Blowing the Biggest Political Story of the Last 50 Years
By Neal Gabler / Moyers & CompanyThis piece first appeared at Moyers & Company.
Ah, the crescendo of complaint! The Republican establishment and the mainstream media, working hand in hand in their unprecedented, non-stop assault on the “short-fingered vulgarian” named Donald Trump, would have you believe that Trump augurs the destruction of the Republican Party. Former Reagan speechwriter and now Wall Street Journal/CBS pundit Peggy Noonan expressed the general sentiment of both camps when she said on Super Tuesday that “we’re seeing a great political party shatter before our eyes.”
But here is what no one in the GOP establishment wants you to know, and no one in the media wants to admit: Donald Trump isn’t the destruction of the Republican Party; he is the fulfillment of everything the party has been saying and doing for decades. He is just saying it louder and more plainly than his predecessors and intra-party rivals.
The media have been acting as if the Trump debacle were the biggest political story to come down the pike in some time. But the real story – one the popularity of Trump’s candidacy has revealed and inarguably the biggest political story of the last 50 years — is the decades-long transformation of Republicanism from a business-centered, small town, white Protestant set of beliefs into quite possibly America’s primary institutional force of bigotry, intellectual dishonesty, ignorance, warmongering, intractability and cruelty against the vulnerable and powerless.
It is a story you didn’t read, hear or see in the mainstream media, only in lefty journals like The Nation and Rolling Stone, on websites like People for the American Way, and in columns like Paul Krugman’s. And it wasn’t exactly because the MSM in its myopia missed the story. It was because they chose not to tell it – to pretend it wasn’t happening. They are still pretending.
It is hardly a surprise that the GOP establishment and their enablers in the media are acting as if Trump, the Republican frontrunner, is a break from the party’s supposedly genteel past. Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, who was “shocked, shocked,” to find gambling in Rick’s establishment, the GOP solons profess to be “shocked, shocked” by Trump’s demagogic racism and nativism. Their protestations remind me of an old gambit of comedian Milton Berle. When the audience was applauding him, he would shush them demonstratively with one hand while encouraging them gently with the other.
Neither is it a surprise that the conservative media have been doing the same thing — decrying Trump while giving us Trump Lite. Indeed, even less blatant partisans who ought to know better, like every “thinking man’s” favorite conservative David Brooks, deliver the same hypocrisy.
No, Brooks isn’t too keen on Trump (or Cruz for that matter), but he is very keen on some mythological Republican Party that exudes decency. On the PBS NewsHour last week he said with great earnestness, “For almost a century-and-a-half, the Republican Party has stood for a certain free market version of America – an America that’s about openness, that’s about markets and opportunity, and a definition of what this country is.”
Free markets? That’s what he thinks defines America? Let me rephrase what I said earlier: Trump hasn’t just fulfilled the Republican Party’s purpose; he has exposed it. And he also has exposed the media’s indifference to what the party has become.Obviously, I am not saying that the transmogrification of the Republican Party happened surreptitiously. It happened in plain sight, and it was extensively chronicled — but not by the MSM. The sainted Reagan blew his party’s cover when to kick off his general election campaign in 1980 he spoke at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been brutally murdered in 1964. He wasn’t there to demonstrate his sympathy to the civil rights movement, but to demonstrate his sympathy to those who opposed it. This was an ugly moment, and it didn’t go entirely unnoticed in the media. In fact, David Brooks would later be moved to defend the speech, which invoked the not-so-subtle buzz words “states’ rights,” and to act as if Reagan had been slandered by those who called him out on it.
But if some in the media did call out Reagan on his disgusting curtsy to George Wallace voters, the press seemed to lose its nerve once Reagan became president and the Republican Party lurched not just rightward, but extremist-ward. Do you remember these headlines: “Republicans Oppose Civil Rights”; “Republicans Work to Defeat Expansion of Health Insurance”; “Republicans Torpedo Extension of Unemployment Benefits”; “Republicans Demonize Homosexuals and Deny Them Rights”; “Republicans Call Climate Change a Hoax and Refuse to Stop Greenhouse Gases”? No, you don’t remember, because no MSM paper printed them and no MSM network broadcast them. Instead, the media behaved as if extremism were business as usual.
I don’t think the media would deny their indifference. They would say they don’t take sides. They’re neutral. They just report. Partisanship is for Fox News and MSNBC.
Of course, this is utter nonsense. Accurate reporting means taking sides when one side is spouting falsehoods. I am still waiting for the media to correct the GOP pronouncements that Obamacare has cost us jobs and sent health care costs skyrocketing – both of which are screamingly false. I am not holding my breath.
But even if it were true that the media are not referees, not taking sides against extremism is just another way of taking sides by legitimizing extremism and making it the new normal, which it now is – so long, apparently, as you don’t shout it. In any case, objectivity is a rationalization. We know the media are afraid of a right-wing backlash. We know that they protect themselves by insisting that our two major parties are equidistant from the political center – more nonsense. And we know that every story is framed by its political consequences, not its human ones. We see that every day.
But if you really want to know why the media skipped the story about Republican extremism all these years, you have to look to the force of extremism itself and the way it reconfigures the political spectrum, basically disorienting us. In Europe, fringe parties on the right and left get savaged by the press all the time. If we had them here, no doubt the same thing would happen, press objectivity notwithstanding. The difference between Europe and America is that our right-wing extremists happen to control one of our two major parties and theirs don’t. To take on extremism would reveal not only the Republicans’ deficiencies, both of its elected officials and its rank and file, but the deficiencies of the entire American political system. That takes a courage very, very few people (OK, nobody) in the MSM have.
And yet we now know that the media can be assertive if they want to be, that they can take sides, and even correct the record if they choose. We know because that is precisely what they are doing against Trump, but only because they see Trump as an outlier from the GOP establishment – a disruptive, fringe force. Trump has a right to feel blindsided by the double standard to which he is being subjected. Cruz may be even more of an outlier from the American mainstream than Trump, and yet the media don’t seem anywhere near as lathered about him.
But back to the big story: Something happened in American politics over the last 25 or 30 years to release our demons and remove our shame. The media didn’t want to look. Now Trump has come along to reap what the conservatives had sown, and stir up those demons, and the media are suddenly in high dudgeon. Where were they when America needed them?
Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today’s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at the Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment and Society and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.