Hunter S Thompson added to our political lexicon when he used the term “Fear and Loathing” (or rather re-used – he’d already used it a year earlier to describe some ugly Las Vegas doings) to describe the 1972 Nixon campaign trail. It was singularly appropriate for Nixon. The only ambiguity at all was whether it was a description of the reaction in liberal media and academic circles to Nixon’s nasty cheap populism. Or whether it was in fact the aim of Nixonian politics to invoke those feelings among voters against other different Americans. It was, alas, this latter.
Firstly to those unfamiliar with him, Richard Nixon can best be described as a political endgamer, a high-powered version of John Howard. He saw every issue in terms of how to exploit his opponents. He was dog-whistling and wedging long before the terms were invented. In the post-war period he entered Congress and quickly became a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Republicans were especially keen on such groups and nonsense like Loyalty Oaths to undermine the dominance of the New Deal Democrats, who had become the natural party of government.
Although less sensationalist than Senator Joe McCarthy’s wild allegations about communists taking over the State Department, HUAC was arguably much more effective. Nixon, perhaps because he was a Californian, realized the immense publicity that HUAC could get by focusing on Hollywood: the stars, the writers, the directors. And that’s who they went after. HUAC got ready cooperation from the owners and tycoons of Hollywood. Many were Jewish, and having just witnessed the Holocaust were very anxious to prove their loyalty and patriotism.
Having Hollywood as the focus guaranteed almost daily publicity. There were just enough neo-leftists around Hollywood in the Depression-era 30s to have the Republicans sniffing for blood. Among other sins, many were in trouble for expressing sympathy or support for the Spanish Republicans during the civil war in Spain. The question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist party?” was especially loaded.
Although the Constitution in theory protected these people, non-cooperation led to charges of perjury and to the owners banning them from work. Many had to leave the industry or the country. Even those who cooperated lost friends and self-respect by public confessions. It was a win-win for Nixon, paving the way for his elevation to the Senate and then to the Vice-Presidency.
In the early 60s Nixon suffered setbacks. He lost the 1960 Presidency to JFK, and two years later failed to win the Governorship of California. But like Howard much later, he learned from mistakes and adjusted his game.
He saw a great opportunity in the 60s with the Civil Rights movement and LBJ’s Great Society. With LBJ firmly committed to it (something even FDR shied away from) the attack on institutionalised racism would almost certainly lead to a reaction against the Democrats, who until then ruled the South. In addition, the fundamentalist religions of the mid-West and the South felt threatened by the anti-censorship charge of the 60s and the general sexual, feminist and black power liberation movements.
Nixon could see a new Republican hegemony from the remaining racist elements of the South and the conservative religious movements. These had never quite got over their defeat in the Monkey Trials of 1925 which led to the overrule of state laws banning the teaching of evolution in science. In origins, they too were often Democrats. So it was a big alliance Nixon was planning. Little wonder he made Billy Graham his chaplain when he did make it to the White House. Nixon mistrusted the old Eastern Establishment, despite the Kissinger alliance, and for that reason forged new alliances in the West – what was to become known as the Sun Belt areas.
The Watergate scandal put a temporary stop to the Republican dominance but not to the alliance pattern Nixon forged, which was capitalised on by Reagan and the Bushes. The Democrats realized too late the bind they were in. Their only counter-attack was to promote popular Southerners as their nominees. So, loosely based on the Nixon strategy the Republicans have had the President for 28 of the last 40 years. I know that the last 8 is a lot more questionable after the fiddles in Florida in 2000 (abetted by the Supreme Court) and Ohio in 2004. But it was Democrat ineptness that led to the contests being close in the first place. Carter and Clinton were treated like usurpers and only Clinton, among all the Democrat nominees was prepared to call their bluff.
The alliance, diverse as it was, made it easier for the Republicans to define what they were against. So liberalism became a dirty word; scholarship and scientific enquiry was wasteful; any government spending, except on armaments or business was likewise wasteful; climate change warnings were alarmist and interfering in God’s prerogatives. One other Nixon legacy was to manipulate foreign affairs activities for domestic adversarial politics. He sent word to North Vietnam to delay acceptance of peace talks in order to stymie LBJ. Later, Reagan aides would do similar in talks over the Irianian Embassy hostage crisis, leading to Carter looking helpless.
One area where Nixon differed from his New Right successors was in economic and financial management. Nixon was relatively prudent. The others, especially Reagan and Bush II, have been utterly reckless – no doubt egged on by the Sun Belt equivalent of the White Shoe Brigade, and the Pentagon-related industries.
It should not be forgotten that the Reagan Administration’s first effort at deregulation led to paper money merchants getting hold of savings and credit union groups assets and siphoning them off. Had it not been for Depression-era federal government guarantees for small peoples savings in such institutions a lot of people would have lost their life savings and retirement funds. As it was, the government picked up the tab for these losses, at enormous taxpayer cost. Increasing military spending by large amounts while reducing the wealthy’s tax payments will never help balance budgets. No wonder Bush I, who had some semblence of responsibility, failed so badly. It was too big a lemon he was stuck with.
Newt Gingrich deserves the prize for brazen hypocrisy when he demanded that Clinton present a balanced budget or face impeachment. Clinton, of course, did just that and ran rings around them in economic management. I often think the bile directed at Clinton was because (like Keating in Australia) he did the things the Republicans only talked about.
So we come to the Bush II regime. It seems clear now that in terms of incompetence, arrogance, corruption and dishonesty this regime is setting alltime benchmarks. The Nixonian adversarialism has been passed on to Rove, and has become even more vicious.
With such a consistent record for anti-intellectualism, it is not so surprising that foreign policy, at least for a very long time, should pass to the neocons and other crazies. It is also hardly surprising that this lot should approve torture of suspects. There is not enough scope for reasoned argument, and anyway torture seemed to work in “24”.
9/11 also warrants mention. At the time of the attacks I think I counted up to 7 agencies that failed then. Given the distance of agencies from the Administration, Team Bush need not necessarily be blamed. But surely these failings should have been of greater interest than the audacity of the crime. But no, all effort is already turned to a revenge attack. Rove and co wanted to turn attention away from any question of neglect. In addition, others had seen an opportunity. Here was a bogey to replace Communism. Hence the War on Terror. The Anthrax Scare (which did start from a Langley Virginia batch) was used to whip up anti-Middle Eastern feelings. In the general welter of confusion, Saddam could be linked without many thinking it was odd. Other issues in that sorry saga are too lengthy to mention here. Unlawful detention, rendering, torture, war profiteering – the list goes on.
Kirri has given better accounts of the economic train wreck of the Bush II regime. I am more interested in the remnants of that Nixon alliance. On the New Money side, many like Enron have bitten the dust and their ringleaders face charges or convictions. The most galling thing is that so many of these executives still have exorbitant packages, unconscionably siphoning off shareholders, employees and retirees funds. It is a disgrace that politicians and media alike have ignored this pillaging for so long.
The Bible Belt has made little headway with Creative Design, although under Bush they have manged to slow down stem cell research and so on. The Republicans have not delivered them much and it is not so surprise that some are at last defecting. It is similar with the old White Privilege South. They’ll still be around, but their influence is waning – as is the Republicans.
That alliance is not what it was. Barack deserves most credit for overcoming those barriers. He has had wide appeal and he has used the new weapons of the net well. We should not forget Howard Dean, who first attempted to use the net and appeal to the disengaged in 2004. He didn’t overcome the Democratic machine then, but he paved the way to how entrenched interests could be overcome.
As to Hillary, it should be clear by now that the most successful method for overcoming both the alliance and the ‘play safe’ Democrat machine attitudes, was as Barack did: appeal to those unengaged or alienated from the process. He did this brilliantly.
Here’s one final thought. Dubya’s often given the impression that he was ‘called by God’ for a mission. Perhaps it is true. The Republicans look headed for annihilation. Given the Nixonian legacy, and the end (at least for now) of Fear and Loathing that is not a bad result. It is a pity it took the wrecking of the economy and Mesopatamia, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.