Don't eat the brown acid: trying to make sense of Richard Nixon and the Tea Party

In a recent post, Sammy made the insightful argument that Richard Nixon was our last liberal president. You could make an equally good case that he was also simultaneously our first Tea Party president. That the twisted labyrinthine soul of Dick Nixon was a scale model of the schizophrenic society we have now become.

And the real question is: Did Dick make us what we are today, or was he simply a portent of a future we now live in, or perhaps even worse, was he somehow a political version of the Terminator, a creature sent back into the past to shape that future, now our current world?

I know what you’re thinking. “Brother, don’t eat the brown acid. I repeat, don’t eat the brown acid.” Don’t worry. I am sitting comfortably in room 925 at the Westin in Wheeling, Illinois, straight and sober. The brown acid, what’s left of it, is stashed in the back of the freezer of the editor that let Dick Cheney have the front page of USA Today to flog his sorry book. So hang with me here.

Let me first summarize Sam’s case for Nixon as a liberal: Nixon founded the EPA. He got us out of Vietnam, a messy never-ending Christian crusade disguised as a war of national security. He put in place an open and pragmatic foreign policy. He pushed hard for national healthcare. And he took an interventionist role in the economy (he wasn’t very good at it as it turns out—price controls were a terrible idea). But that is a lot more liberal than any other president we’ve had since, and arguably before. He was certainly far more liberal than our current leader. My summary really doesn’t do the post justice, and if you missed it, it’s worth going back and taking a look.

But at the same time, Nixon was very much like the Tea Party. His brain was a mélange of vicious bigotries and hateful ideas against anyone he perceived as different from him. He was a master of dark paranoia and user of circular logic to justify any action he saw fit who tended to authoritarianism disguised as “law and order,” and would stop at no lie or deceit to win the day, regardless of its long term effects. He also was prone to cronyism, barely honest at best, and good pals with some very unsavory people whose politics and noses bent sharply to the right. If this was grammar school, we could put that list of characteristics on the left and a list of the Tea Party elite that includes Rove, Armey, Cheney, Palin, Bachmann, Cantor and Beck, etc on the right and draw lines between the two. (Hint: Perry goes to cronyism.)

Admittedly, it’s not a perfect match. Nixon politicked in that brief period in American politics when politicians did not have to feign piety to be considered electable, and he rallied people against godless communists rather than wrong-godded Muslims. Also he was fairly intelligent and surrounded himself with apparatchiks of talent (and possibly even darker but less complicated souls,  like Kissinger) rather than the stupid and the stubborn who comprise the arms and legs of the Tea Party. Nonetheless, it’s hard to look at the crazy right politics of today and not see creatures who crawled on flippers from the primordial ooze of the Nixonian Era – Bachmann, Thune, Santorum, Christie, ad nauseum and ad infinitum.

That’s not totally a new idea. Conventional wisdom is that it was Nixon’s utter humiliation that created today’s far right. That it was the emotional scars from being driven from Washington barefoot and branded that made people like Roger Ailes and Pat Robertson decide to create propaganda networks and faux universities to churn out zombie armies of indoctrinaires to infiltrate the federal bureaucracies. That Nixon may have also created Tea Party is a slightly different argument, but only just.

But maybe it was more than that. Maybe, in electing Nixon, we somehow saw the future, saw the early seeds of the profound divisions that would one day tear our country apart and decided that Nixon might be the only man who could save us. It’s often said in that only a left wing politician can effect spending reforms because he’s the only one that the electorate will trust enough to allow it. That’s certainly been proved right in Australia and Brazil and Obama is giving it his best shot. Perhaps we as a people were prescient, and somehow elected the man who all by himself embodied both the best and worst of what America has to offer, and perhaps it was because each side of that divide somehow saw in Nixon a glimmer of what they termed goodness and realized that somehow he was someone who could cross to the other side and get things done.

Or perhaps it was even more. Perhaps Nixon’s brain was some sort of portal to the future. Perhaps Nixon was (is? will be?) really just a typical confused college student in 2015 who will stumble across Fox News while channel surfing and fall into a chrono-synclastic infundibulum (Kurt Vonnegut’s idea, kind of like black holes in space “where all the different kinds of truths fit together”) that will pop him back to Whittier College in the thirties where he will wake up, stumble over to the mirror, scream “Nooooooo!!!” and begin pulling at his unfamiliar face, and then live the life we know as Nixon’s. You know, sort of like Back to the Future, but without the DeLorean.

OK, I admit that doesn’t make any sense to me. But I guarantee you Michelle Bachmann will get it.

6 replies »

  1. Nixon and the Tea Party? Let’s see, the Tea Party started out as a grass-roots rebellion against out-of-control deficit spending and the burden being bequeathed to future generations. It was not at all concerned with religious right issues. The Tea Party has now been co-opted by the Religious Right, and is now repulsive to many of its originators. Nixon started out as a guy looking for his path and was opportunistic enough to let J. Edgar co-opt him (talk about symbiotic). So, although similar in being co-opted for another’s purpose, in Nixon’s case it gave him a career, but the result for the tea party is having the religious right as a parasite. Having the tea party subsumed into the religious right’s agenda still leaves the socially liberal/fiscally conservative independents without a home. Isn’t brown acid fascist?

  2. The TEA Party hasn’t been co-opted by anybody! All we believe in is Limited Government, Fiscal Responsibility, and Free Markets. Hammer away – whenever we are misrepresented, more people join us. We ARE the American people who sat silently by while liberal progressives tried to turn us into a socialist country. The fire was lit under Bush and his growth of government, but it blew up under Obama because of his out-of-control spending that accomplished NOTHING! We actually care about leaving FREEDOM to our kids and grandkids – you haven’t seen anything like parents trying to protect their offspring. STAY TUNED, we’re just getting started.

    • Yes, how well we all remember the Tea Party’s seething outrage at George Bush. And today the Tea Party continues its relentless protests against the Republican Party – one of them can hardly make an appearance in public without being shouted into submission.

      We also remember what a spontaneous grassroots uprising it was, springing into thin air seemingly overnight without a penny of Koch Brothers cash to nurture it….

  3. To the Tea Partiers everywhere. Isn’t about time to get off the thematic (Limited Government, Fiscal Responsibility, Free Markets) and talk specifics about what you’d have the Government stop doing. Medicare?, SS?, Roads?, Defense?, Water?, Food Inspection?,
    Disaster Relief? (Man up Tea Partiers,including you Diane), Propose something.

  4. Sam, I get that Nixon was more progressive than we remember although that was largely a reflection of the times. Was Nixon a precursor of the Tea Party? I’m not sure but certainly he was the poster boy who led us to our current divisiveness (anti-war = anti-America).

    Diane, the American people have every right to be angry but the question that needs to be asked and answered is: “what policies will improve the life of the majority of Americans?”. Fiscal responsibility, free markets and the size of government are important but are not our biggest problems. We live in a society where the top 1% are getting richer while the middle class and below have stagnated or declined. De-regulation of financial markets, an over reliance on housing/consumer spending to drive the economy and a tax policy that has favored the rich (e.g. hedge fund managers taxed at rates for long term capital gains) have more to do with our current problems than the size of government.

    One thing you can say is that Nixon is just the kind of guy who would have jumped on this type of anger and division to facilitate his own re-election. In that sense he does have a lot in common with Rick Perry.