I picked up a copy of Meg Jacobs’ Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s at the library (a book! A real book! In my hands! Words and ideas in my head!) and am finding it to be an interesting history.
Jacobs begins her telling of America’s energy story in the Permian Basis of West Texas immediately following the end of WWII by looking at the wildcatting career of George H. W. Bush. Along the way, she talks briefly about oil production in the US and elsewhere (all ground covered by Daniel Yergin in The Prize), as well as the regulatory environment in the United States for oil and natural gas.
Among the interesting things she notes, in passing, was the mess the Republican Party found itself in following the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and the role George H. W. Bush played in attempting to reorganize at least a portion of the GOP in the 1960s:
Bush instantly became part of a group of Republicans whose principal concern was shifting economic policy to the right. He developed a close friendship with Wisconsin representative William Steiger, another freshman, who, along with his intern Richard Cheney, called for budget austerity and fiscal conservatism amid the growing deficits resulting from Vietnam. They joined Donald Rumsfeld, a young congressman from Illinois first elected in 1962, who had helped stage a coup, after the 1964 electoral disaster, to depose the House minority leader, Charles Halleck, and replace him with Michigan’s congressman Gerald Ford in 1965. For them, race relations, social policy, and red-baiting were not the main concerns. Economic deregulation was at the heart of their conservatism. Limiting the imprint of the federal government on economic relations was the key, Bush and his allies thought, to a robust American economy. While Bush fought hard to defend subsidies for the oil patch, he opposed Washington’s efforts to dictate managerial decisions about production. The Texan wanted to deregulate the economy in order to free oil and other types of markets. (21–22)
What’s interesting is that Jacobs suggests this path Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Ford tried to forge was a midway between the popular conservatism of “the John Birch Society or the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade the propelled Ronald Reagan to the California governorship” and the Republicanism of Nelson Rockefeller who “had accommodated himself to the work of big govenrment.” This deregulatory conservatism was the work of insiders, people who were comfortable in the corridors of power and knew how to make government work.
Nixon was the perfect embodiment of that “middle way” because he
… understood that for a Republican to survive in the 1960s, he had to work within the world of the New Deal and the Great Society, not around it. In 1968, even as he burnished his reputation as an anti-New Deal Republican, which he was, he knew better than most that he would be under pressure to continue with and even expand the regulatory apparatus of Washington. (24)
Granted, Jacobs is making Bush central to her story, noting that in 1968, “there was even some speculation that Nixon would pick Bush as a vice presidential running mate.” But I believe there is some truth to what she is doing — that this “less government better run” conservatism became the main force behind elite conservatism beginning in the late 1960s. It would live uneasily with much more populist conservatism, needing such energy as opposition to civil rights and militant, conspiratorial anti-communism (and later Christian conservatives, who arose at a nexus between the two) to mobilize constituencies for elections, but it would attempt as much as possible to keep such people as far away from government as they could.
Where I think the GOP is, and has been, floundering is that this elite economic conservatism was a spent force after 1992, when the alliance of the Bushes and the Bakers lost the presidency and control of the GOP started to slip out of their hands. In the mid–1990s, the populists began to slowly retake the party. Whatever George W. Bush may have owed James Baker for his election, he did not repay the long-time family ally by listening to him. The GOP governing consensus built around the Bush-Baker relationship and fostered in the Nixon-Ford administrations, was gone by the time W inherited the White House.
It may be that the GOP, in surrendering to the kind of populist energy focused on social policy, race relations, and what passes for red-baiting (Clinton-, foreigner-, and Muslim-hating) in the post-Soviet world (on the very far right, there are people convinced communism never went away, and is merely biding its time in Washington and Brussels as it waits to take over the world) as it has floundered about the last 20 years, the Republican Party is reverting to some kind of type. Paranoia and conspiracy theory was always close at hand, lurking in the shadows of the conservatism I remember growing up in the suburbs of Southern California. Absent a Great War hero with unbeatable administrative experience, or even a Nixon brilliant (and venal) enough to ride them all to victory, there is nothing to knit together the various inchoate strands that all call themselves conservatism.
And it may also be the GOP is struggling to figure out who it is in a world where it has won a great deal but has still not won enough to think it is victorious. This is what happens, I think, when political programs become theological or even eschatological in nature — and much of the paranoid right has lived in a world in which victory was absolutely necessary or else absolute evil would win. And with the victory of evil, our freedoms, lives, and even mortal souls were at risk. It’s easy to dismiss the paranoid right as the rantings of a tiny handful — whether with mimeograph machines or blog sites — but much of the story the populist right tells itself about who it is and what’s at stake is grounded in the kind of conspiratorial paranoia anti-communists (and later birthers) have spun and woven since the 1950s.
It may be that the GOP of Donald J. Trump is reverting to type — a party that rages at a world it doesn’t fully understand but desperately wants to subdue and control. That energy got some brilliant politicians elected, but it’s hard to see how Trump could be one of them. He isn’t a Reagan. Or a Nixon. Or even a Bush.