Back in junior high I read a book that helped shape my thinking about America: William J. Lederer’s “A Nation of Sheep” (1961).
Lederer, who with co-author Eugene Burdick had had a national bestseller in 1958 with “The Ugly American,” warned that government and the media manipulate public opinion by controlling what an ignorant, gullible and complacent American people know. In particular, Lederer wrote about the foreign policy snow job that would get America into the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
The quotation, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves,” is usually attributed to newsman Edward R. Murrow. But I see now that the true source is likely French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel. It is impossible to know anything for certain these days.
Here, however, are a couple of things that Edward R. Murrow apparently did say. “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices,” and “Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.”
Sounds to me like a perfect parsing of the Trump campaign: appeal to people’s prejudices with a simplistic slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
The prejudices Trump plays on are based in white America’s fear of immigrants and poverty. A nation of sheep can easily be persuaded that Mexicans, Muslims, poor people and Black Lives Matter protestors are responsible for everything that is wrong in their lives when, in fact, Corporate America and its minions in Congress and the courts are largely to blame for their ills.
There is a line in “The Big Short” – the terrific movie based on Michael Lewis’ terrific book about how toxic mortgage-backed securities made a few people rich, a lot of people poor, and plunged the nation into recession – that distills the essence of the today’s Republican Party and how a fear-mongering charlatan like Trump became its nominee.
“I have a feeling,” says Mark Baum (the character based on money manager Steve Eisman and played by actor Steve Carell), “in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
Wall Street investment firms, mortgage companies and big banks, unleashed like the hounds of hell by a Republican administration that failed to adequately regulate the financial industry, nearly destroyed the U.S. economy with their greed and left millions of Americans without homes or jobs or savings. But somehow it’s immigrants and welfare cheats that a nation of sheep blame for their woes.
Raise the minimum wage by a few bucks and you will destroy the economy and put people out of work. But let corporate CEOs and speculative investors make exorbitant salaries and obscene profits and, well, that’s just the free market.
Come on, America, don’t be such darn suckers. Don’t fall for the Big Right Lie.
The media, of course, is complicit in making Trump a viable candidate, because he speaks in soundbites and headlines. Lederer made me aware of this aiding and abetting of the powerful by the press in a chapter in “A Nation of Sheep” entitled “Government by Publicity.”
“Although he is dead now – and almost forgotten,” Lederer wrote, “Senator Joseph McCarthy was a master of manipulating public opinion to gain his own end – which was personal power. He effectively used headlines to frighten people, to strangle the effectiveness of officials, and to eliminate anyone who impeded his obsessions.”
Sound like anyone we know?
CNN is just as guilty as Fox News in this regard, but to anyone who believes a single word Trump shill Sean Hannity says, all I can say is “Baaaaa.”
Trump is busy these days walking back from the precipice of his extremism, trying to appeal to a few reasonable people beyond his rabid core supporters. He won’t succeed. His ideas are bogus. You can’t stop immigrants by building a wall. You can’t deport 11 million people. And you can’t Make America Great Again by appealing to its basest instincts.
Wolves like Trump and Gov. Paul LePage succeed by preying on the weak. In LePage’s case, this means pandering to prejudices against people who receive state aid and food stamps, transgender youth, drug addicts, asylum seekers, immigrants and the mentally ill.
In the way Trump has used race and nationalism to ride to the top of the GOP dog pile we are seeing just how easy it is for frightened sheep to be led astray. People who think of themselves as decent, hard-working Americans appear willing to follow their leader over a cliff and into the abyss of history.
Well, with apologies to FDR, a president who empowered the poor, all we have to fear is Trump himself.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.