If you are bemoaning how far lunatic right-wing today’s Republican Party has gotten- and you should bemoan it, on a little-read blog, if possible- then it is considered a smart thing to say that “Hell, Nixon would have been too liberal for them.” I don’t need to link to the thousands of times you’ve read this; the most recent example is this Salon article. It’s an interview with Evan Thomas, who has written a book about Nixon*.
Part of that was Democrats on Capitol Hill, but he believed that government had to govern. He passed as much social welfare legislation as Lyndon Johnson. He would get drummed out of the party today as a liberal.
That is true, at least in the beginning. He wasn’t a nihilist about governing. But saying that Nixon would have been too liberal is to ignore who Nixon actually was, or more accurately, how the modern GOP is the ravening child of his mutated vision. He wouldn’t be kicked out today: he would have be leading the charge, with a sense of victimhood and oppression that would make Ted Cruz look honest**.
For Nixon, domestic policy was entirely about winning elections. So, while yes, he did sign social legislation and instituted the EPA, it was more a reflection of having to get a few things done so that he could focus on foreign policy and on killing the Democrats. His social legislation was part of that: forcing the final split between southern Democrats and their northern counterparts, and helping resuscitate Wallace. It was a tricky game, to be sure: he could be on the side of justice, but use that justice to stoke racial resentment among backlashing whites, and then frowningly and sternly say that only he could bring back law and order. It is a classic Nixonism: divide and conquer.
Because, for Nixon stoking anger and fear among the electorate was the basis of his entire political career. It started with his aggressiveness toward Hiss, and continued throughout his life. He saw early on that the long-haired elites could be used as a wedge to attract white working-class votes, and he fomented that anger for years. Pitting “us” against “them” was the basis for his electoral success.
Reagan, of course, made that his guiding principle as well, only with a smile and charming bullshit aphorisms instead of sweaty desperation. And a whole generation grew up stewing in the mess of hate these two men used to gain power, and that’s how we have gotten to Cruz and Trump.
So no, Nixon wouldn’t be drummed out. He’d be the goddamn drum-leader. I know it takes a Terminator-like mindspin to say that Nixon would be leading today’s party because Nixon created today’s atmosphere in the 60s and 70s, but it is true. In today’s Wisconsin primary, both Cruz and Trump are walking the line that connects George Wallace to Scott Walker. Nixon strung that line, and no one would be able to stride it with more agility. If the GOP- and the country- has moved unrecognizably to the right, it’s because he pulled us that way, and remade the party in his cruel image.
*I haven’t read his book, and this might just be a throwaway line. He may agree with all of this, or none of it, and my article is not meant to be an indictment of Thomas. It’s just a common line, and his interview was the last place I read it.
** That’s partly because Nixon was actually poor, and a victim, and a fascinating tragic awful brilliant figure who came by his resentments honestly, more or less. Cruz is a whiny elite who pretends he’s a victim, which makes him the perfect spokesman for the Christian Oppression Movement.