Why Theresa May is a true heir to Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

chard Nixon campaigning in the late 60s, when he ‘forged a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation’. Photograph: HO/Reuters

Elections come with their own rituals. The big night demands Dimblevision and swingometers and some low-budget jape that presumably sounded good in production meetings. But one thing 8 June won’t be is normal. There is no point in journalists reporting this as a horse race, when all the polls predict a bloodbath. It is futile for specialists to pick apart policy promises made in spring 2017 when the next few years’ haggling over Brexit will upend everything from the safeguards on the food we eat to our relations with other countries.

Most important, it is delusional to treat this as just another vote, when Theresa May and her outriders are intent on turning it into a culture war. June is shaping up to become a hinge point in British politics: the moment a venom was injected into public discourse.

To see how culture wars wreck a society, look at Donald Trump’s America. The huckster seized the White House by pitting middle America against the coastal elites, whites against migrants, the Christian right against Muslims and women who want the right to choose. He didn’t need serious policies while he was working through the deck of identity cards. He didn’t bother with a vision because he was too busy orchestrating hate. The pundits who judged him by conventional political yardsticks missed the point. Trump wasn’t playing politics: he was prosecuting a culture war – and a culture war is anti-politics.

This is not how the British do things. On this small island, politics is supposedly about millions of people with opposed interests arguing out their differences before arriving at a resolution. That’s the ideal and, honestly, you don’t need to tell me that the reality often falls short because I’ve moaned enough about it in the Guardian. But what Theresa May offered last week was not even pretending to be politics; she was instead cranking up a culture war.

To see where May is leading Britain, I picked up one of the great contemporary histories of America. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein charts how his country turned to all-out culture war. Perlstein dates the process back to Richard Nixon, who in the late 60s successfully “forged a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation”. By 1972 he had won a landslide victory.

I defy any Briton to read Perlstein’s description of this “brilliant and tormented man”, completely devoid of the glad-handing or baby-kissing skills of the natural politician, and not think about a leader closer to home. In 1972 Nixon’s attack dogs destroyed his Democratic opponent, George McGovern, by defining him as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid”. You can already see how Jeremy Corbyn will be tagged as the friend of Hamas, Hezbollah and tax hikes.


Source/More: The Guardian

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