had watched grow up, who posts a Facebook picture of his father every single day, and the message: “Dad, I’ll never forget you.”

He concluded: I have lived among them. This is not just a story I read in the newspapers. Every time this young man walks into our house, we are reminded of two things: our sadness for him, for his loss, and how lucky we are, not to have experienced that loss. You need a president in that chair who understands that.”

This exquisite tableau of a patriarch’s fortitude and determination to set the world aright, his dear wife holding his coat obediently, looking up at him adoringly all the while. . . This was what so seduced Republican Rick Perlstein that day in Hudson, New Hampshire.

 

Manly authenticity

Chris Christie has a history of seducing political journalists’ inner Republicans. There was a time when articles suggesting that Chris Christie was just the Big Daddy the Republican Party needed were everywhere. His decision to run and not to run was among the hottest stories of 2015.

Back then, Christie seemed to have oh so much of that special something for which so many political journalists achingly long—authenticity. This cult of manly authenticity among the pundit class reached its apogee, or nadir, in 2006, with the publication of Joe Klein’s Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You’re Stupid.

And what was it, exactly, that Joe Klein said politics had lost? He illustrated the answer with an account of Harry Truman going off script at the Democratic National Convention in 1948. When Truman said he was going to call the Republican “Do Nothing Congress” back to Washington on “the 26th of July, which out in Missouri we call Turnip Day.”

Wrote Klein, in rapture, of Turnip Day: “For the purposes of this book, it will represent all those tiny and not so tiny things—not just the intermittent bolts of un-massaged oratory but also the spontaneous moments of honor and cowardice, the gestures, the body language, the smirks and sighs—that give us real insight into those who would lead us.”

In the reckoning of sages like Klein, John McCain was the ultimate Turnip Day politician: a hero to Americans because they believed he always said what he meant and meant what he said. Now, in the fullness of time, clearer minds have revealed John McCain as hearty a shoveler of bullshit as any other Republican solon. By Politifact’s reckoning, McCain’s “Pants on Fire” plus “False” plus “Mostly False” quotient is 42 percent—miles worse than the score earned by the figure the gatekeepers of elite opinion consider the apotheosis of Turnipless inauthenticity, Hillary Clinton. Hers is 27 percent.

But McCain plays the part so much better.

Chris Christie used to play it even better than that.

Surrounded by so much bullshit, a reporter wants to believe.

I wanted to believe.

And, as the proceedings continued at Gilchrist Metal, I believed.

Christie talked about how he would “save” Social Security. On the level of policy, I knew everything he said was absolutely nonsense.

But then he told his story about Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg saying: “Let me ask you, governor, what will entitlement reform mean to me?”

“Absolutely nothing, Mark,” Christie said. “When you retire, you will get nothing.”

He would “means test” Social Security, cutting the rich off from benefits in order to replenish its supposedly bone-dry coffers. Which perhaps, he allowed, wasn’t fair. “But life isn’t fair, and the government stealing money isn’t fair.”

He segued to a riff about how he, unlike the other candidates, would work with Democrats to do things like save Social Security. John Boehner had recently noted that he had just flown on Air Force One with Barack Obama—for the first time.

“You make me president, and Nancy Pelosi is still minority leader,” Christie said, “Nancy Pelosi can come on Air Force One whenever she wants. She can even steal the M&Ms if she wants.”

By the time the governor of New Jersey exited to the strains of Bon Jovi’s “We Weren’t Born to Follow” he had been at it for nearly 90 minutes, patiently grinding out answers to questions from the sublime to the ridiculous (like the guy who wanted to get rid of the Air Force). He would do three more equally exhausting town halls the same day: “I don’t do drive-by town hall meetings, where you come in for 45 minutes, I do a speech for 20, say, ‘thank you, good bye!’ and then I walk out. I sit here, and I take detailed questions, and I give detailed answers.”

And he had. Like I said, I was truly impressed. He had concluded by explaining why he said things that might make him radioactive to fellow Republicans, like that he would cut them off Social Security, and treat the other side like human beings. Because that was what he thought was right, and Chris Christie would never trim his sails when it came to doing what he thought was right.

“Regardless of what the cost is.”

Because “regardless of what age you are in this room, you want to go back to a political system where people actually tell you what they think! Regardless of what the cost is. I may say something you might not like. Every time I say things you may not like, and I’m specific, I take enormous risks that you won’t agree and have you look for someone else. I’m willing to take the risk. Cause I’d rather have you know what you’re buying. . . . Not those general answers about how I love America. We all love America. If you’re running for president, you love America. Everyone loves America!”

His last word: “Demand 100 percent agreement in order to get your vote and you know what you’re going to get? A liar.”

You know the punchline.

Your humble correspondent got ready to write about Chris Christie’s surprising success in New Hampshire, convinced of his sharp-edged discernment that Republican New Hampshire would see what Republican Rick Perlstein saw, and deliver for Christie if not an upset at least an impressive showing. Instead, of course, over a third of them voted for Donald Trump. Chris Christie came last among all the candidates who campaigned there, with 7.4 percent.

He promptly dropped out, which is why this whole scene was left on the cutting room floor when I wrote about the New Hampshire primary last winter.

He had organized his last-ditch effort by presenting himself as the anti-Trump: “Showtime is over, everybody. We are not electing an entertainer-in-chief.” He called him a “carnival barker,” begging voters, “It’s not enough to express anger—we must elect someone who knows how to get things done.” A “grown-up.”

And he implored, “Always beware of the candidate for public office who has the quick and easy answer to a complicated problem.”

Sixteen days after dropping out, he endorsed the carnival barker.

 

The sucker’s game

The lessons here are several. Some are banal. It’s always good to be reminded that politics is a morass of bullshit and dumb show. That story about his friend who died on 9/11 that he “normally doesn’t mention,” naturally, he mentions allthe time.

“Christie 2016: Telling It Like It Is,” ran the fat man’s campaign slogan.

And it’s always good to remember that the cult of authenticity is a sucker’s game. And that so many political pundits are suckers.

And, too, that anyone who organizes his or her life around the goal of becoming the most powerful person on the planet is not a normal person.

And that Donald Trump is the most not-normal of them all. In 1964, before finally naming Hubert Humphrey as his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson forced the esteemed senator into a series of political humiliations. “I want Hubert to kiss my ass in the window of Macy’s and say it smells like roses,” Johnson supposedly explained. Afterward, Humphrey said Johnson made him eat so much shit he was growing to like the taste of it. Donald Trump makes LBJ into a piker.

“No, I wasn’t being held hostage,” Christie told a reporter writing about the infamous press conference where Christie stood behind Trump, looking very much like the picture Webster’s Fourth New International Dictionary of the English Language will someday use to illustrate the definition for “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Trump promptly found a place for Christie as a convenient receptacle for excess insults whenever he ran out of brown people to humiliate. To make a point against John Kasich, practically “living in New Hampshire” that absentee governors were not morally qualified to be president—he shouted out to the wings of the stage: “Where’s Chris, is Chris around? Even more than Chris Christie, he was, he was there, right?”

Trump made fun of Christie’s girth. He allegedly sent him off to fetch a hamburger, which Christie denies, though he can’t deny the time Trump barked in his general direction, “Get on the plane and go home.” T was caught on camera.

Two months into this, Christie had passed the crucial test: Trump announced the governor would be his presidential transition chairman. And then, last week, news leaked that Christie was a front-runner to become Donald Trump’s running mate—though only one of two top choices. The other is Newt Gingrich: a signal that, to finally earn the potential reward, Chris Christie must soil himself some more.

Donald Trump’s appetite for chumps to humiliate is bottomless, and defines him. Chris Christie is a pathetic scam artist, and deserves him.

 

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives with Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) at a campaign rally at Winner Aviation in Youngstown, Ohio March 14, 2016.  REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

What Democrats Need To Know About Violence At Trump Rallies

Published with permission from the Washington Spectator.

This spring, Donald Trump added a new phrase to the stock of improvised riffs he throws out at his rallies: “I love my protesters.” And if my Twitter mentions are any indication, there are a lot of people who think they know why: disruptions inside or outside Trump’s events just might help elect him president.

Wrote one, a conservative: #Dems need to read @rickperlstein’s #Nixonland (#Liberalism gone amok led to riots, causing #conservative backlash.)” Liberals agree. “Rioting only makes Trump stronger,” wrote Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, linking to a clip of police responding to window-smashing and poster-burning at a Trump event in Albuquerque.

The syllogism is simple: first in 1966 with Ronald Reagan, then in 1968 and 1972 with Richard Nixon, Republicans ascended to higher office by pinning on the Democrats responsibility for riots and disruptive protests carried out on the left, successfully framing themselves (as I detailed in my 2008 book Nixonland) as the preservers of order and decorum in a society that seemed to be falling into chaos.

“Things are going to hell.”

“We need an ass-kicker in the White House.”

And presto, a generation of Republican presidents. Just read Rick Perlstein!

Well, I love my readers, conservative and liberal both. But the people using my historical work to make this particular argument need to read it less selectively and more attentively.

The first presidential candidate I wrote about who successfully exploited the anxieties of American voters about violence was Lyndon B. Johnson. When Theodore H. White wrote The Making of the President 1964, he included a long account of what happened in Birmingham in 1963. “Bombingham” was the nation’s epicenter of anti-black violence, where African-Americans led by Martin Luther King marched for integration and were set upon by police fire hoses and dogs while the whole world watched on TV.

His book began with the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination and continued with violent chaos throughout, because 1964 was a violent year. Some of it came from the right: the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in the fall of 1963 and the Klan murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964; ruffianism at such political meetings as the Young Republicans Convention of 1963; all sorts of mayhem associated with the John Birch Society and its ideological cognates, like the time a Dallas matron clomped U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson on the head with a protest sign.

And some of it came from the left—at least if you accept the political semiotics of the time that held black militancy responsible for the first summer of urban race riots of the 1960s, which began in Harlem directly following the Republican National Convention in 1964.

As for the most profound incident of political violence in the U.S. since the Civil War, the Kennedy assassination, the perpetrator was a Communist, but until that fact was established, the almost universal presumption was that right-wingers—Klansmen, H.L. Hunt, Birchers, whatever—must have been responsible; because at that time it was right-wingers whom most Americans held responsible for all signs of political chaos. Barry Goldwater was held to be a symbol of those strange, scary forces (even those riots by black people).

The Johnson campaign worked brilliantly and indefatigably to exacerbate that public perception. LBJ prevailed, in an electoral landslide. #Conservatism gone amok led to riots, the electorate reasoned. Rioting only made LBJ stronger.

Then, of course, 1966: Ronald Reagan, excoriating “the mess at Berkeley” and its “orgies so vile I can’t even describe them to you,” drafting off the white backlash following the Watts riots and winning the California governorship. Then 1968, when Nixon borrowed Reagan’s script: “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night,” Nixon cried melodramatically in his speech accepting the nomination. “We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other, killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish. Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy, and Korea, and in Valley Forge for this?” He pledged a “new attorney general” who understood that “the first right of every American is to be free from domestic violence.”

He won, of course. Then, in 1972, he staged himself once more as the man who could finally end the climate of violence in the nation—as if he hadn’t already been president for the past four years. And achieved the greatest landslide in U.S. history.

But there was another election in between. Nixon put enormous stock in the 1970 off-year congressional elections. (Another Watergate discovery was that Nixon organized a secret illegal slush fund for his favored candidates.) Nixon, and especially his attack dog Vice President Spiro Agnew, in the wake of a series of burnings of campus buildings across the country, hit the road to make the case that the country was on the verge of a violent left-wing putsch and that voting Republican was the only way to stave it off.

The Republicans broadcasted an election-eve speech from a Phoenix airplane hangar, a Trump-like affair in which the president sought to close the sale by speaking about a recent rally of his in San Jose, California (the same city, coincidentally, where two weeks ago Trump fans were pummeled by anti-Trump protesters). In San Jose, the presidential motorcade had been showered with protesters’ rocks. “For too long, we have appeased aggression here at home, and, as with all appeasement, the result has been more aggression and more violence!” Nixon, sounding much like Trump, said in Phoenix. “The time has come to draw the line. The time has come for the great silent majority of Americans of all ages, of every political persuasion, to stand up and be counted against appeasement of the rock throwers and the obscenity shouters in America.”

In fact, Nixon’s advance men had carefully arranged for the motorcade in San Jose to pass by those angry protesters, all but staging the incident. #Liberalism gone amok led to riots, causing #conservative backlash: Nixon was betting on it.

But the Democrats broadcast their own election-night speech. In it, Senator Edmund Muskie sat calmly in an armchair in his Maine home and explained—softly—that the election came down to a decision between “the politics of fear and the politics of trust. One says: you are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you. The other says: the world is a baffling and hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of men. In voting for the Democratic Party tomorrow, you cast your vote for trust, not just in leaders or policies, but trusting your fellow citizens, in the ancient tradition of this home for freedom and, most of all, for trust in yourself.”

The next day, America went to the polls, and overwhelmingly expanded the majority of the Democratic Party in both houses of Congress.

That’s the score: four elections, two where violence drove the electorate toward the Republicans, and two where violence drove the electorate toward the Democrats. And here is the heart of the pattern. Listen to what Richard Nixon said in that 1968 acceptance speech, after he invited Americans to listen to the sirens in the night, the angry voices, Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other. Later in the speech, he invited them to listen to “another voice. It is the quiet voice in the tumult and the shouting.” That was the voice he promised to embody. He promised calm.

What made his promise credible were the images, three weeks later, at the Democratic convention: the worst violence at any convention in U.S. history. And the way that same chaos seemed to follow the Democratic nominee wherever he went—like the incident on October 31 when a rally for nominee Hubert Humphrey was interrupted by a naked woman who dashed down the aisle carrying the head of a pig on a charger. After she was apprehended, her male companion, also naked, seized the pig’s head, leapt to the stage, and presented it to the speaker, economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

Chaos seemed to follow the Democrats wherever they went. So Nixon, promising quiet, prevailed.

Then, two years later, when chaos seemed to follow the Republicans wherever they went—it was a Democrat, Edmund Muskie, who offered the credible appeal, quoted above, for quiet.

History, really, is not so neat as all this. Still and all, the evidence is suggestive. It’s not that the chaos of political rallies that devolve into mêlées invariably favors the authoritarian party of law and order. Instead, it is the party to whom chaos appears to attach itself that the public tends to reject—especially if the leaders of the opposing party do an effective job of framing themselves as the quiet, calm, and centering alternative.

That is the lesson for Hillary Clinton. What is the lesson for us? It’s most decidedly not to encourage chaos at Donald Trump rallies. This very act of encouragement, after all, clouds the story: it would make it credible to frame the Democrats as authors of chaos.

Trump is a fascist. Trumpism leads to riots. Already, the backlash in ensuing: in the first round of polling since both parties provisionally settled on their candidates, 70 percent of Americans said they viewed Trump unfavorably, 56 percent “strongly” unfavorably. Among independents he lags 38 points behind Hillary Clinton in favorability, 20 points behind among whites; and even among Republicans his favorability rating has plunged from 42 percent in April to 34 percent now. Asked to choose between the three candidates on the ballot, Clinton, Trump, and Libertarian Gary Johnson, polling has Trump 12 points behind. He is the pig on the platter. Let him stew in his own blood. The public recognizes the chaos of which he is author, and they are turning away in disgust.

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo: Victor Cristobal (C), of San Jose, chants during a demonstration outside a campaign rally for Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump in San Jose, California, U.S. June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam 

California Dreamin’ With Donald Trump And Alex Jones

Republished with permission from The Washington Spectator

Donald Trump keeps on upping the ante. Consider what he said at a rally last week in Fresno, on the subject of California’s apocalyptic drought.

Make that “drought,” for according to Donald J. Trump, there isn’t one. Never mind that the years between late 2001 and 2014 have been the driest in California history since record-keeping began; nor the 12 million trees that have died from “drought” in Southern California; nor predictions that the 2015 El Nino would bring relief, though the amount of rainfall actually decreased.

In Fresno, Donald approached the podium. He led off with a customary boast. (“What a crowd . . . I saw on television this morning, five o’clock in the morning, people were lining up. This is crazy, crazy!”) He referred to some real estate transaction he was working “probably 10 or 12 years ago” in their fair city: “They had a problem. You remember the problem, right? They had a problem, I think it was Running Horse, and I was going to take it over and do a beautiful job.” Then, in mid-thought, he pivoted incoherently into the subject on everyone’s minds in that parched agricultural region: “Fortunately, I didn’t do it, because there isn’t any water, because they send all the water out to the ocean, right?”

“I made a fortune by not doing it,” he said. The crowd cheered. Only in Trumplandia do the citizens cheer when they’re not afforded the benefactions of their orange-haired overlord. (I looked it up. His proposal to take over the foundering Running Horse golf course development apparently fell apart because the city refused his demand to dispossess homeowners over a nine-square-mile area through eminent domain.)

He commented that it was too bad he didn’t go through with the deal. Because: “I would have changed the water. . . . You have a water problem that is so insane, that is so ridiculous. Where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.” Loud cheers.

He continued. “It’s not the drought. They have plenty of water. No, they shove it out to sea. Now, why? Because they’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish.”

“If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.” Then he moved on.

It made the news: “Donald Trump Tells Californians There Is No Drought.”

Then, however, reporters moved on to the next story, with no time to Google from whence Trump derived this crackpot notion about water taken from farmers and “shoved out to the sea.” The answer, apparently: InfoWars, the website of lunatic conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Who believes, for instance, that the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, was staged by the government, using actors, in order to force gun control down the American people’s throats.

The theory that California’s water shortage is all the fault of the Environmental Protection Agency is, like most conspiracy theories, grounded in an actual fact. The EPA has, in fact, caused 800,000 acre-feet of water annually to be flushed into San Francisco Bay to maintain its marine ecosystem. The program, however, dates to the early 1990s, and California’s water system, all told, manages over 40 million acre-feet a year. The practice that Trump describes so darkly involves 2 percent of that—and an economically vital 2 percent at that. California fisheries produce jobs in the hundreds of thousands. But not in Fresno.

The notion that rules governing 800,000 acre-feet of water are the cause of the much larger problem, and that business about the “three-inch fish,” dates—word for word—to an April, 2015, InfoWars article entitled “Environmentalists Caused California Drought to Protect This Fish.”

Since last year, Rachel Maddow has been on the case of Donald Trump’s deep ties to Alex Jones. On the morning of December 2, she wrote in a syndicated column, Jones hosted Trump for an extended live interview. “After about 30 minutes of mutual compliments, and Jones telling Trump that ‘about 90 percent’ of his listeners support him, the presidential candidate wrapped things up by telling Jones: ‘Your reputation is amazing.’”

Maddow continued, “That same day, after that interview, 14 people were killed and 21 others were injured in the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. Within hours of that news breaking, Jones and his website—predictably—were hosting discussions of how San Bernardino, like Newtown, like the Boston Marathon bombing, and of course like 9/11, was a hoax. Either it didn’t happen, or if it did it was perpetuated by the government.”

In mid-March, Jones took up the cudgels for Trump in a rant that began: “Everyone’s having their water poisoned, everyone’s having deadly vaccines pushed on them, everyone is having weaponized television aimed at them. . . . It is a metric, scientific, mathematic algorithm of tyranny, that is extremely sophisticated, that can even predict the future.”

“A few thousand people are in on the whole deal. And through compartmentalization, they’re rolling it out.”

Jones explained that shooting “all two million police in the country” in the back of the head wouldn’t help, because “there would just be anarchy and all sorts of problems and they would just bring in foreign troops.”

“The globalists are building a world, in their own words, where normal human life is over. . . . It’s the devil. And the churches are not going to tell you. It’s an alien force, not of this world, attacking humanity, like the Bible and every other ancient text says.”

He screamed at the top of his lungs: “IT’S NOT HUMAN INTELLIGENCE WE’RE FACING! . . . WE’RE UNDER ATTACK! EVERYONE’S UNDER ATTACK!”

And even shooting two million cops could not beat them back.

He proposed, however, something that could. “The elite hate Trump, let me tell you. And if he is a psy-op, let me tell you, he’s the most sophisticated one I ever saw. And even if he is, he’s a revelation of the awakening . . . Humanity’s gotta get off-world, we’ve got to get access to the life-extension technologies . . . I want the advanced life extension! I want to go to space! I want to see inter-dimensional travel! I WANT WHAT GOD PROMISED US! AND I’M NOT GOING TO SIT HERE AND LET SATAN STEAL IT!

Donald Trump appreciates this man’s amazing reputation, has appeared on his program, and is leveraging InfoWar’s insights to feed his symbiosis with his mob. The bigfoot political press missed that story, and will likely continue to miss it, because their entire business model and worldview is predicated upon the idea of two equivalent sides fighting for national power.

That’s not what our nation’s founders promised us. And I’m not going to sit here and let the orange-haired monster steal it.

 

Rick Perlstein is the Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Photo Credit: Tristan Bowersox

Trump Unmasked

Published with permission from The Washington Spectator

On March 24, Donald Trump tweeted that 5,000 ISIS fighters had infiltrated Europe. He concluded, “I alone can fix this problem.” Three days later, he said virtually the same thing: “Another radical Islamic attack, this time in Pakistan, targeting Christian women & children. At least 67 dead, 400 injured. I alone can solve.”

“I alone.”

“I alone can solve.”

At a town hall discussion with Chris Matthews, the MSNBC host asked Trump how he expects cooperation with the Muslim world in fighting ISIS when he has pledged to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

Trump responded, “I have been told by more Muslims who are saying ‘what you are doing is a great thing, not a bad thing.’” He added, “believe it or not, I have a lot of friends who are Muslim, and they call me. In most cases they are very rich Muslims, O.K.?”

Out popped Matthews with what he was sure was a Trump-stopping zinger: “But do they get into the country?” (I mean, what kind of friend bans his friends from the country?) Without missing a beat, Trump responded, “They’ll come in. And you’ll have exceptions.”

Who decides?

I alone decide.

This is what Louis XIV is reported to have said to the Parliament of Paris: L’etat, c’est moi. “I am the state.”

There’s a lot wrong with America’s Constitution. But at the very least, historically, it was a quantum leap forward in a principle that is at the heart of humanity’s long march from barbarism to civilization: the rule of law, not of men. Lex, Rex, as the Scottish jurist Samuel Rutherford put it in 1644—“the law is king.” Instead of, in the heretofore brutish history of humankind, the other way around, that the king is law. Not here. Not in America. That principle, universally understood, was why, back in the 1970s, a lowly African-American security guard named Frank Wills became a national hero: it was Wills who alertly noticed, in the wee hours of June 17, 1972, an errant strip of tape that kept open a door in the Watergate parking garage. That discovery and what came after it would, some 26 months later, bring down a president. The Washington Post then sought Wills out for an interview that ran on the front page on August 8, 1974. It was headlined, “Guard says no position too high.”

With President Trump, no longer. In a recent interview with The Donald, the Post’s Bob Woodward awkwardly inquired as to what lessons he took from America’s experience with Richard Nixon.

“It was just that personality,” Trump answered. “Very severe, very exclusive . . . And people didn’t like him. I mean, people didn’t like him.”

Woodward: “And he broke the law.”

Right, that: “And he broke the law. Yeah. He broke the law. . . . Unfortunately, it was a very sad legacy in the end. It turned out to be a very sad legacy. Such an interesting figure to study.”

Woodward: “Do you take any lessons from that? Because what he did is he converted the presidency to an instrument of personal revenge.”

“No, I don’t. I don’t see that. What I do see is—what I am amazed at is, I’m somebody that gets along with people. . . I have the biggest crowds.”

In the Trumpverse, there are no laws.

In the same interview, Robert Costa of the Post asked Trump about his First Hundred Days as president. After, that is, he finishes renegotiating the trade deals. “What about legislation? What about economic legislation?” Trump responded,

“Before I talk about legislation, because I think frankly this is more important—number one, it’s going to be a very big tax cut.”

Yes, the imminent Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States doesn’t know that it takes legislation to cut taxes. The president just . . . decides it.

Trump, alone. With a crowd of supporters. Who adore him, and in his mind exist to do his bidding.

At bottom, the purpose of a constitution is to provide procedures to coordinate collective action in a way that transcends brute force. A constitution is a machine for governing without guns. (Not for nothing is the only part of the Constitution that affirmatively mentions regulation is the Second Amendment.) This is the reason assassinations are so horrifying: they are the most dramatic possible blot on the ideal of governing beyond the a whims of mere individuals. We also have other ways of accomplishing the same goal, such as norms of polite behavior: “manners.” There is, too, international law. Which is another problem for Trump: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight,” he said in March, while campaigning in Wisconsin.

Cut Trump to his essence, and these developments, laws, norms, constitutional constraints, taken together, are what he and his supporters seem to find the most objectionable in human history. “Nobody wants to hurt each other any more,” he lamented at one rally. That’s why protesters are able to protest (and not because of, say, the Bill of Rights to the Constitution): “They realize that there are no consequences to protesting any more.”

“Greatness” is equated with unfettered violent action: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do in the old days in an awful place like this. They’d be carried out in a stretcher, folks. a I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”

You want laws? Here’s the law. Carry out my will, and I will protect you. (“It’s not like I’m worried someone’s actually going to come shoot me down,” Trump nemesis Megyn Kelly told Charlie Rose on CBS, when asked about the death threats she’s been receiving. “But I do worry someone’s gonna try to hurt me in the presence of my children.”) The scholar Zeynep Tufekci revealed the extent to which his followers treat Trump as the sole source of truth and authority—and that “every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” They know, for example, because Trump told them, that Congress funded ISIS. So why would you trust Congress to write laws? Although, there is one example I can think of where Trump mentioned the necessity of Congress (re)writing laws: after someone, apparently very high in the military firmament, told him that generals will not follow his illegal orders. So he adjusted, slightly. As he put it March 30 in Appleton, Wisconsin: “We can’t waterboard, but they can chop off heads. I think we’ve got to make some changes, some adjustments.”

So what kind of people does a man like this appoint to the Supreme Court? In another recent interview, he became the first presidential candidate to announce as his litmus test for these preeminent protectors of the Constitution their willingness to prioritize his crushing of a political rival: “I’d probably appoint people who would look very seriously at [Hillary Clinton’s] e-mail disaster, because it’s a criminal activity, and I would appoint people who would look very seriously at that to start off with. . . . What she’s getting away with is absolutely murder.”

When I heard that, I thought, again, of Nixon. When Charles Manson was put on trial in 1970, President Nixon offhandedly told a group of reporters in Denver that Manson was “guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Given that the Constitution guarantees the accused “the right to speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury,” what was described as Nixon’s “blunder” became an immediate scandal dominating the news for days. The judge considered declaring a mistrial, the president was immediately forced to backtrack, insisting he didn’t intend to speculate about Manson’s guilt or innocence. Trump says such things now, and it’s hardly a blip. Who, after all, can keep count of every one of Trump’s dictatorial bleats?

Trump is a radical personalist. Why don’t women have to worry about his anti-woman statements? “No one respects women more than I do.” Why won’t we need worry about his pledge to exclude Syrian refugees? “I have a bigger heart than anybody in this room.”

I, I, I; me, me, me.

Our wise founders were radical impersonalists. When they wrote arguments for publication in newspapers, they preferred to do so anonymously, using pseudonyms like “Publius”—lest the attachment of a distinguished name distract the reader from the content and quality of the argument. Trump’s personalism, on the other hand, is how he pushes away the protection of constitutional principle with every fiber of his being.

Costa of the Washington Post: “Maybe I’m mishearing you, but I feel like you’re almost comfortable being the Lone Ranger.” “I am. Because I understand life. And I understand how life works. I’m the Lone Ranger.”

As Gabriel Sherman wrote in New York magazine, Trump employs “no pollsters, media coaches, or speechwriters. He buys few ads, and when he does, he likes to write them himself . . . college-newspaper offices have more robust infrastructure than his national campaign headquarters.” Which is a marvelous mode of operation, to govern by fiat. It abets, in fact, a constitutive feature of the fascist appeal: pure, frenetic action. It’s quite the rebuke of the sclerotic nature of our poor, old, beaten-down system of constitutional checks and balances. Which, to use a very old-fashioned phrase, only exist, after all, to safeguard our American liberties. Can checks and balances work with Trump as the officer atop the system?

It’s time for us, together, to start thinking about what happens next.

Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.

Avenging Angels

Published with permission from The Washington Spectator.

I’ve been studying the history of American conservatism full time since 1997—almost 20 years now. I’ve read almost every major book on the subject. I thought I knew what I was talking about. Then along comes Donald Trump to scramble the whole goddamned script.

Now, historians must begin to consider alternate genealogies of the American right: lineages for the orange-haired monster that no one saw coming. Our received narrative of the movement encompassed by Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley and Strom Thurmond and Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan just doesn’t cut it any longer.  I’ve done my best to begin the work—thinking through, for instance, Trumpism’s connection to fascism, a political tradition not heretofore considered all that relevant in the American context. Other bodies, however, are buried closer to home.

No history of modern conservatism I’m aware of finds much significance in the 22,000 Nazi sympathizers who rallied for Hitler at Madison Square Garden in February 1939, presided over by a giant banner of General George Washington that stretched almost all the way to the second deck, capped off by a menacing eagle insignia. Nor the now-infamous Ku Klux Klan march through the streets of Queens in 1927, when The New York Times reported “1,000 Klansmen and 100 policemen staged a free-for-all,” in which according to one contemporary news report all the individuals arrested were wearing Klan attire, and that one of those arrestees was Donald Trump’s own father.

In the specter of the son’s likely ascension as Republican nominee, however, such events gather significance. Consider the subsequent history of Fred Trump’s career as a developer of middle-class housing in the outer boroughs of New York City. We now know Fred Trump was notorious enough a racist to draw the attention of Woody Guthrie, who wrote a song about him in the 1950s: “I suppose/ Old Man Trump knows/ Just how much/ Racial Hate/ he stirred up/ In the bloodpot of human hearts/ When he drawed/ That color line/ Here at his/ Eighteen hundred family project.”

Twenty years later—by which time he had brought his son in as his apprentice—the hate Old Man Trump stirred in the bloodpot of human hearts became a matter of legal record, when the United States Justice Department sued Trump père et fils for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 in operating 39 buildings they owned. Testifying in his own defense, young Donald (who would soon be seen around town in a chauffeured limousine with a license plate reading “DJT”), testified that he was “unfamiliar” with the landmark law. As the evidence in the federal case against the Trump organization became close to incontrovertible, he told the press the suit was a conspiracy to force them “to rent to welfare recipients,” a form of “reverse discrimination.” This proud and open refusal to rent to welfare recipients—whom he said contribute to “the detriment of tenants who have, for many years, lived in these buildings, raised families in them, and who plan to live there”—was Donald Trump’s defense against racism.

It is in this saga that we locate the formation of Donald Trump’s mature political vision of the world, in continuity with America’s racist and nativist heyday of the 1920s, and within the context of a cultural world much more familiar to us: New York in the 1970s, that raging cauldron of skyrocketing violent crime, subway trains slathered with graffiti, and a fiscal crisis so dire that even police were laid off in mass—then the laid off cops blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, deflating car tires, and yanking keys from car ignitions.

Think of Trump coming of age in the New York of the 1977 blackout, the search for the Son of Sam, and Howard Cosell barking out “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning” during game two of the World Series at Yankee stadium as a helicopter hovered over a five-alarm fire at an abandoned elementary school (40 percent of buildings in the Bronx were destroyed by the end of the 1970s, mostly via arson—often torched by landlords seeking insurance windfalls).

Think of Trump learning about the ins and outs of public life in this New York, a city of a frightened white outer-borough middle-class poised between fight or flight, in which real estate was everywhere and always a battleground, when the politics of race and crime bore all the intensity of civil war.

In The Invisible Bridge I wrote about what it was like in this New York in 1974, the summer when the federal lawsuit against the Trumps was approaching its climax, the summer when a controversial new movie began packing theaters across the five boroughs.

Death Wish starred a then-obscure Charles Bronson as a New York City architect who used to be liberal, until his daughter was raped and his wife murdered. His son-in-law pronounces defeat: “There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Nothing but cut and run.” The architect, by contrast, learns to shoot a gun—in an Old West ghost town—so he can start mowing down muggers at point-blank range. He soon cuts the city’s murder rate in half, and wins a spot on the cover of Time.

Liberal reviewers registered their disgust: The Times’s Vincent Canby called it “a bird-brained movie to cheer the hearts of the far-right wing,” then, 10 days later, branded Bronson a “circus bear.” Time called it “meretricious,” “brazen,” and “hysterical.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times labeled it “fascist.” But in the real-life New York City, where the murder rate had doubled in 10 years, and where a psychiatrist published a Times op-ed bragging about the violence he had prevented by leveling a pistol that he kept “never far from my reach while I attend to patients in my mid-Manhattan office,” each onscreen vigilante act won ovations from grateful fans—sometimes standing ovations.

Two years later came an even darker, and considerably more critical, portrait of New York City’s escalating culture of vigilantism. In Taxi Driver, a deranged Vietnam veteran speaks what must have been the unspoken inner monologue of any number of real-life New Yorkers who felt trapped in an urban sewer: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Pistol in hand, he rehearses his revenge in the mirror: “Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it any more. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”

When, around that time, Wall Street Journal columnist Irving Kristol coined the phrase “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”—a bowdlerization of the older adage “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged”—he probably didn’t have Charles Bronson in mind, let alone taxi driver Travis Bickle. Nonetheless the politics is all of a piece. Charles Bronson conservatism, Travis Bickle conservatism, the conservatism of avenging angels protecting white innocence in a  “liberal” metropolis gone mad: this is New York City’s unique contribution to the history of conservatism in America, an ideological tradition heretofore unrecognized in the historical literature. But without it, we cannot understand the rise of Donald Trump.

Trump’s political debut, after all, came in response to a mugging. Following the infamous attack on a female jogger in Central Park, Trump purchased full pages in four New York newspapers demanding, “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” All the hallmarks of his present crusade against “political correctness” were in evidence, such as the harkening to that bygone day when men were men, cops were cops, and punks were punks. He concluded: “I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave the citizens of this City.” As I previously reported, these same police straight-jacketed by liberal timorousness had already coerced the rape suspects into confessions later proven to be false.

That’s N.Y.C.’s avenging-angel conservatism in a nutshell. And now that Trump is gliding toward an expected landslide in the New York primary on Tuesday, April 19, we must begin the work of excavating its history.

We might start with William F. Buckley—though other scholars can surely date it back further. The National Review editor’s quixotic campaign for New York mayor in 1965 is best remembered for a self-effacing quip. (“What will you do if you win?” he was asked. “Demand a recount.”) Buckley himself is now celebrated as the genteel warrior of the conservatism of a more civilized age: The New York Times, upon his death in 2008, averred of that 1965 race, “He injected a rare degree of lofty oratory into city politics.”

Think of Trump coming of age in the New York of the 1977 blackout, the search for the Son of Sam, and Howard Cosell barking out “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

What he also injected was an unprecedented reactionary thuggishness. Like his idea to “undertake to quarantine all addicts, even as smallpox carriers would be quarantined during a plague.” Or “relocating chronic welfare cases outside the city limits”—in what his critics described as concentration camps for the poor. The campaign might have begun as a lark. He received hardly more than 10 percent of the vote. But in a harbinger of things to come, he finished second in some Catholic neighborhoods in Queens. Cops wore “Buckley For Mayor” buttons. When the election’s winner, the very liberal John Lindsay, campaigned in those same neighborhoods, young white men waved “Support your Local Police” placards in his face.

The stage was set, in 1966, for the next New York City law-and-order melodrama. Lindsay, now mayor, fulfilled a campaign pledge by establishing a Civilian Complaint Review Board to protect citizens from abusive cops, the better to restore trust in a police force whose utter rot was the subject that year of a bestselling book about a cop named Frank Serpico, whose reward for refusing to break the law was an attempt by fellow cops on his life.

The president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association responded to Mayor Lindsay’s new board: “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups and their gripes and their shouting.” After a Brooklyn riot in which cops had been ordered not to use their nightsticks, the PBA got 96,888 signatures to put a referendum on the November ballot to dissolve the review board (they only needed 25,000). Their TV commercials brayed, Trump-like, Bronson-like, “The addict, the criminal, the hoodlum: only the policeman stands between you and him.” Buckley—who had orated on the campaign trail, “We need a much larger police force, enjoined to lust after the apprehension of criminals,” unencumbered by “any such political irons as civilian review boards”—might only have received 10 percent of the vote. But 12 months later, the anti-CCRB referendum won 63 percent of the popular vote. Even Jews, who were supposed to be liberal, opposed it 55 percent to 40 percent.

Two years later, George Wallace brought his independent presidential bid to Madison Square Garden. “We need some meanness,” Wallace brayed. And he got it: police had to rescue black protesters from a mob that surrounded them and chanted, “Kill ‘em!” The New Republic observed, “Never again will you read about Berlin in the ’30s without remembering this wild confrontation of two irrational forces.”

The confrontation is the key: one of the things that makes New York’s conservatism of avenging angels so feral is its proximity to so many damned left-wingers. Left-wingers like Mayor Lindsay—who only won reelection in 1969 because the white ethnic backlash vote was split between two candidates, one of whom, Mario Procaccino, helped popularize the phrase “limousine liberal” in describing Lindsay.

In 1971, Lindsay elected to build publicly subsidized housing in the Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills, partly upon the presumption that its largely Jewish population, only two and half decades on from the Holocaust, would be relatively free from racism of the Fred Trump sort. Apparently hizzoner wasn’t paying attention to the growing following behind Rabbi Meir Kahane, the domestic terrorist who was another of New York City’s sui generis contributions to the history of the American right.

Village Voice columnist Jack Newfield reported from one of the mayor’s damage-control sessions at the Forest Hills Jewish Community Center, where Jews called “Lindsay redneck names under the shadow of the Torah.” The Voice’s Paul Cowan heard a picketer boast, “If Lindsay ever gets to be president, I’ll kill him. I’ll do just what Oswald did to John Kennedy.” His companion replied, “You won’t get the chance. Lindsay is going to get shot right here in New York.”

Donald Trump, 25 years old, was just then beginning his apprenticeship in his father’s real estate organization.

He made the acquaintance of Roy Cohn, who represented the family against the federal racial bias lawsuit, devising the defense that Fred Trump had no intention of excluding black tenants, just welfare recipients. Trump became a student of the legendarily reptilian thug who came to prominence as Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer. Long-time Trump-watcher Michael D’Antonio has explained: “Both were members of Le Club, a private hot spot where the rich and famous and social climbers could meet without suffering the presence of ordinary people.” Writes D’Antonio, “Cohn modeled a style for Trump that was one part friendly gossip and one part menace. . . . Trump kept a photo of the glowering Cohn so he could show it to those who might be chilled by the idea that this man was his lawyer.”

It was Cohn, indeed, who introduced Trump to the nearly-as-reptilian Roger Stone, the professional dirty trickster and sexual adventurer with the giant tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back—and who, even though Trump has called him a “stone-cold loser,” has managed to hang on to a position of influence in the Trump presidential campaign. He certainly maintains an influence on Donald Trump’s view of the world. “When somebody screws you,” Stone told a reporter, “Screw ’em back—but a lot harder.” Figures like Cohn and Stone represent another branch in the New York conservative tradition: flashy, hedonistic right-wing operatives who gargle with razor blades and wear their shiny silver three-piece suits like armor.

Next comes an avenging angel named Ed Koch.

A former liberal, Koch won his underdog mayoral victory in 1977 in a madcap electoral free-for-all whose tenor was set on the night of July 13, when a series of lightning strikes shut down transmissions lines, the city shuddered to black, and so much crime ensued that buses filled with men in chains shuttled from jailhouse to jailhouse in search of available cells.

Neoconservative Midge Decter wrote in Commentary that it was like “having been given a sudden glimpse into the foundations of one’s house and seen, with horror, that it was utterly infested and rotting away.” The supposedly liberal readership of The New York Times wrote letters to the editor like this one: “The Puerto Ricans can go back to Puerto Rico. They belong there anyway, and if the blacks do not shape up they can go to the South.”

Ed Koch was virtually unknown outside his Greenwich Village neighborhood, but with a pledge to restore the death penalty, his campaign took off like a rocket. Never mind that the New York mayor had no power over capital punishment. The people had spoken: a mere 25 percent opposed bringing back what New York Daily News called “little hot squat.”

Meanwhile Koch berated the “poverty pimps” and “povertitians” holding a broke city hostage, demanded the abolition of the Board of Education (a “lard barrel of waste”), denounced alleged welfare fraud, decried “the nuts on the left who dump on middle class values.” He promised, too, to unwind New York’s experiments with free college, generous welfare, and subsidized housing, which its cheerleaders on the left called “socialism in one city.”

One of those cheerleaders was the one-time front-runner in the race, the very liberal Congresswoman Bella Abzug. After the blackout riots, her campaign went into a tailspin; she didn’t even make it into the runoff.

An underdog did instead: the young Mario Cuomo. He said, “the death penalty cannot provide jobs for the poor. The electric chair cannot balance the budget. The electric chair cannot educate our children. The electric chair cannot give us a sound economy or save us from bankruptcy or even save my seventy-seven-year-old mother.” And besides, he would add, America was better than that. Or was it?  One time when he tried to make that same point, an old lady in Brooklyn spat in his face. Another time, someone stood up and cried, “Kill them!”

Koch won, of course, and then served as New York’s mayor for the next dozen years. Although to outer-borough reactionaries like state Senator Chris Mega of Brooklyn, he was just another liberal sellout on gun control. At a December 1984 press conference, Mega demanded to know: “When will Mayor Koch provide the same level of protection to the citizens who ride the subways and pay their taxes that he enjoys surrounded by a phalanx of New York’s finest, guns at the ready?”

That particular press conference was called by the National Rifle Association in support of Bernhard Goetz, an electronics salesman from Kew Gardens, Queens, who shot five young men on a graffiti-encrusted subway car who, depending on whom you believed, were either preparing to mug him or aggressively panhandling for $5. Like the character played by Charles Bronson, Goetz made the cover of Time magazine. Celebratory bumper stickers bloomed: “Ride With Bernie—He Goetz Them.” In a later interview he reflected, Travis Bickle-like, “The guys I shot represented the failure of society. . . . Forget about their ever making a positive contribution to society. It’s only a question of how much a price they’re going to cost. The solution is their mothers should have had an abortion.”

One of Goetz’s biggest backers was Bob Grant, who beginning on WMCA in 1970, and then on WOR (until he was fired in 1979 for saying the only reason a black woman got her job was that “she passed the gynecological and pigmentation test”), virtually invented right-wing talk radio—and when you think about it, it hardly could have been invented anywhere else but New York. Grant won the first live radio interview with Goetz, in 1986, lamenting that he had not “finished the job by killing them all.”

Three years later, after the assault in Central Park, Donald Trump offered his memorable argument to bring back little hot squat. “What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we know it. . . . How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS.”

In 2011, Bob Grant, impressed with Donald Trump’s campaign to force President Obama to produce his birth certificate, announced he had found his presidential candidate for 2012. Grant died in 2014, but two years later, his brand of vigilante conservatism has gone fully national. The wall Fred Trump sought to build in Queens in the early 1970s has been relocated 2,000 miles south. On Tuesday, Donald Trump will win a landslide in his home state. And somewhere, Bob Grant will be smiling.

Photo Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor