How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love LaRouche
The People pick lunatics unwittingly. Sound familiar?
April 3, 1986
In one of Illinois's more antic political episodes, two followers of right-wing wacko Lyndon LaRouche won the Democratic primaries for two statewide offices. The Dems' gubernatorial candidate disdained to be on the same ticket with them and so ran as a third-party candidate representing a made-up party. Rereading this piece from that campaign, I was struck by how it presaged the rise of Donald Trump, and how smoothly Ronald Reagan paved Trump's path to the top of the GOP.
It was a few days after the primary that I began to suspect that the LaRouchians were getting a bum rap. Much was being made of the fact that Janice Hart faces disorderly conduct charges for having handed a piece of liver to a visiting bishop in Chicago. The symbolism of the protest may have been a little murky, but the press accounts were quite clear on one point: the liver was wrapped in foil.
That liver was offered by press and pundits as evidence of Hart’s irredeemable wackiness. I tended to agree at first, even though I suspect that a fuel-injected, permanent-press political loony would not have balked at carrying raw liver around in her purse. A week or two later, however, I listened to our president hand the American people something far less savory in a speech about Central America.
It occurred to me then that if Hart had been disorderly, Reagan was chargeable for something like incitement to riot in his lobbying of Congress for aid to the Nicaraguan contras. He was not, it being permissible to hand rockets to thugs but not liver to a bishop.
Indeed, since Illinois Primary Day the experts have split more hairs than a correspondence school beautician. Consider their remarks about Poor Adlai. The surprise election of Mark Fairchild as the Democrats’ lieutenant governor nominee and Hart as their secretary of state candidate was to the Stevenson campaign what the Challenger explosion was to the shuttle program: It brought to a sudden halt an unnecessary trip by a vehicle that wasn’t that well built to begin with, and which was, strictly speaking, going nowhere. If one didn’t have doubts about him before the election, one couldn’t avoid them after. I was especially intrigued by Stevenson’s attempts to jettison the results of a perfectly fair and open election.
The fact that the targets of the attempted purge were neo-Nazis lent it ironies which were both vivid and repugnant. Adlai is well known for not being a true Democrat; turns out that he isn’t a true democrat either.
Stevenson’s fate is not what interests me about this episode, however. The press has been widely criticized for having failed in its duty to inform the voting public about LaRouchi- an views. But the press’s role is not to confer education upon the public but credibility upon a candidate. The mere fact of a candidate’s appearance on TV legitimizes him; what is said while he is on it usually just confuses the voter, or irritates him.
Political consultants know this, which is why they school their boys and girls to say as little as possible. The salient fact about the media coverage was not that the LaRouchians were not “covered,” but that the establishment Democrats, Pumeister and Sangcinski, weren’t either. The Illinois primary battle for nomination to these lower offices was probably the fairest election in decades, since the voters were not manipulated by image advertising; reformers, take note.
Thus abandoned to ignorance, the voters were free to vote their own minds. A few, apprised of the LaRouche program, voted for it because they agreed with it. A few committed Republicans (possibly mobilized by their local party operatives) probably crossed over and voted LaRouche to confound the regular Democrats. Many voters doubtless voted for the LaRouchians because their names appeared at the top of some ballots, thinking like many a legislator than a vote cast in ignorance is somehow better than a vote uncast. Some, reading the names Pucinski and Sangmeister, succumbed to their anti-Chicago or anti-ethnic biases.
Stevenson’s press secretary even suggested that when voters saw the name of the LaRouchian lieutenant governor candidate, “Maybe they thought of Morgan Fairchild.” I assume he wasn’t entirely serious, but it would take a fool or a political scientist to underestimate the number of Illinoisans who are capable 1) of thinking that Morgan Fairchild might be running for George Ryan’s job in the statehouse, and 2) of voting for her if she were. Again, the greater wisdom may reside with the people. The post is only decorative. Who better to represent state government at ribbon cuttings than someone who looks like an expensive whore?
In sum, a majority of those voting in these two races proved themselves guilty of political dementia, partisan political sabotage, civic irresponsibility, racial and ethnic bigotry, or mammary fixation. It is not much of a testimonial to democracy, I admit, but it is just about the testimonial that democracy deserves. What really struck me about the post-election commentary was the assertion from so many quarters that this was news. After all, the spectacle of thousands of voters endorsing candidates they’d never heard of and whose programs and qualifications remained a mystery is a tradition in the machine wards of Chicago.
Reading the papers and listening to the radio these days is like eavesdropping on a bunch of fourth-graders arguing about sin. Consider this central fantasy: Had the press revealed the specifics of the LaRouchian creed, the public would have fled from them in revulsion or derision. This is itself pretty loony. I heard the LaRouchian who is running in the thirteenth congressional district explain their “biological defense initiative” the other day. The way to stop AIDS, he said, is for everybody to eat lots of red meat. That gives them the Downstate farm vote right there. Hell, farmers believed Earl Butz, didn’t they?
A historical example buttresses my point. Consider the career of a man who, not unlike LaRouche, cobbled a program together from old magazine articles. He argued, against all the evidence, that cutting taxes for the rich would eliminate poverty; he argued against environmental programs by claiming that pollution came from trees. He was historically illiterate, and so bumbling an intelligence that without a prepared speech to read he could barely put together a simple English sentence. Yet he won a major party nomination, because the voters weren’t paying attention or because they disliked his opponents or because they actually thought he made sense.
I am speaking, of course, of Ronald Wilson Reagan. I smiled when I read in the Tribune, “Illinois and Washington officials, in particular Republicans, still scoff at the proposals of the LaRouche candidates.” Scoffing? From the people who gave us Ed Meese’s Classics Illustrated interpretations of the Constitution?
The LaRouchians are universally reviled as wackos, flakes, loonies. (Some of them are also, as a result of the primary, Democrats.) One can tell because the press refers to them as “LaRouchies,” using the diminutive form of address the press saves for people it doesn’t take seriously, such as professional women tennis players. They are despised because they do not represent mainstream American thought, as if endorsing same were the purpose of elections, indeed of government. Yet the only differences 1 can see between the LaRouchians and, say, Reaganite Republicans (including the Moral Majority and kindred believers) are differences of etiquette. It is not that the LaRouchians are wrong that offends—being wrong is no bar to political progress—but that they are rude.
Look at Mark Fairchild. He looks like the kind of kid we used to throw rocks at in my old neighborhood. Fraternity member, amateur theatrical performer, son of a Girl Scout executive—no wonder he turned out badly. His life’s ambition, we are told, was to be Chief llliniwek at the University of Illinois. Me, I find it harder and harder to tell what is loony and what isn’t in a world which has a Chief llliniwek in it. It is in any event a more laudable ambition than lieutenant governor. The surest way to silence Fairchild is not to drive him off the ballot but to elect him and leave him shouting down a well.
Janice Hart’s candidacy is altogether more encouraging. Her election as secretary of state promises an exciting new era in license-plate slogan-making. I admit she is not the best-informed candidate we have had. Her hint that “tanks would rumble down State Street” in her war against drugs is obviously blather, since every tourist knows that State Street in the Loop is reserved for buses only.
The LaRouchians are racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic, no doubt. I am not sure whether we are supposed to deplore the LaRouchians because they are r., h., and a-s., or whether we are to deplore racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism because they are LaRouchian. For example, the Reagan administration has long resisted full support for majority rule in South Africa. They embraced it in the Philippines. Why? The majority that would rule South Africa is poor and black, while that which took over in the Philippines (quoting Indiana’s Sen. Richard Lugar from The New York Times) is composed of “people who talked, acted, and even looked a little like your own friends.”
Ignorance is to politics in the late twentieth century what corruption was in the nineteenth. If a correct answer was worth a nickel, a starving man couldn’t get the price of a taco-to-go by asking one hundred Americans whose side we’re on in Central America. I have heard friends complain that Elizabeth II of England probably is not the kingpin—perhaps queenpin is a better word—of the world heroin trade, as the LaRouchians contend. Opinions so at odds with demonstrable fact are proof of something akin to madness, they say.
I suppose so. But how then does one explain our president? In his recent speech urging contra aid (to pick only one example), he asserted that a synagogue in Managua had been “desecrated and firebombed” by the Jew-hating Sandinistas, that Nicaragua was supporting subversives in Brazil, that top Sandinista officials were “deeply involved in drug trafficking.” The next day, a prominent rabbi who had investigated charges of anti-Semitism in Nicaragua explained that the synagogue had been abandoned during the fighting against the dictator Somoza in 1978 and that it had not reopened because there was no significant Jewish community in Managua. The Brazilian foreign office called to complain that there was no evidence of any subversive movement in their country, trained by anybody. And the head of Reagan’s own Drug Enforcement Administration called the drug traffic charges unfounded.
Who is the loony then? Not long after the president spoke thus, The New Yorker commented. Noting that the president and others had disdained the requirement that their political assertions tally in some way at least with the real world, the editors remarked, “statements with no or hardly any real-world referents take on a kind of spooky half-life; they hover like ghosts.” As a result, they went on, “American public discourse became positively haunted.”
Asked why Reagan gave so little credence to reports of thuggery by contra forces, a White House aide explained matter-of-factly that once the president takes a stand on something, he simply chooses not to believe contrary evidence. This is not political conviction. This is delusion. My worry about the LaRouche victories is not that they are mad, but that compared to mainstream American politics they did not seem nearly mad enough. When I hear the LaRouchians warn that the Nicaraguans are ready to pile into ’58 Chevies and drive north to invade San Diego, then I’ll know they’re really nuts. ●