James P. Pinkerton: What Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Breitbart Can Learn from the Conservative Movement of the 1950s

Donald Trump

In politics, you know you’re getting somewhere when your name becomes the “peg.” That is, if your name is used as a tease to get readers to keep reading, then you’ve got some star-power.

So by that reckoning, Stephen K. Bannon and Breitbart have reached a new high—they are, in a word, peg-able. (Bannon, of course, recently stepped down from Breitbart to run the Trump for President campaign.)

In this case, the Bannon & Breitbart peg was used late last month by Nicole Hemmer, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, writing an op-ed for Politico. Here’s how her piece, entitled, How Conservative Media Learned to Play Politics, begins:

When Donald Trump announced his new campaign CEO in mid-August—Steve Bannon, the pugnacious CEO of the conservative news site Breitbart—the world reacted like wires had been crossed.  A figure from the media jumping straight into politics?

Okay, so there’s the pegging: “Trump . . . Bannon . . . conservative news site . . .  Breitbart.” However, there won’t be any sensational tell-alls here, because the article is mostly about political events from the 1940s and 1950s; indeed, except for the contemporary pegs, the piece is entirely excerpted from her new book, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, published by the sober-minded University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hemmer chronicles the lives and deeds of conservative activists of that era, including T. Coleman Andrews, Clarence Manion, and Chesly Manley; these men, as well as others on the right, felt betrayed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, deeming him to be a “RINO,” or worse.

If the names of Andrews, Manion, and Manly aren’t familiar today, it’s still a fact that they were major figures in the conservative movement in mid-century America.

Well, okay, maybe not that major. Andrews, for example, ran for president in 1956 on the States’ Rights Party, garnering just 107,000 votes, or .17 percent of the nationwide total. (Meanwhile, Eisenhower cruised to re-election with 35.6 million.)

Yet even so, the three are interesting: Manly was a prominent writer for the Chicago Tribune, as well as author of The Twenty Year Revolution from Roosevelt to Eisenhower, a conservative tract that’s still in print after 60 years. And as for Manion, long before anyone had ever heard of Rush Limbaugh, he built a mini-empire of conservative radio stations.

Other prominent names in Hemmer’s book are more familiar, such as Sen. Robert A. Taft, Sen. Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley of National Review, and Robert McCormick, publisher of the then-powerful Chicago Tribune. 

Still, the key to politics is winning, and these activists had trouble achieving that objective. After their inconsequential showing in the 1956 presidential election, they tried again in 1960, although still with little success.

They reached their apogee in July 1964, when Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination. That was certainly an historic accomplishment, although, just a few months later, Goldwater was massively defeated in the November presidential election; he won just six of the 50 states, and lost the popular vote by more than 22 percentage points.

To be sure, given his flinty eloquence and ornery independence, Goldwater was and is, in many ways, an admirable figure. And yet while it’s true that he did vastly better than Andrews, the third-party candidate eight years before, it’s also true that he fell well short. Again, we can observe: One builds a serious political movement on victories, not disastrous defeats.

Meanwhile, for the Republican Party—if not its most doctrinaire members—victory came only after Goldwater had left the national proscenium. That is, the GOP scored a sweeping triumph in the 1966 midterm elections. And then, more importantly, just four years after the Goldwater debacle, Republicans won the White House in 1968.

Here we might recall that the winner that year was Richard Nixon, who was not cut out of the Goldwater cloth. How so? For starters, Nixon was not born to privilege; indeed, by background, he was mostly in the middle, both politically and economically.

Perhaps most importantly, whereas Goldwater was ardently ideological, Nixon was supremely practical. To illustrate, we might note that while Goldwater campaigned on such exotic—and losing—issues as abolishing Social Security and privatizing the Tennessee Valley Authority, Nixon campaigned on the winning issue of “law and order.” I described Nixon’s “law and order” message in a 2014 review, here at Breitbart, of Pat Buchanan’s memoir of the 1968 campaign, The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority. In that book, Buchanan recalled a key Nixon strategy memo:

The Democrats are going to be the Left party–and a minority–and the GOP are going to be the Right-Center majority.

Note the key words, “right-center.” And we can all do the electoral math: In 1964, Goldwater represented the right, and that was it. Meanwhile, the Democrats had the center and the left, and so Goldwater lost—of course he did, he was badly outnumbered.

Yet just four years later, the situation had dramatically changed: Nixon, although himself far less conservative, still represented the right, and he also had the center as well. So this time, it was the Democrats who were pushed over to the edge: they had only the left. And so the Nixon Republicans won.

Indeed, Republicans would win five of the six presidential elections from 1968 to 1992. So as we can see, it was Nixon, not Goldwater, who ushered in the Republican presidential dominance of the late 20th century.

Of course, some will say that Ronald Reagan, the big winner in 1980 and 1984, was a Goldwater-ish figure. And in some ways, he was. But in other ways, he wasn’t: He might have been a libertarian-conservative by the time he entered elective politics, but he was also an ex-Democrat—so at a minimum, he had a strong understanding of the liberal perspective. Indeed, from the White House, he celebrated the centennial of the birth of Franklin D. Roosevelt—a man hated by orthodox conservatives—and governed, overall, as a moderate conservative.

Meanwhile, Hemmer, the UVA professor, has written a book about conservatives who were mostly to the right of the Republican Party. And this group, as we have seen, hit a kind of political-evolutionary dead end in 1964. Which is to say, their story is mostly of interest to historians, as opposed to political practitioners.

Yet Hemmer seems to have hit upon a stratagem: She would make a splash by pegging her historical work to contemporary events—even if the peg is round and the hole is square.

Thus Hemmer ended her Politico piece with this note of contemporary caution. Speaking of the conservatives of yore, she explains that they failed because they had only talked to each other, and so were unable to communicate with the larger electorate:

Having developed their ideas and rhetoric in a conservative-only space, they found that when faced with the broad American electorate, the tools of conservative media were ill-suited for building national majorities.

Okay, that’s a familiar enough point: No ideological group, right or left, can succeed at the ballot box if it only talks to itself. Instead, as a matter of math, it must persuade the middle to come to its side.

So then Hemmer closes with another application of her peg—pegging both Trump and Bannon:

It might be the same dilemma that stumps Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and the populist right come November.

Of course, a credentialed academic such as Hemmer would undoubtedly recognize the rhetorical device known as the “planted assumption” when she sees it—and when she uses it.

And the planted assumption, of course, is that there’s a linearity between the Andrews, Buckley, and Goldwater of yesterday and the Trump and Bannon today. If one accepts that assumption as valid, then sure, Trump and Bannon must beware, because defeat looms, dead ahead.

But we must ask: Whoever said that Trump was a “movement conservative”? Who thinks that Trump got into politics because he was entranced by Buckley’s National Review? Nobody, that’s who.

Trump is undeniably on the right, but he has broken with conservative orthodoxy on a number of issues, including Social Security, immigration, and trade. Indeed, he won his GOP primary victory despite the overwhelming opposition of the keepers of conservative orthodoxy, starting with National Review. And as for Bannon, he openly disdains the old orthodoxy, preferring to describe himself as a “populist-nationalist.”

In fact, as we have seen, in the last line of her article, Hemmer admits just that: She describes Trump and Bannon as being on the “populist right.” Which is to say, even she concedes that the lineage between Trump and Bannon, on the one hand, and the figures she chronicles, on the other, is thin—thin to the point of non-existence.

And that’s because the protagonists Hemmer chronicles in her book—notably, Taft, Buckley, and McCormick—were not populists. Taft, for example, was the grandson of a U.S. president; he himself went to Yale College and Harvard law school.

Returning to the present day, admittedly Trump, too, was born to money, and even went to an Ivy League school. And yet nobody thinks of him as a blue-blood. And as for Bannon, his background is blue-collar and Democrat; his father was a telephone lineman—and so populism comes easily to him. And as for Breitbart, well, it speaks for itself. Every day. Loudly.

So now we have an answer to the question implied in the headline of this piece: What Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Breitbart Can Learn from the Conservative Movement of the 1950sAnswer: Not very much, because the circumstances are so different —and besides, in elective politics, losers make poor role models.  

Instead, Trump and Bannon seem to have studied the GOP’s winning 1968 “law and order” playbook very closely.

Perhaps some other time, we can delve into all the distinctions between populism, nationalism, and conservatism, but for now, we can simply say this: Populism is less ideological, and more practical. If things are working and the country is doing well, most folks are happy. But if not, then not—and then populism.

William Galston was blunt about this phenomenon in the pages of The Wall Street Journal the other day. In a piece headlined, The Populist Revolt Against Failure: What erodes faith in the ruling class are bungled wars, uneven growth and insecurity, he observed that “The crucial question is whether elites rule in their own interest or for the common good.”

Today, the vast majority of Americans today agree that the elite are not looking out for the common good.

And so, in the face of that failure, and the resulting collapse in public confidence, now the populists—Trump, Bannon, Breitbart—are getting their chance.


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