Snake Oil: The Republican Art of Fooling the Public

11/15/2007 08:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the 19th century, snake oil was a big seller as a pain-
reliever at "medicine" shows throughout rural America.
Rattlesnake oil was premium stuff, since presumably you had to
catch a rattlesnake in order to get the oil out of it. In fact,
most so-called "snake" oils actually came from drug laboratories
and included only wintergreen oil and maybe some white gasoline.
Rural American medicine in the 19th century was mostly hokum,
bluff, and carnival barking, and the snake-oil salesman was one
of its staples.

In politics, we don't remember enough. We forget how much of
American political history is a history of con-men selling us
snake oil.

During the next twelve months we will be bombarded with the
deafening noise of a political circus. That's expected. We're a
big and noisy country and our politics reflects the fact that we
consist of a collection of mobs, raucous shouting mobs, left,
right, center, old, young, middle-aged, humanist, proto-fascist,
racist, rich, poor, urbans, rurals, old-line Wasps, new-line
ethnics, farmers, fashion models, various sexuality groups, and
people who spend hours and hours watching food channels.

It's the human species. What else? And since we'll be in the
midst of a political year, as unpredictable as the year might be,
the only certain thing, the one thing you can depend on, is that
nearly every politician who poses as the man or woman who will
lead us to a better life will be practicing the ancient art of
fooling the public.

Maybe it all started when the first tribal con-man learned that
if he stood up and pounded his chest like a strong gorilla the
people around the campfire would allow him to be their chief and
give him all the food and wives he wanted.

But let's not be sexist: there were always enough women who
played the same game. Cleopatra conned Egypt, Catherine the Great
conned Russia, Madame Blavatsky conned America and had the
sophisticates of New York licking her boots, and the TV screens
are now filled with loud-mouth blondes making a good living
spewing political garbage in people's faces. Fooling the public
has always been an equal-opportunity vocation.

We've now had seven years of Republican snake-oil hokum, and it's
obvious that they excel at it. They apparently truly believe that
their ends justify any means, no matter if it puts them in the
same barrel as the ideologues of Nazi Fascism and Soviet
Communism. My guess is the more literate conservative Republicans
have always secretly admired the political acumen of Marx, Lenin,
and Hitler. Conservatives do seem to want political power for its
own sake -- for themselves, and not to serve the people at large.
They do seem to smirk at their own hypocrisies. They will hawk
anything -- religion, fear, prejudice -- that they think will
achieve their ends. They have a deep understanding that success
in politics means you first find out what the mob is thinking,
then say that often and in the loudest voice.

The snake-oil hogwash thrown at the American people by
conservative Republicans has a long history. But knowledge of
history has never been a strong suit in the American psyche, and
it seems Americans would rather forget history than remember it.

That Grand Old Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, told the American
people, "A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a
college education."

Of course, he made certain that he himself and his children and
grandchildren had educations at elite private schools and
colleges (he sent four sons to Harvard).

That other Grand Old Republican, Herbert Hoover, during his
campaign for the presidency in 1928, told us, "The poorhouse is
vanishing from among us. Given a chance to go forward with the
policies of the last eight [Republican] years, we shall soon be
in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this

Sure thing, wasn't it? So we elected him, and the twelve years of
Republicans in the White House, the resulting free-ride for
business interests, produced the worst depression and economic
misery in the history of America.

In 1948, that stalwart Republican General Dwight D. Eisenhower
told us, "My decision to remove myself from the political scene
is definite and positive." Was he drunk or sober when he said
that? Four years later he campaigned and won the presidency.

In 1972, campaigning for reelection, another Republican stalwart,
tricky Richard M. Nixon announced to us that we were winning the
war in Viet Nam: "Militarily and politically, Hanoi is losing."

Sure. Tell them what they want to hear, and tell it loud and

In 1973, that astute Republican soon-to-be-President Gerald R.
Ford said of Nixon and Watergate: "I am absolutely positive he
had nothing to do with this mess."

A year later, Nixon resigned in order to avoid impeachment over
his involvement in the Watergate burglary.

But by far the most insidious (and at the same time most banal)
Republican snake-oil salesman of modern times was Ronald Reagan.

In 1965, long before he ran for president, Reagan told us, "I
favor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it must be enforced at
gunpoint if necessary." But three years later he gave us, "I
would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

It's an easy game: just say what you think they want to hear and
get yourself elected.

In February 1980, as a presidential candidate, Reagan told us,
"All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored
under a desk."

Bravo. The reality is the average nuclear reactor, in one year,
generates 30 tons of unusable waste.

In May 1980, still a presidential candidate, that California
genius Ronald Reagan told us, "Trains are not any more energy
efficient than the average automobile, with both getting about 48
passenger miles to the gallon."

Again bravo. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation,
a 14-car train traveling at 80 miles an hour gets 400 passenger
miles to the gallon, in contrast to 42 miles a gallon for a 1980
car carrying two people.

Reagan's tour de force of public bamboozlement was the invasion
of Grenada in 1983, ostensibly to rescue 500 American medical
students, but in reality nothing more than a military maneuver to
overthrow a new leftist anti-colonial government. The successful
Grenada invasion involved approximately 6,000 American soldiers
(including two Ranger battalions) defeating 636 Cuban
construction workers and 43 Grenada military personnel. The
Pentagon later handed out 19,000 medals and decorations for the
operation. The Republican Congressman from Michigan, William S.
Broomfield, said, "When history is written on this they will look
back and say this was one of the United States' finest hours."

Yes, indeed, like the Bush-Cheney-Halliburton Iraq War, a fine
hour of suckering the American public.

You can be certain that between now and Election Day 2008, the
Republicans will do their best to sucker us again.