The current revulsion toward the disease of Donald Trump, perhaps best characterized (by Bill Moyers and Michael Winship) as “a virus infecting our politics and right now… flourishing with a scarlet heat,” has long been an American infection apparent in United States history. It’s a virus, we all know, with but one goal, winning, even at the cost of destroying putative “enemies” and even the host; it’s a virus the American political system was designed to eradicate, though it has clearly failed to do so. It’s a virus that has long been developing its resistances, its tools for winning that include a long list of political “truths” like the one best expressed by the conservative attack dog David Horowitz, “the side of the underdog, which is the side of the people, wins.” The trick is to fool the host (the people) into thinking you are a beneficial virus, one that can turn the people from weaklings to supermen.
Horowitz, now 77, has been little noticed over the past few years, but his 1999 little book The Art of Political War: How Republicans Can Fight to Win lays out the pattern for diseased politics that the right was then in the process of perfecting and that, today, has metastasized beyond the heart of the party into the body politic as a whole, becoming a fatal disease of demagoguery in the guise of a “Cheeto Jesus.”
Horowitz is himself more than somewhat responsible for this. In 2009, he published a new version of his booklet, The Art of Political War for Tea Parties. As befits his leftist roots (he converted to the right in the 1970s), he begins it with a reflection of Marx and Engels:
A specter is haunting America – the specter of a people rising. From one coast to the other and across the great plains, Americans are waking up to the threat from a leftist elite that is determined to fundamentally change the American system, push through a socialist agenda, and make every citizen dependent on the state. The Obama machine has already spent trillions of tax-payer dollars to finance a takeover of the American workplace and to stifle the independence of the American people. But America is a resilient nation, bred on the frontiers of individualism and enterprise, and built on the principles of private property and individual freedom; and the resistance to their socialist plans has already begun.
Cross this with the ‘winning is everything’ ethos that assumes (on no evidence) that the like-minded of the right will always act well once they have won and the appeal to the sense of the underdog so many feel (and that the passage already reflects) and you get a toxic and virile virus that was bound to metamorphose, eventually, into a pestilence like Trump.
Naturally enough, when he does write today, Horowitz’s words often appear on like-minded sites such as Breitbart.com, where he recently lauded Trump’s “national security” speech delivered a day after the tragic killings in Orlando. He writes that “the progressive enablers of Islamist terror have been busy blaming Christian conservatives for the anti-gay hatred that is a core belief of the Islamists, rooted not only in their religious texts but relentlessly broadcast through their Imams and mosques.” Trump, he contends, does not fear “PC orthodoxy” and is “the only candidate in this presidential race who will actually defend this country and not facilitate its dismantling and destruction.” That ‘dismantling and destruction’ is just what Trump says he would do has somehow been missed by Horowitz.
But that’s not important. Meanings certainly aren’t. Words are simply tactics, particular phrases discarded as soon as their immediate impact fades. Their truth (if any) is irrelevant. The lie trumps it, anyway.
Horowitz has long been the master of the political lie. He’s the person at whose feet Trump must have sat while learning that it does not matter what one says or whether the words contain any truth—as long as one appeals to the feelings of estrangement that most people carry, the sense of being the righteous underdog. As long as one can point to an enemy, saying “that’s the one at fault” and enflame the omnipresent sense of indignation and imagined loss.
In the particular instance that Horowitz was writing about, it is “radical Islam” and its enablers, those so Politically Correct that they cower at the power of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorists” who are the focus of the lie. But, as Horowitz knows—as Trump has learned (possibly from The Art of Political Warfare), “Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) would not get it. Your words would go over some of their heads and the rest would not even hear them (or quickly forget) amidst the bustle and pressure of daily life.” So, say that words mean something—but recognize that they don’t. These don’t, but who cares? Remember, it’s all about churning those hidden underdog feelings, the sense of somehow being cheated; it’s never about truth. Tap into the former, and political success is assured.
The greatest post-WWII success of demagoguery in America—until Trump—has been “Tailgunner” Joe McCarthy. As I wrote in 2006, connecting McCarthy with Horowitz, “For McCarthy, the real goal was simply winning. Without needing to achieve any other end, his focus turned solely to tactics. This creates a problem for opponents, especially those who try to focus on goals outside of winning, who want discussion and compromise — for neither discussion nor compromise is of interest.” Today, that applies to Trump as well:
Why lie, if it can be so easily discovered? The point, for Horowitz, like McCarthy before him, seems to be to lie in such a way that the rebuttal sounds like a splitting of hairs…. Even if proven false, the claim has served its purpose….
The apparent lies put you on the defensive….
That’s exactly what McCarthy did, and that Horowitz and Trump try to do, today. That is exactly the cancer of our politics, a cancer destroying healthy cells of discussion, debate and growth.
What to do? We need to stop being defensive, stop cowering. President Obama, in his response to the Trump speech that Horowtiz loves so well, did just that. Moyers and Winship write, “Trump and his ilk would sweep the promise of America into the dustbin of history unless they are exposed now to the disinfectant of sunlight, the cleansing torch of truth. Nothing else can save us from the dark age of unreason that would arrive with the triumph of Donald Trump.”
It takes all of us, not just the president. It takes all of us, speaking in revulsion, echoing the words of Joseph Welch to McCarthy, “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” It is time we insist that the lies stop.