Yes, America has always been driven by a touch of madness. But lately, that madness has been totally in the driver’s seat with its finger on the detonate button. The lunatic fringe has completely mainstreamed, to the point that not only are utterly daffy beliefs held to be fact, they are so taken for granted to be fact that anyone who challenges them is ridiculed. The Forty-Fifth White House Occupant isn’t just considered acceptable; he’s considered an instrument of God. But the nation didn’t just go stark raving mad by itself. It was deliberately and systematically driven mad over a period of decades. Here are some of the salient steps in that process; some were deliberately engineered and some were serendipitous developments that the manipulators have used to their advantage.
1926-1940: Father Coughlin’s broadcasts
Charles Coughlin was a Catholic priest. He was also the premier pioneer of hate radio. With a following of millions of listeners, his weekly radio program promoted Nazism and bashed socialism, Jews and FDR. And he opened the floodgates for his many eventual successors. Finally the outrage over his seditious and hateful polemic forced him off the air. But today, there is a virtual army of those following in his footsteps; and in most cases they have zero accountability. Coughlin had demonstrated the power of electronic media to disseminate hate and insanity.
ca. 1947-1957: McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare
In addition to the persecution of hordes of innocent people, one thing the McCarthy Era accomplished was to show how far you can go in spreading mass hysteria.
When English journalist Eric Blair wrote, under the pen name George Orwell, the classic novel 1984, he intended it as a cautionary tale about authoritarianism and the weaponization of the media. But authoritarians seem to have used it both as an instruction manual, and as a straw bogeyman to scare and control people with the false specter of authoritarianism applied to anything they don’t approve of.
1955: National Review founded
Pampered rich kid William F. Buckley started his own publication, feeling that the world was entitled to hear his opinion. He justified its existence by claiming that the mainstream media, by failing to kiss right-wing ass consistently and enthusiastically, was operating with a “liberal bias”. It was, for all practical purposes, the inauguration of the “liberal media” canard that has served right-wingers very, very well in the ensuing decades. Every week since 1955, the NR has published essentially the same articles over and over and over. Its readers don’t seem to have noticed.
1957: Atlas farts
Ayn Rand, a virulent proponent of personal responsibility and foe of any form of “collectivism” (who nonetheless collected Social Security) published her purported masterpiece Atlas Shrugged in 1957. Many critics, including yours truly, regard it as a vapid, pretentious, transparently pontifical, intellectually dishonest bore. But that hasn’t prevented it from becoming a sacred pillar of pseudo-intellectual right-wing fanaticism. Somehow a badly written fictitious story is supposed to provide a solid moral justification for greed, arrogance and megalomania in the real world.
To be sure, the Kennedy presidency produced some very beneficial results. But it also had its dark side. JFK was the first real TV president; and he exploited the new medium (mostly by instinct rather than by calculation) with a degree of effectiveness that made the demagogues sit up and take notice.
The presidential debates between him and Richard Nixon were the first to be televised. Among voters who watched the debates on TV, most pegged Kennedy as the winner; while among those who listened on radio, most said that Nixon won. The cameras loved Kennedy, who was handsome, charming and poised. But Nixon came across very poorly, as his onscreen persona betrayed his slinky, fidgety, shady character — not to mention that his sweatiness and five o’clock shadow made him appear even worse.
Throughout his presidency, Kennedy exuded an aura of hale youthfulness; and he and the First Lady seemed to be a storybook couple. Actually, he was sickly and in frequent pain, and Jackie was not terribly thrilled by the way he was boinking anything in a skirt. This glaring discrepancy between appearances and reality among America’s leaders would become, within a few years, the overarching norm.
1964: Goldwater frames the media
The media always criticize and question politicians. That’s part of their job. They do it no matter what the party affiliation of the politician — or of the journalist. They don’t always do it well or evenly — but they’re much more likely to err on the side of letting things slide than of being overly critical.
Republicans have long evinced the attitude that they should be exempt from such scrutiny. And when they’re subjected to it, they cry foul, and protest “liberal bias”. (Recall Tricky Dick’s exit from the political stage — an exit which, like many other things he did, was fraudulent — whereupon he gloated to the media that they wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around any more.” Just a few years before he presided over the most corrupt administration in history at that point.)
To a very large extent, this narrative, or at least its firm implantation in the American psyche, can be traced to Arizona GOP Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for president. He was so arrogant in his disdain for the media that dared to accurately report things he said, that his press secretary passed out, to journalists covering the GOP convention, pins engraved “Eastern Liberal Press”. It was a catchy soundbite that had staying power.
Bill Buckley, of course, had already floated the “liberal bias” balloon a decade earlier, but his publication was geared to the pseudo-intellectual conservative elite. Goldwater brought it out into the arena frequented by the Sixties progenitors of Joe the Plumber. His low-key but distinct assault on the (non-conservative) media was a major milestone in the right wing’s highly successful tactic of “working the refs”. Ever since his campaign, sheepish mainstream journalists have bent over backward to avoid being labeled as partial; and the farther they bend, the farther the wingers demand that they bend.
1968: The ABC experiment
During the campaign plague — oops, season — of 1968, ABC News tried something that was, at the time, totally new and unheard of: it created an evening newscast that revolved around opinion about the news rather than simply reporting it. And as strange as it may seem to us now, this daring new format flopped; apparently, the public just wasn’t (yet) ready for it. Accordingly, ABC dialed it back and reverted to a mostly conventional newscast which nonetheless retained a closing commentary. Within a few years, however, that seed the network had planted finally sprouted with a vengeance, unleashing a deluge of opinion that engulfed the whole nation.
1969-1973: Spiro Agnew
Nixon’s first vice president did not adopt either the stuffy pretensions of Bill Buckley or the restrained contempt of Barry Goldwater. He went full throttle, expressing his unbridled loathing for leftists and the media (whom he deemed to be inextricably intertwined) at every opportunity. While reasonable people across the spectrum were alarmed by his irresponsible rhetoric, right-wing fanatics cheered him on and were inspired by his example. After more than four years of berating the media for supposedly being unfair to him, Agnew resigned the vice presidency and pleaded no contest to tax evasion. In so doing, he avoided additional charges of fraud, bribery, extortion and criminal conspiracy.
1970: Cable TV
Though cable TV had been around in some form for three decades, it was in 1970 that the first actual cable networks were launched. Soon there would be many more. All with a desperate need to fill their 24-hour programming schedules with something. Anything. Including “reality” TV. And quite often that type of frothy-mouthed discussion of current events that might be charitably called “infotainment”; though all too often it passes for news. It doesn’t have to be accurate, relevant, or even coherent. It just has to hold the public’s attention.
America’s descent into madness was greatly facilitated by its descent into staggering stupidity. And the watershed moment in that descent was surely the election of a B-movie actor as president. Not that his previous occupation was a negative on his resume; it’s just that he never really left it behind. Instead, he tried to turn the U.S. into the black-and-white fantasyland where he kept his head. America, in his worldview, was 100 percent pure and holy, engaged in a noble battle with the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.
He set new records for presidential lying and vacation time (though both records subsequently have been blown to smithereens) and while he was supposedly on the job he spent a great deal of time napping or airing cheesy and dopey soundbites. He also ran (if that’s the correct word) an administration second only to Nixon’s in corruption (as of this writing — stay tuned), with a record 138 officials being investigated, indicted and/or convicted over a period of 8 years. (Nixon had fewer, but a shorter administration.)
Yet to his admirers, who are in a frenzy to rechristen every landmark after him that they can get their hands and funds on, he was the epitome of virtue. Why? Because he talked as if he himself believed so. He had mastered the art of faking sincerity. He could lie through his teeth or just pull something out of his ass, and you’d swear on God’s godliness that it was true — if you didn’t know any better.
A lot of people don’t know any better.
(To be concluded soon.)