The Most Rabid Election-Day Rant of Them All

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A contributor at National Review unwittingly shows that tribalism means more to him than conservatism.

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My colleague James Fallows has flagged a pre-election article titled "Crush Them" by National Review Online contributor Michael Walsh. It's the sort of item that would require 10 times its length to rebut every problematic assertion. The web having outgrown full "fisks," I'll focus on the opening paragraphs, for within them a careful reader can discern some rather astonishing assumptions.

Says Walsh:
Conservatives have a rare opportunity tomorrow to do something they signally failed to do in the landslide elections of 1972 and 1984: finish the job. Nixon's victory was vitiated by Watergate and quickly revenged by Woodward and Bernstein, leading to his replacement in 1974 by Jerry Ford, a man who exactly nobody thought was qualified to be president of the United States, probably including Ford himself. Ford led to Jimmy Carter, whose ineptitude and weakness in turn lead to Ronald Reagan, who swept Carter away in 1980 and then smashed Walter Mondale and the Democrats to powder in 1984.

And then, having won a famous victory, conservatives went home and left it to the establishment GOP in the form of another man who never should have been president, George H. W. Bush, to fritter away the fruits of ideological victory and be supplanted by Bill Clinton.
The obvious error here is imagining that there can be any decisive end to ideological battles in a pluralistic democracy. Walsh goes farther than that. As he sees it, conservatives have been on the cusp of final victory twice in recent history. It's unclear which of George H.W. Bush's 1988 primary opponents -- Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pierre DuPont, or Pat Robertson -- Walsh would've preferred, and rather hard to imagine any of them as the man who vanquished progressivism for good. It's also telling that he regards Watergate as the creation not of numerous Republicans behaving illegally and immorally, but as a revenge plot carried out by the journalists who uncovered it.

Perhaps most remarkable of all, however, is the notion that Nixon would have presided over the final triumph of conservatives had he finished out his term rather than resigning office in disgrace. This is an extreme form of a strange thing you'll see from the subset of conservatives who are mostly motivated by a tribal hatred of the left. They remember that liberals hated Nixon, that journalists helped bring about his ouster, and that Nixon hated the hippies and leftists.

At that point, the Nixon-loving conservative's brain is apparently overtaken by tribal solidarity goo flowing to his or her synapses. Walsh treats Nixon as if he was a plausible starting point for the permanent victory of ideological conservatism, despite the fact that Nixon imposed wage and price controls, started the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the Clean Air Act, created Occupational Safety and Health Administration, favored a universal mandate for employers to provide health care to their employees, and opened bilateral relations with Communist China. Had a Democrat done all those things, someone like Walsh would call him a radical socialist Commie Alynskyite anti-Constitutionalist out to destroy America. 

Imagine, for example, if Obama had sent White House employees into a room to set wages and prices for much of the economy, as Nixon did (in a quirk of history, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were the ones he tasked with the job). What do you think Walsh would say about that?

Walsh isn't interested in a permanent triumph of ideological conservatism, he only thinks he is. That's the label he uses, but what he actually celebrates are Republicans who hate or are hated by leftists. It is plausible that Nixon, had he been installed as president in 2009, would have governed to Obama's left on any number of issues. Yet hearing Walsh tell it, Nixon was the last time conservatives had permanent victory in their grasp, whereas Obama is a nakedly Marxist usurper.

Lest you forget, Walsh also argues that tomorrow, Mitt Romney himself has the opportunity to do what Nixon couldn't -- to deal a decisive blow to progressives -- and this too is almost comically wrong.

What about Romney or the state of the country right now suggests that the meeting of this shape-shifting Massachusetts man and this polarized moment could even plausibly end in a permanent ideological realignment in favor of either side? Next time someone at National Review scoffs at the notion that part of the conservative movement is mired in tribal fantasyland, someone should remind them of Walsh's piece. He isn't just saying the polls are wrong, which is possible. He isn't just saying Romney will win, which he might, or that it will be a landslide, which is highly improbable but not inconceivable. His claim is that Romney's landslide could decisively destroy American progressivism. "The modern Left -- the unholy spawn of '30s gangland and '60s academic Marxism -- must be forced to its knees in surrender," he writes.

He sounds more like Robespierre than a conservative.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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