Kevin Phillips is worried. Perhaps the brightest of the version of “the Best and Brightest” who followed Nixon to the White House in 1968, Phillips looks at today's GOP and doesn't like what he sees. It's the subject of his new book, American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, the thesis of which he sums up in a Washington Post op-ed.
Over a quarter-century of Bush presidencies and vice presidencies, the Republican Party has slowly become the vehicle of… a fusion of petroleum-defined national security; a crusading, simplistic Christianity; and a reckless credit-feeding financial complex. The three are increasingly allied in commitment to Republican politics. On the most important front, I am beginning to think that the Southern-dominated, biblically driven Washington GOP represents a rogue coalition, like the Southern, proslavery politics that controlled Washington until Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.
“Politics in the United States — and especially the evolution of the governing Republican coalition,” Phillips writes sternly, “deserves much of the blame for the fatal convergence of these forces in America today.” Of course, Phillips knows that “politics” does nothing, people do, and that the Bushes, ever the opportunists, have spent their political careers reaping what others had sown. Phillips knows this firsthand.
I have a personal concern over what has become of the Republican coalition. Forty years ago, I began a book, “The Emerging Republican Majority,” which I finished in 1967 and took to the 1968 Republican presidential campaign, for which I became the chief political and voting-patterns analyst. Published in 1969, while I was still in the fledgling Nixon administration, the volume was identified by Newsweek as the “political bible of the Nixon Era.”
In that book I coined the term “Sun Belt” to describe the oil, military, aerospace and retirement country stretching from Florida to California, but debate concentrated on the argument — since fulfilled and then some — that the South was on its way into the national Republican Party. Four decades later, this framework has produced the alliance of oil, fundamentalism and debt.
In his op-ed, Phillips describes his Nixon-era work in dry, academic terms.
While studying economic geography and history in Britain, I had been intrigued by the Eurasian “heartland” theory of Sir Halford Mackinder, a prominent geographer of the early 20th century. Control of that heartland, Mackinder argued, would determine control of the world. In North America, I thought, the coming together of a heartland — across fading Civil War lines — would determine control of Washington.
This was the prelude to today's “red states.”
Back in 1968, Phillips was a little less stodgy, and a lot more forthright. When Garry Wills interviewed Phillips for his book Nixon Agonistes, Phillips didn't mention Sir Halford, he simply explained “the whole secret of politics [is] knowing who hates who.” He then pulled out very detailed maps, showing Wills his breakdown of who hates who: whites who hate blacks, Catholics who hate Jews, rural fundamentalists who hate city dwellers, etc. etc. Stitching together a durable coalition that harnessed those hatreds would bring Nixon victory and provide the basis for the emerging Republican majority. Maybe if Phillips had spent a little more time during his teenage years watching Frankenstein movies, instead of making ethnic maps (“By the age of fifteen, he was making intricate maps of voting patterns”, Wills recounts.), he'd have realized that when you stitch together rotten parts, no matter how successful the experiment, sooner or later, you're going to lose control of the monster you've created.
Four decades ago, the new GOP coalition seemed certain to enjoy a major infusion of conservative northern Catholics and southern Protestants. This troubled me not at all. I agreed with the predominating Republican argument at the time that “secular” liberals, by badly misjudging the depth and importance of religion in the United States, had given conservatives a powerful and legitimate electoral opportunity.
Since then, my appreciation of the intensity of religion in the United States has deepened.
Nice. He didn't misjudge, it's just that his appreciation has deepened. And now, he feels, “a deeper conclusion can be drawn: The Republican Party has become the first religious party in U.S. history.”
Of course, a Kevin Phillips is ultimately only a tool, like a lock pick. His maps and analyses were just part of the kit Richard Nixon used to open the doors of the White House. And The Pride of Yorba Linda, didn't need anyone to teach him about the power of hatred and division. In his book President Nixon: Alone in the White House, Richard Reeves sums up the Nixonian approach:
[Nixon] saw people as groups, to be united and divided toward political ends. The architecture of his politics, like that of his foreign policy, was always based on manipulating groups and interests, balancing them or setting them against one another, whichever suited his purposes of the moment or his times. He had a tribal and genetic view of peoples everywhere. He gloried in cultural warfare, dividing the nation geographically, generationally, racially, religiously…. His “silent majority”, a resentful populist of working and middle-class Christians, loved him not for himself but for his enemies.
Interestingly, Phillips wasn't certain in 1968 if Nixon was willing to follow the “who hates who” political path. There was considerable resistance to this approach, especially the pandering to the racism of Southern whites, from the traditional leaders of the GOP, the so-called Eastern Establishment. It wasn't that they necessarily thought the approach wouldn't work– some were worried that it would, but the likely consequences for the party and the country weren't worth it. “Phillips”, Wills writes, “has some doubts about Nixon– about his toughness, his willingness to trust the trends, to buck the Eastern Establishment when the crunch comes.” He didn't need to worry– he just needed to deepen his appreciation of Nixon, particularly when it came to how much OC's Gift to the World hated the Eastern Establishment.
In 1968, Phillips couldn't see any reason to worry about the consequences of the politics of division and resentment he was promoting. Now, he's worried. This time he's right. We should all be worried about where the path blazed by Nixon has lead us.