A telling anecdote recounted by Pat Buchanan to New Yorker writer George Packer last year captures the dark spirit that still hovers around the GOP. In 1966 Buchanan and Richard Nixon were at the Wade Hampton Hotel in Columbia, S.C., where Nixon worked a crowd into a frenzy: “Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, ‘burned the paint off the walls.’ As they left the hotel, Nixon said, ‘This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.’ ”
That same rage was on display again in the fall of 2008, but this time the frenzy was stimulated by a pretty gal with a mocking little wink. Sarah Palin may not have realized what she was doing, but Southerners weaned on Harper Lee heard the dog whistle.
The curious Republican campaign of 2008 may have galvanized a conservative Southern base — including many who were mostly concerned with the direction Democrats would take the country — but it also repelled others who simply bolted and ran the other way. Whatever legitimate concerns the GOP may historically have represented were suddenly overshadowed by a sense of a resurgent Old South and all the attendant pathologies of festering hate and fear.