“Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV...FBI”

The 1990s, were bad news for voodoo economics. Conservatives predicted disaster after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike. But what happened was a boom that surpassed the Reagan expansion in every dimension: GDP, jobs and wages. But old entrenched beliefs die hard. Just ask Civil War reenactors.

“Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV...FBI”
 The power of a great salesman.

This will be about as surprising to my longtime, or even newtime, friends as the sunrise this morning, but I lean left. Depending on the subject, I lean center, and on some, I lean far left. But believe it or not, sometimes I tilt to the right. That is mainly where money is concerned. I hate debt, pay it off as quickly as I can and want my country to do the same. As an aside, given all the pinched-mouth mewlings from the pie holes of various conservative Senatorial types, since WWII, the only years we had a balanced budget much less a surplus, have been under Presidents Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ and Clinton. One Republican and, obviously,  4 Commies.

If only.

Which leads me to my thesis, class, which is about political image versus reality and the persistence of myth and the power of salesmanship. I have mentioned these two things in previous articles, so allow me to poach from myself. The much revered Texas Oracle Molly Ivins once said, "We elect Democrats to give us stuff, and Republicans so we don't have to pay for it." The other was my observation that when I was growing up, and when I get there you'll be the first to know, Republicans were the "eat your peas" party. The image was that Democrats were a bunch of spendthrifts who would not just lead us to the poorhouse, but spend money on new drapes while we're there. Republicans, meanwhile, were the adults in the room. No one gets recess until your themes are turned in.

And that Great White Whale of modern conservatism, Ronald Wilson Reagan is a prime example. Jimmy Carter had been lowering the deficit every year until he was defeated in 1980. He cut expensive, but unnecessary,  programs like the B-1 bomber, conceived in the 60's, because he knew that we had stealth bombers and cruise missiles in the pipeline. Well, the Gipper revived the unneeded plane because he was convinced the Russkies were somehow moving ahead in the arms race when actually they were imploding. But he went on a spending spree, tripling the deficit in his first year and he increased the federal debt up to 50 percent of GDP by the end of his second term.

He thought he could do all this thanks to the Weird Al Yankovic of economics, Arthur Laffer. Laffer convinced conservatives that if you visit the dining room at the White House, you'll see the free lunch we all crave. It came in the form of that economic Cheshire Cat, the Laffer Curve.

How to increase the debt in one idiot move

Laffer posited, and it came to be known as Supply Side or Trickle Down Economics, that if you simply lower all taxes, people will spend more, the GDP will grow, you, Uncle Sammy, make more and then you can spend more. Now, George H.W. Bush ran against Reagan for the nomination in '80, and famously called Laffer's laughable theory "Voodoo Economics." But, once on the ticket, he put a sock in it and climbed on board. So, Captain Ron and the crew got taxes lowered, saw poll numbers go up, flattened Walter Mondale like that hapless tribesman in the original King Kong, and cruised through his second term.

Actual 1984 election results.

And, the results? GDP growth and job creation were lower than in the 70's. The debt, as we mentioned, ballooned. Median incomes went down, and poverty went up.

  • The top 1% of income earners' share of income before transfers and taxes rose from 9.0% in 1979 to a peak of 13.8% in 1986, before falling to 12.3% in 1989.
  • The top 1% share of income earners' of income after transfers and taxes rose from 7.4% in 1979 to a peak of 12.8% in 1986, before falling to 11.0% in 1989.
  • The bottom 90% had a lower share of the income in 1989 vs. 1979.
"I'll dance on your grave, son."

Well, we got the B-1's, by gosh. And when they are flown to the retirement boneyard, as is happening now, the crews will be flown back in nearly 70-year-old B-52's. Late in the 1980's, economics advisor David Stockman laid it out for the President. In short, it isn't working and the only way we're getting growth is by digging a debt hole the size of Delaware. At that meeting, Chief of Staff Don Regan uttered the unforgivable words, "You mean it is voodoo?"

I'm ready for my closeup Mr. Reagan.

But time has given a glossy haze to those years, like an aging star shot through a vaseline-covered lens. The 1990s, however, were bad news for voodoo. Conservatives predicted economic disaster after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike. But what happened was a boom that surpassed the Reagan expansion in every dimension: GDP, jobs and wages. But old entrenched beliefs die hard. Just ask Civil War reenactors.

Even my Irish brethren across the pond can see it. The Irish Times wrote..."Voodoo economics has dominated the conservative movement for so long that it has become an inward-looking cult, whose members know what they know and are impervious to contrary evidence. twenty years ago, leading Republicans may have been aware that the Clinton boom posed a problem for their ideology. Today someone like Senator Rand Paul can say: "When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan."

Clinton who?

Not a history major.

Which leads us to today. I can't tell you how many times I hear more liberal colleagues say, "How the hell can anyone buy that nonsense?" I substituted "nonsense" in the interest of good taste. By nonsense, they mean the latest ravings on former President Trump's debt-ridden Twitter-like social media platform, Truth Social, which by the way, is soon to go bankrupt for non-payment of debts. I sense a business trend here for the Mango Midas. Everything he touches turns to mufflers.

The MAGA, super-duper, top secret, ultra, hidden filing system.

Just look at the excuses offered in the two weeks since the FBI finally gave up and went into Maga Lago and found classified, top secret, hush-hush, For Your Eyes Only type documents spread out on the floor like fan mags in a teenage girl's bedroom in the 1950's. To whit..."The FBI planted them. OK I had them, but they are mine. They really messed up Melania's closet. I waved my short fingers and instantly declassified them all. It's executive privilege. It's attorney-client privilege. They hate me and are after me. The FBI is corrupt, especially that head guy I appointed. Obama did it. But, Hillary. They searched my kid's room. And finally, I didn't leave them on the floor like that."

And here's the fun part. His devotees, including the actor who has made the sharpest career descent since Fatty Arbuckle, Jon Voight, say the civil war has already begun over this. Lindsey Graham clutched his pearls and yelled from his fainting couch, "if they prosecute him, there will be riots in the streets."  However much the story changes, they go with it. The Governor of South Dakota, which has a smaller population than the average WalMart, Kristi Noem, actually said the only way we can be sure these documents were Top Secret is to show them to the public. I can see Xi Jinping and Mohammed bin Bonesaw nodding in agreement and saying, "Why yes, Kristi, that's a great idea."

We have some swampland outside Houston we'd like to interest you in.

Now, many have called the Trump phenomenon a cult of personality, and that's pretty close to the mark. But I also think it's the result of world-class salesmanship. In the case of both Reagan and Trump, you are dealing with professional salesmen. Reagan spent most of his adult life in Hollywood and then hawking GE products. He knew how to seal the deal. One Reagan biography I have on my shelf is, "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime" by the great Lou Cannon.

And Trump, whatever my thoughts about his room temperature IQ, has spent a lifetime convincing investors, creditors, unions and Time Magazine that despite all evidence to the contrary, he can be trusted and, by the way, is really a billionaire. Neither, incidentally, is true. And they give him money, lots of it. Only when it becomes obvious that they are being stiffed, do they resort to lawsuits. And one thing the former President learned from father Fred Trump is AKTLH, Always Keep the Lawyers Handy.

At this point, I pause for a true confession and illustration of the power of a good salesman. In 1997, I was working with Dan Patrick, yeah that one, in radio in Houston. I had signed on before Dan had his very public religious awakening, and found the Prosperity Catechism both enlightening and lucrative. I left the warm bosom of the Hobby family at KPRC for a better salary, a bonus, 5% of the operation and a car. Suffice to say, the deal didn't turn out as advertised, and he and his partners then turned around and sold the station for a sum that made them all multi-millionaires.

In the eyes you can detect a silent cry for help.

So at that point, relations between us weren't great, to say the least. And in the world of Rush Limbaugh and Dan Patrick, I was increasingly the odd man out.

So, I started talking with three friends about starting our own, even-handed talk radio operation. We brought on board a radio veteran they all knew, and he indeed showed his acumen, found a station for sale, and along with me, started finding investors. His demeanor was smooth, assuring, and knowledgeable. He was devoutly religious and in calm and reasonable tones, promised the moon and made you feel like an astronaut. Instead of starting small on cafeteria tables with used equipment, he rented prime office space near the Galleria in Houston, bartered for the best in equipment and furniture and promised the investors the money would soon start rolling in.

The ratings improved quickly if I do say so myself, but any new operation has to start small and slow. His calm assurance, though, that all goals would be met and sales will kick into high gear soon, helped paper over any doubts. Well, they didn't. We sweated every payroll, pinched pennies, and began considering looking for a buyer. He and our station engineer, meanwhile, were hiding some shenanigans  that could have gotten us all fined and banned by the FCC. So we ultimately had to sell the station after 2 years.

And in the wake of this, several of us who are long time broadcasters were scratching our heads and wondering why we didn't know better. An ironic ending to this cluster-f**k is that our smooth talking Judas now works for a religious publishing house. I couldn't have written a more fitting coda to our time in radio purgatory.

Notice fraudulent and treacherous have their own levels

But we suspended our disbelief even in the face of the reality that our collective years of experience should have made clear. That is the power of an authoritative, assured and excellent salesman. So, I have been in the position of many of Trump's cult members and still smack my head at how completely I was taken in.

In the wake of the Florida version of Bad Day At Black Rock, I don't know how many MAGA devotees are feeling like I did, but perhaps some are beginning to wonder how badly they've been snookered. By the way, the correct answer is, VERY. But like the followers of shady televangelists, you know who I'm looking at, the acolytes of the Church of Trump have been taken in. I'm not sure if they can be reached with the reality of it all at this juncture, but surely at some point these Trumpatholics will look around and think, "Hey, I'm not really doing any better here. What gives?"

The irony is, his cheesy lack of sincerity is obvious to those of us standing outside the cathedral, but these revivals continue, the crowds cheer and long for some version of America they think we have lost. And every new outrage, every loopy excuse, every whine about persecution only hardens their convictions. No, the goofy Nazi comparisons from both sides, are over the top, unless that flock is moved to violence. But comparisons to the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world? On the money.

"I have sinned against thee oh my banker."

I don't blame the flock, but the shepherd. From the Book of Matthew...

"But whoever causes one of these who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

OK, a little harsh. But we are in unprecedented times. Well, maybe there are precedents but none of them good, and not a road we want to travel again.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.