I spend a lot of hours thinking about what goes on in the hearts and souls of the regressive right.
Probably you’re already thinking, "Boy, what a waste of your time". Or maybe, "What hearts? What souls?"
Far be it from me to disagree. But I have been haunted this last quarter-century, and especially this last decade, by the darkness that has descended over the American political landscape, a long shadow unlike any I remember from the first half of my life.
That’s a pretty remarkable statement, if you think about it, since among the political lowlights of my first decades were the deepest depths of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, Vietnam, reaction to the civil rights, antiwar, women’s and gay rights movements, three major political assassinations, Watergate, the Nixon/Kissinger/Pinochet coup in Chile, the oil shocks, the Iranian Revolution and the Hostage Crisis. And while much of that I was too young to fully appreciate at the time, you have to admit that’s a helluva of roller-coaster ride for just a few decades.
Just the same – maybe it was my youth, and maybe it was my naiveté – but it sure seemed like things were nevertheless different then, even through the worst of times.
People hated Nixon, for example, and for very good reason. You can even make a pretty compelling empirical argument that his depredations were more lethal abroad and more destructive at home than those of his profoundly stunted present-day successor and sociopath sidekick.
Still, somehow there were limits then that don’t seem to exist today. Somehow there was a fundamental decency – though hardly universal – that has disappeared in our time.
It’s hard to put your finger on, exactly, but there’s a base meanness of spirit and a destructive indifference attached to the likes of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Antonin Scalia or Karl Rove for which it is hard to find equivalents among the Gerry Fords or Nelson Rockefellers or Harry Blackmuns or even Barry Goldwaters of old (though high marks go to the likes of Spiro Agnew and Joseph McCarthy for representing their generations well in the Most Debauched Neanderthal competition). Something profound changed in the forty years preceding 2007.
Things are different now. Not only is the moderate wing of the GOP no longer dominant within the party, today it represents a nearly vanished species, and may be fully extinct after 2008. And no longer is there a lack of public support for the worst tendencies of the sickest Republican minds (though things have improved marginally in that regard in the last year or so). Nor are there any longer substantial limits on what the party is capable of doing. Nowadays the inmates are in charge of the asylum, and a very scary segment of the public has been applauding their reprobate policies and their noxious tactics. These are not good signs. This is not the mark of a healthy republic.
How did we get here?
You could begin to see it in the 1980s, though that was still a time of transition. The Reagan administration was in so many ways a warm-up act for the current calamity, though it was still qualitatively different. Perhaps that is why Nancy is always at such great pains to disassociate her Ron from the rabid feralites who inherited his party. Usually I find her plaint unconvincing, but too often even the deceitful and rapacious policies of the Reagan administration look downright patriotic compared to the present crew.
By the 1990s, the ugliest tendencies of the regressive movement were on full display, though, of course, not nearly in the magnitude of what was to come. The arrogance and sheer maliciousness of Gingrich and the hounding of the decidedly not-liberal Bill Clinton made clear that a new and destructive vector had been cut loose in American politics, and that everything – including, if not especially, the institutional and philosophical inheritance from America’s Founders – was expendable if it got in the way of the will to power. When we saw a bunch of Republicans impeach a president – for only the second time in American history – for a less egregious version of exactly the same thing they were all doing ("But his lies about philandering were under oath!", don’t you see), you knew the country was adrift in some dark waters.
But the real emblem of regressive malignancy circa the 1990s was the savaging that was directed toward Hillary Clinton. Again, it is important to note that Hillary, who had grown up Republican and conservative, was never much of a liberal. Unless you think that giving people access to healthcare or a decent childhood is a stealth project of some Trotskyite anarchist sleeper cell attempting to corrode America’s moral fiber from within. It is highly instructive to remember that there were senators and congressfolk (who, by the way, unlike Hillary had a real title and real governing authority) with politics far to the left of hers, who never took anything like the beating that she did. And also that there have been women in leadership positions in the GOP then and now – Elizabeth Dole, Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe – some of whose politics are, like Hillary’s, even rather centrist, and obviously none of whom were subjected to any right-wing venom at all, let alone the oceans’ worth dumped on the former Ms. Rodham.
Something about Hillary struck a primal nerve in the psychology of regressives – and not just public ones like Gingrich and Limbaugh, either, but a whole lot of ordinary folk as well. Why? I think, quite clearly, that she posed some kind of profound and essential threat to a certain kind of person, a threat which entirely transcended all rationale calculus.
By the time we came to the era of Caligula himself, the dark heart of contemporary regressivism was on full display. You could see it in the post-election debacle of 2000, as Scalia actually stopped the counting of votes, as the Brooks Brothers Riot brought GOP congressional aides to Florida for some wee brownshirting to the same effect, and as Bush loyalists waved their ugly "Sore Loserman" signs in an attempt to close down a legitimate legal process seeking to determine the winner of the presidency.
Here, along with the prior impeachment, was a bitter anger and destructive vengeance on display rather unlike most of mainstream politics in the prior century. No quarter would be given, and no prisoners taken. Not only ideologically, but also tactically, the radical right of the former fringe had become instead the Republican, and later the national, mainstream. The barbarians had penetrated the gates and were now occupying the very halls of power, while the genteel dinosaurs from a more civilized era stood by watching in stunned silence. Tom Daschle never knew what hit him. This was a different breed altogether.