From the Southern Strategy to MAGA

In thinking about the legacy of former president Richard Nixon, what stands out for many people of my generation is his impeachment and removal from office, his barely disguised racist appeals to “law and order,” and, not least, his (and Henry Kissinger’s) unnecessary prolonging of the Vietnam war and the resulting loss of life (estimates are in the order of two million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians, plus another 30,000 U.S. soldiers.) 

What doesn’t figure so much, or even at all, in the popular imagination is that in winning the 1968 election, courtesy of Howard Phillips’s Southern strategy, a divided Democratic Party, and an unpopular war, Nixon also provided a runway for the reentry and takeoff of the extreme right into U.S. politics.

Until then, right wing extremists, rubbing their wounds from the drubbing of their presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 elections, were short on influence and sidelined to the fringes of a liberal democratic order. 

But Nixon, in inviting them into his campaign that featured racism, war mongering, and hyper nationalism, gave this motley political trend a fresh lease on life as well as cleared a path for their long march into the mainstream of U.S. politics. 

In the decade that followed, thanks in no small measure to the assistance of some of the top economic/class actors of U.S. society, for example, the Koch brothers, right wing extremism fully reasserted itself into the bloodstream of U.S. politics. It selected and trained candidates for elective office, set its sights on capturing legislative bodies and the courts, established a presence on talk radio, organized issue campaigns, not least its assault on abortion rights, and built a full blooded institutional base for the long term. 

In 1980, its “man,” Ronald Reagan, was elected president, giving right wing extremism a new plateau of political and institutional power on which to push its agenda. 

At no time did this retrogressive and frighteningly dangerous trend and movement tack to the middle, to moderating its views and actions. Such talk was considered heretical and capitulationist. Indeed, drunk with its new status and power capacity, it moved further to the right, further to the extreme with a new weapon in its quiver: Fox News.

The election of the first African American president, you might think, might have prompted a reconsideration of their take-no-prisoners, burn-the-house-down, racialized politics of division, inequality and suppression of democracy. But that never happened. 

Notwithstanding some appeals from a few GOP strategists and lawmakers to adjust the party’s politics to new political and demographic realities, the conversation faded as fast as it arose. No constituency in the GOP showed any interest in it. If anything, Obama’s presidency combined with secularizing societal trends, the fear of a majority minority, outrage over immigration along the Southwest border, and the ravages of a financialized and globalized economy triggered a counterattack. Acting as the tip of spear of revenge, racism, and xenophobia was the Tea Party. 

Eight years later the extreme right of the Republican Party, if not all at once, hitched their horse to the outsider candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump. In doing so, it revealed that its political principles were secondary to its overarching desire to grab and exercise power, albeit in a subordinate role to Trump and his inner circle. 

Over time, this retrograde political movement has become more extreme, more demagogic, and more cultish. Today it is fully absorbed into the MAGA movement. And Trump exercises extraordinary and unchallenged power over this Bible toting, authoritarian, white nationalist coalition. So much so that a creative and novel reading of Marxism is required to more fully understand and explain this phenomenon and its dynamics.

Even if Biden (or some other Democrat) wins in November, it would be naive to expect either Trump or MAGA or the Republican Party to acknowledge the victory without bitterly, and likely violently, contesting it. 

On the other hand, if Trump wins, Maga will set loose the dogs of anti-democracy, authoritarianism, and mass deportations. While Trump says he is only vaguely familiar with Project 25, it would be wise to doubt his claim. It is a centerpiece of a larger political-economic project to radically restructure the state, economy, and society.

An unleashed MAGA movement promises to provide security for “forgotten and freedom loving” Americans, while, at the same time, doing battle with “elites” in Washington, Hollywood, Ivy League universities and the likes of Big Pharma and the tech giants of the Silicon Valley. In its bullseye is China and much more as it withdraws from global commitments and governance, while lifting up an inward looking nationalism and providing “goodies” for its patrons in the billionaire class. It follows that the existential challenges — climate, nuclear proliferation and disarmament, and embedded economic inequalities facing the country and world will receive scant, if any, attention if Trump occupies the White House. And all this with “God” on their side!

Trump and company will employ rhetoric and policies — steep tariffs, for example — that were considered heretical in the old GOP — with the aim, among other things, of realigning the working class (or sectors of it) to their side of the struggle as well as creating jobs in manufacturing. It’s no accident that Teamsters president Sean O’Brien spoke on the first day of their convention. Nor is it by chance that in his acceptance speech Trump demanded that UAW president Shawn Fain who has had the temerity to criticize Trump “should be fired immediately.” 

Just as the goal of the Biden administration is to assemble and solidify a cross class coalition, so too is the goal of the Trump led MAGA movement to do the same. Are there contradictions and limitations in their effort to induce labor as well as other social constituencies to come on board? Of course, but it would be a mistake not to note this new framing and consider necessary countermeasures.

This is a foreboding situation requiring maximum unity, political imagination, and breadth of approach and action, if the anti-MAGA coalition resisting Trump and Trumpism is to prevail in November and beyond. 

I will end on this counterfactual note: one has to wonder if today’s politics and challenges would look any different if young left and progressive activists in 1968 had combined, like the extreme right of that time, their social movement and antiwar activism with sustained reality based political activism within the Democratic Party over the past half century, as some are now doing with notable success. 

Stakes are too high

In August of 1974 a handful of Republican leaders visited the White House and told then president Nixon to step down for the sake of the country. 60 years later it’s the Democratic Party leaders turn to visit the White House for the purpose of strongly advising Biden to step aside and allow the nomination of another younger candidate to carry the party’s banner this fall. The stakes are too high to allow Biden and his inner circle alone to make this decision. Others in the party’s leadership and leaders of major social organizations should weigh in on this crucial decision too!

Voters decision

The selection of the presidential candidate shouldn’t be the decision of the White House or Congress or the news media alone. All of them will all have their say for sure. But supporters of the Democratic Party should too. An easy way is to call your Congressional Representatives. The belief that everyone but voters should make the decision is mistaken. It matters who the nominee is, who takes the fight against Trump to the American people this fall. So to be no more than an observer to this crucial decision makes little sense.

Deep breath

At moments like this, sometimes, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath.

Stepping in or out

I wrote yesterday that the door seems to be closing on an alternative candidate to replace Biden unless Nancy worked her magic. Looks like I was wrong about the closing door. Reports today make it appear that Biden is seriously considering stepping out of the race.

That is good news in my opinion. Don’t think we could have won with him at the head of the ticket. By the way, I don’t make much of Kamala’s approval numbers. That they are close to Biden’s is to be expected. Assuming she is the nominee — and that is most likely — and moves into the public eye, her numbers, I believe, will go up as voters get to know her and her plans for the country.

Vice President Harris isn’t Kamala Harris the presidential primary candidate of four years ago. To the contrary, four years as the Vice President representing the Biden administration in public forums has allowed her to tweak her communication skills and familiarize herself with national and global issues as well as various policy matters. No one else on the short list of Biden replacements can make that claim nor employ that experience to contest and upbraid Trump.

Finally, as presidential candidate Harris, she doesn’t have to defend every policy of the administration over the past four years. She can stake out her own approach to various issues.