As President Trump finishes his first week in office, I can’t resist the unsettling feeling that the events of the 1964 presidential race are being replayed in reverse.
My father was running that year as the Republican candidate for mayor of Ansonia, a small town in Connecticut. Looming over every race on the ballot was the celebrated contest between the Republican presidential candidate, Arizona’s extremely conservative U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater and Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas. What made it even more ominous was the fact that, in those days, Connecticut voting booths employed the lever system. Each voter began by pulling a large lever which registered votes for the entire slate of a particular party. To “split” your vote among candidates of different parties, you had to manually readjust your vote down ballot. Should you fail to do so, your vote stood for the entire ticket of the party whose lever you’d initially pulled.
Sen. Goldwater was an advocate of “state’s rights” and an opponent of any civil rights legislation. In my unfortunate nalveté, I failed to comprehend that “state’s rights” was an expedient vehicle to maintain a system of racism, especially throughout the southern states where Jim Crow laws were still the rule of the land. While the Republican candidate was challenging the “Washington establishment,” President Johnson was perceived as the candidate for the status quo, having been thrust into office after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The presidential campaign was laced with innuendos concerning the mental and emotional stability of the Arizona senator. I can remember the senator’s slogan: “In your heart, you know he’s right,” as well as the prevalent retort, “but in your head you know he’s nuts.” Concern over handing the nuclear codes to Sen. Goldwater, who might very well have employed them, was highlighted by a famous Johnson commercial (entitled “Daisy”), which displayed a young girl picking a daisy while a nuclear bomb went off in the background.
The “intellectual” underpinnings of the Goldwater challenge were underscored by a book called “None Dare Call It Treason” by John A. Stormer. Local Republicans were asked to distribute as many copies as possible and, sure enough, during my dad’s campaign, we received boxes and boxes of this “bible,” which we handed out to anyone willing to take them.
Mr. Stormer’s book was full of tales of communist infiltrations on every societal level: school boards, local governments, Congress and even the presidency. Quotes attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt saying some of his best friends were communists were followed by equally damning references, which were supported by 800 footnotes. Confronted by so many footnotes, and seeing these charges in black and white, any reader had to reasonably conclude that indeed our country was in trouble.
Although I supported Goldwater, I decided to dig a little deeper. I went to the library and started researching the footnotes. Roosevelt’s quote turned out to have been made by someone he had driven out of office and was not even attributed to him until 12 years after the president’s death. Labor leader Walter P. Reuther’s letter saying “Carry the fight for a Soviet America” was a complete hoax, which had been perpetrated no less than three times in the Congressional Record. If I had any doubt that this book was an exercise in pure propaganda, it was dispelled when, during the following year (1965), Julian Foster, a political science professor at California State University at Fullerton, published, “None Dare Call It Reason” which tore apart, footnote by footnote, the book I had cheerfully distributed only a year before.
Despite the widespread proliferation of propaganda, Goldwater was swamped on Election Day, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College. Fortunately, during the Johnson years, the country went on to pass important Civil Rights legislation, set up Medicare and Medicaid and begin healing the racial divide.
Fast forward to 2016, an age where news is instantaneous, and we are again witness to a proliferation of dangerous misinformation, which too often blurs the line between truth and propaganda. This makes informed voting ever the more difficult. But this time, books like “None Dare Call It Treason” have been replaced by “Clinton Cash” and other equally disingenuous efforts. Today’s electorate reads less and is more influenced by rumors, innuendo and outright falsehoods, which are fed to an information-hungry public ready to embrace anything that reinforces their point of view. We don’t have to hand books out at political rallies; the connection to the public is as close as the phones in their pocket.
In this election year, unlike 1964, the outsider, Donald J. Trump, was able to ride a wave of mistrust and anti-government sentiment to best the status quo candidate, Hillary Clinton. In the process, our vulnerability to misinformation was dramatically exposed, placing the very foundations of a democratic society, informed choice, in serious jeopardy. In support of that proposition, I submit to you as exhibit A, the case of Cameron Harris.
Needing money and being computer savvy, Mr. Harris decided to exploit the fervor that Mr. Trump had created to his financial benefit. He first purchased a website, ChristianTimesNewspaper.com. Then, he invented a story of a fictional character whom he named Randall Prince. Next, he wrote a fake news story that Mr. Prince had located thousands of fraudulent Clinton ballots in an Ohio warehouse. In the bogus article, Mr. Harris proclaimed, “What he found could allegedly be evidence of a massive operation designed to deliver Clinton the crucial swing state.” This fake story was launched on Sept. 30, and it went viral. He personally posted it on a half-dozen Facebook pages he had created. Over six million people received it and passed it on. The devious enterprise helped inflame the hatred against Mrs. Clinton and the false theory that the fix was in. Mr. Trump himself fueled the paranoia by falsely proclaiming (without a shred of evidence) that millions of illegal votes had been cast. As for Mr. Harris, he eventually parlayed the website he had purchased for $5 into a profit of more than $20,000 and just missed a $100,000 windfall. He later admitted to not only this false story but others all designed to take down Hillary Clinton.
For me, the lesson I learned in 1964 is doubly important today—for a democracy to work, we need to vigilantly search for the truth and refuse to accept a statement merely because it supports our point of view, no matter how tempting that might feel. Truth, not propaganda, must inform our decisions.