From Nixon to Paul Ryan: How right-wing radicals deceive America

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

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published January 6, 2014 12:43PM (EST)

Richard Nixon, Paul Ryan         (AP/Reuters/Matt Sullivan)
Richard Nixon, Paul Ryan (AP/Reuters/Matt Sullivan)

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.”

For conservatives themselves, almost every stage of this process requires massive forgetting, if not rewriting, of what conservatives stood for and supported just a heartbeat previously.  All that mattered was that the new incarnation provided easy, self-evident answers to all the most pressing problems.  At the same time, the wider political system had to be convinced to see this latest stage of lurching from one spectacular failure to another in much more normalized, humdrum terms, say, as a question of seeking “strong leadership” framed within a personality-based account of politics — an account in which actual material policy consequences all but disappear, except, of course, for those that concern the minuscule class of major political donors.  Such is the context in which right-wing radicalism of various different stripes has been repeatedly reinvented as folksy common sense.

It all started with Richard Nixon. Despite his early success as a rabid red-baiter — years before Joe McCarthy first cribbed notes from him — Nixon in power was never pure enough for movement conservatives. They've been notably less forgiving of him than Reagan, which has helped to retroactively obscure his conservatism. This is further compounded by the accelerating rightward shift under Ronald Reagan and afterward, even though that shift was one that Nixon himself made possible, if not virtually inevitable.  When Nixon held office, Democrats dominated Congress, and the New Deal era faith in government had yet to be broken; Nixon's criminal conduct in Watergate would, ironically, play a major role in helping to change that.  Thus, for purely political reasons, much of Nixon's domestic record looks fairly liberal in retrospect — as liberals today point out from time to time. Nixon himself once famously said, "I've always thought the country could run itself domestically without a president," an indication of how little it normally figured in his own political priorities. But not always, as can be seen in the “war on drugs,” the most spectacularly destructive domestic government program of the 20th century.

Nixon's real record, politically, can best be understood in terms of Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. "As its title suggests, "Nixonland" makes abundantly clear the role that Nixon played in fracturing America along cultural lines that permanently transformed American politics. Nixon had plenty of help, of course.  The '60s were a time of explosive social turmoil, which the media regularly sensationalized, emphasizing contrasting extremes far more than it worked to foster dialogue — a perfect setup for the sort of politics Nixon practiced. A different sort of person would have tried to solve the problems he exploited to win the White House in 1968. Instead, Nixon intentionally inflamed them. Reviewing "Nixonland" for the Nation, Thomas J. Sugrue put it well: “But as Perlstein shows, Nixon did not want to restore order. Instead, he stoked the fires of discontent to shape an enduring conservative majority. He needed polarization and disruption, so long as liberals would keep taking the fall.” In this context, the very failure of the “war on drugs” was its biggest success — one that continues to this very day.

The “Southern Strategy” — along with a less-publicized “Northern Strategy” to reach out to working-class white ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest — arguably represented the most significant example of the fractures that Nixon helped open up, and, more important, cement into place. No figure did more than Richard Nixon to open up the fundamental cleavage between “them” and “us” and to make that cleavage into a fundamental ontological fact of American politics.  The fact that he's not seen as a particularly conservative figure is a testament to just how profound his impact was. Yet, tellingly, we generally cannot even begin to imagine what a liberal alternative to him and his world might have looked like.

In sharp contrast, no one doubts Reagan's conservative credentials, even as his professional affability was key to deflecting attention from the darker side of all that this entailed. In Reagan's case, it's conservatism itself that has been refashioned. As Will Bunch argued in  "Tear Down This Myth:  How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future" (Salon excerpt here), Reagan's public reputation was in tatters before conservatives launched an unprecedented rehabilitation campaign, an active, mapped-out, audacious campaign to spread a distorted vision of Reagan’s legacy across America,” the purpose of which was not just to burnish Reagan's reputation, but that of conservatism as well. But that after-the-fact mass revisionism, carried out by the  Reagan Legacy Project, was not the first time that Reagan and conservatism had been joined together in reinvention. To the contrary, Reagan was intimately involved in two fundamental acts of reinventing American conservatism. The first of these was the embrace of “supply-side” economics, which embodied a fundamental shift away from conservatism's being identified with naysaying and limits. (The radical reinvention aspect of conservatism across the centuries has been brilliantly laid out by Corey Robin in "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.") Spurred on by Jude Wanniski's “Two Santa” theory, Reagan embraced tax cuts as a growth-promoting strategy, which gave Republicans a way to play “tax cut Santa” in contrast to the Democrats “spending Santa,” rather than just “playing Scrooge,” as Wanniski warned against.  Economically, the strategy was a bust. GDP grew just 31.7 percent during Reagan's eight years in office, compared with Clinton's 33.1 percent and JFK/LBJ's 47.1 percent. But it did wonders for the 1 percent, whose income grew 10 times as much as everyone else—61.5 percent vs 6.15 percent — a  far cry from JFK/LBJ under whom the 99 percent actually did better than the 1 percent: 30.9 percent vs 26.9 percent.

In short, the vast majority of Reagan-era Americans experienced severe limits in their everyday lives, trapped by then-unprecedented income stagnation, but the new conservative rhetoric was all about limitless growth — which the donor class in the 1 percent got to experience as real.  And that was Reagan's second fundamental act of  reinventing American conservatism: he made its lies fundamentally and systematically congruent with the lived experience of the 1 percent, who were simultaneously growing richer and richer, more and more politically influential. This “double bubble” effect — a financial bubble encompassing a shared ideological worldview bubble — in turn became the foundation for the resurrection of Reagan's reputation that Bunch wrote about. That bubble also provided a foundation for the Clinton-era Wall Street wing takeover of the Democratic Party, thus further shifting the entire political spectrum decisively to the right.

There were many other fantasy aspects to Reagan conservatism: his “freedom fighter” rhetoric paired with support for death squads in Central America, apartheid in South Africa, and bin Laden and his extremist allies in Afghanistan, for example. Or his cauldron of nuclear fantasies, from the illusion of Soviet superiority fueling a massive arms buildup, to the fantasy of fighting and winning an all-out nuclear war (from which the U.S. would “fully recover ... in just two to four years”) fueling aggressive posturing, to the Star Wars techno-fantasy, spurned by scientists, which Reagan embraced after multiple states passed nuclear freeze initiatives in 1982, frightened by his seemingly unhinged nuclear policies.

The list could go on and on. But because of its pervasive material impact, Reagan's embrace of supply-side (“voodoo”) economics remains the central defining act of his radicalizing legacy — apart from his role in energizing, supporting and legitimating the growth of a far-flung self-conscious conservative establishment, all of which was also lavishly supported by the floods of cash his tax cuts generated.  Prior to Reagan's embrace of supply-side, every four-year presidential term but one since World War II had seen the federal debt decrease as a percentage of GDP. The only exception (Nixon-Ford) had seen a modest 0.2 percent increase.  For all the complaining conservatives might do, there simply was no problem of “government living beyond its means” until Ronald Reagan came to town, and created the very problem that conservatives claimed was most dire. Under Reagan, the debt-to-GDP ratio rose 21 percent, plus another 13 percent under Bush, before Clinton sharply reversed the trend, only to see Bush II begin increasing the debt ratio once again.

This situation of persistent government overspending — due to severely undertaxing the rich and super-rich —has become a dominating force in our politics, a persistent “fact on the ground” predetermining the shape of countless political battles, during “normal times,” but especially during crises. Most notably, it helped create multiple preconditions, which gave rise to the birth of the “Tea Party” after the very same “free market” policies it stemmed from and enabled brought the entire global economy to the brink of collapse.  In this manner, the Reagan-created conservative practice of supply-side economics made it virtually impossible to conceive of anything beyond its intellectual influence, even in the face of utter failure. Such is power of ideological dominance.

If Reagan established the basic material logic that would subvert the welfare state and the New Deal order, Gingrich played the key role of disabling the last governmental institutional site of critical democratic resistance: the House of Representatives, which Democrats had controlled continuously since 1954, and all but four years since 1930. As explained by Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone in "Three's a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence," Perot's third party challenge was fueled by contradictions of Reaganomics that Democrats had proven too politically clumsy to take advantage of — skyrocketing deficits, an eroding industrial base, a ballooning trade deficit — but  when Clinton first spurned Perot, and then humiliated him via the passage of NAFTA, this created a opening that Gingrich enthusiastically exploited, not least by crafting the “Contract With America” specifically to target the Perot demographic.

Thus, Gingrich fleetingly positioned himself as a relatively non-ideological pragmatist, temporarily downplaying appeals to the Christian right, and making himself — and Republicans generally — a rebound beneficiary of widespread populist disillusion with Reaganomic conservatism.  In tandem, Reagan and Gingrich managed to gain increasing political power over a 15-year period, despite a prolonged failure to deliver anything remotely like the widespread security and opportunity of earlier times. They did this by creating short-term hot-button electoral choices that then fed into long-term ideologically determined policy outcomes, which no other political actors could coherently and compellingly describe, much less attack, in advance. With no coherent counternarratives to oppose them, Reagan and Gingrich both found ways to benefit as much from conservatism's failures as from its successes, portraying themselves either as “principled conservatives” or as “common-sense pragmatists,” whichever happened to suit their purposes best in the moment.

Once in power, arguably Gingrich's most lasting accomplishment was the destruction of how the House of Representatives had come to function over the previous 60-plus years.  This could be seen in three inter-related ways.  First, Gingrich consciously styled himself as a parliamentary leader akin to a British prime minister, seeking to position himself as the political co-equal of the president.  Most famously, when Clinton failed to join in his fantasy, making Gingrich ride in the back of Air Force One on a trip to Israel for Yitzhak Rabin's funeral, Gingrich famously threw a bit of a fit — later admitting it contributed to his decision to shut down the government. This resulted in the famous New York Post “Crybaby” cover.  Second, Gingrich tried to routinely nationalize congressional campaigns, repeating variations on the strategy that helped win the House in 1994.  Following disappointing results in 1998, keyed to impeaching Bill Clinton, he was ultimately forced to step down. Third, Gingrich took dramatic steps to undermine the House's capacity to act as a deliberative body. He specifically eliminated internal specialized repositories of expertise, most notably the Office of Technology Assessment, established in 1962, which provided objective evaluations of technological issues for Congress in crafting public policy. But the OTA was only the most prominent example, as explained by Bruce Bartlett, a top economic adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush I, who wrote a scathing critique of Gingrich's broader conduct, "Gingrich and the Destruction of Congressional Expertise,” when Gingrich briefly took the lead in the 2012 presidential primary.

“Because Mr Gingrich does know more than most politicians, the main obstacles to his grandiose schemes have always been Congress’ professional staff members, many among the leading authorities anywhere in their areas of expertise,” Bartlett wrote. "To remove this obstacle, Mr Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it.”  That's why every harebrained notion that gains traction in the House today owes an unpayable debt to Gingrich's narcissistic destructiveness.

The hyper-partisan, highly polarized atmosphere that Gingrich helped to create proved extraordinarily unpopular with the American people. While the Beltway media were incensed with Bill Clinton and quite angry that he wasn't removed from office, the public largely distinguished between private bad behavior and his performance as president, which they continued to approve of. The resulting extreme unpopularity of D.C. Republicans and the hyper-confrontational style that Gingrich represented made it necessary for Republicans to look outside of D.C. for “fresh blood” untainted by the years of trying to bring Clinton down. This resulted in yet another example of a misleadingly presented conservative ideologue: the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush.

Although Bush presented himself as “a uniter not a divider,” his actual record proved so profoundly divisive that he ultimately fractured the GOP, as well as the nation.  Yet, his early strong support from all major conservative factions leaves little doubt that he represented conservative aspirations for governing the nation, in contrast to simply opposing the government, which had become the dominant mode of conservatism during the Clinton presidency. For economic conservatives, he offered the most extreme tax cuts ever, and for religious conservatives, he offered an unprecedented expansion of “faith-based initiatives,” but before he had time to do much more, the 9/11 attacks shifted him into full-time neocon/Christian crusader mode.

While Bush had been seen as an ideal candidate in 2000, because of what had happened in D.C. in the 1990s, the reality was actually quite different. Texas has a weak governor system, and his actual record of accomplishment was correspondingly modest in reality. While the Beltway media had it in for Gore, repeatedly trying to tar him as a liar, it was actually Bush who had profound problems with the truth during the campaign — problems that only continued throughout his presidency, as depicted early on by David Corn's 2003 book "The Lies of George W. Bush" (excerpt here).  But the Beltway press corps' psychological needs blinded them entirely to Bush's flawed character as well as his radical ideology.

Eventually, as the failure of Bush's presidency became an inescapable fact, conservatives were once again forced to create a new narrative in which conservatism wasn't to blame.  This ultimately required a newly discovered rejection of Bush's conservative credentials, along with anything else once deemed “conservative” that now seemed embarrassing, or even just inconvenient.  And thus almost the entirety of “governing” or so-called big government or national conservatism came into potential disrepute — although still within limits, of course. Otherwise Ron or Rand Paul would have been the GOP candidate in 2008 or 2012.

Nonetheless, it was time once again for a complete makeover. The failure of G.W. Bush's presidency required yet another radical shift in conservative positioning. “Reagan proved that deficits don't matter,” Dick Cheney once famously said. Now, at last, it was suddenly the worst thing in the world!  But there was also the imperative to to make this radical reversal seem perfectly normal as well. Enter Paul Ryan.

Ryan's 2010 “Roadmap for America’s Future,” while still in the minority, was greeted enthusiastically as a “serious person” by the Beltway media — even Ezra Klein. But a July 2010 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “The Ryan Budget's Radical Priorities,” identified four radical, unpopular proposals in it: raising middle-class taxes, the largest tax cuts in history for the wealthy, ending guaranteed Medicare, and privatizing Social Security. Any one of these should have been enough to identify Ryan as the right-wing ideologue he is. The next month, Paul Krugman followed up with a devastating critique in a landmark column titled simply “The Flimflam Man.” On top of everything else, it turned out that Ryan's deficit-cutting plan actually didn't!  The deficit cutting was simply assumed, not specified.

In the end, all that Ryan's plan actually did over 10 years was slash taxes on the wealthy and take benefits from the poor and the middle class, eventually — over several decades — shrinking government to the size it was in the 1920s. And the same applied to the plans Ryan produced in 2011 and 2012 as well, as CBPP repeatedly showed, here, here, here and here, for example.

One of the most strikingly radical and unpopular ideas in Ryan's plan was ending Medicare and replacing it with a voucher, which would steadily decline in value relative to the rate of inflation. On this count, Ryan was supported by PolitiFact, which called it the “lie of the year” in 2011 when Democrats said — truthfully — that Ryan wanted to end Medicare. There is arguably no better example of how the so-called liberal media establishment does the conservatives' work for them than this.

Without this sort of ideological cover, there would be no mistaking the extremism, recklessness and heartlessness of conservative leaders from Nixon to Reagan to Gingrich to Bush to Ryan, Christie and all the rest today. The U.S. already has the smallest, least effective welfare state of any advanced industrial nation in the West, as conservatives continue mobilizing to dismantle it completely. They have their eye on a Dickensian society, and they think that it looks pretty good. Martin Luther King had his dream, and they've got theirs: separate, and extremely unequal. PolitiFact's well-crafted complicity is but the latest of countless ways in which America's elite institutions have willingly accommodated themselves to making that dream come true. There's bound to be a lot more of that to come in the year ahead, and the 2016 election beyond.  We'd all be well-served to get much better at spotting what they're up to.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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