I’m still reading Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, initially prompted by the mention of Fox News’s Roger Ailes‘s early work as a Nixon operative. Ailes is credited with teaching Nixon how to succeed in the world of television — by bending reality, faking news events and running highly staged ‘impromptu’ candidate meetings with ‘off the cuff’ Q&A sessions, rigging the game and so deeply controlling the slavering press — cynically mastering the medium.

Gee it’s a good book but the tale it tells is AWFUL … and the detail of the ‘dirty tricks’ goes so far beyond fair play it’s almost unbelievable! The cynicism, the criminality, the paranoia, the determination to crush ‘enemies’.

The description of the Republican/Nixon campaign’s machinations and dirty tricks (stealing campaign stationery and sending out smearing gossip, untrue rumours,misinformation, fake invitations, venue changes, phoney travel schedules, ordering cars and food to be delivered to opposing campaign HQ) and darker, malevolent tactics — tricks collectively called ‘ratfucks’ within the Nixon camp, and carried out by ‘ratfuckers’ — remind me of some of the stunts we see here in NZ politics.

George W Bush’s henchman Karl Rove makes an appearance as sleazy political saboteur. Gee, way back then, I thought. The die is cast.

All of which put attempts at de-stabilising personal abuse I’ve read in various right wing/National Party blogs (not just puerile put-downs of Auckland Mayor Len Brown by his instinctual political enemies) into a context.

Clearly, dirty tricks and devious lies are not an aspect of politics only limited to the right wing. Obama’s Chicago machine (and John F Kennedy’s before him) have been accused of all sorts of skulduggery. True? Dunno. Possible I guess.

I find myself again struck by the desperation of today’s Republican political campaign to do anything, say anything they can to discredit Barack Obama, or to build on negative prejudice against him (or Michelle, seen as a threat too). From Sarah Palin’s “death panels” campaign and the bare-faced lies propagated by opponents of the Democrats’ health care reform. Consider all the BS about the birth certificate and any other manufactured controversy. It’s a dirty, dirty game and some operators will lie crookedly for the slimmest of political advantage. And so we have Fox News.

Nixon 300w

But let’s be clear about one thing: in this partisan war the ‘issue at issue’ could be anything. The tribes don’t really care what they are fighting about … just that they are at war, and that ‘at war’ ness becomes inextricably bound up with their own sense of identity.

In my comments on the ‘Appeal to decency‘ post I quoted part of an article by Johann Hari: The Republican Party Is Turning Into A Cult which encapsulates a lot of my own thinking about these matters — chiefly, the trenchant misinformation and lies (let’s call a spade a spade) deliberate ignorance and misuse of ‘religious faith’ as a justification of near-hysteria based on lies and falsehoods.

Johann Hari puts his finger on something important:

But this kind of mania can’t be co-opted: it can only by overruled. Sometimes in politics you will have enemies, and they must be democratically defeated. The political system cannot be gummed up by a need to reach out to the maddest people with the maddest fears.

In my career, I’ve seen public controversies whipped up and manipulated. Sadly, as if to reflect the truth of the proverb ‘A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’ the argument is frequently dominated by those with loud voices and few scruples.

Often it seems, it’s as if those who ‘win’, are those whose commitment to an idea enables them to lie and cheat to promote it — who, like Nixon’s infamous Committee to re-elect the President are, at the very least, motivated by the credo ‘the end justifies the means’.

Thus we get: political gerrymandering, crooked politicians and corrupt elections, mud-slinging ad hominem attacks based on lies, misleading referendum questions — all in the name of a ‘good cause’ and ‘values’, you understand.

‘Economical with the truth’ is a worn euphemism. As another commenter here, Chowbok, said ‘they consider the person they are lying to as beneath the truth.’

So the question becomes: How do we defeat these lying liars and their lies? Reason and an attempt at rational discourse is like using a garden hose against a brush fire. It doesn’t stand a chance against the fixation and negativity.

Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is brilliant encouragement but routinely outgunned, outspent and out-hyped by the Fox News blitzkrieg.

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. —John F Kennedy, Commencement address, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (11 June 1962)

Radicalised people of faith (whether Christians, Jews or Muslims) often practice a kind of inherent bigotry.

The only thing I believe I am absolutely correct in saying is those who believe they are absolutely correct are the most dangerous in the world. — Satirical comment posted on PropertyTalk forum

It’s my experience that sometimes people spouting about God and ‘family values’ (codewords for the religious right) are open to issuing nasty bigoted propaganda and inciting hatred. They use lines like ‘This is a call to action!’ which can leave the followers or those exposed to their ‘message’ uneased, restless, and in some cases, primed for what their ‘pastor’, ‘shepherd’ or ‘bishop’ or Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Bill O’Reilly-type might incite them to go out and DO.

For instance, when fomenting unease with their propaganda about how the birth rate of Mulsims has overtaken Christians, I don’t think the message is: ‘Go home and make more babies.’ More like: ‘This is serious. We have to do SOMETHING to stop this ‘assault on our culture’.)

It’s this arrogant ‘bible-based’ moral ‘certainty’ which led the Bush White House neocons to invade Iraq, it’s the ‘certainty’ that Jesus will come back and rescue the planet when it’s on its knees which promotes the short-term ‘f*** the planet’ environmental myopia of ‘drill baby drill’ and the right wing so-called ‘myth’ of climate change.

‘Moderate’ Christians can sometimes appear to be comprehensively out-thought by these ‘radicals’ or ‘fundamentalists’ … and thus find themselves led by the nose or too squeamish to SPEAK UP (while feeling conflicted about how they should ‘stand up for Christ’) into forays their heads tell them are unwise.

I am as struck at the open bigotry of some of their messages — racially or culturally inexplicit condemnation of ‘the other‘. It really can fall not too far short of the rats down sewers imagery of Nazi propaganda … dressed up like a high school geography video about the population explosion — showing Muslims “out-breeding” Christians etc.

Returning to the election theme, I’ll finish with a quote from Nixonland which highlights the problem an incumbant President can often face: resentment.

Perlstein describes the ‘right-wing reaction to everything’ the Democrats and their campaign for civil rights and ‘reform’ in the 1960s represented.

…elections were won by focussing people’s resentments. The New Deal coalition rose by directing people’s resentments of economic elites … But the new hated elite , as the likes of Rafferty and Reagan grasped, was cultural — the ‘toryhood of change’, condescending and self-serving liberals “who make their money out of plans, ideas, communication, social upheaval, happenings, excitement” at the psychic expense of ‘the great, ordinary, Lawrence Welkish mass of Americam from Maine to Hawaii.’

The story of Nixonland (and I’m about halfway through) is how Nixon and his team tapped that resentment and right-wing backlash and turned it into a thundering majority (Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority) to the Republicans’ advantage in 1972.

– P