Politicians and media moguls have long understood that fear and hate sell better than hope and compassion, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise. But before Trump, no president had based his office on it. And before Fox News, no major media outlet had based its ratings on it.
Ronald Reagan stoked racism by bashing “welfare queens” and George H.W. Bush by airing campaign ads featuring Willie Horton, but fear and hate weren’t the centerpieces of either presidency.
The two political operatives behind these campaigns bear mention, though. One was Lee Atwater, who had also been chairman of the Republican National Committee and a senior partner at the political consulting firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly (yes, that Manafort and that Stone). The other was Roger Ailes, who went on to create and run Fox News.
Atwater and Ailes premised their careers on fear and hate. Ailes’ Fox News monetized fear and hate through phantom menaces like a “terror mosque” near Ground Zero, Barack Obama’s alleged connections to black nationalists and Muslims, and Sarah Palin’s fictitious “death panels.”
Trump took Atwater and Ailes to their logical extremes: building a political base by suggesting that Obama wasn’t born in America, launching his presidential campaign by warning of “criminals” and “rapists” streaming across the Mexican border, and ending his campaign with an ad suggesting that prominent Jews — billionaire philanthropist George Soros, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen — were in league with Hillary Clinton to control the world.
Since taking office, Trump has ramped up fear and hatred — toward immigrants, journalists, black athletes who won’t stand for the national anthem, major media and prominent Democrats.
Trump’s demagoguery inspires it. Fox News magnifies it.
The hatefulness is unconstrained. Having fired the few “adults” in his Cabinet, Trump is now loose in the White House, except for a few advisers who reportedly are trying to protect the nation from him.
House and Senate Republicans are not holding him back. To the contrary, they have morphed into his sycophants. An increasing number are sounding just like him.
Atwater and Ailes are gone from this world, but their descendants — Fox News host Sean Hannity and former Fox News executive Bill Shine, formerly Ailes’ deputy — have direct pipelines to Trump. (Shine is now formally installed in the West Wing.)
The upcoming election is not really a choice between Republicans and Democrats. Those traditional labels have lost most of their meaning, if not much of their value.
It is really a choice about the moral compass of America.
Writes for Tribune Content Agency.