In many ways, the rise of Trump was an accident. But in many more ways, it was the culmination — and the accelerant — of pernicious forces that have been at work for well over half a century.
Even among my readers there are those who remain largely unaware of how the GOP became the party of authoritarian rule. While I can hardly tell the whole story, I can point out three intersecting plot lines that built slowly but ominously to our current state of emergency. Let’s remember:
The Powell Memorandum
By the time Louis F. Powell Jr. — soon to be a Nixon-appointed Supreme Court justice — wrote his famous memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, the business world was hurting and angry.
It was 1971, and a wave of progressive regulation had just been enacted to hold companies accountable for the safety of their workers, the protection of their consumers, and their treatment of the environment. Complying with these new laws was expensive and infuriating, and the captains of industry were soon ready to put serious money into fighting them.
The Powell memo — secret, but soon exposed by the press — should have been called The Capitalist Manifesto. It set forth a long-range plan for corporate America, a plan for using its enormous resources to amass and apply political power. It called on businessmen (and yes, they were all men) to unite behind a common purpose: the creation of durable platforms that would let them exercise that power “…aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment.”
The emphasis was on the long game, on building institutions that could put a long-term veneer of respectability on what amounted to legalized looting.
Deploying unprecedented financial and organizational firepower, this reactionary corporatist movement set out to undermine the status quo. It methodically politicized chambers of commerce all over the country. It endowed right-wing think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. It bought media companies. It took over town councils and school boards. And it gave birth to the American Legislative Council (ALEC), creator of the malignant “model legislation” still being used and abused by red state legislatures.
With the Powell memo, the right-wing agenda was etched in stone. From that point on, the GOP was the party of corporate interests — of tax cuts, deregulation, and union-busting. It was an agenda so rapacious, so nakedly anti-democratic, it could never work in the context of majority rule.
So to make it work, they needed to convince a majority of the electorate to consistently vote against its own interests. And the key to that scam lay in the South.
The Southern Strategy and the Big Con
In the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s thrashing of Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, newly-empowered Democrats enacted Johnson's “Great Society” legislation, which included both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These new laws — as progressive as any in our history — were widely excoriated in places where civil rights were emphatically not welcome. Johnson himself predicted they would cost Democrats the Southern vote for at least a generation. He was right.
But for Republicans, it was time to wake up and smell the racism. They saw that Southern white resentment was a force they could manipulate to great effect, that the noxious mix of white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and chronic under-education was a golden opportunity to exploit resentments that went back at least to the Civil War. The entire South, they saw, was there for the taking.
Proof of concept for the Southern Strategy was Richard Nixon’s election in 1968. He won using a fresh set of dog whistles that fanned the flames of white grievance and made Johnson’s dire prediction come true within a mere four years.
The dog whistles were different then. Before “law and order” was a TV show, it was a coded message to southerners that Black men were all looking for white women to rape and murder. Other catchphrases — “silent majority,” “war on drugs” — served to feed racial stereotypes, stoke latent fears, and highlight the same “otherness” that Trump would exploit so effectively five decades later. Just as important, their influence spread to other regions of the country, wherever white anger could be made to seethe.
It was all a big con, a bait-and-switch that pandered shamelessly to gullible voters. To this day, the GOP pays just enough lip-service to the “Christian values” of its base to win elections. Once those elections are won, there’s always a reason why it can’t deliver on those values. It dupes people into voting for their own mistreatment, while it uses their votes to pursue the real agenda, the one put forth in the Powell memo.
But to do that, Republicans needed a more sophisticated means of working this Big Con. They needed a propaganda arm. Which meant they needed to deal with the Fairness Doctrine.
The Tanking of the Fairness Doctrine
Until 1987, television and radio broadcasters were held to a set of standards for political reporting. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required broadcast companies, at the risk of their licenses, to present news and controversial public issues in a "fair and balanced" manner.
The Fairness Doctrine was never an actual law, more a set of FCC policies. And it was far from perfect, generating plenty of free speech issues for the courts to sort out. But it did do a reasonable job of keeping blatant propaganda and hate-mongering off the airwaves.
Which was reason enough for Republicans to tank it. Toward the end of Reagan’s second term, his FCC set out to revoke the doctrine, calling it a government intrusion and a restriction of journalistic freedom. Using the same sort of “up is down” arguments they’re now famous for, they even turned the doctrine’s rationale on its head, saying it actually inhibited — rather than promoted — the balanced presentation of contentious issues.
A pissed-off Congress, led by Democrats, reacted by trying to codify the doctrine into law. Reagan vetoed it.
This led inevitably to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and hate-driven talk radio. From there it was a short step to Fox News — which perversely usurped “Fair and Balanced” for its tagline — and the 24/7 right-wing media bubble we so enjoy today.
Republicans now had a devastatingly effective set of propaganda tools. Tools well suited to the work laid out in the Powell memo. Tools ideal for propagating the Big Con. They could now program and reprogram their base at will, extending their toxic reach to living rooms and car radios everywhere.
So by the time Trump showed up, most levers of power were in Republican hands, and autocracy was in their grasp. Of course, Trump wasn’t what they had in mind for an autocrat, but even so, he used his own unique talents to build on what they'd created. They are now closer than ever to total control.
And the story is far from over.