His rivals for the presidency, rank and file Republicans, and party movers and shakers normally lurking behind the scenes have all begun to attack Donald Trump. The fear is palpable that this divisive, bombastic monument to political incorrectness and threat to Republican orthodoxy might have a shot at winning primaries and even the nomination.
It isn’t so much that Trump is saying aloud things most Republicans secretly believe about race, class and entitlement. That’s bad enough, but he’s also saying populist things that Republicans aren’t supposed to believe at all. Worst of all, he just seems to make things up that have no basis in fact and are easily disproved. It’s embassassing. Worse, it’s working better than the sober remarks of the usual suspects.
He will build a big wall and get Mexico to pay for it. He will get the Chinese to shape up or quit doing business with them. New Jersey Muslims in the hundreds were having tailgate parties to watch the twin towers fall. Mosques should be shut down and all Muslims in America put on a national registry. Apparently Wharton, where Trump got the best, gold-plated grades ever, didn’t teach the Constitution.
Trump thinks it is okay to mock and denigrate the looks of women, the disabilities of the handicapped and to stigmatize Hispanic immigrants as rapists and criminals. He’s for rounding up millions of illegal immigrants and confining them to camps until they can be deported en masse. He horrifies national security wise men by suggesting Putin should take over the fight against ISIS while we hold his coat. And he horrifies corporate titans by threatening to slap huge tariffs on products made by American companies abroad. He inflamed racial sensitivities by claiming most white people are murdered by black people. Not even close to true. You can add your own favorites to the list.
In many of these cases the source of his information seems to be newspaper squibs, remembered film from TV news, rumors, tweets, unchecked innuendos from the blogosphere or talk radio. As long as they reinforce his narrative they are woven into his speeches and used as exempla, moralizing or illustrative stories. Often a grain of truth is exaggerated or a single instance generalized to an entire class or race or nation. True or false is beside the point, effective and crowd-pleasing are all that matter.
Campaigns always traffic in rhetorical tricks and logical fallacies, lies and half-truths, but Trump is an extreme case. Or so you’d think. But if you do you have a short memory. In fact, Trump is working from the same playbook as one of the most successful Republican candidates in history. That would be the arch-fabulist whose campaign slogan Trump has cheerfully expropriated.
In 1979 it was Ronald Reagan who promised to “Make America Great Again.” And now Trump has adopted the great communicator’s willingness to substitute his own alternative reality for the facts of the matter that the rest of us have to live with. Now that he has been canonized for making America great again and singlehandedly bringing communism to its knees, it seems to have been forgotten that the Gipper made things up, including most of his alleged accomplishments. And despite the “aw shucks” manner, Reagan was remarkably mean spirited.
He called Medicaid recipients “a faceless mass waiting for a handout.” He opposed unemployment insurance as a “paid vacation for freeloaders.” He stigmatized the poor with the story of a “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac and cashing in on hundreds of fraudulent IDs, though no such person was ever discovered. In proposing to cut funding for education, he said “why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity.” When students were protesting on campus he said, “If there has to be a bloodbath, let’s get it over with.”
When told unemployment had reached its worst level in 42 years, he said the newspaper had 24 pages of want ads for job seekers and cut funding for job training. In his “Morning in America” campaign for reelection he claimed more people were employed and fewer in poverty than when he took office. In fact both were false. He cut food stamps, aid to dependent children and Medicaid and the poverty rate was 30% higher when he left office. He said if 17 million people went to bed hungry every night it was because they were on a diet.
In response to efforts to save the giant redwoods of California, he said “a tree’s a tree. How many do you need?” He said decaying vegetation was responsible for 93% of pollution. When told school lunches of hot dogs and French fries were deficient in fruits and vegetables, he said ketchup was a vegetable. He expressed nostalgia for the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy and called Hollywood unions a communist plot to take over the industry and churn out communist propaganda.
Reagan claimed “the Russian language has no word for freedom.” He said nuclear missiles from submarines were no cause for worry because if he launched them and changed his mind he could call them back. He said he was with the G.I.s when they liberated the death camps, but was actually making training films for the troops on venereal disease in Culver City, California. No wonder Margaret Thatcher, who he pretended to be best friends with, said “the poor, poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.”
And on a grander scale, he sold the panacea or supply-side, trickle-down economics which enriched the rich, accelerated the process of shrinking the middle class, and tripled the national debt. He fell for the pipedream of “Star Wars,” the Strategic Defense Initiative which was supposed to create an impenetrable space shield that would protect us from nuclear attack. Nobel physics laureate Hans Bethe in a report on the concept said it wasn’t feasible, would be “costly and difficult to build yet simple to destroy.” After wasting over $200 billion, the program was abandoned.
Is there any difference between Trump’s fables and those of Reagan? Perhaps. Those who recall the Reagan era will remember one. After a speech or press conference in which the President would offer up falsehoods and fantasies, the press office would rush to do damage control and to explain that the president had misspoken and would then explain what he had “really” meant to say. Now, when Trump is caught in a fabrication or lunacy, he simply attacks anyone who questions him, exaggerates the original nonsense and repeats it over and over again. This is progress.