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How Right-Wing Radicals -- From Nixon to Paul Ryan -- Have Deceived America

By shifting the spectrum of debate, here's how America's rightward march has been normalized throughout history.


From Nixon to Reagan to Gingrich to Bush to Paul Ryan and Chris Christie today, leaders who’ve shifted America to the right have been aided by moderating misrepresentations.  In the case of Reagan, it was not just the man, but conservatism itself that received the flattering reinterpretation. That was a difference that mattered; it goes to the heart of why Reagan is the American right’s touchstone. But the more general process of misrepresenting and reinterpreting increasingly radical ideological figures as if they were normal, everyday pragmatic problem-solvers is one that’s been a repeated leitmotif in America’s political trajectory since Richard Nixon’s political resurrection in 1968.

As Elias Isquith wrote here after Christie’s reelection,  Christie is not the next great moderate hope, he’s just very good at executing what Blake Zeff identified as the  GOP’s blue-state playbook, breaking with red-state conservative orthodoxy on a few secondary issues. But it takes more than a column or two to expose the emperor’s new clothes. For the moment, George Washington Bridgegate notwithstanding, Christie remains the GOP’s best hope of winning the White House in 2016, largely because he’s so good at the game that Isquith pointed out, orchestrating his own misrepresentation as a mainstream political figure.  What’s more, battling against 2016 GOP rivals will only make it more difficult and more important to see beyond the illusions to what Christie is actually doing.  That’s why is helps to look backward to similar figures in the past, and how they managed to so successfully deceive.  And it’s not just Christie. Paul Ryan’s role in shaping GOP budget politics — and all the attendant economic fantasizing — provides another key reason why we need a far better grasp of the process of normalizing reactionary radicalism.

In looking backward, we need to keep in mind what a truly radical conservative is: “radical” comes from the Greek “radic,” meaning root. What makes for a radical conservative leader is not purity in terms of some litmus test — after all, Reagan himself pursued a sort of “blue-state strategy”: He raised taxes multiple times, made arms deals with terrorists, signed a mass amnesty law for the undocumented, etc. Rather, the test of post-New Deal conservative leadership is how much they radically shift the spectrum of debate or transform the basic configurations of political space. Indeed, superficially preserving continuity, even accepting certain liberal gains, can be an integral part of carrying out a much more fundamental transformation.

Key to this progression has been the fact that, rather than building cumulatively on successes, more often than not conservative succession has been built on successive failures — each one sold as a “common sense” way of dealing with the chaos created by previous conservative incarnation.  Reagan succeeding Nixon was closest to being the exception to this rule. Nixon exploited and began consolidating the racial divisions that fractured the New Deal majority, a process briefly interrupted by Jimmy Carter, and Reagan finished that process of consolidation. He did so, however, by radically altering the tone, if not the substance. Thereafter, however, the pattern held with remarkable consistency.

Reagan created massive federal deficits, and presided over rapid deindustrialization. Gingrich skillfully tapped into Ross Perot’s mobilization of the resentment this fueled, and tried to redirect it toward a massive restructuring of government and dismantling of the welfare state. His aggressive, confrontational, no-holds-barred politics soured the public so profoundly it was necessary to bring in something completely different — the “compassionate conservatism” of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, touting his bipartisan record as “a uniter, not a divider,” which, in turn, once tested in the White House, was eventually revealed as a hollow fraud, signaling the need to return to an even more extreme version of Gingrich’s politics of government dismantlement and implacable resistance — or if that began running out of steam, another go at a “bipartisan” governor from “outside of Washington.”

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