September 9, 1975: Peter Hannaford, a principal in the public relations firm managing Ronald Reagan’s political career, takes time out from preparing the ex-governor’s bid to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination to write to the editor of a weekly newspaper, proposing his client as a new columnist: “Here, at last (after several unexpected delays) are three sample columns from Governor Reagan, per our telephone conversations. Let me know what you think and if the NATIONAL ENQUIRER wants to use any (or all) of them and wants more.”
April 20, 2016: The National Enquirer cover blares, “Ted Cruz’s Father—Caught with JFK Assassin!” Immediately, Donald Trump plumps the phony “news” that Rafael Cruz stood by Lee Harvey Oswald in a famous photograph, with such blustery confidence you’d think the scoop appeared on the front page of The New York Times.
“What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that,” Trump said in a phone interview with Fox News in May. “That was reported, and nobody talks about it . . . I mean, what was he doing—what was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death?”
Two days later, Ted Cruz withdraws from the Republican race.
Reagan, Trump, the National Enquirer: no coincidence.
The romance between the culture of celebrity gossip and right-wing politics goes way back, all the way to gossip’s heyday, the 1940s. Hollywood’s reigning Queen of Mean, Hedda Hopper, was a pre-war isolationist driven, in part, by a Trumpian concern that letting down the walls of Fortress America would flood the country with refugees who’d take jobs from those “who can speak English without an accent.” She hated foreigners so much she flayed David O. Selznick for casting a Brit as Scarlett O’Hara, and even came out against Christian Dior’s “New Look” as an alien pollution—though one foreigner for whom she had a soft spot was Hitler’s favorite filmmaker. “Leni’s only here to sell her picture!” she responded to protests against Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 visit to the United States.
As historian Jennifer Frost’s book Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism explains, this stuff was by no means inconsequential in shaping public opinion. Hopper, who made the cover of Time in 1947 with a typewriter, telephone, and radio microphone collage perched on her head (a reference to her trademark flamboyant hats), had 32 million readers daily, who revealed themselves in fan letters to treat her columns as holy writ. (“Long live Hedda and her desire to bring about a decent moral code in Hollywood,” wrote one.)
Trump revealed himself as “a master of understanding how the media works. He was radiating this almost cartoonish idea of wealth and celebrity and status.”
Hedda was a bundle of twitching, reactionary rage. She came to Hollywood from conservative Altoona, Pennsylvania, originally as an actor. She soon found herself in type-casting purgatory, as the brittle, bitchy old biddy whose role was to raise her monocle and huff resentfully at the turpitude of the picture’s stars. Which was the plot of most of her columns, too. Actors who dared fall out of love with their spouses were “abandoners” (though she was a divorcée and single mother); those who found love elsewhere were “homewreckers.” Sex symbols who stayed loyal were heroes—like Betty Grable: “No glamour girl” in real life, she assured her readers, but the kind “with whom any woman would trust her husband.” And, speaking of Reagan, when his marriage fizzled, he immediately turned to Hedda, who gladly provided him the bullhorn to advertise his contention that it was Jane Wyman’s fault—for working too hard.
Aesthetically she was a commissar, enforcing mandatory cheerfulness. She despised, especially, “social problem” films. “Emphasizing the negative can be just as effective as raising the Red flag,” she wrote; thus her vendetta was against producer Dore Schary, who championed them. When he took over production at MGM, she wrote “the studio will be known as Metro-Goldwyn Moscow.” And she was ideologically consistent. The old lefty Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane she found, somehow, “lacking any great imagination.” Hedda was also instrumental in hounding Charlie Chaplin—a “moral subversive”—out of the country.
Then there was her contemporary, the enormously influential Walter Winchell—originally a huge FDR fan, until he wasn’t, eventually becoming Joseph McCarthy’s most important booster. And woe to anyone who crossed him, as anyone who’s seen the film loosely based on his life, Sweet Smell of Success, knows. You might find yourself on Winchell’s “Drop Dead” list, perhaps to be suitably red-baited. This was power—the power of ideological hit men, of a HUAC, or J. Edgar Hoover, with whom Hopper was, naturally, a pal. (“You’re so wise and have so many facts at your finger tips that I feel I can call upon your friendship for help,” she wrote him, proposing a name-naming alliance.) Complained Ed Sullivan of Hopper, “she’s establishing a reign of terror out there in Hollywood.” He called Winchell “a small-time Hitler.”
Why disinter these ancient personages in the context of contemporary conservatism? Because they give us another way into understanding Donald Trump’s political imagination. The gossip columns were one of Trumpism’s crucibles—where, a former editor at the New York Post’s gossip section “Page Six” explained, Trump revealed himself as “a master of understanding how the media works . . . he was radiating this almost cartoonish idea of wealth and celebrity and status. He honed a very simple, easily disseminated message.” It suggests another way Trump forces us to rethink conservatism’s history, making room beside its “high church” exemplars like William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman for the concomitant “low church” right-wing traditions like the embrace of big-city vigilantism I wrote about recently on the Spectator website (“Avenging Angels,” April 18).
Celebrity gossip is a fundamentally right-wing mode of discourse. There are exceptions; the brazen secret-spillers of TMZ.com are multicultural boosters of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. But the genre’s work, fundamentally, leverages the pleasure of titillation in the service of policing “proper” decorum, a threat held above the head of anyone who would traduce the gossiper’s arbitrary standards—a cynical manipulation of the mass amygdala, simultaneously enshrining the most conventional narratives of what counts as success in a capitalist society while dangling evidence of its precariousness for those who would dissent from the sanctioned canons of behavior. Ownership of a gossip sheet is an authoritarian’s playground.
Maintaining a reputation as a trustworthy upholder of truth, the gossip is of course anything but; protecting, say, a Rock Hudson from public knowledge he was a homosexual was a weapon—“a weapon in the sense that theorists of deterrence advocate.” Garry Wills has written: “It was powerful so long as she never had to use it.” Which, of course, is how Trump treats the “truths” he claims, too.
It’s no accident that it was the Drudge Report that drove the Monica Lewinsky story. Nor that it was the National Enquirer that did in John Edwards—but not, say, Bob Livingston, Newt Gingrich, or Denny Hastert. Or that “Page Six” found such a comfortable home in Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid the New York Post; and why Donald Trump found that pioneering gossip section so congenial, not least as his preferred place to air mendacious boasts. Or, back before that, that it was the Enquirer that labored furiously to keep the public reminded of the association between Senator Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne. (“What’s ‘Chappaquiddick’?” I remember asking my mom in a supermarket checkout line when I was a kid in the late 1970s, mouthing the unfamiliar word on the cover of so many of the tabloids.)
The Enquirer is the paradigmatic example. It was founded by an autocrat named Generoso Pope Jr. His father, Generoso Pope Sr., was the proprietor of a chain of big-city Italian-language newspapers, a Mussolini fan, CIA asset, and buddy with mobster Frank Costello, who was Generoso Jr.’s godfather. Its original specialty was blood and guts. He got the idea for that format, Pope said, when he saw how many people congregated around car crashes.
By 1967, though, Pope saw supermarket checkout lines as his perfect sales outlet, where headlines like “Mom Boiled Her Baby and Ate Her” (1962) didn’t fly. So the sheet transitioned by the 1970s into its now-familiar formula of outrageously titillating headlines about celebrities, carefully lawyered. A recent example: “Ted Cruz—Secret Divorce Details!”
The divorce referred to in the headline was his father’s, when the future senator was 26.
There is rube-bait on subjects like UFOs and clairvoyance; advice columns to soothe the sheet’s mostly elderly readers (thus another headline staple, miracle arthritis cures); ads peddling absurd snake-oil remedies (just like on right-wing websites). But also pieces by conservative moralists like Billy Graham. (Concerning Ronald Reagan’s pitches, however, the Enquirer apparently passed.)
The Enquirer’s current publisher is veteran media executive David Pecker, an old friend of Trump’s. How friendly? Let’s review its headlines.
More crucially, let’s look at their timing.
Last June, a subhead thundered: “Democrat Hillary’s explosive dossier on Jeb includes sensational charges that the former Florida governor did drugs, hired hookers and cheated on his wife!” That came two weeks after Trump announced his campaign. (The headline feigned innocence: “The Dirtiest Race Ever!” Read: we’re just reporting this stuff.)
In September the cover blared “Jeb Bush’s Girl Caught Loafing on the Job”—a picture of his half-Mexican daughter on a smoke break, allegedly her third in five hours, looking conspicuously Hispanic. This just after Bush got in trouble, Enquirer expert Gabriel Sherman pointed out in New York magazine, for saying Americans needed to work longer hours.
October: “Bungling Surgeon Ben Carson Left Sponge in Patient’s Brain.” That one came hard on the heels of Carson briefly passing Trump in the polls, while Bush, falling behind in the race, began disappearing from the Enquirer’s pages.
When Carly Fiorina hit a grand slam in one of the debates by telling the story about her late daughter’s struggle with drug addiction, the Enquirer ran “Homewrecker Carly Fiorina Lied About Druggie Daughter,” pointing out that Lori Ann Fiorina was in fact Carly’s stepdaughter, whose biological mom’s “marriage allegedly was wrecked by the 61-year-old White House hopeful who is determined to knock Donald Trump from his superior front-runner status!” (Think Hedda Hopper is old news? Change the names, and she could have written that, word for word.)
Then there’s Ted Cruz. Of whom enquiring minds learned, in stories that preceded the “news” that his father was palling around with assassins, had “5 Secret Mistresses!” And, before that: “Ted’s Boozing Past Exposed.” (“As his Constitutional qualifications for president are questioned, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been desperately trying to hush up his secret past as a boozer. . . . Sources told the NATIONAL ENQUIRER that while Ted was studying at Harvard Law School, he got so sloshed guzzling grain alcohol that he couldn’t say his lines in a school play, and walked off stage in the middle of a scene!”)
Here is another intersection between gutter-gossip journalism and right-wing politics: the method. You throw bullshit at a target, see if it sticks; and, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If something sticks, you go with it, building a narrative with the manure as the mortar. You saw Trump do that too in the primaries.
Donald Trump and David Pecker know the game. Once something “sticks”—if it feels, somehow, true to the public—it can then take on a life of its own. It will be “out there,” and the rest of the media will “have to” report it. The blogger Digby calls this “Cokie’s Law,” after something NPR’s Cokie Roberts said about some Clinton scandal or another back in 1999: “At this point, it doesn’t matter whether she said it or not because it’s become part of the culture. I was at the beauty parlor yesterday and this was all anyone was talking about.”
Now comes Donald Trump, the king at this game. “What is this, right prior to his being shot, and nobody even brings it up. They don’t even talk about that. That was reported, and nobody talks about it.” This was the bait. Then, enough of the rest of the “respectable” media started talking about it, to tip the Cruz crusade into the grave.
¡Voila! Another front in Donald Trump’s reign of terror—bringing J. Edgar Hoover, and HUAC, and the guttersnipes that crawl through the most foul sewers in American journalism, smack dab into the center of our common life.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.