BRIEF THOUGHTS ON NIXONLAND
I just completed the above-mentioned book last night. It is exciting, engrossing, and infuriating. I won’t give away much of the content; it will suffice to say that the main villain– in my jaded view, of course– is not Tricky Dick. The culprit behind the horrible behavior in the book is a collective blackguard: the U.S. electorate. What Nixon and his minions did involved no magic or other superhuman sleight of hand. Nixon’s singular and specific genius was his ability to understand and exploit the currents of fear and loathing that course just below the skin of our culture. Nixon wasn’t the first head of state to master this art (see Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, etc.), but his ability to use it to manipulate the electoral process of a supposedly free and democratic nation was profound.
However, Richard Nixon was unlike the other names I listed in that he rarely had to directly orchestrate any violence or other physical intimidation on a large scale in order to achieve his ends. He understood how reactionary our society can be, and he understood how a ‘threat’ properly framed to the general public would result in that threat facing violence from even the grassroots level. In other words, he didn’t need to mobilize Brownshirts or an NKVD. He only needed to point out the enemy to the nation and wait for the reactionary locals– at the state, county, municipal, and neighborhood levels– to use whatever means at their disposal to crush the threat. Overall, it worked like a charm.
This isn’t to suggest that the self-imagined forces of liberalism and progress didn’t put up a good fight during Nixon’s time, nor is it to suggest that those forces were uniformly righteous or even competent. Perlstein makes clear that there were more than a few individuals and small groups on the left who purposefully resembled the anarchic bogeymen that the Nixon machine was selling to the ‘Silent Majority.’ Furthermore, the social and political unrest of the time– purposefully aggravated by the likes of Nixon– made conditions ripe for the sort of fear- and hate-mongering that solidified Nixon’s hold on power. These conditions also left Nixon without a cohesive and potent opposition, as the reeling Democratic Party struggled to cope with the shifts in political identity that were being exploited by the right wing of the Republican Party.
I continue at very high risk of rambling on without making sense. You are better off reading the damn book if you want to understand any of what I just wrote. My original point, I hope, will become clear as you read. We can vilify Nixon just as we can vilify George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, and rightfully so. But we must direct some critical venom toward ourselves, because we are the ones that allow these monsters to take the reins. We are the ones who don’t hold our other elected federal representatives accountable for failing to serve as checks on Nixonian behavior.
In short, Nixon and his political descendants (of either major party) have been very good at selling us shit sandwiches. Shame on us for continuing to buy them in spite of knowing what they really are.