Back then, the White House was obsessed with enemies lists and conspiracies, now we have a President trying to calm crowds riled by the prospect of death panels and plots to steal its freedoms. As Obama's approval ratings fall, pinpointing American paranoia is much harder than it was in the 1970s.
Just as the social upheavals of the 1960s allowed Richard Nixon to play on the anxieties of what he called The Silent Majority, the Era of Change has stirred up primal fears among Americans who need someone or something to blame for their unhappiness--Big Government, Obama's race, anything Other they can find to hate and vilify.
"Never forget," a Nixon tape revealed him telling his advisors, "the press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy, the professors are the enemy... Write that on a blackboard 100 times."
Now, instead of hate flowing outward from the White House, it is being directed at everyone in Washington--the Administration, Congress, the media--and no amount of rational argument about the specifics of health care reform will make it all go away.
The current rage is no doubt being stoked by fringe activists, but its persistence has to be taken seriously as a reaction to something that has unsettled millions.
The President and his Congressional allies can keep denying, as they must, absurdities that they have plans for “death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma,” but for the time being, nothing will reassure True Believers who have found a focus for their feelings in town halls, amplified by media coverage.
It took years for Nixon to implode from his paranoia, but the Republicans who are hoping to profit next year and beyond from today's emotions may want to remember that the attention span of enraged voters is hard to sustain and keep focused without a blowback against all politicians.