Fifty years ago this fall, Spiro Agnew put a new, tough-talking populist face on the GOP that proved to be the genesis of Donald Trump’s Republican Party.
Agnew had barely served a year in Annapolis as Maryland’s governor in 1968, when he caught the eye of Richard Nixon aide Pat Buchanan. Blaming Baltimore’s black community for the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Agnew denounced the unrest as lawlessness plain and simple. Nixon liked what he saw and later that summer he introduced his little-known running mate to a shocked Republican National Convention.
Considered out of his depth as vice president and not taken seriously by the press or Nixon’s inner circle of advisers, Agnew took his act out on the road. In a series of devastatingly effective speeches, he galvanized the GOP’s shifting base and left his opponents sputtering. Agnew defined his enemies as a sinister combination of America-hating radicals, intellectuals, minorities and the media. Delighting his boisterous crowds, he became a household word and a political force.
In New Orleans, Agnew attacked the leaders of academia as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” who coddled students that came to college “to proclaim rather than to learn.” The anti-war leaders, meanwhile, were “professional anarchists.” A day later he was in the heart of Dixie in Jackson, Mississippi, where he bonded with white southerners who felt abandoned by the increasingly liberal Democratic Party. He told his white audience that he knew what it was like to “wake up each morning to learn that some prominent man or institution has implied that you are a bigot, a racist or a fool.” He, too, knew what it was like to be a “punching bag for … liberal intellectuals.”
The high-water mark came in a now-legendary Des Moines, Iowa, speech in November 1969, where Agnew charged that the television networks were biased against the administration and not to be trusted. The newsrooms were the preserves of “privileged men elected by no one,” who “live and work in the geographical and intellectual confines of Washington, D.C., or New York City.” It was obvious to Agnew that when President Nixon spoke, “their minds were made up in advance” to criticize and disagree. Smug within their elite bubble, he added ominously, they “do not represent the views of America.”
The Des Moines speech was meant to be special. Buchanan assured his boss that “the result will be to terrify the networks; and to discredit their reporting in the minds of millions.” Nixon loved the idea. At least one journalist understood the White House’s strategy. Richard Wilson, writing for the Cowles newspapers, characterized the strategy of attacking the media as “bold and calculated beyond anything previously dared by a President.” “The Agnew shock waves,” he noted, “are running through the mass media. It will take a while but there will be results.”
By the end of 1969, “Spiro Our Hero” had become the hottest fundraiser and the straw that stirred the shifting base of the GOP. He gloated about having “triggered a holy war,” adding, “I have no regrets.” Sen. J. William Fulbright, a frequent Agnew critic, came to fear the “messages of hate and anger” that he received from the vice president’s avid followers. Agnew had “aroused an ‘extreme emotionalism’” among his supporters, Fulbright said, adding, “I’m now receiving the most threatening and meanest letters I’ve received since the days of Joe McCarthy.”
Yet, Middle America loved him, and following reelection Agnew was a front-runner for the GOP nomination in 1976. Untainted by Watergate, he stood a heartbeat away before it all fell apart. In October 1973, U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson charged him with receiving “substantial cash payments” from state and local contracts. It ended with Agnew, having just resigned his office, ignominiously pleading nolo contendere in a Baltimore courtroom to one count of tax evasion.
Today, Agnew’s legacy is all too apparent. His slashing rhetoric touched millions of disillusioned working- and middle- class white voters who eventually elbowed aside the “establishment” types as the base of today’s GOP. Fifty years later, even in the Age of Trump, maybe it is Spiro Agnew’s Republican Party after all.
Charles J. Holden is a professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Zach Messitte is the president of Ripon College. Jerald Podair is professor of history at Lawrence University. They are the authors of a new book “Republican Populist: Spiro Agnew and the Origins of Donald Trump’s America.”