President Ronald Reagan
The real struggle confronting the United States is not between the Right and the Left in any traditional sense, but between those who believe in reality and those who are entranced by unreality. It is a battle that is testing whether fact-based people have the same determination to fight for their real-world view as those who operate in a fact-free space do in defending their illusions.
These battle lines do relate somewhat to the Right/Left divide because today's right-wing has embraced ideological propaganda as truth more aggressively and completely than those on the Left, though the Left (and the Center, too) are surely not immune from the practice of ignoring facts in pursuit of some useful agit-prop.
So, it doesn't matter that scientific evidence proves global warming is real; the deniers will insist the facts are simply a government ploy to impose "tyranny." It doesn't matter how many schoolchildren are slaughtered by semi-automatic assault rifles -- or what the real history of the Second Amendment was. To the gun fanatics, the Framers wanted armed rebellion against the non-violent political process they worked so hard to create.
On more narrow questions, it doesn't matter whether President Barack Obama presents his short or long birth certificates, he must have somehow fabricated the Hawaiian state records to hide his Kenyan birth. Oh, yes, and Obama is "lazy" even though he may appear to an objective observer to be a multi-tasking workaholic.
The American Right's collective departure from reality can be traced back decades, but clearly accelerated with the emergence of former actor Ronald Reagan on the national stage. Even his admirers acknowledge that Reagan had a strained relationship with facts, preferring to illustrate his points with distorted or apocryphal anecdotes.
Reagan's detachment from reality extended from foreign policy to economics. As his rival for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, George H.W. Bush famously labeled Reagan's supply-side policies -- of massive tax cuts for the rich which would supposedly raise more revenues -- as "voodoo economics."
But Bush, who knew better, then succumbed to Reagan's political clout as he accepted Reagan's vice presidential offer. In that way, the senior Bush would become a model for how other figures in the Establishment would pragmatically bend to Reagan's casual disregard for reality.
The Reagan administration also built around the President a propaganda infrastructure that systematically punished politicians, citizens, journalists or anyone who dared challenge the fantasies. This private-public collaboration -- coordinating right-wing media with government disinformationists -- brought home to America the CIA's strategy of "perception management" normally aimed at hostile populations.
Thus, the Nicaraguan Contras, who in reality were drug-connected terrorists roaming the countryside murdering, torturing and raping, became "the moral equivalent" of America's Founding Fathers. To say otherwise marked you as a troublemaker who had to be "controversialized" and marginalized.
The remarkable success of Reagan's propaganda was a lesson not lost on a young generation of Republican operatives and the emerging neoconservatives who held key jobs in Reagan's Central American and public-diplomacy operations, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan. The neocons' devotion to imperialism abroad seemed to motivate their growing disdain for empiricism at home. Facts didn't matter; results did. [See Robert Parry's Lost History.]
But this strategy wouldn't have worked if not for gullible rank-and-file right-wingers who were manipulated by an endless series of false narratives. The Republican political pros manipulated the racial resentments of neo-Confederates, the religious zeal of fundamentalist Christians, and the free-market hero worship of Ayn Rand acolytes.
That these techniques succeeded in a political system that guaranteed freedom of speech and the press was not only a testament to the skills of Republican operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. It was an indictment of America's timid Center and the nation's ineffectual Left. Simply put, the Right fought harder for its fantasyland than the rest of America did for the real world.
There were a number of key turning points in this "info-war." For instance, Reagan's secret relationship with the Iranian mullahs was partly revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal, but its apparent origins in treacherous Republican activities during Campaign 1980 -- contacting Iran behind President Jimmy Carter's back -- were swept under the rug by mainstream Democrats and the Washington press corps.
Similarly, evidence of Contra drug-trafficking -- and even CIA admissions about covering up and protecting those crimes -- were downplayed by the major newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Ditto the work of Central American truth commissions exposing massive human rights violations that Reagan aided and abetted.
The fear of taking on the Reagan propaganda machine in any serious or consistent way was so great that nearly everyone looked to their careers or their personal pleasures. One side dug in for political warfare and the other, too often, favored trips to wine country.