article

09.15.09

Is Obama the New Nixon?

Both presidents were vilified by those out of power, fueling the rise of manic countercultures. Lee Siegel on what Glenn Beck’s angry army has in common with hippies.

Let’s all calm down. The Tea Party Express rally in Washington wasn’t the beginning of some political apocalypse that is going to plunge the country into civil war.

If anything, its noisiness was inversely proportionate to its power—the ugly images and inflammatory rhetoric were burbles of helplessness. Without cable TV’s magnifications, the peaceful, even cautious, demonstration would have come and gone with barely a notice.

The parallels between today’s right-wing radicals and radical tactics of the 1960s are striking. Sixties’ Dada theatrics—e.g. Allen Ginsberg leading people in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon (my favorite)—are echoed in the alarmist and conspiratorial theatrics of right-wing cable television.

Fundamentally, the gathering in the nation’s capital last Saturday was something entirely different: the rise of a new counterculture.

We’ve heard for years how the subversive culture of the 1960s has been gradually assimilated by the manic commercial culture of the 1980s and 1990s. Free love, drugs, “do your own thing,” public obscenity, provocative dress—what once shocked the American middle class is now the stuff of everyday American experience. (Viagra is Woodstock in pills.)

Up until now, society may have changed, but politics remained the same.

As the go-go imperatives of commercial life seemed to make just about every solid social norm melt into air, politicians went about their routine business. They cut or raised taxes, balanced the budget or ran a deficit, made war or preserved the peace. Through it all, they kept their hands off any legislative engine that would have a transformative effect on everyday life.

Chris Matthews: How Teddy Took Down Nixon Predictable, routine, unchanging government became something like a sanctuary from the Animal House atmosphere of much American social and cultural life. The halls of power seemed a refuge for all those who had been terrified of the counterculture in the 1960s, and felt alienated by the commercial assimilation of countercultural values post-1960s. Patriotism, religion, morality—in the form of Christian-tinted government that promised stability amid all the social and cultural daily upheaval—became the war cry against the destabilizing culture of gratification.

But now, government itself seems dynamic and full of change. It promises to sweep away the familiar contours of everyday experience.

The mainstream assimilation of countercultural values is no longer just a social phenomenon. Government seems to have become countercultural, too. A black man in the White House. A transformation in the relationship between our health and the public realm (Our Bodies, Our Politicians). A fundamental restructuring of the government’s relationship to American business.

In society, culture and now politics, what was once considered countercultural is today the establishment. And so it’s no surprise that what was once considered the establishment—the war cry of patriotism, religion, and morality—is the new counterculture.

The parallels between today’s right-wing radicals and radical tactics of the 1960s are striking. Sixties’ Dada theatrics—e.g. Allen Ginsberg leading people in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon (my favorite)—are echoed in the alarmist and conspiratorial theatrics of right-wing cable television. Then, too, just as the radical left was inspired by a few personalities—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd et al.—today’s radical right is whipped up by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin et al.

And while the new counterculture’s racist images of Obama are sickening, they are similar in their emotional violence to the images of the old counterculture’s Representative Villain, Richard Nixon—caricatures which ran the gamut from violent to pornographic. Just as Nixon exemplified middle-class, middle-aged white, repressive stasis, so Obama exemplifies—for his haters—ceaseless, wearying, uprooting change.

Each man presented the perfect vexation to enraged opponents—Nixon a hurdle to change, Obama a wide-open door to an uncertain future.

But there are two important differences between the old and new countercultures. The old one grew in strength, after a long, tortuous time gathering into its antiwar fold decent people from all sectors of American society who were outraged by all the official mayhem at home and overseas. The new counterculture, for all its hollering, seems less numerous than loud, depending on liberal cable TV to eagerly pick up and opportunistically amplify conservative cable TV’s sensationalist assaults. Without the moral center of an unjust war—without any clear moral event, for that matter—the new counterculture will only become more hysterical as its numbers dwindle to a few talking heads and “maverick” politicians.

The other difference is violence. So far, no bombs have exploded, no conservative college students have been fired on by the National Guard, and no riots have engulfed the streets.

It could well be that comparing Obama to Hitler and Stalin, calling him an illegitimate occupant of the White House, and accusing him of virtually executing a coup d’etat is, as some people say, an incitement to violence. But the ancestors of the same people hurling these slurs once accused FDR of being a "Jew" agent of the Soviet Union and claimed that his wife had caught syphilis from her "Negro" lover.

In other words, everyone, calm down. What we are seeing is the good, old American Berserk in action. It’s just that, ever since the 1960s, we are not accustomed to seeing it come from the other side.

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.