But that kind of opportunism isn’t what make Newt and Nixon stand out. No, what they have bequeathed to Republicans is a contempt for the regular norms and institutions of the American political system, along with a Leninist belief that contradictions must always be heightened. Nixon broke laws, to be sure, but other presidents have broken laws. What made Nixon different – what made everyone, including his own party, so eager to be rid of him – was that he refused to accept that others within the system, whether in Congress or the press or the bureaucracy, were as legitimate as the president. What made Gingrich different is his consistent strategy of tearing down institutions (the House, and then the presidency) in order to save them. For both, politics was never about the normal promotion of interests and reconciliation of differences, but instead, very simply, about destroying their opponents.
Because they are the party of Newt and Nixon, the principles that today’s GOP worships aren’t market economics or personal liberty; look instead at a “principle” such as a refusal to compromise.
A party only does those things if its leaders and many of its members have taken as a principle Nixon’s standard operating procedure of treating the rest of the United States government beyond the White House as illegitimate; a party only does those things if it no longer accepts the basic constitutional constraints that most politicians, no matter what their views on public policy, have by and large accepted. And a party only does this if it believes, as Newt Gingrich did, that the best way to gain control of institutions is to first destroy them.
Jonathan Bernstein, “Nixon runs the Republican Party again,” Salon, August 10, 2013
Remember when I said Gingrich and Nixon were the worst thing to happen to American politics in the past forty years? This is why.
Bernstein also ably disables a nostalgic liberal shibboleth, that one about Nixon being, policy-wise, not that bad:
We can get at this a couple of ways. One is that everyone should be very careful about what “Nixon” did, as opposed to what the government did while he was president. Give Nixon the Congress and the policy environment of 1947 — or 1997 — and you get very different results.
Yeah, yada yada Nixon created the EPA and went to China. Or, as (real life) Stephen Colbert put it:
He was so liberal! Look at what he was running on. He started the EPA. He opened China. He gave 18-year-olds the vote. His issues were education, drugs, women, minorities, youth involvement, ending the draft, and improving the environment. John Kerry couldn’t have run on this! What would I give for a Nixon?
Please. Nixon was dealing with a Democratic congress that wanted to implement a domestic agenda Nixon had no interest in opposing because Nixon had no interest in domestic agendas. What he was interested in was foreign policy, and his foreign policy consisted of things like plotting to drown one million Vietnamese by bombing the country’s dikes.
Integral to understanding Nixon is understanding that his domestic policy interests were purely political interests. He wanted to marginalize the American left because he thought they were soft on communism, and his method for doing so was ratfucking. He wanted to marginalize the right because they knew he didn’t share their hardcore ideological commitment, but he also knew he needed to keep them onside to maintain his power. To contemporary commentators who fetishize ideological centrism, this mutual enmity sounds ideal, but it’s intrinsically connected with the tactical extremism that has come to define the GOP. Nixonian politics aren’t left wing or right wing; they’re about power, and policy aridity is a natural part of that.
Thank Nixon and Newt for the American political landscape of today. Richard Milhous showed that concentrating power was the utmost political value and Gingrich demonstrated that destroying institutions was the best way to concentrate power. From this is wrought John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz.