In June 1972, Republican pollster Robert Teeter commissioned two focus groups of ticket-splitting, middle-income, 35-and-older Detroit voters without college degrees to test campaign slogans for Richard Nixon. Nixon’s team wondered whether one of the slogans under consideration was "too sophisticated," but Teeter disagreed. In a memo to White House Chief of staff H.R. Haldemann, he explained that "the slogan had a certain emotional appeal which the other slogans did not possess," and it looked good on a bumper sticker. So it became official: "President Nixon. Now more than ever."
Forty-five years later, under the specter of President Trump, "now more than ever" is back. It’s also, for the most part, inaccurate.
Since Trump’s political emergence, "now more than ever" has attached itself to an assortment of disparate cultural components – children’s stories, science, New York City’s wonder, Leonard Cohen’s music – recasting them as constructive outlets for pent-up frustration and fear.
It’s a more eschatologically charged shorthand for "back to basics": Now (that Trump is president) we need (preferred antidote to Trump’s ethos) more than ever.
"Now more than ever" is a catchy distillation of civic angst that adds gravity to a sales pitch or protest. For the media, it asserts the urgency of the fact-finding enterprise. For the "resistance," it has the inviting quality of absolving you for anything you might have neglected to do during Trump’s 512-day escalator ride to the presidency.
Few institutions have claimed to matter more, now, than legacy news outlets. Three Sundays ago, during the Academy Awards broadcast, the New York Times ran its first television advertisement in seven years, a 30-second spot that concludes, "The truth is more important now than ever." It mirrored a full-page ad from the Times’s Feb. 26 print edition and similar branding online.
On Nov. 9, the day after the election, the Guardian’s U.S. editor declared, "Never has the world needed independent journalism more." Ten days later, the Los Angeles Times’s Facebook timeline exhorted, "Now, more than ever, America needs good journalism." Likewise, the San Francisco Chronicle: "Journalism has never been more important." And Slate Plus, "We need quality journalism more than ever."
By suggesting that conditions demand unprecedented civic engagement (such as paying for news), "now more than ever" ties an urgent feeling to a concrete act. As ad copy for an industry in turmoil, it’s damn good. But as a statement about the worth of journalism and other small-D democratic institutions, it fails. When tied to the importance of facts and truth, "now more than ever" creates a contradiction. Journalism can’t be both fundamental to democracy and, as the phrase implies, dispensable in the past.
"Now more than ever" enters the lexicon when a relatively apolitical public gets yanked into the political process. The last time the phrase was used so frequently, hijacked jetliners were flown into the twin towers and the Pentagon.
For New Yorkers after 9/11, "now more than ever" was the understandable emotional background for decisions ranging from supporting children’s rock-star ambitions to popping the question. The iconic Milton Glaser "I ♥ New York" Poster was reissued as "I ♥ New York More Than Ever," and proceeds from its sale went to the FDNY Foundation. A Brazilian immigrant who once scoffed at the yuppies who walked by her dance studio told the Times, "I cannot abandon ship; this is my home more than ever."
In the autumn of 2001 and for some time afterward, politicians and opinionators alike used the gravity of "now" to back up prescriptive claims, some more logical than others. Among things needed then more than ever were the Fourth Amendment, Amtrak, the Olympics, lower taxes and proven leadership for New Jerseyans, and orchestras.
The indispensability of journalism was reasserted then, too. With "Nightline" under threat of cancellation, Ted Koppel wrote in a March 2002 op-ed that "the regular and thoughtful analysis of national and foreign policy is more essential than ever." Sept. 11 made it so.
That wasn’t the first time the phrase appealed in a crisis, either. In 1936, a Times editorial, "Screens of Tyranny," read: "It is more than ever necessary today that democratic institutions be vitalized and made effective, if the countries that cling to democracy are to be able to withstand the different forms of autocracy which threaten to engulf the world."
When deploying "now more than ever," the ahistoricism of post-Trump partisans and interest groups is even more acute. The phrase has been used to describe the importance of finding "a SCOTUS Justice who will fulfill the role in our democracy as a check& balance," in a tweet by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and "protect(ing) the Constitution" in an ACLU petition. In a November letter to donors, the chief executive and national chair of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights organization, wrote that the group’s work "matters now more than ever." The ADL was founded in 1913.
The 2016 campaign was fought in part over how citizens and their representatives ought to use language. From his announcement forward, Trump’s opponents flagged his statements as racist and disqualifying, while his supporters rallied to a politician who would "finally" say the words "radical," "Islamic" and "terrorism" in that order. Exactness is important to some very large constituencies, and yet a popular response to Trump’s rhetorical carelessness is more rhetorical carelessness, albeit of a different kind.
"Now more than ever" is a crescendo phrase. Without escalating crises, it ceases to be true, and perhaps more important for left-leaning organizers and subscription sellers strategizing past Trump’s first 100 days, believable.
Maybe the phrase is just one more thing to take "seriously, but not literally." But it is usually inaccurate, and if you see a connection between hazy language and political rot, then precision in the way we describe our world is worth preserving. That might mean retiring certain slogans when they prove to be meaningless. I’d suggest now.
Alex Caton is a 2015 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and a former James H. Dunn Jr. fellow in the office of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.