Republicanism Has Always Just Followed the Media
It’s tough be a troll who tells people the Clintons murdered Vince Foster and Obama founded ISIS when you have to pass an editor’s desk and fill thousands of words in a magazine feature. It’s much smoother to be a troll in elegant language—a goblin?—who promotes constitutional conservatism, argues about “standing astride history,” and cites Ayn Rand. Each type of media — Twitter, Facebook, magazines, newspapers, etc. — happens to inherently lend itself to a certain kind of argument.
This isn’t a hot take. But it leads to a kind of strange profundity when you look at today’s TV ratings; far more Americans, and many more conservatives, watch Fox News and read Breitbart News than read the National Review and Wall Street Journal. (News today proliferates on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit on an even higher level.)
Well of course, you think: People today watch TV and read news online. But what we don’t realize is that Fox News and National Review are not just different mediums but vastly different stories, different brands of conservatism, different viewpoints. Happen to be bored in a doctor’s office and pick up a right-wing magazine and odds are you’ll get a far different angle than if you happened to turn up the volume on the TV.
For a person firm and specific in what they want from politics — a devout Christian, for instance, or an economic libertarian — media matters less, but think of all the people in the middle, those who really swing the needle. A woman gets home, reflexively turns on the TV while she eats, and there’s Sean Hannity.
The implications of this are huge, for the story of the modern Republican Party is perhaps just a story of changing trends in technology. Viewed through this lens, Trump wasn’t just predictable, but imminent; as was Reagan in the Eighties, and Goldwater in the Sixties.
Since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there’s been a weird coalition of Republicans — “strange bedfellows” as Steven Pinker called them: big business, Christians, pro-gun, libertarians, etc. It hasn’t always really made sense: Wall-Street guys rubbing shoulders with guys who believe the Clintons murdered Vince Foster. Christians who don’t want abortions rubbing shoulders with guys who want guns and a bigger budget for national defense. Think about it too hard, and it quickly becomes a party of contradictions.
Of course these factions often want different things, their priorities are certainly starkly different; but in the American conscious we tend to oversimplify “conservatism,” “Republicanism,” into one image. The image is fluid, though, even if we don’t think of it as such. “Republican” in ’64 with Goldwater meant fervent anti-communism; in ’80 with Reagan it meant freedom from taxes and regulation; and in 2017 with Trump it means a kind of nativist frustration, a backlash to Obama’s rapid “Change.”
But while the image changes, the party’s actual constituents have mostly stayed the same since the Sixties. Different times and circumstances have undoubtedly played a part in the shifting brand of Republicanism, but no less of a factor has been that each iteration of the party simply got its news in a different way. And new technologies and media have happened to suit some factions better than others.
In the Fifties, local organizations proliferated; big news came from papers, but the hot takes and analysis were left to local clubs and organizations. This fit well with the John Birch Society (JBS), the grandfathers of today’s alt-right, a far-right group whose off-the-handle leader, Robert Welch, believed Eisenhower was a Communist spy. The Society centered around local rallies led by one charismatic leader reading from the organization’s secret “black book” and exhorting all the conspiracies and dangers of government. It was a kind of local, small-town politics that would now be Facebook Lived into humiliation and oblivion, but worked in an era of storytelling, radio, and early TV.
As Claire Conner, a woman who grew up in the JBS and today works as a liberal activist, told Rick Perlstein: “The John Birch Society built the most effective, best-funded right-wing populist organization in the United States of America. Now, not all my friends on the left want to hear this. It’s so easy to say, ‘These people were crackpots.’ But [Robert Welch] was a brilliant man. That doesn’t mean he was correct about anything. But he was a brilliant man. And he loved to sell.”
Most Republicans did not belong to the JBS, nor agree with all of its beliefs, yet its time in the sun allowed it to make some persuasive points. As Rick Perlstein wrote in the Nation:
“Even as Welch and his organization were excoriated, the stories they told, frequently through carefully disguised front groups with pleasant-sounding names — say, the one from the 1960s about how sexual education was teaching children how to be sexually promiscuous; or the one in the early 1990s promoting the impeachment of Bill Clinton — were sold quite effectively to the broader political culture. They achieved things.”
But time caught up with them: Claire Conner remembers when her father was giving a speech to about 200 locals in 1960, and someone happened to ask about the secret book. When he denied such a thing existing, the questioner pulled it out of her bag, and revealed him as a liar to the whole room, which happened to include a Chicago journalist. The group was then exposed on a national level, and when Goldwater ran in 1964, he lost in a landslide, buried by LBJ’s famous “Daisy commercial” and unable to shake the image of Republicans as a bunch of far-right crazies.
The next two decades saw a tremendous increase in magazine circulation around the country, though, and the new dominant media buttressed a new bedfellow in the Republican Party. William F. Buckley at the National Review led a robust rebranding of “conservatism,” roundly discrediting the Society and far-right groups in his devastating long-form prose that was read all over the country. They also jumped to the early TV interview specials; Buckley’s intellectual, high-brow debates on Firing Line aired from 1966 to 1999.
Writers at the National Review and Wall Street Journal crafted Reagan’s speeches and message, and by 1980 the country had come to view Republicanism as a kind of sunny economic conservatism, a theory, freedom from taxes and regulation. Forgotten was that Reagan had a nearly identical policy platform to Goldwater.
The elites had taken control of the party’s image; but the old John Birch Society, shunted from the spotlight, largely still voted Republican. Reagan implicitly appealed to them, as Nixon had done with his famous “Southern Strategy,” but gone was their power. As Anthony Ashbolt wrote, “a large part of the Right’s success story post Goldwater involves a distancing from supposed extremist elements.” Sean Wilentz put it similarly in the The New Yorker: “[Republicans] won extremists’ allegiance while…pursuing realistic strategies.”
In the last couple decades, though, we’re reading far less articles and watching far more talk shows, spending time on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and so of course this has become the era of “alternative facts,” the era of emotion and snap judgements over Buckley’s era of careful long-from debate. Before, articles had to be thoroughly fact checked and pass an editor’s desk; today news is easily spread and easily quantified — traffic equates value, and anyone can write anything online. Hence the return of the JBS and alt-right to the mainstream; after 50 years, online forums have become the new small town meetings!
Trump, our reality TV president, is obviously a product and personification of this modern media environment. Twitter, Reddit and online forums made him possible in a way that would have been impossible in the 1980s. But so with Reagan in regards to his news era; and Goldwater with his.
There’s an interesting “chicken-egg” question here: Does audience create the media, or does media hatch an audience? In a time of rapid changes in how we get our news, I think, rather oddly, it might be more than we think of the latter.
For the majority in between, democracy is rather unconscious; how you happen to watch engenders what you watch, what you think, what your priorities are. The media of the age plays a huge role in how people conceive of Republicanism, who grabs its flag, kind of like the many NBA-fan kids today who might’ve watched baseball had they grown up in the 1980s.
And what does it mean? For one, it means you have to constantly innovate to try to stay in power; ironic is that Buckley and the Right’s philosophy of stasis in politics is also what lost them their political influence. But much of it is random, rather frighteningly; certain groups happen in and out of power, and tough — impossible? — is keeping the power once your old formula is defunct, a Wall Street Journal paper sitting at the store while an American gets home from work, opens his laptop, and sees quick, catchy headlines from Breitbart News.
They can try to evolve, baseball can try to make itself faster, but it in a world where the very nature of the game seems out of touch with the current consumer climate, maybe you just have to wait it out, the John Birch Society waiting for fifty years to jump back into the mainstream.