The first GOP primary forum “debate” – if it could be called that – was started the evening of Monday, August 3rd . Ten of the least unpopular members of the GOP were hand-picked by Fox, using criteria that didn’t sit well with Republican voters. Donald Trump was chosen to reign as King over this Court of Fools – but wound up boycotting the event because he disliked what a local newspaper had to say about him. Trump also thought there were “too many candidates.”  All-in-all, the first Republican “forum” amounted to little more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The art and science of political debate has surely deteriorated since the halcyon days of the Kennedy-Nixon race. Why? The answer lies in the history of the Right Wing’s fifty-year-long strategy to hijack American democracy in the name of “Christianity” and neoliberal “free-market” economics – which have become bizarrely conflated in the Conservative mind.

Part of the strategy involved the gradual takeover of offices from the local level on up. This allowed right-wing Republicans to manipulate and game the system for their own advantage. However, that was only one part of the equation. It was necessary to make many preparations and clear the way for the GOP takeover of American democracy. It all started in the early 1950s with a young Conservative Ivy League graduate named William F. Buckley, Jr.

At that time, the Great Depression and the capitalist excesses that caused it were still relatively fresh in Americans’ minds. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that gradually lifted the country out of that economic disaster and paved the way for the establishment of a strong middle class remained quite popular. Even Republican President Dwight Eisenhower was unwilling to totally discard FDR’s agenda. He agreed with conservative views on free markets and limited government – but also understood that there were times when government intervention was necessary. It was one of the themes of his famous Farewell Address.

Eisenhower’s “Middle Way” policies did not sit well with conservatives who saw the New Deal, with its regulation of business and social safety nets, as a form of “creeping socialism.” Unfortunately, educated and knowledgeable voters across the spectrum were supportive of these policies, from which so many had benefited.  Young Buckley understood that the conservative agenda would be deeply unpopular. Taking advantage of the “Red Scare” mentality of the time, he began advancing the idea among conservatives that open, public debate of real issues – which had led to FDRs hated New Deal – was an expression of “godless communism.” He learned how to manipulate the message, omitting facts, using carefully-selected statements in order to vilify opponents and put a negative spin on what might otherwise be positive ideas.  Most importantly, Buckley learned how to portray conservatives as “victims,” employing fear tactics and the “politics of rage.”

Those tactics are painfully familiar to us living in the second decade of the 21st Century. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Buckley’s ideas caught on with Conservatives, who put them to use. A detailed history of how that agenda played out during the last half of the 20th Century is the subject of a piece appearing on Suffice it to say, Buckley’s strategy culminated in the destruction of the Fairness Doctrine, which had guided media journalism for forty years – and opened the door to fake, biased, corporate “news” outlets such as Fox.

The Buckley Strategy, combined with the long-term takeover of political offices by the GOP and the “dumbing-down” of America, has brought us the modern day presidential political debates.


K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.