The “tell it like it is” tactic, so brilliantly portrayed in Donald Trump’s current campaign, has long been used as a forceful way of connecting with the voter. On the face of it, it is a form of plain-speaking, where the speaker says things that are candid, unvarnished, and grasped intuitively by plain folks.
Such “telling like it is,” however, has a sharp edge to it in our current environment, relying on the cliché that liberal elites have obscured the truth and substituted in its place a form of political correctness. In reaction, the “teller” claims to expose the real truth, reciting a narrative of official injustice toward the white middle class and favoritism towards undeserving minority and outsider groups.
Politicians who “tell it like it is” have actually been around on the populist right since the 1960s. George Wallace, deploying a message loaded with racist innuendo for the ears of working class whites, was one of the first. But Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s hand-chosen attack dog, developed the tactic into an art form. Claiming to speak for the “silent majority,” Agnew “told it like it was” by vilifying the media and pillorying liberal elites for apparently “indulging” criminals and protesters.
In today’s polarized political environment, a number of Republican stars have used the technique with remarkable effect. In particular, Sarah Palin, with her intuitive grasp of sagebrush America and contempt for urban sophistication, does a free-wheeling version of telling it outright. Governor Chris Christie, using the truth-telling tactic in confrontational settings, brings a bully boy persona to the role.
But Donald Trump seems to have outdone all his predecessors in the art of “telling it like it is.” His ability to emote scorn and outrage, his use of hyperbole, his articulation of the naughty and the impermissible, his pose of invincibility consistently titillate the press and send his followers into a swoon. What normally passes for barroom talk becomes believable fact. Mexicans crossing the border are rapists, drug dealers, and social rejects. American Muslims represent a danger to the homeland. Solving such problems is simple: Round up and deport millions and build a wall funded by a strapped neighboring country. Halt the movement of Muslim citizens in and out of the U.S. Mr. Trump has proved himself a master at magnifying dangers and following up with draconian threats.
Not surprisingly, Trump harshly attacks the usual suspects, namely, the mainstream media and liberals like Obama, who have allegedly made a mess of things. But, in the heat of the campaign, Trump has widened the scope of his offensive to include anyone opposed to his non-doctrinaire candidacy. The resistant GOP establishment itself has come directly in the line of fire, including all of its proxies–John McCain, Roger Ailes, the neo-cons, the Bush clan, and the conservative commentariat at National Review, to name just a few. One could argue that Trump’s broad targeting strategy has added credibility to his cause, making it something that transcends party labels. Unscripted and un-bought, Trump has strengthened his “tell it like it is” credentials by taking the fight to anything Establishment.
The Republican Party/Fox News colossus is now in corrective mode, trying to douse a fire that, as many have pointed out, it was instrumental in creating in the first place. “Telling it like it is” was meant to promote a tradition-based framework to discredit the more “indulgent” liberal one. In political terms, it was intended to stiffen the spine of a freedom-loving people: to slay the dragon of big government and to disempower the unproductive classes dependent on its largesse. As it turned out, the Republican base didn’t care much about big government. Disempowering those other people it took a bit too viscerally.
The problem for the GOP establishment is that Trump, who remains the center of media attention, now controls the message. His rancid truth-telling has become irresistible to the many who feel empowered by it, and his successes at the ballot box have only enhanced its persuasiveness. So much so that the Republican establishment and donor class, as much as they despise what he says, are now afraid to confront him directly. Ironically for them, their problem may be one that only the Democrats can fix.