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The GOP and the Teabaggers – Pulling a Reverse Nixonland

For those of you who’ve read Rick Perlstein’s amazing and incisive books Before the Storm and Nixonland – the first two books in a three part series – the potential rise of the teabaggers as an activist base inside the Republican party might sound familiar. (For those who haven’t read Perlstein’s books yet, do yourself a favor and pick them up immediately.)

Before the Storm and Nixonland are books about many things. They are campaign/presidential biographies of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, respectively. They chronicle the rise of the modern conservative party. (The last book in the trilogy will be on Ronald Reagan, perhaps the zenith of this ideology.) They are engrossing histories of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, told through the eyes of Goldwater and Nixon. But they are also a history of the civil rights movement and the hippy/counter-culture movement that evolved from civil rights, and those movements’ relationship with the Democratic party.

The history of the 50s and 60s may forecast where the teabaggers are headed if they manage to hold on to their movement and gain national prominence. Race riots engulfed the country. Civil disobedience was rampant. Citizens – mostly youth – flouted cultural norms. Perhaps the teabag movement – if it flourishes under Obama – is headed in this direction, with its increasing violence, militant rhetoric, and shifting cast of characters.

Richard Nixon, like Barry Goldwater before him, used the civil rights movement and the hippies as a wedge to destroy the Democratic party, win his elections, and brutally exercise power. Activists on the left were demonized at every turn as  fringe elements bent on destroying American peace and prosperity. 

Check out this campaign commercial from 1968:

Nixon’s campaign for President was about "order" and "crime." It was also about making an enemy of the civil rights protesters and the burgeoning counter-culture. He knew these movements and their tactics would turn off large swaths of "mainstream" America, and he knew these movements would not rest until they got their demands. And so, by making these movements the enemy, he won election and re-election while subsequently decimating the Democratic party as they tore each other apart from the inside.

Now, irrespective the morality if the civil rights and counter-culture movements’ central demands, why can’t Democrats use these same tactics against Republicans today? I think it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of America is uncomfortable with the teabaggers’ tactics – shouting, threats of violence, actual violence. By making the teabaggers the enemy, Democrats could force the Republican party to choose between their unhinged activist base and an electoral coalition that can actually win, just like Nixon made the Democratic party of the 70s choose. If Mike Stark’s birther videos are any indication, it’s a choice that most elected Republicans really don’t want to make.

Why not run a "law & order" type commercial today? Why not make an entire political philosophy out of it, as Nixon did? Certainly, the teabagger movement will have to become more established before they can be a main adversary, but I can’t find a reason why the same tactics wouldn’t work.

Of course, to do this, Democratic leadership needs to make up its collective mind to cast teabaggers as their enemy. Certainly, the political elements of the party like the DNC or the DCCC have shown such an inclination. But some Democratic elected officials haven’t yet seen the light. And most importantly, though President Obama has pushed back against "rumors," he has not decided to consciously cast the teabaggers as a useful enemy.

I think he should. These people have explicitly said they would like to see Obama fail. And now they have started disrupting society to make those hopes a reality. They should be disparaged and mocked at every turn as enemies of hard-working, cool-headed, upstanding citizens. Where the real American engages in civil debate, teabaggers yell and throw stones. As Nixon said, they violate every American’s first civil right, the right to safety. For that, they should be put down.

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Jason Rosenbaum

Jason Rosenbaum

Writer, musician, activist. Currently consulting for Bill Halter for U.S. Senate and a fellow at the New Organizing Institute.