THE BLOG
01/29/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2014

Bridgegate and Conservatism

The GOP's response to Bridgegate explains a lot about conservatism today, and how it has evolved since Ronald Reagan's era. Both Republican spokespersons and their supporters on blogs take the same approach: they don't defend Christie; they don't condemn him; they don't deny that this happened; they don't even mention traffic jams. They simply blame Hillary Clinton. Over and over you hear and read the same refrains: "What about Benghazi?", "What about Fast and Furious?", or "How many people were killed in the bridge scandal?" Back during the Cold War, there was an old joke. A U.S. reporter is with his Russian guide in a Moscow subway station, waiting for the train. The journalist casually mentions that it seems to be a little late. The guide angrily replies, "Well what about your involvement in Vietnam!?!"

But this kind of reply also reveals how much has changed. There is a distinct tone of victimization here, a claim that Christie is just one more conservative casualty of all-powerful elites and the media; one blogger commented that Christie was being falsely, unfairly attacked by "Democrats and journalists; is there a difference?"

Such is the new conservative identity; they are perpetual victims, under attack and laid low by the liberals in charge of everything, especially the news media. Whereas in the past, the left was accused of constantly portraying themselves as prey and targets, now it is those on the right who pull this card at every opportunity.

This is a sea change, a fundamental shift in the conservative ethos. During the Eisenhower years, Republican leadership was unabashedly elite, exercising droit du seigneur over the country. No place was ceded to those who were neither upper crust nor WASP nor male, be they ethnics, poor (both in cities and in Southern agricultural regions), women or blacks. The later Reagan era was characterized by Republican buoyancy, a fundamental sense of being in the ascendency. Whether or not it was morning again for America, it definitely was for conservatives. They knew it, and exulted in that knowledge.

Now we see the exact opposite, an eternally defensive posture regardless of the facts, such as their dominant place in both talk radio and in cable news. Look for example at Sarah Palin, always in a desperate rear guard struggle with her lame stream media, always on the brink of defeat, her back to the wall. Or Bill O'Reilly and the assault on Christmas that is about to nullify fundamental values.

This shift originated with Richard Nixon and the Southern strategy. As the Republican Party has become more and more a Southern and Great Plains bastion, it has taken on the culture of the one region in America that has experienced defeat and occupation. Since 1865 there has always been an aspect of Southern culture that perceives itself as the underdog, being picked on by outsiders, then losing their struggles, history continually repeating Sherman's March to the Sea. The modern conservative movement parallels this way of thinking, its self-perception as the eternal loser, denigrated and defeated.

This also reflects a major change in the party's driving forces. At one time direction was set by a self-assured leadership cadre, people like Prescott Bush and his son, the forty-first president. Now it is being manipulated by Ted Cruz and the grass roots Tea Party. Years ago Republican politics highlighted people like the Dulles brothers -- John Foster and Allen Welsh -- with backgrounds in Wall Street law firms; or Robert Taft, son of a president and grandson of a Secretary of War and Attorney General. Now a top figure is John Boehner, who prides himself on being from a blue collar background.

Victimization never worked for the Democrats. Whether or not the Republicans can turn it to their advantage remains to be seen.