1. Newt Gingrich
Gingrich arrived in Congress in 1978 with a plan to achieve a Republican majority. He politicized Congressional elections with national issues in order to reduce incumbent advantage. He wanted the electorate to be fed up with Congress as a whole, so we'd be inclined to throw the bums out--meaning Democratic incumbents. To this end he played up scandals, real and manufactured. House Speaker Jim Wright was an example; the Clinton investigations (and impeachment) were examples.
Along the way, his strategy also brought with it a deeply damaged image of Congress and alienation from government, sharply enhanced partisan enmity and rancor, and tribalized politics. Gingrich assumed that when he became speaker, he could co-opt the radical outsiders he brought with him to Washington. It never happened. Their disdain for Washington, government, and Congress continued, even during their majority status.Gingrich also abolished the highly professional, non-partisan, Office of Technology Assessment, which provided non-partisan technical information, e.g. on effects of global warming, effects of immigration policy, effects of NAFTA, etc. In the absence of a mutually respected, independent voice, partisan "truthiness"or outright crazy talk came to rule the day. Repeated assertion came to trump facts.
2. Ronald Reagan, Georgy H.W. Bush, Jim Wright, William Rhenquist, and Gingrich (again)
The Newt Gingrich effort to discredit Congress obtained an inadvertent assist in 1988/1989--the end of the Reagan presidency--when Reagan, incoming president Bush, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Rehnquist (the Supreme Court Chief Justice), and Gingrich all supported a hefty pay-raise for Congress, top executive officials, and the courts. This was overdue, but it came at at a time of economic stagnation and it enraged the public.
One person to jump on this and ride it to stardom was talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, but Ralph Nader drummed up outrage on the left, as did Pat Buchanan on the right. It helped facilitate the rise of the political talk-show as a political phenomenon.
3. Roger Ailes
He who built Fox News.
Ailes changed the worlds of news and politics. He did so by creating a new business model, using fast pacing and graphics, and charismatic and talented hosts. But mostly it was a model based on luring an audience of staunch conservatives who felt neglected by other television news outlets, treated with contempt for their views by a liberal mainstream media. Ailes used the slogan “Fair and Balanced” to appeal to this audience, but of course the content was neither; Fox adopted a sharp partisan and ideological viewpoint, and attracted a consistently robust audience of more than 2 million viewers of the right demographic for advertisers at any given time, which made it a highly profitable operation.Fox became an opinion leader and agenda setter for conservatives and Republicans. The effect was tremendously harmful to our political discourse.
4. CNN and MSNBCThese cable outlets did their best to copy the Fox business model, albeit they were more half-heartedly partisan. But when Trump came along they jumped on Trumpmania as a way of luring viewers.
Nearly every Trump rally is covered in real time; every outrageous Trump statement or action gets blanket attention. Meanwhile, equally outrageous statements by other candidates—Ben Carson saying a Muslim shouldn’t be president, Mike Huckabee saying God’s law trumps the Constitution, Chris Christie threatening to go to Defcon 1 against Russia—barely get mentioned. Trump thrives on attention, good or bad. ... [S]ince Trump provides eyeballs, the rules of journalism go out the window.
CNN has had another, broader impact on discourse. Its longstanding attempt to be straightforward has meant that its shows either follow the Crossfire model—someone from the left edge of the spectrum yelling at someone from the right edge, or a spinner from the Democratic side facing off against a GOP spinner—or insist on bringing in “experts” from both sides to discuss or debate issues. By creating a sense that discourse is all one extreme against the other or one cynic against another, CNN has added to the corrosive cynicism that permeates politics, fertile ground for a Trump. And by having every discussion of climate change include one scientist who says it is real and manmade against another who denies it, CNN has contributed to an atmosphere where “facts” are not real—you can find an expert anywhere to deny them.
5. The InternetThe internet has exacerbated the corrosive effects of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC. It has led to a decline in public discourse and a coarsening of discussion.
[N]othing is too coarse or off limits anymore—whether it is calling the president a “half-breed mongrel” or a monkey, or saying Mexicans are rapists and thousands of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks. It is not just politics. Violence and graphic sex are everywhere, further deadening reaction to violations of societal standards. ...Before the Internet and cable news, information was filtered through three TV channels by trusted intermediaries (e.g. Walter Cronkite). Now we can all actively select our own facts and the information we want and band together in "faith communities" insulated from each other and immune to the moderating effect of trusted common intermediaries. "So Donald Trump can say anything, and fact-check organizations showing that his statements are false are ridiculed and attacked by those who support him and believe him no matter what."
Conspiracy theories, demagoguery, and anti-elitism are rooted in American culture, as the historian Richard Hofstadter ably documented in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. But when Hofstadter wrote, in the 1950s and 1960s, the collection of individuals deeply receptive to those appeals were fragmented and had limited opportunities to communicate together, form communities of interest, or engage in collective action, except via face-to-face meetings in localities. The web and social media have changed all that.
6. The Bailout of Banks in '09 Without Accountability, and Without Relief for the Middle Class
Drastic action was needed to save the economy when the financial system collapsed in the fall of 2008. However the bailout of banks without any accountability of bad actors who contributed to the catastrophe left a wide perception that Congress saved the banks, and that the system is rigged. The fact that there was no apparent serious effort to investigate, prosecute culprits, and make changes created widespread anger.
Both (Hank) Paulson and his successor, Tim Geithner [Secretaries of the Treasury under Bush and Obama respectively], focused on saving major agents in the financial system, but refused to countenance any actions to punish, or at least bring to the dock, any of the miscreants who had caused the collapse. What Americans saw was elites conspiring to protect their fellow elites—who got off scot-free, along with bonuses, while the rest of the country suffered, losing homes or seeing their home values drop precipitously, losing jobs and nest eggs. No one went to jail. In the meantime, the Obama administration put forth a tepid plan to protect homeowners from foreclosure, which was not fully implemented, and put no significant pressure on banks to free up the huge amount of capital they held in reserve to help out middle-class homeowners.
7. The GOP House LeadershipThe "Young Guns" (they wrote a book by that title) of the GOP leadership--Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan--took a page from Newt Gingrich's playbook. They united Republicans to oppose anything proposed by Obama and the Democrats in order to deny them any accomplishments and to stoke anger against all of Congress, just as Gingrich had done during the Clinton presidency. Like Gingrich they nationalized elections by recruiting GOP populists to run for Congress. Like Gingrich, they thought they could co-opt these people to make them loyal to GOP leadership, and like Gingrich they were wrong in that assessment.
Their playbook started with the debt ceiling—the Young Guns instructed their recruits to use it in their campaigns, an easy vehicle to show commitment to keeping the debt in check by vowing never to support an increase in the debt limit. Along with that was a promise to use the debt ceiling as a hostage, to force Obama to his knees by making him give up his key policy goals and accomplishments to prevent economic catastrophe via a breach in the debt ceiling. Thus, a new Republican majority could force repeal of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and make the president support dramatic cutbacks in domestic government and spending.
The Young Guns told their recruits that they would act even before the debt ceiling was reached, promising a good-faith down payment on the conservative revolution to eliminate most government by immediately cutting spending by $100 billion after the new Republican majority was sworn in.
The tactics worked at the polls; Republicans won historic victories in the midterms, and achieved a robust majority in the House. But right after they arrived, the budget-cutting icon Paul Ryan was dispatched to give them bad news. They actually could not cut spending immediately by $100 billion. Ryan used “budgetspeak” to explain that the fiscal year had started well before the election, and they had to pro-rate the amount, and take into account the timetable of the budget process, so they could only achieve about a third of what they had promised. ... As with Gingrich, the Young Guns assumed they could co-opt the new radicals. As with Gingrich, it did not work.
In the end, of course, the Republican majority in the House achieved none of its big promised goals—not the repeal of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, not the elimination of Obama after one term, not the end of a single government agency. They were, however, able to bring to a halt any major new advances in Obama’s third and fourth years, and through the sequester cuts across-the-board in government, to sharply retard the growth of domestic programs. But those achievements meant little to a group of lawmakers and their activist supporters who had been promised the moon and were given a single slice of cheese instead.The know-nothing GOP ideologue back-benchers proved hard to control. They caused one government shut-down and threatened another. They were successful to greatly increase anger at Congress. They managed to till the soil for a non-establishment wild-talking candidate like Trump.
8. Mitch McConnell, Anthony Kennedy, and John RobertsMitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, hand picked members of the Federal Elections Commission to block all regulation and enforcement of campaign laws and disclosure requirements. The Supreme Court, with Kennedy and Roberts being the key members here who might have made a difference, decided several cases that undermined Congressional efforts to regulate campaign financing, and to limit overall individual and corporate spending on elections. As a result the flood-gates attempting to hold back even a modicum of money seeking to influence elections were opened wide. As a result, a small number of oligarchs are able to dominate politics and politicians. Trump has managed to take populist advantage of the resulting frustration and dissatisfaction.
9. Barak Obama
Obama as symbol, as much as for what Obama did or didn't do, has contributed to the polarization of our politics and help set the stage Trumpism.
Consider a world where partisan tribalism—the sense that the other party is a threat to the country, the enemy, not just an adversary—is conjoined with race, one party becoming overwhelmingly white, the other largely non-white. The challenge for national unity will be much sharper than it has been in over a century.Add to this the irrational lightening rod that Obamacare has become. Add the rapid changes in our marriage laws, spurred on by the Supreme Court again. Add the emergence of the Black Lives Matter issue. Add the irrational populist concern with immigration in a body politic where the white middle class has lost its economic security, its political dominance.... and, together with the other eight factors, it all adds up to an environment ripe for a Trump.
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