Lies don’t generally work over the long term. Sometimes they seem to, setting up a belief that the lie is a useful strategy. The “Southern strategy,” the Republican Party’s 50-year campaign of appealing to racial bias, provides a good example. While claiming their success based on the Southern strategy was due instead to their economic policies, conservatives created a belief within the party that the lie can be an effective and sustaining weapon of political battle.
Though apparent to the likes of journalist David Horowitz as early as the 1970s (before he moved from the far left to the far right, admittedly), this strategy began to trickle down widely to Republican apparatchiks in the 1990s, influenced heavily by the success of the late Lee Atwater. That 1980s master of the political lie influenced Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, then Fox News and Ann Coulter (and so many, many more), who began to see how the strategy of the lie could be made to work — for their own personal benefit, and also for their movement.
The political-lie strategy needs two prongs. First is the lie itself. Second is the concurrent painting of the target as a liar. The most obvious contemporary example is Donald Trump’s attacks on Hillary Clinton, preempting any of her attempts to bring attention to his own much more frequent lies. (Look at the fact-checking of their debates.) Similarly, Trump uses Bill Clinton’s sexual scandals to deflect attention from his own. Not only do these take advantage of the “both sides do it” false equivalency the contemporary news media has such a hard time shedding, but they box in the opponent. The Clintons have been subject to this strategy for 30 years. In fact, much of the hatred toward Hillary today comes not from anything she has done but from the campaign of lies against her that depend on calling her the liar. No matter how often she is shown not to have lied about the Benghazi attacks, the incident is thrown up as an example of her lies almost any time a lie by Trump is exposed.
Attacks on Clinton claiming that she hasn’t accomplished much over her decades in the public eye are examples not only of the second prong, but of Trump’s recognition of the economic malaise felt by so many Americans. Yet it’s the conservatives who have effectively accomplished nothing. Their influence on national policy (especially economic policy) has dominated politics for half a century. Many of those feeling the most downward economic pressure blame the “free trade” policies long championed by economic conservatives. As a result, the fissure widens between Trump, who lies about the impact of trade policies to stir the anger of many Americans, and the older Republican establishment.