Frank Luntz is a strategist and pollster who has worked on behalf of the Republican Party for nearly three decades. Luntz’s candid, full interview was conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of the two-part January 2020 documentary series “America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.”
This interview is being published as part of FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project, an effort to open up the source material behind our documentaries. Explore the transcript and interactive version of this interview, and others, on the FRONTLINE website: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/in…
Walter Isaacson sits down with Republican strategist Frank Luntz to discuss the toxic rhetoric in America’s politics, and why he’s given up hope for a united America.
There are a lot of similarities between the president and George Wallace of Alabama. But there’s also one big difference.
President Trump’s political rallies are certainly a spectacle, but a spectacle we’ve seen before. In both style and substance, the president’s campaign appearances bear strong resemblances to the rallies held a half-century ago by Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.
There are a number of similarities between the two politicians’ rallies. But there is one significant difference — and it shows how Mr. Trump remains a greater danger and poses a graver threat to peaceful political discourse, especially as we enter a presidential election campaign.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the political champion of aggrieved working-class and middle-class whites. As governor, he embodied the cause of segregationist resistance, literally standing in the schoolhouse door to block the first black students at the University of Alabama and figuratively standing against what he called the “civil wrongs bill.”
Yet in his repeated campaigns for the presidency between 1968 and 1976, despite today’s consensus to the contrary, Mr. Wallace didn’t make open appeals to racism. Instead, he couched opposition to the civil rights movement — both his own opposition and that of whites in the North and South alike — in new terms. Taking aim at liberals in government and leftist protesters in the streets, Mr. Wallace presented himself as the champion of ordinary Americans besieged by both. He promised then, as Mr. Trump has now, to restore “law and order” to a troubled nation.
While he lacks Mr. Wallace’s background in boxing, Mr. Trump has adopted a similar stance in his own rallies. He’s claimed some of Mr. Wallace’s specific phrases as his own
— most notably the call for “law and order” — and more generally has stoked the same fires of resentment and racism.
Mr. Wallace’s words electrified crowds of working- and middle-class whites. “Cabdrivers and cattle ranchers, secretaries and steelworkers, they hung on every word, memorized the lines, treasured them, savored them, waited to hear them again,” noted an Esquire profile. “George Wallace was their avenging angel. George Wallace said out loud what they nervously kept to themselves. George Wallace articulated their deepest fears, their darkest hates. George Wallace promised revenge.”
Mr. Trump has tapped into that sentiment, winning over white voters with a willingness to buck “political correctness” and voice their anger and anxieties directly. “He says what we’re thinking and what we want to say,” noted a white woman at a Trump rally in Montana. “We wish we could speak our mind without worrying about the consequences,” explained a white man at a Phoenix event. “He can speak his mind without worrying.”
Mr. Wallace’s rallies regularly erupted in violence, as his fans often took his words not just seriously but also literally. Mr. Wallace often talked about dragging hippies “by the hair of their head.” At a Detroit rally in 1968, his supporters did just that, dragging leftist protesters out of their seats and through a thicket of metal chairs. As they were roughed up, the candidate signaled his approval from the stage: “You came here for trouble and you got it.”
Mr. Trump’s rallies have likewise been marked by violence unseen in other modern campaigns. At a 2015 rally in Birmingham, Ala., for example, an African-American protester was punched, kicked and choked. Rather than seeking to reduce the violence from his supporters, Mr. Trump rationalized it, saying “maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”
This leads us to the significant difference between Mr. Wallace and Mr. Trump. Mr. Wallace’s targets were, for the most part, presented in the abstract. Though he denounced broad categories of generic enemies — “agitators,” “anarchists” and “communists” — he rarely went after an individual by name.
Mr. Trump, in pointed contrast, has used his rallies to single out specific enemies. During the 2016 campaign, he demonized his political opponents in the primaries and the general election, and also denounced private individuals, from Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor, to the former Miss Universe Alicia Machado and the federal judge Gonzalo Curiel.
At recent rallies, he has targeted four Democratic House members who have criticized him and his administration — Representatives Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley.
Participants at Mr. Trump’s rallies have been moved to attack individuals he’s singled out. For most rally participants, the attacks have been confined to ominous but nevertheless nonviolent chants — from the 2016 cries of “Lock her up!” to the recent refrain of “Send her back!” But a handful have gone further, targeting the individuals named by the president with death threats and even attempts at violence.
In late 2018, a Trump supporter, Cesar Sayoc Jr., mailed pipe bombs to high-profile Democrats and media figures who had criticized the president and whom the president had denounced in return. After his arrest, Mr. Sayoc explained that Mr. Trump’s rallies had become “a newfound drug” for him and warped his thinking. “In the lead up to the 2018 midterm elections,” Mr. Sayoc’s lawyers added last week, “President Trump warned his supporters that they were in danger from Democrats, and at times condoned violence against his critics and ‘enemies.’”
Since the midterms, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and the threats from his supporters have only intensified. In March, a Trump backer in New York was arrested on charges of threatening to “put a bullet” in Ms. Omar’s “skull.” In April, a Trump supporter in Florida was arrested on charges of making death threats to Ms. Tlaib and two other Democrats. This month, two police officers in Louisiana were fired over a Facebook post suggesting that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez should be shot.
As the 2020 campaign heats up, the president’s rhetoric will as well. It’s long past time that he started worrying about the consequences of his words.
The history of evangelicalism in America is shot through with fear—but it also contains an alternative.
White conservative evangelicals in America are anxious people. I know because I am one.
Our sense of fear, perhaps more than any other factor, explains why evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Donald Trump in 2016 and continue to support his presidency.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson once wrote, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” The great poet of the Jersey shore, Bruce Springsteen, sings, “Fear’s a dangerous thing, it can turn your heart black, you can trust. It’ll take your God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust.”
Robinson and Springsteen echo verses in nearly every book of the Bible, the sacred text that serves as the source of spiritual authority in evangelical life. Moses told the Israelites to “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today.” The Hebrew God told Job: “At the destruction and famine you shall laugh, and shall not fear the beasts of the earth.” The Psalmist wrote: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”
The Gospel of John teaches Christians that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” St. Luke writes: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Despite all these scriptural passages, it is still possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of a people failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God. But it is also possible to find evangelicals, drawing deeply from Christian theological resources, who sought to forge an alternative history.
A history of evangelical fear might begin with the 17th-century Puritans in Salem, Massachusetts, who feared that there were witches in their midst threatening their “city upon a hill” and their status as God’s new Israel. They responded to this fear by hanging 19 people.
But other evangelical options were available. As Puritans began to lose control over Massachusetts Bay, they might have turned to their sovereign God for guidance and trusted in his protection to lead them through a new phase in the history of the colony. Or they could have heeded the warnings put forth by those—such as Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, or the growing number of Baptists in the colony—who saw potential problems with such a close relationship between church and state.
Our history of evangelical fear might also include a chapter on the early 19th-century Protestants who feared the arrival of massive numbers of Catholic immigrants to American shores. They translated their panic into political organizations such as the nativist Know-Nothing Party and religious tracts cautioning fellow believers of the threat that such “popery” posed to their Christian nation.
But other evangelical options were available. Biblical faith requires evangelicals to welcome strangers in their midst as a sign of Christian hospitality. While some of the most prominent evangelicals of the era, such as Charles Finney and Lyman Beecher, were spewing anti-Catholic rhetoric, other evangelicals could not reconcile such hatred with Christian love. These evangelicals, as the historian Richard Cawardine has written, “could be found in all evangelical denominations” in the 1840 and 1850s.
A history of evangelical fear might also note that Catholics made up just one front in the battle for a Protestant America. “Infidels” made up the other front. At the turn of the 19th century, evangelicals went to war against unbelievers, deists, skeptics, freethinkers, and other assorted heretics who threatened the Godly character of the republic.
Elias Boudinot, a former president of the Continental Congress, agonized that unless he and his team of evangelical Federalists curbed the influence of the followers of Thomas Paine, the United States would end up like the Church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation: “Because you are lukewarm [in your faith] … I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts minister and the author of geography textbooks, worried that the Bavarian Illuminati, a German anti-Christian secret society, had infiltrated America to “abjure Christianity, justify suicide, advocate sensual pleasures agreeable to Epicurean philosophy, decry marriage, and advocate a promiscuous intercourse among the sexes.”
When “godless” Thomas Jefferson was elected president of the United States in 1800, frightened New England evangelicals thought the Virginian’s henchmen would soon be arriving in their towns and homes on a mission to take away their Bibles.