We urge everyone to read, carefully, David Remnick’s excellent article, “Obama Reckons With a Trump Presidency,” in the November 28th issue of The New Yorker. It captures an in-depth, comprehensive, and thoughtful dialogue with President Obama about the causes and consequences of Trump’s campaign and his impending presidency. It also introduces, in an attention-grabbing way, one of the themes that The Laughing Chimps hope to both explore and emphasize in this blog: capturing and controlling the political narrative.
What do we mean by that? Consider, first, President Obama’s take on Trump’s campaign rhetoric. “‘We’ve seen this coming,’ [Obama] said. ‘Donald Trump is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years.’” The Laughing Chimps agree that the Trump Travesty, as we’re sometimes fond of calling it, was foreseeable at least in kind, if not so much in degree. But we disagree with the President on the question of timing. The GOP “rhetoric and tactics” the President spoke of didn’t arise within the last ten or twenty years. We believe they trace their roots at least as far back as the mid-1960s.
That’s when the first of two significant milestones were laid down. First, in the wake of JFK’s assassination, LBJ pushed through Congress the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Johnson knew this victory came at a political cost. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” he said to aide Bill Moyers. His prediction proved correct, but only in part. The GOP’s infamous Southern Strategy, which capitalized on white southern backlash to black civil rights and voting equality measures, is still going strong today, and is, arguably, just as effective as ever.
The second critical milestone was something that came to be known as the Powell Memo. The Powell Memo was a planning and strategy memorandum to the national Chamber of Commerce written in the Summer of 1971 by Lewis Powell, Jr., who would soon go on to become one of President Nixon’s appointees to the United States Supreme Court. It hypothesized that the “American economic system is under broad attack,” a theme that is, even today, familiar in Republican rhetoric. It would be up to corporate America and the Chamber, Powell counseled, to respond to this attack. Their response would have to be via multiple fronts, including on public school and college campuses, in television and other media, in books and scholarly journals, and through politics.
The Powell Memo is credited, at least in part, as being the intellectual spark for a number of well-known conservative think tanks and research institutions, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Manhattan Institute, among others. More broadly, Powell’s ideas were the seeds that would eventually grow into a coordinated and comprehensive national, state, and local GOP grassroots network dedicated to creating, developing, and disseminating conservative and GOP legal, political, and social principles and propaganda.
Over the ensuing decades, the GOP carefully nurtured this network, which soon grew to include television and radio outlets, and, with the advent of the Internet, conservative online news sources and blogs. The “right wing echo chamber,” as it is sometimes called, is breathtakingly efficient at shaping, impacting, and controlling political and social narratives. It does this in a variety of ways, including by: (1) rapidly and efficiently spreading GOP talking points; (2) helping to develop, shape, and refine new ideas and talking points; (3) teaching supporters how to formulate, make, and defend arguments; (4) testing and refining responses to opponents’ arguments and talking points; and (5) encouraging and reinforcing political and social solidarity and cohesion.
None of this, we emphasize, happened by accident. Nor did it develop overnight. It started, grew, and became what it is today as a result of deliberate, strategic choices by GOP leaders to do the hard work, and to invest the time and effort, required to make it a reality. It was – and still is – a project more than half-a-century in the making. And the left has nothing that can compare to it, a fact that torments Democratic leaders to no end.
What frustrated Obama and his staff was the knowledge that, in large measure, they were reaching their own people but no further. They spoke to the networks and the major cable outlets, the major papers and the mainstream Web sites, and, in an attempt to find people “where they are,” forums such as Bill Maher’s and Samantha Bee’s late-night cable shows, and Marc Maron’s podcast. But they would never reach the collective readerships of Breitbart News, the Drudge Report, WND, Newsmax, InfoWars, and lesser-knowns like Western Journalism—not to mention the closed loop of peer-to-peer right-wing rumor-mongering.
In brief summary, Republicans, in the early-to-mid 1960s, saw the winds of change blowing. Among other things, they correctly predicted that racial divisions were, and would remain, a strong organizing force in politics and society. It would take some time for the GOP to develop a message that would fully connect with middle- and lower-class whites who were disaffected by the Democrats’ decision to embrace minority voters. That will be the subject for our next political narrative post.
The GOP realized that messaging would be an important key to building new coalitions out of the remnants of the Democratic South. And so they got to work, investing huge sums of cash and intellectual capital to build a machine that would enable the right to control or strongly influence political and social discourse for decades to come. Those investments continue to pay dividends today. If you don’t believe us, ask President-elect Donald Trump.