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ON THE SCENE: Roundtable speaker: Republican Party is the party of Robert Taft

July 20, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln or Reagan; it's now the party of Robert Taft, according to Nicole Hemmer, author of "Messengers of the Right" and assistant professor of presidential studies at the University of Charlottesville.

She made these remarks at the opening Adirondack Roundtable presented by the Lake Placid Institute Saturday, July 15 at the Lake Placid Conference Center. The Roundtables present discussions about critical issues of the day, and Hemmer set a high mark for this summer's series.

Robert Taft? Who is he, you might ask? Robert Alphonso Taft was the eldest son of President William Taft who served as a senator from Ohio. He was the leading conservative spokesman of his day and a presidential hopeful whose dream of being nominated to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States in 1952 was thwarted the entry of a last-minute celebrity and darling of the media who had recently joined the party, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Article Photos

Nicole Hemmer, speaker, with David Gamrasni and Mara Jayne Miller
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Taft's vision of conservative Republicanism didn't go gently into the night. He and his followers decided on two things: to get focused and create their own media outlets to counter what they felt were the left-leaning messages of mainstream media. They didn't mind losing if the message of their spokesperson was pure. Think Barry Goldwater. Yes, he lost, but he changed the nature of the playing field. Their ultimate goal was to push out the moderate Republicans, people like Rockefeller, even Reagan, and now the Bush dynasty.

Key was establishing their media outlets. The best-known for decades was the National Review founded and published by William F. Buckley Jr. Today the platforms are FOX News and the Breitbart News Network combined with a skillful use of political punditry and social media. These media platforms make no pretense of presenting balanced viewpoints; their purpose is to be a voice for the conservative agenda.

Legislatively, they used gerrymandering, suppression of voting and the politics of "no" to create structures and environments that strengthened their control of political power, the outcome is what we have now the Conservative Republican control of the House, Senate, presidency and potentially the Supreme Court. Unexpected was the number of divisions within the Republican Party in the House and Senate and discovering that a person used to managing his own business, large and successful though it may be, does not have the skill set or temperament to govern.

Trump's conservatism was not widely embraced by the conservatives, as its standard bearer the National Review came out against him and Fox News initially held him at arm's-length. Not Breitbart, which jumped from promoting him to running his campaign, and now Steve Bannon, Breitbart's CEO, is helping set policy within the White House.

"This elevation of Bannon sent shockwaves across the country," said Hemmer. "A figure from conservative media jumping straight into the campaign and then presidential politics. Even in the work of partisan media, it was unusual to give up all pretense of distance from the rough and tumble world of electoral politics, but maybe it shouldn't have been all that surprising. Conservative candidates have been counting on support for Fox News for a generation, but in fact, the relationship is much older than that."

Hemmer then took us back to Taft, the journey forward since and, to her, the not-so-surprising result.

"I wanted to convey a sense that the things that seem unprecedented today actually are rooted in a much deeper history," she said. "Trump or Breitbart is not the first conservative media spokesperson to make the leap to politics; rather, there is a long history of this trod path that the conservatives used to build what they built. So, what seems striking and new to us isn't always that."

"She achieved her goal," said Doug March. "I now want to know what is populism?"

"Populism reports to be a majorityism politics of the moment," said Hemmer. "You appeal to popular majority sentiment, but who the people are in that definition is important. It's touted as the voice of the popular will. For Trump, that's white Americans, and it excludes a whole lot of other Americans. Populism tends to be conspiratorial, and it has enemies. It has enemies, the elite, but also the underclass that the elites prop up, such as in the case of Trump, immigrants, African-Americans, women and all the people who don't fit into his definition of real Americans."

"She's an extremely intelligent speaker," said Phil Adil. "It's interesting to hear the history of the conservative movement and how it evolved from the '50s to today. I had no idea it started with Taft. I don't know where our politics is headed. I was interested in her take on how social media has fractured the process and all the different options that are out there. I was interested to learn that while Bernie Sanders didn't know how to use social media, yet it works for him as he has followers who do. Key is that he comes across as authentic. The problem is, what's truly authentic? What's truth these days?"

"I think she did a very good job of laying out the subject in a way that was not partisan," said Catherine McGraw. "I think that's important because that's a concern for people as politics is a hot topic now. She approached the rise of conservatism from a very intellectual perspective, not an emotional one."

"I liked how she presented the history of conservatism," said Richard Ward. "I lived through most of it. I remember the Eisenhower years. I asked her which media provides the most well-rounded news and she said the Wall Street Journal."

Linda Gray, who voted for the president, upon reading Hemmer's bio before the talk wasn't sure if she'd like what she heard, but her reaction was high praise.

"I agreed with everything she said," said Gray. "She made great points and got me thinking about why I think the way I do. I found her talk fascinating."

Nicole Hemmer's book, "Messengers of the Right," is available at The Bookstore Plus.

No less fascinating will be the next two Adirondack Roundtable speakers: retired Navy Seal Commander Mark Devine, Aug. 5, about developing mental toughness; and Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker author William Finnegan on Aug. 12.

To register, call 518-523-1312 or email Space is limited, and registering early is recommended.



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