Fool Me Twice! Finding Your Inner Newt Gingrich
Whatever else you want to say about us, you must admit that we American voters love slogans, especially misleading ones. We fall for them over and over again. We particularly seem to like catchwords and phrases that are adopted specifically to bring about the opposite of what we really want. Think of the Wise Use movement, Death Panels, Killing Grandma, Death Taxes, and even The Tea Party.
As a progressive, left-leaning Democrat, it troubles me greatly that we liberals are so poor at finding and using these slogans, while conservative Republicans have a positive genius for it. Reagan’s It’s Morning Again in America just shimmers, like the dawn it references, while Obama’s Change We Need and Change We Can Believe In are uninspired, to be polite. Yes, Obama won, but I would argue that these slogans didn’t help much. Even Senator Sanders, for me the most inspiring politician of a lifetime, went with A Political Revolution is Coming. Oh, good. This has about as much appeal as a bowl of unsweetened oatmeal mush. Feel the Bern was better, much better, but it was too much about an individual, not at all about a deep-seated, grand concern. About Hillary’s Stronger Together and Love Trumps Hate, the less said the better.
We Democrats have our moments, of course. We had a brief flare there in the middle years, with the first Clinton. James Carville thought up It’s the Economy, Stupid, which I have to admit is good, but I also have to argue that President Clinton, charming talker that he is, was basically a high-functioning Republican during most of his administration. Yes, please think of bank deregulation here, as well as Welfare to Work and some bad trade deals, among other things. So, I’m reluctant to chalk one up for the home team.
It doesn’t seem to take intelligence to come up with these catchy phrases, either. Sarah Palin, my candidate for the country’s least likely Jeopardy contestant, is usually credited with Death Panels, which did as much as anything to insure that we never got the single-payer, truly universal, health care system we really need. She was also very good at being snarky, back in the day, before her brain-wiring got even more tangled. “How’s that hopey, changy thing workin’ out for ya?” wasn’t bad at all, to give one of the Devil’s agents her due.
One of my favorite examples from the past is the Wise Use movement of the late 1980s. The name sounds great, so much so that even Al Gore was taken in by it for a time. The movement sounded so good Big Al thought it must be good. After all, it used the word “wise” to talk about the environment. However, it turned out to be the exact opposite of everything Gore stood for. Most of the groups affiliated with the movement were funded by Big Oil. They were pro-business, pro-privatization of public land, pro-deregulation, and the sworn enemy of environmentalists. They adopted the name of an older movement, according to one spokesman, because it was ambiguous and sounded good, suggesting the opposite of what the group was really wanting to do.
Are we catching on yet? You want to make sure your corporation can continue to pump chemicals into a nearby river? Sponsor a bill and call it the Clean Rivers Act. Make sure to include enough limitations on regulation that nothing changes, insuring that future generations will get to see fish floating belly-up in what was once a recreational waterway. Your corporation wants to get its hands on a city zoo and the property it sits on? Sponsor a local bill called Save Our Zoo, which calls for privatization, forcing the city to sell off or lease that bloodsucker to a private corporation (yours) for $1. You will get lots of publicity and thousands of people to sign your petition. And, yes, variations of this really happen. Even local news channels won’t look past the name. By the way, has anyone seen a real journalist lately?
The trick, evidently, is to channel your inner Newt Gingrich. Say one thing, with a loud, clear voice, and quickly set about doing another. Learn to be deceptive. Make sure your left hand knows what your right hand is about to do. Practice verbal sleight-of-hand, if you please. Appeal to the voter’s better angels with a resounding phrase–your left hand–and get that fool’s vote with your right. Then you and your congressman and your corporation can do whatever you want.
It comforts me somewhat that it’s easier to be brilliant, politically and verbally, if you are willing to lie. This certainly opens up more possibilities. In other words, as one Republican wit said, it’s foolish to be “reality” based, and there is no such thing as “truth” anyway. So, Save Our Schools can become an effective battle-cry for the private school lobby, which actually wants to destroy the public school system. Please Don’t Kill Grandma is an effective slogan for insurance corporations, who really don’t give a hoot whether Granny lives or dies, but who really do need your money; and Clean Air For All can and will be the slogan of the coal industry.
It comforts me not at all that we fall for the same verbal tricks over and over again. The sad truth is that we continue to believe words somehow mean what they say. I don’t know how many people remember that Make America Great Again was Ronald Reagan’s slogan in 1980, his first presidential race. It sounded great, and it helped get him elected, but it heralded a long, slow slide into recession, an acceleration of deregulation of all kinds, especially those dealing with banks and with the environment, an all-out war on labor and labor unions—all of these things directly opposed to the interests of the working class, which voted for him in great numbers. It was, in fact, not even close to morning in America again, as Reagan suggested in his second campaign. It was more like late afternoon.
Ronald Reagan didn’t trademark or copyright the marvelous slogan of his first presidential campaign, but Donald Trump did. This scares me in three ways. The first is that Trump, as dumb as he is, is shrewder than Reagan was. This isn’t really hard to imagine, since Reagan’s staunchest admirers admit that, even dressed up in his cowboy costume, Ronald wasn’t very fast on the draw.
Secondly, this appropriation suggests that Trump intends to be a kind of Reagan Redux, or Reagan to the third power. Here comes trouble. Look for an even more vicious attack on regulation, a renewed war on labor and labor unions, and an unprecedented war on the very press which actually helped to get him elected. Here comes an elevation of the moneyed class and the business class like nothing the working class has seen before, followed by a quick slide into recession and even depression. It’s going to be midnight in America before we know what hit us.
But the really depressing thing is that American voters got taken in again. Sure, Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes, but the working class fell for that old slogan in those regions that mattered most. The working poor in depressed areas of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin swung the election and put Trump in the White House so he could get those jobs back and Make America Great Again.
George W. Bush, The Lesser, is famous for bungling the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” He actually said, “Fool me once, shame on you.” After an awkward pause, obviously straining to remember how it went, he finished with, “You fooled me. You can’t get fooled again!” People were amused, but they knew what he meant. But we must agree to disagree, George, or maybe you are just a bit sharper than we are. They did it. They can fool us twice. Actually, they can. Yes, they can.