December 17, 2022

John Thompson: Some Political Nostalgia

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John Thompson is an educator and writer in Oklahoma. Here he gazes into the US past for political clues about the present. 

I love Andy Borowitz’s hilarious satire in the New Yorker. His new book, Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumber and Dumber, sticks to the facts. It recalls words of Trump’s predecessors like Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, and Sarah Palin, who with the help of Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan,, paved the way for Trumpism.  I will focus on one unnamed politician; I’m confident that readers will quickly guess who he was.

In a 1964 event, this pre-Trumper didn’t recognize his son at a public event. That year, he said that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” He also said, “Facts are stupid things.” He later added, “I’ve been shushed like children and told there are no simple answers to the complex problems …Well, the truth is that there are simple answers.”

One of those simple answers, he claimed, was recognizing that 80% of pollution “comes from plants and trees.”

Campaigning to be the leader of the Free World, he said, “There are two Vietnams, north and south. They have been separate nations for centuries.” He also said, “We could pave the whole country (Vietnam) and put parking stripes on it and still be home for Christmas.”  Nine times in one speech this great communicator said, “The United States has much to offer the Third World War.”

As President, he also said that the U.S. set out to help 19 countries but ended up spending $146 billion to help 107 nations. This pioneer of modern “Dog Whistles” for making racist statements without explicitly articulating racism then said that money was used to buy “a $2 million yacht for Haile Selassie” and  “dress suits for Greek undertakers, extra wives for Kenyan government officials, … and 1000 TV sets for a place where they have no electricity.”

The President also told a Lebanese foreign minister that his nose looked like Danny Thomas’. He called the Liberian President, Samuel Doe, “Chairman Moe.” He once said the U.S. was in South America.

Defending South Africa’s apartheid, he said, “Can we abandon a country that has stood beside us in every war we have ever fought?” and that “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our country.”  And he told Richard Nixon over the phone that “To see those monkeys from African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes.”

On the home front, similar Dog Whistles were used. His presidential campaign began in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, were murdered. He did not mention them but he embraced state’s rights. The president also took the “Welfare Queen” theme to a new level, saying that his target committed $150,000, not $3,000, in fraud.

His campaign advisors in 1980 were Roy Cohn, Roger Ailes, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. After the leader was widely praised for being a charming and effective communicator, Molly Ivins said that his reputation for charm wasn’t just due to telling us “screwy things.” He gained voters’ support because “he believed them all.”

Anyone who hasn’t guessed who this pioneer of Trumpism was should remember what Trump said in 1984. He asserted that President Reagan should let him take charge of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union because, “It would take an hour-and-a-half to learn everything there is to know about missiles. …I think I know most of it anyway.”

I wonder how long it took for Trump to incorporate Reagan’s entire explicit and inexplicit agenda into his embrace of “Moronic in America.”

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