Thursday, March 20, 2014

Atwater, Ailes, Rove, and Nixon's Long Shadow

After having recently read a biography about Roger Ailes and seen a film about Lee Atwater, I am more convinced than ever of Richard Nixon's long shadow over our political discourse.  While modern-day right wingers might disdain his big government conservatism, Nixon gave the Republican party its blueprint for success.  Nixon saw himself as a kind of dirty-faced paladin who did nasty things to protect the nation from the forces of change that he felt were out to destroy America.  Nixon broke the law and abused power, but felt that the ends of saving America justified the underhanded means.  Beyond his illegalities, he exploited growing social divisions by claiming to represent the "Silent Majority" and he played on white racial fears with his Southern Strategy, which also played well in Northern communities wary of bussing and changing demographics.

Three men who cut their teeth with Nixon have ruthlessly used the Nixonian vision and turned it into a political approach based around demonizing their opponents and playing on bigotry and hatred: Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and Roger Ailes.  Atwater and Rove ran the College Republicans during the Nixon years (and used their own dirty tricks), while Ailes helped turn Nixon into a TV-ready politician.  This troika's immersion in Nixon's world manifested itself later in divisive yet effective campaign strategies.  Case in point: in the 1988 election George HW Bush looked like a dead duck after the Democratic convention.  At that point Atwater and Ailes made it their mission to paint Dukakis as a radical liberal, and were involved in constructing the Willie Horton ad, one of the most shameful episodes in recent electoral history.  The personal attacks and playing on racism worked and continue to pay off on Ailes' Fox News to this day.

From the Atwater doc it's obvious to see that he had zero ideological commitment to politics, and got a a major kick out of manipulating a corrupt system, even if it meant engaging in lies and hate-mongering.  Ailes, on the other hand, really seems to think that liberals want to destroy the country, and Rove appears to be somewhere in the middle.  Since their approach in 1988 paid off so well, they have engaged in similar shenanigans to similar effect.  Rove pushed state-level anti-gay marriage referenda in order to get Christian conservatives to the polls for Bush in 2004, effectively exploiting homophobia for his benefit.  Ailes has used Fox News to attack the president at every turn, from keeping the phony Benghazi conspiracies brewing to providing the Tea Party with support and propaganda.  The Nixonian approach is all over Fox programming, just as it permeates talk radio, in that liberals are constantly and unceasingly demonized.  They paint the president as a foreigner, a usurper, illegitimate and un-American.  Their politics is less about ideas than a certain kind of tribalism whereby "real Americans" must combat internal enemies.

We're fooling ourselves if we don't think this kind of political discourse is going to have bad longterm consequences.  More and more politics seems less about issues than cultural identity, where one's opponents don't just think differently, but somehow embody everything that is wrong in the world.  As the so-called "Silent Majority" of older rural and suburban whites keeps dwindling, it gets increasingly inflamed and paranoid, stoked by the notion that they must hold the line by any means necessary else "real America" perish.  This is a recipe for disaster, because that former majority will easily see any solution, including violence, as necessary to defend the nation.  Cynics like Rove, Atwtater, and Ailes have learned how to maintain power by exploiting the worst of this nation's impulses, but in doing so they are contributing to a polarized society which very well may be impossible to hold together.


Steve said...

Have you read Rick Perlstein's Nixonland?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Yes, it's a great book, and first got me thinking about this. I find that the behavior of the people who worked for and were influenced by him makes Perlstein's thesis all the more convincing.

Steve said...

Leaving aside all the assholes who exploited it for reactionary political gain, one of the things that struck me reading it, was that I could really understand how so many Americans could react so fearfully and negatively to the turmoil (that he compellingly describes)of the late 60s.

The third part of his American Conservatism trilogy drops this summer. It will be my summer blockbuster.

bmi said...

I am constantly amazed by my conservative family members & friends who have this terrible fear that "they" (probably Democrats, but it's unclear who exactly) are going to come and take over--first by taking the guns, and then everything else. This kind of paranoia has been stoked by the folks you mention here.