Nixonland, and a hot take on the VP debate

In the tumult of our current political climate, I’ve taken some comfort in reading history, specifically Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

One thing I’ve noticed is that reading a history book– an actual, honest to god, thousand-page book– has made it a lot easier for me to weather the ups and downs of the social media news cycle. I realize that complaining about the effect of social media on public discourse has become old hat, but I think it’s worth pointing out just how much faster news cycles can go, now that news can be published and distributed so quickly. On social media, you are always being shown a new crisis, a new event, a new outrage, non-stop, each before you’ve had time to process the one before.

Reading the book is nice because it lets you slow down the news cycle, allowing history unfold over the course of months and years, rather than days or hours. I didn’t realize quite how much I missed this until I actually picked up the book and began reading.

Of course, it helps that Nixonland is a very timely book. The book covers Nixon’s political career, from high school through his presidency (for a more complete review of the book, I recommend this article). Perlstein’s thesis is that Richard Nixon was responsible for cementing, if not creating, the cultural divisions that frame all American political debates, even to this day.

Although initial reactions to this thesis were somewhat skeptical when Nixonland was published in 2008, the emergence of Donald Trump has vindicated it (to the point where Perlstein himself is telling his readers not to read too deeply into the parallels between 1968 and today).

A central motif of this history is Nixon’s exploitation of a cultural divide between the liberal  elite and the average, hard-working Americans. This conflict is brilliantly represented by the social politics of Nixon’s high school. Representing the American cultural elite, you have the Franklins: a club of well-bred, well-spoken, athletic, wealthy students, destined to be a part of the highest circles of American society. Think the Kennedys.

Opposing them was the student group that Nixon himself founded: the Orthogonians (literally meaning people who stand straight and upright), who stand in for those whose backgrounds are unremarkable, but who distinguish themselves through their honesty, humility, hard work, and commitment basic American values.

In high school, Nixon rode Orthogonian resentment of the Franklins to become president of the student body. Later in his political career, he would ride it to become president of the United States.

This resentment has been an essential part of the republican political identity for the past 50 years, and can be seen in the framing of most of their policy planks. Free market conservatism, for example, is driven largely by hatred of the progressive: the archetypal a self righteous, pampered Harvard graduate who will presume to know how to run the economy, or who will presume to decide, without having done a hard day’s work in his life, that the money you earned with the sweat off your back ought to be given to some deadbeat welfare queen*.

Donald Trump’s presidential bid seems to be a pure distillation of this resentment, and proof that you can make a credible bid for the presidency with very little else.

What’s remarkable about the comparison between Donald Trump and Richard Nixon is how different they are. Nixon’s campaign was one of the most tightly run in history, with practically nothing, no public appearance, no message, nothing left to chance. Donald Trump’s freewheeling, madcap campaign couldn’t be more different.

Additionally, despite the anti-elite resentment that he cultivated, Nixon was actually extremely good at conventional political rhetoric when he wanted to be. If you read sections of his 1968 inaugural address, you’ll see arguments that wouldn’t seem out of place in a current New York Times editorial (or, indeed, on my own blog).

Compare this to Scott Aaronson’s description of the Trump:

“I think people support Trump for the same reason why second-graders support the class clown who calls the teacher a fart-brain to her face.  It’s not that the class literally agrees that the teacher’s cranium is filled with intestinal gases, or considers that an important question to raise.  It’s simply that the clown had the guts to stand up to this scolding authority figure who presumes to tell the class every day what they are and aren’t allowed to think.”

Similarly, Scott Alexander sums it up like this:

“[The Trump phenomenon] is about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.”

With that in mind, I’m going to switch to talking about the VP debate.

Here’s the thing: viscerally, what drives people away from Trump is the perception that he’s an unprincipled, egomaniacal con-man. What drives people away from the Clinton campaign is that she can look and sound like one of the sanctimonious, insincere cultural elites.

I think Kaine lost the debate tonight.

I say this because Pence somehow managed to make the Trump ticket look composed and principled. Kaine, meanwhile, in harping relentlessly on Trump’s gaffes (with a giant smirk on his face and obviously pre-prepared zingers), made himself look like the archetypal sanctimonious politician. Pence managed to cover for the weaknesses of his ticket. Kaine, if anything, exacerbated the weaknesses of his.

To make my point in another way, basically everybody already knows about Trump’s gaffes; we have a social media news cycle that reports slavishly on each and every one. The people who care are already firmly in the Clinton camp. One fears that the Clinton campaign sees this and thinks that Trump is in the process of self destructing. They don’t seem to understand the trends that he’s riding– trends that last longer than a single news cycle.

Perhaps if they had, Kaine would have brought something new to the debate, something that would have made his performance noteworthy when (or if) historians tell the story of a Clinton victory.

* And I’m not even going to touch the other resentments here

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