A few months back, I picked up a copy of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and I've been reading it in drips and drabs. I got annoyed early on by the overly pervasive use of the metaphor of the Franklins (the upper crust club at Nixon's law school that rejected him) vs the Othogonians (the group of social outcasts that Nixon gathered around himself in response to that rejection). This metaphor is dragged through the entire narrative. I was also annoyed by the persistant sarcastic asides that Perlstein throws in. Despite these things, it's a book well worth reading.
Nixon built a power base by deliberately dividing the country. He courted the segregationist south as a foundation for a new “base.” He identified the power structures that people resented – old-money liberals, intellectuals, “elitists” – and tied them to the things that people feared: communism, hippies, black radicals, and the women's lib movement. He solidified the conceptual distinction between Real Americans and Everyone Who Disagreed With Nixon.
Ronald Reagan was doing the same thing on a state level, polarizing California, demonizing the enemy (student protesters, blacks, communists and college professors) to rally everyone else to his side.
As I read, I recognized tactics that Reagan used in 1980 to defeat George Bush in the primary, and then to defeat Carter in the election. I recognized tactics that Newt Gingrich used in 1994 to take control of the Congress and try to destroy Clinton. I recognized tactics that George W. Bush and Karl Rove used to take the White House in 2000, and again in 2004 (he won against Kerry because he was able to mobilize the GodHatesFags voters in Ohio).
What was fascinating about the Obama – McCain campaign was how much these divisive moves were NOT a part of the debate. Both campaigns recognized the massive unpopularity of the current administration, and both campaigns sought to position themselves as being better suited to break the hold of the neo-con ideologues, unite the country and bring change to Washington. Until the last couple months.
John McCain is someone who has been admirable in the past. There are no saints in politics, and in my mind both of the candidates had a few strikes against them, but when McCain won the Republican primary, I felt palpable relief. McCain was a man who had a sense of honor, who had the best interests of the people (ALL the people) in mind, and was not in the pocket of the religious right. He's got a good sense of how Washington works, and of how international relations work, and could recreate the alliances that W has destroyed, and repair our image abroad. I would not have hated a President McCain.
And then they got a new strategist, and a Veep choice. Suddenly, Obama becomes a muslim, his wife a terrorist. Obama is a socialist who is out to destroy Joe the Plumber. And Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house.
And after that, it was the same old fearmongering we're so used to seeing. Fear of communism and liberals and terrorists and minorities and gays destroying the sanctity of marriage and the killing of babies. This was a John McCain that couldn't be allowed to win. This was a John McCain that had dropped everything he stood for, for the sake of the election. This was a John McCain that promised theocracy in 2012. On November 3rd, I had a sick feeling in my stomach that it would work. That the United States was divided enough, against so many different things, that it was bigoted enough and fearful enough that this strategy would pay off.
But on November 4th, the United States rejected that strategy, rejected a history of slavery, rejected the Nixonian politics of division, and at 11:20 PM, EST, so did John McCain, in one of the best concession speeches our country has seen.