The Trump campaign, ugly as it was—and democracy is often an ugly, messy business—served as a social X-ray for our stultified political system. It revealed just how the swelling confluence of big donors, news media as entertainment, and our rancid consulting class has so appalled and disgusted much of the electorate that they were willing to vote for almost anyone, anyone at all, if he would “blow things up,” as one Trump supporter after another kept telling reporters. And in doing so, it compels us to examine how our system of political campaigns came to be, and how it might be upended yet....
... It’s difficult to say who America’s first political consultant was; maybe Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for their infamous “botanical expedition” that created the Democratic Party in the summer of 1791. In the country’s early days, plenty of presidents had informal advisers, usually friends or colleagues, but it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to want the office so openly as to campaign. Even after the rise of the Republicans in 1854, when political parties began mobilizing their local chapters to turn out the vote nationwide, the candidate was expected to sit at home running a “front-porch campaign,” gamely shaking hands and making speeches to whatever local delegation the party deemed it important to impress. Political campaigns, in short, were managed by political machines, which handled all the dirty work of politics and reaped much of the profit.
All that started to change, however, at the turn of the twentieth century. Mass movements like the Populists and the Progressives began to challenge the corruption of the machines, and improved communications and transportation knit the country closer together. “A major reason—if not the only reason—for having campaign consultants,” the veteran political consultant Walter De Vries once explained, “is that political parties basically failed to do their job in a changing technological and social environment.”
Consultants first started to get a claw-hold on our political system in the years just after World War I, during the brief nexus of the Progressive movement and the emerging arts of advertising, public relations, and broadcast media. Much of the population was as disgusted with the existing political establishment as it is today, and in active rebellion against the era’s political machines, demanding reform and candidates free from “bossism.” As Dennis Johnson traces in his intriguing new history of consultancy, Democracy for Hire, the rising experts in public relations were considered honest professionals who could help independent candidates circumvent the corrupt party apparatus, and take their appeals directly to the people.
The early consultants knew what they were doing, and their approaches could be startlingly modern. Long before it was used by Richard Nixon—or revived by Donald Trump this year—the term “silent majority” was coined by a leading New York advertising man, Bruce Barton, pumping then-governor Calvin Coolidge in a 1919 profile for Collier’s magazine: “It sometimes seems as if this great silent majority had no spokesman. But Coolidge belongs with that crowd: He lives like them, he works like them, and understands.”
No one seemed to notice that Coolidge was, in fact, the quintessential career politician, running for and winning office more often than any other president in history. Before the 1920s were out, Barton went on to give us such concepts as “battleground states” and the fireside chat. By 1941, another longtime ad guru, Edward Bernays—a nephew of Freud known as “the father of spin”—was stressing message discipline to a client, urging him to use only such “proper verbs,” according to Johnson, as “ask, promise, appeal, urge, hope, advocate, declare, reveal.” Bernays’s work anticipated the language inversions of GOP consultant Frank Luntz, who converted the estate tax into “the death tax,” and Newt Gingrich’s 1990 memo urging Republicans to refer to Democrats and their policies with such words as corrupt, devour, greed, hypocrisy, sick, traitors—and, above all, liberal. ...