‘My God was bigger than his’

Colin Kidd

  • The Right Nation: Why America Is Different by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
    Allen Lane, 450 pp, £14.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9738 9
  • Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann
    Penguin, 448 pp, US $16.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 14 303489 8
  • Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image by David Greenberg
    Norton, 496 pp, £9.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 393 32616 0
  • America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism by Anatol Lieven
    HarperCollins, 274 pp, £18.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 00 716456 4

Since the ‘stolen’ election of 2000 the Republican Party has set out its values with a starkness not revealed even during the despised regimes of Nixon and Reagan. This has yielded a rich seam of material for satirical film-makers, caricaturists and polemicists, though at some cost for dispassionate analysis of the political scene. Cartoonish simplicities abound. The electoral geography of the United States, so vividly realised in the 2000 presidential election results, appears to possess its own crude straightforwardness, with Republicans dominant in the conservative heartland but enjoying less appeal on the urban coastline.

On closer inspection, the Republicans lose none of their menace, but they also provoke a degree of puzzlement, as much on the right as on the left. In The Right Nation, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two centre-right journalists who work on the Economist, ask why only 54 per cent of voters earning over $100,000 a year voted for Bush in 2000. Why does the party of big business, deregulation and tax-cutting engender less confidence among the most prosperous beneficiaries of its policies in New York and California than it manifestly does in the poorer ‘fly-over’ states? The answer lies, of course, in the recent history of the culture wars and in George W. Bush’s clear identification with the militancy of the Christian Right. Bush plausibly and successfully campaigns as the Christian plain man voicing the grievances of the common people against the pampered liberalism of an elite typified by John Kerry, though both Bush and Kerry were educated at Yale, and both – creepily – belonged to the Skull and Bones. It is not altogether fanciful to view Bush as the accepted voice of underprivileged, blue-collar America. On the other hand, the traditional Republican elite – the stereotypical Episcopalian financiers of the North-East – has no quarrel with Darwinism or abortion, and is made uneasy by the party’s deference to trailer-park religiosity. And the flat-earthers know when they are being patronised. Old-style Republicans who fail to appreciate the overwhelming importance of the right to life – whose superior breeding, perhaps, makes them reluctant to sport a lapel pin in the shape of a ten-week-old foetus’s feet – are now known as RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

The plight of the RINO plays a crucial part in the hidden history of the modern Republican Party. The First Family contains its own underappreciated RINO: George H.W. Bush. Conviction politics played little part in the career of the senior Bush, who had a reputation for being ‘somewhat to the centre of centre’. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see him as a man without principles. An upright Yankee, his career in Texas notwithstanding, he inherited and upheld the progressive principles of high-minded North-Eastern Republicanism associated with the Bush dynasty. In particular, the Bushes were known for the solid patrician support they lent to the cause of birth control. In 1950 this association undermined the first Senate race of George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott, who later served two terms as senator for Connecticut. This wasn’t a small matter. Connecticut was then one of two states which prohibited the sale of condoms. The vexed issue of birth control was resolved only when the Supreme Court’s adjudication in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) uncovered a latent right of sexual privacy within the constitution, a discovery which anticipated a parallel legitimation of abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973). At this stage in the dynasty’s history, the Bushes were happy to confer social respectability on the worthier aspects of the permissive revolution. Prescott was a member of Planned Parenthood, and George H.W. Bush was so enthusiastic in the dynastic cause during his early years in Congress that he earned the nickname ‘Rubbers’.

The gulf between this gentler strain of patrician Republicanism and George W. Bush’s redneck populism makes a mockery of party labels. However, American historians and political scientists have long since abandoned the notion that party identity provides a reliable indicator of political beliefs. Instead they subscribe – broadly speaking – to an interpretation of American political history as a succession of ‘party systems’ punctuated by transformative events, most obviously ‘critical elections’, which have brought about ‘realignments’ in parties (or in the meanings of party). Although today’s Republican Party can trace a continuous existence back to the 1850s, the term ‘Republican’ was first applied to an American political group in the 1790s, during the first party system, when the Founding Fathers differed over the policy prescriptions of Republicans and Federalists. Curiously, it is today’s Democrats who can more plausibly invoke an ideological lineage going back to the Republican Party of the 1790s, a radical organisation led by Thomas Jefferson. The first party system gave way around 1830 to the battles of the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats. The emergence of today’s Republican Party during the 1850s as an open adversary of Southern ‘Slave Power’ and the advent of the Civil War in 1861 shattered this second party system, and ushered in the seemingly familiar conflict of Democrats and Republicans. In the 1890s, tensions between agrarian and industrial interests enshrined a new set of meanings in these two broad political coalitions. Traditionally, the Republicans had identified themselves as the party of ‘free labor’. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s brought workers firmly into the Democrat fold, however, inaugurating the fifth party system, whose divisions were further exacerbated by Lyndon Johnson’s social reforms in the 1960s and by the Reaganite counter-revolution which followed in the 1980s.

Americans now find themselves in the middle of a further realignment which has put paid not only to the post-New Deal system, but also to an entrenched electoral geography which dates back to the Civil War era. While the emergence of the fourth and fifth party systems from the 1890s onwards gave the economic concerns which divided Republicans and Democrats a sharper definition, neither system totally erased the legacy of the Civil War. For well over a century white Southerners identified the Republicans as the party of Abraham Lincoln and rejected these Northern meddlers at the polls. In 1950 the Republicans had no senators from the South and only a couple of congressmen. Conversely, some blacks continued to acknowledge that the Republican friends of big business had once been the allies of the slave. In 1932 almost three-quarters of blacks voted Republican. At a swoop the New Deal drew most black voters away from this historic allegiance. Yet as late as 1960 Nixon still enjoyed support from a respectable minority of blacks. Typical of such black Republicans was the Reverend John Rice of Birmingham, Alabama, whose daughter Condoleezza would become George W. Bush’s national security adviser after a flirtation with the Democrats. Today, in spite of the emergence of a prosperous black middle class with Republican role models in Rice and Colin Powell, the historic connection between blacks and Republicans has been severed: in 2000 barely one in ten of the black electorate backed Bush.

The Democrat passage of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s alienated white Southern Democrat voters from their Northern counterparts and provided an opening for Republicans in the South. This Southern realignment contributed to the rightward drift of the Republicans. In the North, blue-collar ethnic Catholics, such as the Rizzocrats in Philadelphia (followers of the Democrat mayor and boss of the party machine, who defected to the Republicans), felt estranged by the Democratic flirtation with the unpatriotic pointyheads of the new left, and began to dilute the speech and dress codes of the progressive upper-class Rockefeller Republicanism. Indeed, it is one of the neglected ironies of modern American politics that the provenance of conservative Republicanism is as much Democrat as Republican, though it’s in the interest of neither party to acknowledge this. Earlier generations of Republicans disdained conservatism. Micklethwait and Wooldridge remind us that Herbert Hoover claimed to be a ‘true liberal’. Indeed, nobody in the political mainstream – Republican or Democrat – invoked the cause of conservatism until the insurgencies of Goldwater and Reagan (a former Democrat) within the Republican Party during the 1960s. The forerunners of today’s conservatism started out as a miscellany of dissident intellectual groupings: ultra-traditionalist, Southern agrarian, Roman Catholic, libertarian, Ayn Rand atheist – ‘a tiny contrapuntal campus movement’, in the words of James Mann in Rise of the Vulcans, whose members were as defiantly countercultural as hippies and peaceniks. Together, white Southern Democrats and self-confessed conservatives shaped the social agenda of conservative Republicanism.

The aggressive certainties of Republican foreign policy originate in a further defection from the Democrats. In the 1970s it was followers of the Democrat senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson who were loudest in their denunciation of the defeatist betrayal they perceived in the Nixon-Kissinger commitment to détente. But the contrast between the virile Reagan and doveish Carter in the election of 1980 pushed these Democrat hawks – the so-called neoconservatives – into the Republican camp, though not all of them formally switched their party registrations. Richard Perle, a leading figure in the Republican defence establishment known as the ‘Prince of Darkness’, remains a registered Democrat. Among the neoconservative Democrats who moved over to join the Reagan administration was Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon. According to Mann’s collective biography of the ‘Vulcans’, the key decision-makers in the new Republican defence establishment, Wolfowitz ‘got out just in time’, resigning from the Carter administration only at the start of 1980. Yet as an undergraduate at Cornell Wolfowitz had come under the influence of Allan Bloom (later to attain notoriety as the author of The Closing of the American Mind), and, as a postgraduate at Chicago, of Bloom’s own mentor, the conservative philosopher Leo Strauss. Although Strauss, a German Jewish refugee who tended towards quietism, devoted his life to the study of ancient philosophy, his disciples extracted from his work a set of insights into the workings of the modern world. Strauss’s regret that relativistic moderns had forgotten the ancients’ concern for virtue provided inspiration at several removes for Reagan’s depiction of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’; today Straussian ideas underpin the US project to remake the Middle East in the image of the democratic West. Yet Wolfowitz’s career does not quite fit the caricature of a Straussian Dr Strangelove. His doctoral thesis dealt with the apparently arcane topic of nuclear-powered desalination plants, arguing that they opened up a path to nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Curiously, given his current stance, the young Wolfowitz was just as concerned about the emergence of a nuclear Israel as he was about Arab states with WMD.

Other Vulcans have similarly tortuous career paths. The Nixon tapes reveal that an earlier Republican administration was troubled during the spring of 1971 by what Nixon himself called ‘the Rumsfeld problem’: what should Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, do with an ambitious, articulate, progressive, anti-war Republican who had a tendency to go off-message? The suggestion that Rumsfeld might be coaxed into becoming ambassador to Japan elicited some typical Nixonian expletives: ‘Jesus Christ, Bob, what the hell – I don’t think Rumsfeld can do Japan, you know, because I don’t think he’d be tough enough [for] our side, the side of business, you know what I mean?’ Rumsfeld had already proved a success as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, running anti-poverty programmes bequeathed to Nixon by Johnson. Although the centrist Nixon declined to roll back the welfare state, Rumsfeld began to worry that the administration’s failure to end the Vietnam War was going to damage its standing with progressive America. The tapes preserve for posterity Rumsfeld’s private warning to Nixon: ‘We need to be able to communicate with the young and the black and the people who are out, even though we don’t get their vote.’

Not only was Nixon out of touch with American youth, he was actively courting Southern realignment and blue-collar disaffection from trendy, ‘unpatriotic’ middle-class liberalism. Nixon paved the way for the mass defections of Reagan Democrats during the 1980s. Indeed, Nixon had campaigned for re-election in 1972 as ‘the president’, not as a Republican; and he brought into his administration as his anointed successor John Connally, the former Democrat governor of Texas. In Nixon’s Shadow, David Greenberg explores Nixon’s place in modern American culture. While other politicians struggled for name recognition, manifold images of Nixon infiltrated every level of American life from the early 1950s and persisted long after the Watergate scandal ended his presidency in 1974. In the age of the Watergate Plumbers, politics shaded into popular culture by way of dirty tricks and political cabaret. Nixon had his aides investigate a look-alike satirist who went by the name of Richard M. Dixon. Country Joe McDonald sang in 1971 of

a new mechanical man,

Looked just like a human being . . .

Good God it was makin’ me sick . . .

It was no one but Tricky Dick.

In death Nixon retained notoriety and name recognition. Greenberg includes the obituary cartoon from the Los Angeles Times, which depicts a simple gravestone: ‘Here lies Richard M. Nixon.’ Contemporary reimaginings of the 1970s continue to invoke Nixon, to sinister effect. In Ang Lee’s film The Ice Storm (1997) a couple of teenagers grope their way hesitantly towards a first adolescent snog. Our moment of identification with this tender convergence is utterly subverted when the girl decides to conceal her embarrassment behind a Nixon mask.

As Greenberg shows, Nixon was demonised by his opponents for deviousness and Machiavellian chicanery – even occasionally for a low demagoguery which exploited right-wing anxieties, including racist fears, for his own electoral ends – but never for being a conservative true believer. He was always reckoned too subtle for that. Greenberg includes a whole chapter on revisionist historians’ reinterpretations of Nixon as a liberal. He did nothing to reverse Johnson’s Great Society or the Civil Rights revolution. He had a progressive record on the environment, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, and he spent generously on social services and welfare. Nor did he simply pander to the public for crass electoral reasons. His unrealised plans for social security and universal health insurance went some way beyond conventional opinion. Indeed, he was happy enough to come out as a Keynesian, at least in the bad times. A pragmatist, he was prepared to abandon laissez-faire economics when wage and price controls seemed a more promising means of confronting inflation. On the bare facts of policy Nixon appears to have more in common with Ralph Nader than with today’s Republican leaders. Yet the electorate knew – and some of them liked it – that the authentic voice of Nixonian politics was the snarl of resentment.

Anatol Lieven’s fascinating and incisive analysis of American nationalism in America Right or Wrong sets the topic of right-wing Republican resentment in a much wider context, comparing the recent transformation of American Republicanism with the politics of nationalist resentment in France after 1870 and Germany after 1918. Here he ignores one of the principal shibboleths in political science, the assumption that American exceptionalism – the absence of feudalism, established churches, socialism and ethnic nationalism – renders meaningless any attempt to compare America’s political history with that of European nations. Yet, ironically, by carrying out just such a comparison, Lieven provides a compelling argument for an alternative interpretation of exceptionalism: that the American right has fallen prey to the nationalist politics which Western European politicians rejected after 1945.

American nationalism, Lieven argues, has taken two antithetical forms: a benign and optimistic civic nationalism, which is normally dominant and whose champions uphold the American Dream, the universally applicable values found in the Declaration of Independence; and a darker nativist tradition, defeatist and suspicious of the world, whose most vociferous proponents are drawn from the ‘embittered heartland’. The former strain of nationalism is common to everyone in the US: Americans from all sorts of racial and religious backgrounds can celebrate freedom and democracy, the constitutional separation of church and state, the guarantee of equal civil rights for all citizens, and the bountiful prosperity of the American Way of Life. This is the ‘American Creed’, as Lieven calls it, and the US as a whole subscribes to it, yet many Americans, particularly in the South, supplement its standard pieties with a self-pitying, defensive white Christian nationalism, oblivious to the contradictions between these two ways of identifying with the US.

The preferred vehicle for this ideology of white resentment is the Republican Party, which, Lieven argues, has become ‘the American Nationalist Party’. Yet this ethnic nationalism has its roots on the Democratic side of American political culture. Lieven traces the phenomenon back to the era of Andrew Jackson and describes the formation during the 1830s of a resilient tradition of ‘Jacksonian nationalism’. Although he recognises that occasional eruptions of nativism on the other side of American politics – the anti-Catholic ‘Know-Nothing’ movement of the mid 19th century is one example – served as a bridge between the declining Whig and emergent Republican parties, Lieven believes that the unattractive face of modern Republicanism exhibits genes inherited, largely, from Jacksonian Democracy.

Before defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 Jackson had already made his name as an Indian-fighter, and the compound of sentiments bound up in the Jacksonian nationalism identified by Lieven included ‘violent hostility to other races’ and a virile antipathy to refined, frock-coated North-Easterners, intellectuals and other elitist parasites. Jackson pitched his appeal to the common white man, the poor American who did the hard graft on a farm or in the city, while the proceeds went to support the comfortable life of Boston and New York financiers with their suspiciously foreign tastes and contacts. But metropolitan sophisticates were not the only target of hatred. The Jacksonian alliance, which drew together whites in the South and West and the downtrodden Catholic Irish in the North-East, was also based on a deep fear and loathing of blacks, the next group down in the social hierarchy and competitors in the market to supply cheap labour. On the frontier the Jacksonian message was understood as the masculine, can-do common sense of poor whites, in stark contrast to the scrupulous equivocations of East Coast lawyers and judges which led them, absurdly it seemed, to prefer the interests of uncivilised Indians to the economic needs of white settlers. Despite the judgment of the Supreme Court in favour of the Cherokee nation, which had been threatened with dispossession of its lands in parts of the South, Jackson’s government made clear that it would not execute the law on behalf of the despised Indians, who were expelled, regardless of what the law had in mind.

The Jacksonian disregard for legal niceties has resurfaced in Republican policy, Lieven argues, but now in conjunction with a defeatist whinnying far removed from the self-reliant optimism of the Jacksonian era. Why, he wonders, have so many inhabitants of the world’s richest and most powerful nation fallen prey to a culture of resentment? The answer lies in the comprehensive defeat of Southern Confederate nationalism in the Civil War. For almost a century afterwards, Lieven suggests, the states of the defeated Confederacy were reduced to ‘a position of almost colonial dependence on the North and the East Coast’. Until the Southern realignment, however, the grievances of the South amounted to little more than an embattled regionalism, and had scant ideological purchase in the rest of the United States, which tended to regard the South as an archaic embarrassment.

The presidential election of 1968 marked a watershed. The independent campaign of the Southern Democrat governor of Alabama, George Wallace, challenged the official Democrat candidate, Hubert Humphrey, and provided a staging post for dissident Southerners between the Democratic Party and a hitherto alien Republicanism. Wallace sang the old song of Southern resentment: ‘Both national parties have been calling us peckerwoods and rednecks for a long time now . . . and we gonna show them we resent being used as a doormat.’ Wallace’s message had resonance not only with racist Southerners, but also with the other component of the old Jacksonian alliance, the blue-collar ethnics of the North, alienated by the anti-Vietnam protests of pampered upper-class students. The victors both in the short and in the long term were the Republicans, guided by Nixon’s Southern strategy.

Since 1968 the Republicans have appropriated the South; but, in the process, Southern concerns have reshaped the personnel, agenda and tone of the party. There has been an ironic and total inversion of party cultures. The Republican Party now incorporates a Jacksonian alliance of Southern whites and Northern ethnics. As the Republicans have become Southernised, Lieven argues, so too has much of the popular culture outside the South. The South is now the template for 21st-century America. Stock-car racing, country and western music, an obsession with ‘personal weaponry’ and an uninhibited style of Protestant religiosity have been exported from it to the rest of the US. Blue-collar whites outside the South have adopted the Confederate flag as a badge of working-class alienation from political correctness. As Lieven notes, it sends out ‘a message of generalised defiance directed at authority, and to some extent at respectability’, with high school principals a more prominent target of neo-Confederate outrage than either blacks or Yankees.

Here Lieven’s argument draws him into a persuasive explanation of one of the most significant features of American exceptionalism, the absence of a socialist tradition. Why does America defy the laws of political gravity? Why do workers not recognise themselves as a working class? Lieven shows that while egalitarian versions of political economy have never appealed to a critical mass of American workers, American political culture has nevertheless spawned a series of aggressive anti-elitisms, from the Jacksonian era onwards. Popular evangelical religion, in particular, has acted both as a prophylactic against Marxism and as a surrogate for class hatred. Lieven regards today’s Christian militancy as a ‘religion of the disinherited, a form of spiritual socialism for people who are not able for whatever reason to be socialist’.

Yet, as Thomas Frank shows in What’s the Matter with America? (published in the United States as What’s the Matter with Kansas?), the Great Plains of the US heartland were a century ago the scene of socialism proper, of socialist newspapers and radical agrarian organisations.[*] Kansans, Frank reports, still retain a sense of victimhood, but now, bizarrely, vote Republican in order – as they believe – to get even with Wall Street. Why are ordinary Kansans so confused about their true interests? Class has become detached from economics, and the cultural reaction of honest, God-fearing folk to an un-American secular elite takes the form of voting for the party of big business. Working-class Republicans, Frank laments, vote in the hope of abolishing abortion but in doing so bring about reductions in capital gains taxes, deregulation, and – ultimately – a delayering of the workforce. Religious issues have dragged populism to the right.

White nationalist religiosity manifests some of the most unattractive features of Jacksonian nationalism, including a nonchalance about the fate of other peoples. Lieven notes a recent poll in which 36 per cent of respondents argued for a literal reading of the Book of Revelation as prophecy. The ‘Left Behind’ series, co-authored by Tim LaHaye, one of the leaders of the Christian Right, and promoting a dispensationalist interpretation of the ‘end times’, has sold 62 million copies. Dispensationalists are untroubled by the anticipated consequences of the Rapture: at the beginning of the end times God’s elect will be snatched up to heaven while, back on earth, cars left without raptured drivers will spin out of control, planes without raptured pilots will fall out of the sky, and there’ll be an enormous number of casualties. On the bright side, providence has ordained that this horrific experience of mass destruction will be inflicted only on the damned.

A similar indifference surfaces in Dominion or Reconstruction theology – an influence on the Reverend Pat Robertson, another leading figure on the Christian Right – which won’t let anyone forget that God gave Adam dominion over all the earth and its plants and animals. What standing does the Kyoto Treaty enjoy when ranked against this biblical grant of dominion? Worse, Dominion theologians argue that God gave this right specifically to Christians. The rights of indigenous pagans to protect their native environments are overridden by the divine right of Christians to exploit the earth to the full.

Lieven wonders how the Jewish intellectuals of the neoconservative movement can stomach Republican dependence on Christian irrationalism. It’s true the conservative evangelicals of the South and heartland also fervently espouse the cause of Israel. At the same time their apparent philosemitism is, on closer examination, underpinned by an unacknowledged anti-semitism: evangelicals do not value Jews as Jews, but champion Israel because the ingathering of the Jews to Israel is believed to mark the imminence of the millennium. What enables the neoconservatives to resolve the ideological contradictions of Republican conservatism is the legacy of Leo Strauss. Strauss invoked the legitimacy of the Platonic noble lie: educated elites sometimes need to promote beliefs in which they themselves do not believe. The propagation of such falsehoods can serve the general good.

This presupposes a two-tiered culture, in which the Vulcans know the esoteric truths while the populace are cynically fed convenient stories in order to win their votes at election time. But can the outsider rest assured that the key decision-makers in the security apparatus are inoculated against these Platonic myths? Apparently not. Lieven cites the case of Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, who was appointed deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence in 2003. Boykin is a Pentecostalist with a fervent belief in the real existence of the devil. Militant Christianity has not stalled his military career; rather it endowed him with the confidence when serving in Somalia to engage in debate with a local warlord: ‘I knew that my God was bigger than his,’ he later reported. ‘I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.’

In the face of such evidence it is hard to argue with Lieven’s otherwise fantastic claim that today’s Republicanism in the heartland shares as much with the pre-Enlightenment Republicanism of Cromwellian Britain as it does with its own domestic party traditions, if not more. Indeed the nationalism of Southernised Republicans appears to shadow not only the resentments of post-1870 France and post-1918 Germany, but also the compelling example of Old Testament Israel, in which Amalekites and other unrighteous peoples were smitten hip and thigh. Aggressively Southernised Republicanism is, however, only one component – a very vivid one – in the broad coalition which comprises the modern Republican movement. Within a two-party system contested by coalitions, political office will tend to alternate between Republicans and Democrats, but alternation between parties at general elections matters less, in certain respects, than which social groups come to dominate the inner lives of the Republican and Democratic movements. The future of the planet – its environment and its international relations – might well be decided in local contests for long-term control of the Republican Party. The left has little in common with the North-Eastern RINOs, or with moderate Republicans whose beliefs still resemble those of the young Donald Rumsfeld, or with Goldwater-style libertarians, or with Arnold Schwarzenegger; but it might yet learn to cheer their cause.

[*] Secker, 306 pp., £12, September, 0 436 20539 4.