In this business, you eventually become enured to Monday mornings that are the mental equivalent of a car accident. You get used to it, mostly, until a morning comes along that is more cognitively akin to a plane crash on the interstate during rush hour, and you find yourself wondering again if investing in a time-share on Neptune might be an idea whose time has come. That was this past Monday, in the form of a painting that falls somewhere in the shade between “Dogs Playing Poker” and Revelation 6:1-8.
Those watching Lesley Stahl help Donald Trump self-immolate during their “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday night spotted it first, right there on the wall above the vat of Starburst candies: a pastel creamsicle nightmare rendering of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush sharing a drink and a hearty Republican belly laugh with The Donnybrook himself.
Cue the squealing tires and shattered safety glass; I saw this thing before I could so much as blow on my first cup of Monday morning coffee, and I’m still trying to come to grips with the experience.
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The internet had a field day, of course. Before Tuesday even had a chance to put its pants on, Twitter was bursting with Photoshop jobs that turned Missouri artist Andy Thomas’s annihilation of time and history into a legitimate cultural phenomenon.
One recreation has Trump sitting with Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly and other noteworthy perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment unmasked by the #MeToo movement. Another has Trump replaced by a miniaturized version of the baby blimp that has been following him around the world. Still another puts Plaid Shirt Guy over Trump’s right shoulder once again, looking appropriately astonished.
Yes, all in good fun, and next week some other poor slob’s magnum opus will become a punchline for half a billion online wiseasses, and Mr. Thomas’s tender attempt at whatever he was reaching for with this thing will be last week’s forgotten funny meme.
That’s a damned shame, because much of what we need to know about Donald Trump, the Republican Party and why we are all mired in this towering, disheartening mess is right there in that painting, staring us down with every eye-bruising brush stroke. It is a paint-by-numbers history lesson we should all take deeply to heart if we want to understand the strange ground we stand upon.
One could spend a bag of lifetimes parsing the collected failures of the individuals featured in the painting – yes, even Honest Abraham Lincoln, who had unfriendly newspaper editors arrested by the score – but I choose to stick to three of the presidents I have personally endured.
The administrations and legacies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush combine to tell a long, sorry tale of corruption, greed, brazen lies, abused power and religious fundamentalism gone wild that, in whole and in part, put us where we are today. Remove any one of those men from that painting, and from history, and Donald Trump would likely be just another late-night punchline you slept through, again. Nixon, Reagan and W. Bush made Donald Trump possible.
It is telling, and perhaps deliberate, that the painting finds Donald Trump seated at the right hand of Nixon. Who better than the Beast of San Clemente to frame the groaning reality of this White House? Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” – courting brazen segregationists like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond while stoking racial animosities wherever he and his fixers could find them – won him two presidential elections and greased the rails for every Republican presidential nominee to follow.
The construction of a Republican Electoral College fortress in the South began with Nixon and remains standing, very nearly brick for brick, to this day. Trump’s victory in 2016 happened because of that fortress. If he wins re-election in 2020, he will have Nixon’s deeply racist campaign strategy to thank once again. Beyond that, Nixon’s disdain for the rule of law, combined with his venomous hatred of the press, set the tone for the latter half of the 20th century and laid a precedent Trump has followed practically to the note.
Though he never served a day in prison for his crimes, thanks to a pardon from one of the other fellows featured in the painting, Richard Nixon was ultimately forced to pay a steep price for his transgressions. The same cannot be said for Ronald Reagan, whose administration sold missiles to Iran and used the proceeds to fund an illegal war in Central America. The Iran/Contra scandal was a vast, sweeping international affair for which the president eluded punishment by dint of 124 separate “I don’t remember” replies during the congressional inquiry.
Vivid public dishonesty by that president set yet another precedent Trump has taken full advantage of over the course of two long years. Lie straight to their faces, goes the thinking, and dare them to do something about it. The juggernaut rolls on.
Reagan’s most indelible imprint on the country, the one Trump has taken greatest advantage of, is cultural. He oversaw a rollicking festival of across-the-board deregulation while preaching the polluted gospel of trickle-down economics that endures to this day. Donald Trump came of age in the Reagan era, and learned the dark arts of the con man by watching the master in the White House.
More than anything else, Reagan’s courting of what became known as the “Religious Right” changed the face of the country. Conservative Protestant evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham actively helped solidify and expand the religious fervor of the Republican base, creating one of the most reliable voter blocs in modern US history. Their legendary loyalty to the GOP, even in the face of myriad scandals and shameful episodes, has proven to be one of Donald Trump’s great strengths.
Another lasting Reagan legacy that Donald Trump has capitalized on is the muscular approach Reagan’s strategists took to Nixon’s racist “Southern Strategy.” Reagan adviser Lee Atwater, the infamous Southern Republican political operative who showed Karl Rove the ropes, explained during a 1981 interview the long, sure process of making virulent racism mainstream by hiding it in plain sight.
“You say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff,” said Atwater, “and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites. ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing.”
Anyone who can say with a straight face that Trump has not benefitted from the mainline injection of racism into conventional Republican politics should immediately apply for a gig at the White House. From Nixon to Reagan to Trump, the Republican “Southern Strategy” traded in the white robes of the Klan for a suit, a tie and some buzzwords to obscure the truth. The strategy has proven to be highly effective for the Republican Party, and toxic to the rest of the country, particularly to communities of color.
Sixteen years before the ascendancy of Donald Trump, George W. Bush adopted every fetid, discredited Nixon/Reagan ploy as his own. The 2000 GOP primary in South Carolina was a festival of racist gutter tactics that set Bush on course for the presidency, thanks entirely to the lessons Rove absorbed at Atwater’s knee. Bush survived the 2000 general election and was re-elected four years later, thanks in part to the thick white walls of that electoral fortress Nixon and Reagan built in the Southern states.
Like Nixon and Reagan, Bush had little use for the truth, and less use for observing the democratic norms that hold the republic together. Like Reagan, Bush embraced the power of the evangelical Christian right to the continued detriment of all. Nixon and Reagan lied about wars, but Bush lied us into a pair of wars that grind on to this day. Like his predecessors, George W. Bush paid no legal price for his serial crimes and astonishing dishonesty.
The rank racism of the “Southern Strategy.” The nonsense and classism of trickle-down economics. The grim fusion of politics and extremist evangelical Christianity. The bold power of the shameless lie. It has all flowed from Nixon to Reagan to Bush and finally to Trump, the inheritor of that poisoned estate. But for them, we would not have him. It’s all there in the painting, if you find your way to see it.