Twenty-first-century Republicans (with a touch of self-regard) trace their genealogy to Ronald Reagan, but, if you squint at just about any of them—from “establishment” figures like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to Tea Party irregulars like Senator Ted Cruz—you will see a strong familial resemblance to Nixon. Nixon’s internationalism is of no interest to them now; his domestic achievements are overlooked (Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I.) or disowned (the E.P.A.), but today’s Republicans were weaned on Nixon’s sour brand of politics: the politics of resentment. Which makes his influence on the party every bit as profound, in its way, as Reagan’s.
1968 was a banner year for bitter grievance, and Nixon rode a wave of resentment to the White House. Governor George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who ran for President that year as a third-party candidate, wore his resentment more openly than Nixon; Reagan, who posed, for a time, a credible threat to Nixon in the primaries, displayed his more deftly; but it was Nixon who turned it into a winning strategy at the national level.
What Nixon knew in his gut, reinforced by the latest tools of gauging public opinion, was that the white middle class—the “silent majority,” in Nixon’s famous phrase, the “good people” who “paid their taxes and go to church”—had come to feel humiliated by college students, civil-rights activists, anti-war protestors, intellectuals, journalists, and other liberal élites who were said to spurn and mock the traditional values of family, faith, and love of country. James Reston, of the Times, noted the irony: Franklin Roosevelt’s “forgotten men” had gained employment through the New Deal and become, a generation later, Richard Nixon’s “forgotten people.” “They have bought houses and now resent taxes,” Reston observed in September, 1968; they reacted with disgust and rage at the “militant poor whites and blacks” in their midst, as well as “the racial turmoil, the demonstrations in the cities and all the permissiveness of contemporary American life.” Nixon, along with his Vice-Presidential candidate and insult comic, Spiro Agnew, stoked these resentments, attacking the Democratic nominee, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, as indulgent and effeminate.
The resentments, racial and cultural and economic, are still real, if not nearly as raw as in 1968, and invoking them has become a kind of reflex on the right, to the point of self-parody. Agnew’s “effete corps of impudent snobs” begets George Bush’s “Harvard boutique liberals” begets Rick Santorum’s attack on President Obama as a “snob” for urging all kids to go to college. “I don’t come from the élite,” Santorum said in 2012. “Élites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom.” More recently, Ted Cruz attacked President Obama for “doing a lot of pop culture” and acting with “condescension” toward young Americans. It is Nixon pastiche.
It is also a substitute for new ideas and ambitions. In their place, today’s G.O.P. offers only old, recycled grudges (“the press is the enemy,” as Nixon said) and new enemies: climate scientists, unaccompanied immigrant children (who might carry Ebola, Representative Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican, warns). Every charge now, however farcical, is promulgated by an infrastructure of perpetual grievance—cable news, talk radio, blogs, and the like—that channels middle-class discontent in the right direction (toward “liberal fascists,” judges, lawyers, and “takers”) and not the wrong one (indifferent Republican legislators and their enablers). The portraits on the walls, the marble statue in the courtyard, all these say “Reagan.” But please take a memo: this is the house that Nixon built.
Remind you of anyone?