Nixon, Bush, and Scientific Demagoguery
The Nixon Legacy
A Stronger Nixon?
The Record on Substance
The Record of Demagoguery
Demagoguery as Science
Democracy’s Achilles Heel
Future historians will have a tough time answering an important question: who was our worst post-nineteenth-century president, Richard M. Nixon or George W. Bush? The choice is a difficult one, and Bush’s tale is not yet fully told. But the outlines of an answer are emerging.
The Nixon Legacy
So far, Nixon is our only president to resign from office. He did so after impeachment and under realistic threat of conviction, as a result of the Watergate scandal.
It helps to remind ourselves what Watergate was all about. In 1971, the Vietnam War had run nearly a decade since the first U.S. involvement, and seven years since the first deployment of regular U.S. troops. Daniel Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret government report on how badly the war was going. The Supreme Court allowed the New York Times and Washington Post to publish that report, despite the Nixon White House’s vehement claims that doing so would undermine national security. The report gave the people their first official look at how thoroughly and systematically their government had deceived them about its war policy and the realities of Vietnam.
Nixon did not see this setback as a call to change policy or to heed the people’s rising misgivings about the war. Instead, he took it as a call to wage a secret, illegal political war against Democrats.
Republican operatives formed a clandestine group, called the “Plumbers,” whose job was to plug leaks like the Pentagon Papers. Their first notorious illegal act was burglarizing the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist in order to dig up dirt on him. Their second was breaking into a Democratic National Committee office in order to bug it. The office was in the Watergate hotel and office complex, which gave the coming scandal its name.
The rest of the story involved the slow peeling of the stinky onion. As the Washington Post, other newspapers, and the FBI investigated the break-ins, the trail of responsibility rose higher and higher toward the White House. One of the break-in artists claimed to be a former CIA operative. John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, was caught running a Republican slush fund to finance “intelligence” operations against Democrats. The FBI found evidence of a widespread and pervasive campaign of spying and sabotage in support of Republicans’ effort to re-elect Nixon in 1972.
Nixon won that election in a landslide, but the investigations and prosecutions continued. Two former Nixon aides were convicted of crimes in the Watergate incident. Two White House aides and Nixon’s then Attorney General resigned. John Dean, Nixon’s White House Counsel, was fired; he later told investigators that he had discussed covering up Watergate with Nixon personally 35 times.
In the end, Nixon’s own hubris was his undoing. He had ordered that all White House conversations be recorded, apparently for the benefit of posterity. But he refused to release tapes relevant to Watergate. In an act that became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre,” he fired the special prosecutor and abolished his office, causing his new attorney general and deputy to resign. The Supreme Court ordered Nixon to deliver the tapes. An 18-minute gap in them—never explained—appeared at a crucial point. With such patent evidence of Nixon’s own culpability in the cover up, if not the incidents themselves, Nixon was impeached for obstructing justice. His conviction was all but assured, and he resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974.
But that was not the end of the story. Decades later, the once-sequestered White House tapes and other evidence revealed Nixon’s true character as president. Alone with his confidants (albeit taped), he spoke like a gangster, using frequent profanity. His words showed wide-ranging bigotry and callousness, toward African-Americans, Jews, the disabled and other minorities. Most of all, he revealed an obsession with maintaining political power at any cost. He kept an “enemies list” of thousands of citizens’ names and worked hard (despite resistance from professional staff) to get the FBI and IRS to persecute them for political advantage and personal revenge.
For many today, the history of Watergate stands for Nixon’s personal flaws. He was president of a democratic nation but appeared not to believe in democracy. His acts revealed a personal craving for power by whatever means necessary. Like Stalin, who once described revenge as the finest human feeling, Nixon had an obsession with getting even. He had tendencies toward paranoia, not just in maintaining his “enemies list,” but in his response to the press and the people. Among his most famous public statements were “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more” (after his defeat for California’s governorship) and “I am not a crook!” (during the Watergate scandal).
A Stronger Nixon?
In many ways Nixon was his own worst enemy. His self-evident character flaws made him far less dangerous a saboteur of democracy than a stronger and more even-tempered person with the same goals and methods might have been.
But what if Nixon had been a stronger person? What if, instead of paranoia and a very thin skin, his most evident personal flaws had been stubbornness, a too-thick skin, and occasional trouble with the English language? What if, instead of recording his own bigoted words, he had consistently made apparently sincere appeals for racial and ethnic harmony, even after 9/11? What if, instead of covering up and possibly approving obvious crimes like burglaries and break-ins, he had been smart enough to do nothing patently illegal, but had merely “pushed the envelope” of the law, focusing on gray areas and using smooth and clever legal spokespeople to explain each unprecedented grab for power as “legal”?
What if, instead of illegally spying to dig up dirt on political opponents, Nixon had used modern communications media and a phalanx of sympathetic commentators to tar his political opponents, regardless of the facts? What if, instead of self-evidently “dirty tricks,” he and his party had used gerrymandering, ballot confusion, purportedly legal exclusion of minorities from voting, and political manipulation of the judicial process (including prosecution for election-related crimes) to gain and hold political power? Wouldn’t we then have a president far more dangerous to democracy than Nixon ever was? Wouldn’t we then have Bush?
In many ways, Bush is Nixon redux, but with a difference. Bush is far worse than Nixon at governing. Yet he and his minions are far better at gaining and holding power by means that are or appear legal but are unethical, immoral or subversive of real democracy.
The Record on Substance
For those of us who still choke at Nixon’s pathetic “V” sign as he boarded the White House helicopter for the last time, it is easy to forget that he did some good. His most important act as president was “going to China,” i.e., beginning the long process of rapprochement with what was then called “Red” China. We benefit from that act of diplomacy every day. We enjoy low prices at Wal-Mart. We don’t have to fight a second Cold War. We enjoy lower interest rates because China finances our ballooning national debt. We have increasingly lucrative commercial cooperation and trade. And China is beginning to give us useful help in dealing with the tyrant Kim.
Red-baiting was the trademark of Nixon’s political career. Nixon himself had made it politically impossible for anyone but a staunch Republican to approach China when he did. Anyone else he would have labeled “soft on Communism.” Nevertheless, Nixon did make the move, and it was the right one. As history unfolds it may be one of the most important acts of diplomacy and foreign relations in our history.
Nor did his administration’s accomplishments end with China. Despite his own personal bigotry, his administration made headway in enforcing President Johnson’s civil rights laws, and the first big push at environmental remediation began during his administration. You can argue that other branches of government were largely responsible, and that Nixon’s appointees, not he personally, deserve credit for whatever good Nixon did. But nevertheless, it happened on his watch.
In contrast, it is difficult to find anything—certainly anything as dramatic and important as Nixon’s visit to China—that Bush has done right. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently testified, the War in Iraq is shaping up as one of the most disastrous foreign-policy blunders in American history. Unlike Vietnam, which bore the stamp of four presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford), the Iraq fiasco is Bush’s alone. Other presidents will share the blame only insofar as Bush is unable to clean up the mess he made before leaving office.
But Iraq is far from Bush’s only external failure. Bin Laden and Zawahri—the chief propagandist and operational leader of Al-Qaeda, respectively—are still at large as we approach six years after 9/11. The attempt to stabilize Afghanistan is going badly. American power, prestige, and credibility abroad are at their lowest ebb at any time since World War II.
The same is true on the domestic side. In environmental protection, civil rights (particularly as regards voting), retirement policy, and global warming, Bush has staked out positions contrary to the desires of the American people, the discoveries of science, and the trends of history. He has done nothing to address the scandal and tragedy of 44 million Americans without health insurance.
In energy policy, every concrete step Bush has taken (as distinguished from what he has said), has entrenched the regressive power and influence of our fossil fuel industries—coal, oil and gas. Until 2007, the centerpieces of his national energy policy were repeated, failed attempts to authorize drilling for oil in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge and the War in Iraq, which was motivated, at least in part, by protecting the Middle East’s major oil fields and keeping them available for Western use and exploitation. It remains to be seen whether Bush’s recent call for increased use of ethanol will have any effect apart from the private sector. And the Bush Administration has done little to provide incentives for expanding nuclear power or to improve its regulation, although nuclear power is by far the most realistic path to energy independence in the medium term.
Bush did manage to hold the economy together after the crash of 2000, but he did so by using economic stimulation techniques well known and used for half a century. Even then, he overdid it, providing too much stimulation focused too much on the upper strata of society. With tax cuts focused on the upper brackets, Bush exacerbated social divisions and inequalities that are among our most persistent and (in the long term) dangerous problems.
About the only thing that Bush appears to have done even partly right in governing is No Child Left Behind. National standards and accountability in schooling are not bad ideas. Unfortunately, Bush failed to follow them up, leaving his school-remediation program bereft of necessary funding and subject to rigid bureaucracy unreceptive to real needs of localities, schools, teachers and students. Now doctrinaire ideologues from his own party are challenging the very idea of national standards in the name of states' rights.
Beyond this abysmal record of real achievement lies Bush’s entirely negative record as a statesman and moral leader. The attacks of September 11 gave him a nation that was wholly united and had the world’s sympathy. In just a few years, he transformed it into a divided and divisive polity whose chief business is blame and recrimination, and which is rapidly becoming the world’s moral pariah. After promising as candidate to be “a uniter, not a divider,” and to undertake a more “humble” foreign policy, Bush did exactly the opposite. The country has never been more divided ideologically since the Vietnam era and our own Civil War. Not since the days of “Gunboat Diplomacy” a century ago has it been more aggressive, less amenable to diplomacy, or more widely feared and hated.
The Record of Demagoguery
It would be sad enough if the nation’s divisiveness were the result of inadvertence or ineptitude. But it is not. It is the direct result of conscious policies and deliberate action of Bush, his advisors, and the cronies whom he appointed to high office. They have used historical irrelevancies such as abortion, homosexual marriage, and alleged “oppression” of religion to fan the flames of division and maintain, when possible, a narrow 50.1 percent majority for the purposes of gaining and expanding executive power.
Moreover, their use of scientific methods of polling, analysis, and demographics have transformed demagoguery from art to science. With the aid of modern computers and data, and with the guidance of evil genius Karl Rove, Bush can win elections by demagoguery that generally falls under the nation’s radar. He can, for example, make ambiguous statements on “hot button” issues nationally while pandering to religious extremists or homophobes in a few selected counties in key “battleground” states. Many analysts believe that was exactly how he won the 2004 presidential election. Computers and modern science told him how to play the demagogue by the numbers.
Nixon, too, was a demagogue. His entire political career was an exercise in exaggerating the menace of, and exploiting the public’s fear of, Communism and crime.
But unlike Bush’s, Nixon’s demagoguery revolved around serious problems. Although Nixon and his cronies exaggerated it, the threat of Communism and the Soviet nuclear arsenal was real. Crime is inevitably a recurrent problem in a society that lives by the ideal of letting ten guilty go free rather than jailing one innocent.
In contrast, Bush’s demagoguery focused on emotional issues with little or no real importance for national or international affairs. Among them were our miniscule level of legal abortions, whether homosexuals can marry, and whether our multifarious religions, which enjoy the freest exercise in the world, should have the additional benefit of government subsidies. Unlike grave foreign threats or pervasive crime, these “problems” were and are hardly likely to determine our success as a nation, let alone our survival.
So as we compare George W. Bush with Nixon, three points stand out. First, both used demagoguery and dirty tricks. Both lied repeatedly to Congress and the American people to justify prolonging a war. Nixon’s tricks (the Plumbers’ activities), were crimes, while most of Bush’s, insofar as we know now, were not. Yet Bush started his war, and he did so on false pretenses. Nixon only inherited his.
Second, while Nixon’s presidency had some useful accomplishments, especially his visit to China, Bush’s regime has been virtually a complete failure in every substantive respect—foreign relations, the environment, energy policy, civil rights, and statesmanship. Far from solving our nation’s problems, in most cases he and his demagoguery have retarded real solutions by confusing the public as to relevant facts. Future historians will focus almost exclusively on his War in Iraq, which, with the willing help of Donald Rumsfeld, Bush mismanaged for over four years, until the American people repudiated his leadership in the 2006 congressional elections.
Third, although Bush and his minions have been far stupider than Nixon in governing, they have been far smarter in political manipulation. The “dirty tricks” of the Nixon Administration were largely limited to Red baiting and the Plumbers’ crimes. They were crude and simple.
In contrast, the Bush Administration’s scientific demagoguery has been highly successful politically, at least until recently. Unless repudiated by subsequent presidents, the “example” Bush has set could become a serious threat to the survival of democracy in America.
Consider, for example, real external threats. The huge Soviet army and nuclear arsenal were a real threat in Nixon’s day. Although of far lesser magnitude, so is the menace of terrorism today. Both Nixon and Bush shamelessly exploited real fear of these threats for political advantage.
But there is an important difference. Although the underlying tactics and technology were secret, the primary policies for combating the Soviet threat were open and visible. Strategic armament and its costs and risks, international alliances, and (eventually) mutual disarmament were the subjects of frequent and sustained democratic discussion and debate.
In contrast, Bush has kept many of the most important aspects of our response to terrorism secret. Secret surveillance inside our borders, secret prisons abroad, secret renditions of prisoners, and “reinterpretation” of the Geneva Conventions with secret consequences—all were unknown to us until revealed by investigative reporters or the Bush Administration’s own ineptitude. For plausible reasons, we don’t really know what precautions we are taking at our ports of entry and vulnerable industrial sites. We don’t even know whether any sensible precautions are being taken at all.
Of course secrecy is useful in combating terrorism. Just as we did not disclose the location of our missiles, the designs of our nuclear submarines, or the deployment and plans of our troops in Europe during the Soviets’ day, so it would be foolish today to disclose the operational details of tactics and technology in the struggle against international terrorism.
Yet there are lines, albeit fuzzy ones, between policy and operational details, between strategy and tactics. On every issue, in every way, the Bush Administration has pushed those lines as far as possible in the direction of secrecy and unreviewable executive power, keeping Congress, the courts and the American people in the dark. In so doing, it has arrogated to the White House not just the power to wage the “war on terror,” but also the information needed to assess whether it is doing so effectively.
In evaluating Bush’s performance as “commander in chief” of the “war on terror,” we are all in the dark. True, there has been no recurrence of September 11. But we have no idea why. Our “success” could have been due to effective and competent governance at the highest level. It could have been due to assistance from our allies and the professionalism and hard work of career staff in our military and intelligence services. It could have been due to the general ineptitude of bin Laden and his immediate circle at almost everything but propaganda, as reported so well by Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower.* Or it could have been just dumb luck.
We simply don’t know. Having kept all the details secret under the most impenetrable White House discipline in recent history, Bush would like to take all the credit for our interlude of freedom from domestic terror attacks. But in all things that we do know about, his performance has been surprisingly inept. If Bush’s response to 9/11 was as competent and effective as his response to Katrina, his management of the War in Iraq, or his control over the recent politically-motivated firing of eight U.S. attorneys, our “success” in avoiding a second attack at home is much more likely to have been due to the good work of others or to plain dumb luck.
Yet our ignorance makes us susceptible to the worst sort of demagoguery. It makes us prone to surrender our civil liberties, our checks and balances, our democratic principles—even our common sense. And what do we get in return? We get a promise to “keep us safe” from a government that has consistently displayed extraordinary ineptitude and has, in six years, kept no promise but to cut taxes.
Only Congress and the courts can take the blinders off and open our eyes. If they don’t, we will be like the ancient Romans, having surrendered our democratic rights and values to a dictator in time of “war.” Since that “war” is likely to last for generations, were are not likely to get those rights and values back once surrendered. We may soon be living Thomas Jefferson’s warning: a society that trades liberty for security deserves neither.
Demagoguery as Science
Bush and his cronies did not invent the classic demagogic trick of hiding their mistakes behind foreign threats. That trick was old when Caesar used it. Yet they did perfect, if not invent, several other tricks of demagoguery. Those tricks are to Caesar’s craft as modern physics is to alchemy.
The Bush Administration’s most important demagogic innovation is effective name calling. There is nothing new about name calling. It has been a staple of politics for as long as people have voted. But Karl Rove and other Republican masters of manipulation have used the modern sciences of communications and psychology to transform it into high art, if not science.
Republicans’ innovations in name calling have both long-term and short term aspects. Their long-term strategy is to redirect the general trend of political discourse to their advantage by subtly redefining words. The adjective “Democratic,” referring to members of the political party, has become “Democrat,” a shorter, harsher word. As a noun used as adjective, it engenders unconscious cognitive discomfort, which subtly rubs off on its subject, members of the Democratic party. The word “amnesty” was once used by military, tax, and customs authorities for immunity granted on a single day and based on a single exonerating act, such as laying down arms or surrendering contraband. Now it has become a pejorative epithet for a process of nationalizing illegal immigrants who have maintained good behavior and performed a series of continuous acts over a period of years. The subtlety of the difference is lost on most listeners, but the pejorative tone is not.
Then there is the word “liberal.” Once it meant open, tolerant, compassionate, and caring. Now, after a decade of deliberate Republican misuse, it conjures up an image of a feckless, promiscuous, free-thinking, godless, pot-smoking, criminal-coddling wimp, who not only tolerates but celebrates abortion, homosexuality, atheism and other nonconformist and unpopular ideas.
How the Republicans accomplished this amazing feat of verbal transformation is worthy of a doctor’s thesis by some aspiring philologist or political scientist. But the deed is done. Now the “good” part of what use to be “liberal” is subsumed by the word “libertarian,” which the Republicans now claim to describe a wing of their own party.
The Republicans’ short-term name calling, assiduously practiced by Bush, has been equally effective. Bush won his second term in part by “flip-flopping” and “Swift Boating” John Kerry. By using names like “Defeatocrats” and “cut and runners,” the Bush Administration kept the vast majority of the American people—and much of Congress—from thinking seriously about the War in Iraq for an inordinately long time.
These strategies may sound like puerile hazing in a college fraternity. But make no mistake about them. They are based on modern experimental cognitive science, as perfected and practiced in the fields of public relations and advertising. They have been highly effective. Behind each one, no doubt, lies a careful memo, authored by a person with a degree in psychology or marketing and years of experience in public relations, describing exactly how to make the bad name stick.
The Bush Administration’s manipulative strategies are not limited to name calling. It has used a number of other tools of demagoguery. A classic one is the “big lie”—an untruth repeatedly asserted by authority figures and therefore believed.
Dick Cheney is the foremost and most effective practitioner of the “big lie.” His constant repetition of the lie that Iraq and Al-Qaeda worked together was so effective that 70% of the public believed it for nearly a year after it had been publicly and repeatedly repudiated in both the news and government documents. It took several years for the public’s belief in the lie to die down to the present level of about 33%.
Another effective Republican technique, similar to name calling, is the bumper-sticker slogan. President Bush is a particularly effective practitioner of this technique, for he appears to think and speak in bumper stickers when not reading from a script. The technique appears particularly well adapted to figureheads of limited intelligence, who can project sincere belief that simplistic mantras will solve real problems in a complex world.
Examples of this technique are “Better to fight them (terrorists) over there, than here,” “Americans don’t cut and run,” and “The Ownership Society.” The first two of these appealed to Americans’ fear and pride, respectively, in setting Iraq war policy. They have been highly successful in getting listeners, including member of Congress, to miss the points that the War in Iraq is costly and going badly and appears to lack any coherent policy or strategy. The last misdirection—an attempt to get pensioners to exchange security for risk and lower benefits—failed.
Democracy’s Achilles Heel
There is nothing illegal about scientific demagoguery. Name calling is a time-honored political tradition. Simplistic appeals like bumper stickers are as old as politics. Furthermore, we have free speech in this country. The law does not and cannot contain scientific demagoguery. Only ethics, morality, intelligence, and true appreciation of the value of democracy can.
That truth today is stronger than in Caesar’s time. In Caesar’s day, expensive “bread and circuses,” plus calculated mob violence, were the principle tools of manipulation. Today we have modern sciences of communications, public relations, psychology and marketing to aid the demagogue. Today’s tools of manipulation are far less expensive, less obviously disruptive, and infinitely more powerful. Eat your heart out, Caesar!
The power of modern demagoguery, coupled with our inability to contain it legally without violating our most precious value of free speech, is the Achilles heel of our democracy. Survival of real popular rule in our huge and diverse nation ultimately depends upon the character of our leaders. It requires a genuine desire on their part not to rule by manipulation, but to perpetuate the democratic tradition of informed persuasion. No Constitution or other words on paper can preserve our democracy if they do not.
In the end, that is why George W. Bush and his regime are infinitely more dangerous to democracy than Nixon ever was. Nixon’s transgressions were patently criminal; they were crude and obvious and easily remedied by impeachment. In contrast, Bush’s assaults on democracy are much more subtle; they lie in gray areas and have the best justification that modern public relations and high-priced lawyers can provide. The war on terror and its requirement of secrecy provide convenient cover for his sins, and Bush has exploited them relentlessly.
Most important, Bush’s effective use of scientific demagoguery is unmatched in our nation’s history. Until Iraq dissolved in bloodshed and the people’s trust wavered, Bush almost disproved Lincoln’s rule that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. He and evil genius Karl Rove still might.
Perhaps “we the people” have wised up. Perhaps the last congressional election made a sea change. Yet that election was too close for comfort. Control of the Senate hinged on a single seat and, for a time, on a Senator lying in a coma in a hospital. The Republicans’ bag of tricks developed over the last two decades, from scientific, demographics-based gerrymandering to media shock troops like Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, have made it hard to beat them even when the popular will changes radically.
We will not know whether Karl Rove’s modern bread and circuses have replaced true democracy in America until the results of the 2008 presidential election are in. If they have, then Nixon’s criminal antics and paranoia, revealed in the end largely as a result of his own weak character, will seem like small potatoes. Future historians will identify George W. Bush’s presidency, not Nixon’s, as the point when scientific demagoguery began to replace democracy and we began to lose our Republic.
It happened in Rome, without the science. With today’s infinitely more powerful scientific demagoguery, it can happen here, unless we have the wisdom and strength to stop it.
* As Wright reports it, bin Laden failed at virtually everything but building (his father’s profession) and propaganda. He was such a poor military leader that Afghan mujahedeen constantly tried to have him and his Arab minions removed from the field of battle. He nearly lost his life several times. He was so ineffective in protecting his own interests in Sudan that his “hosts” robbed him of a fortune variously estimated at from $20 to $160 million. His genius lay in his personal magnetism, his reputation for having lots of money even after he lost his fortune, and his ability to spin myths about surviving his many misadventures, always attributing his good fortune to God being on his side. See Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 at 110-120, 137-141, 222-223, 232-234, (Alfred A. Knopf 2006). As his recent confession corroborates, it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is now in U.S. custody, who conceived and planned the 9/11 attacks. See id. at 236, 307-308, 345.