Presidential historian and CNN commentator Douglas Brinkley, a bestselling author and history professor at Rice University, is a man of political intrigue.
He won’t make any predictions about the 2016 presidential election, but he will talk openly about how much more dysfunctional the campaigns will likely get.
“Given the polarization we have” between Republicans and Democrats, Brinkley said, “we can expect the next presidential election to be brutal, so brutal.”
America is in a “weirdly transformative time,” said Brinkley, the author of The Nixon Tapes, Cronkite and The Reagan Diaries.
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Brinkley spoke Monday to hundreds at a two events sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth. Brinkley began his presentation at a luncheon at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, then met up with dozens more Monday evening at the Fort Worth Club.
“It’s been an extraordinarily negative year because bad news is big news, right?” Brinkley said. “A terrorist bombing, a car crash, a murder. … If you want to get attention, you got to almost trash your opponent or say something outrageous.”
Trump ... has figured out that we have the attention span of a hopping flea.
Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian and CNN commentator
The nation has a history of mudslinging by candidates who are seeking public office, even though Brinkley asserted that this year’s is one of “the nation’s nastiest campaigns in modern history.”
The early campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was brutal, for example. The two men called each other “atrocious names,” and one blamed the other for his wife’s death, Brinkley said.
“A key point here is to remind ourselves, based on other points in our history, that our own times are not uniquely oppressive,” Brinkley said.
Brinkley called the GOP’s Donald Trump “the godfather, the master” of reality TV.
“Trump really knows how to keep that reality story going. He’s figured out that we have the attention span of a hopping flea,” Brinkley said.
Trump has used “Twitter to a devastating effect of catching his opponent off guard,” Brinkley said.
Trump also has realized that the American people will accept just about anything but a lie, Brinkley said.
“People don’t want to hear Hillary Clinton’s ‘lies’ and the Republicans’ ‘lies,’ ” Brinkley said.
Those voters are likely drawn to Trump or Clinton opponents who have billed themselves as truth-tellers.
“One of the things Trump’s done is that he is playing on the belief that you can get by with anything in America, as long as you’re talking authentically,” Brinkley said. “He’s saying what the guys at the bar are saying. So he’s had a broken marriage, affairs. … He’s saying ‘Hey, I’ve admitted it.’ And the American people are very forgiving.”
Brinkley often used words like “nasty,” “brutal,” “fantastic” and “volcanic media culture” to describe the political climate.
“If it’s Trump versus Hillary Clinton, which seems likely right now … it’s going to be so nasty … because people are going to be voting in an anti-movement. They’re saying, ‘I’m voting for Trump because I can’t stand Hillary Clinton and I can’t stand Obama.
“I look at the Bernie Sanders people and they say they don’t like Hillary Clinton, but they just might vote for her just so they don’t have Donald Trump as president.”
The World Affairs Council also presented the International Educator of the Year Award to Fort Worth school district educator Gabriel Valdez.