Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and cohosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Pat Robertson, who died this week at age 93, had been a staple of religious broadcasting for more than 60 years. In 1960, he founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, an experimental media outlet that would become an enormously profitable and influential platform. It was the start of a franchise: In the years that followed, he founded Regent University, a Christian evangelical college; the Christian Coalition, an influential political organization; and a host of business enterprises from KaloVita, a vitamin and cosmetics multi-level marketing company, to the Ice Capades, which his company bought in the mid-1990s.
But one of Robertson’s most lasting legacies was in the world of politics. Running in the Republican presidential primary in 1988, Robertson pioneered a new style of candidacy that would open the door to presidential hopefuls like Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump. Long before Trump leapt from reality television to the Oval Office, Robertson showed how a celebrity with no political experience could launch a national political campaign.
While Robertson had never held elected office, he was no stranger to politics — though he was new to the Republican Party. His father Absalom Robertson served alongside Harry Byrd for 20 years as one of Virginia’s powerful Democratic and segregationist senators. But after washing out of a few careers, the junior Robertson settled on ministry. He nearly washed out of that, too, until he bought a television station in Virginia, which he turned into a billion-dollar empire.
The Christian Broadcasting Network, with its tentpole show “The 700 Club,” created the televangelism that would become so popular, and so controversial, in the 1970s and 1980s. Robertson managed to avoid the scandals that brought down fellow televangelists Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in the late 1980s. But those scandals meant that, when Robertson decided to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, he had to pitch his candidacy a little differently than he otherwise might have.
That he was running for president at all was a bit of a stretch. But millions of people watched his network and “The 700 Club,” and the 1980s had seen the rise of a highly organized religious right that was transforming US politics. Then-President Ronald Reagan had harnessed that movement to his presidency, but his vice president, George H.W. Bush, was having a harder time of it (part of the Connecticut elite, Bush was an Episcopalian who wore his faith lightly). Robertson saw an opening to bring the “Christian soldiers” of the movement into his campaign.
Celebrity and religion co-mingled at Robertson’s campaign launch. He planned the announcement for the most unlikely of places: the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he had once lived for a year as a minister. Curious Black Brooklynites crowded on their stoops to watch the event unfold. Robertson, who had set up a stage in the middle of the street, invited Rosey Grier to deliver his introduction.
Grier, a former linebacker for the New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams, had spent his post-football career in a number of roles: bodyguard for Robert Kennedy (he tackled Sirhan Sirhan moments after Kennedy was shot), television star and musician, needlepoint and macrame enthusiast. In the 1980s, Grier became a Republican, speaking at the 1984 Republican National Convention and in October 1987, on the makeshift stage in Bed-Stuy, where he mistakenly introduced Robertson as “Pat Robinson,” before correcting himself.
The combination of Grier and Bed-Stuy suggested that Robertson’s campaign would not only be for White evangelicals but would reach out to Black Americans as well. But he would have trouble escaping his exclusionary past: much of Robertson’s announcement speech was drowned out by activists from ACT-UP, the grassroots group working to end the AIDS epidemic and to make life uncomfortable for anti-gay politicians like Robertson.
Celebrity was not enough for Robertson to unseat Bush as the presumptive nominee, though he finished ahead of Bush in the Iowa caucuses. But his run expanded in a lasting way the idea of what was possible, that a candidate could transform their media platform into a political platform. Buchanan would try the same thing in 1992, using his fame as a political pundit to build a right-wing challenge to Bush’s reelection. By the time Trump transitioned from reality television to the campaign trail, he was following a well-trod path.
Robertson’s influence on right-wing politics didn’t end with his presidential bid. The Christian Coalition, which he founded in 1987, became a powerful political force after absorbing the leftover funds of the Robertson campaign — and the millions of names and addresses Robertson had collected while he ran for president. According to historian Neil J. Young (with whom I co-host a history podcast), by 1992, 300 of the 2,200 delegates at the Republican National Convention were Coalition members, as were a third of the platform committee members. When told he would need to be prepared for questions about whether the Coalition was trying to take over the Republican Party, Robertson shrugged, “What is there left to take over?”
Robertson also became a vector for vivid conspiracy theories on the right. His bestselling book “The New World Order,” published in 1991, played off Bush’s use of the phrase in a speech a year earlier. But rather than simply bash Bush, the book covered every internationalist conspiracy imaginable. Apocalyptic, paranoid and popular, Robertson’s conspiracy tract tapped a rich vein of right-wing religion and politics, one that continues to feed the party today.
Because Robertson was first and foremost a religious figure, one who occupied a world that seemed quite distant from politics, his impact as a presidential candidate has often been overlooked. But his candidacy, born of media and celebrity, set the stage for much of what would follow in the Republican Party. No assessment of the party’s march away from democracy and into demagoguery can be understood without understanding Robertson’s role.