It suddenly feels like conservatism has gotten crazier than ever.
Republican debate audiences cheer executions and boo an active-duty soldier because he is gay. Politicians pledge allegiance to Rush Limbaugh, a pill-popping lunatic who recently offered “feminazis” a deal: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.” Thousands of “Oath Keepers” — “Police & Military Against the New World Order“— swear to disobey the illegal orders certain to come down the pike once Barack Obama institutes martial law. One major Republican presidential candidate talks up indentured servitude — and another proposes turning schoolchildren into janitors. Only 12 percent of Mississippi Republicans believe Barack Obama is a Christian. Arizona Republicans push a bill to allow bosses to fire female employees for using birth control.
And so on and so forth, unto whatever wacky new wingnuttism just flashed over the wires today.
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
I’m in a unique position to judge. A Sixties obsessive since childhood, I misspent my teenage years prowling a ramshackle five-story used-book warehouse that somehow managed, until last October, to stay one step ahead of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s building inspectors. There, I collected volumes from a decade gone mad: texts by Black Panthers decrying “AmeriKKKa“; by New Leftists proclaiming that “the future of our struggle is the future of crime in the streets“; and by right-wingers like preacher David Noebel, who exposed the “Communist subversion of music” by which Russian spymasters deployed Pavlov’s techniques to rot the minds of America’s youth via their bought-and-paid-for agents, the Beatles. People who thought like Black Panthers and New Leftists, of course, proved a historical flash in the pan. People like Noebel, however, have proved a constant in American history. In fact, Noebel himself is still with us. In the 1970s, he was a favorite source for James Dobson, the still enormously popular Christian Right radio psychologist and Republican power broker. Most recently, Noebel’s reputation got a boost from an admiring Glenn Beck on Fox News, and now he’s a Tea Party favorite.
Over fifteen years of studying the American right professionally — especially in their communications with each other, in their own memos and media since the 1950s — I have yet to find a truly novel development, a real innovation, in far-right “thought.” Right-wing radio hosts fingering liberal billionaires like George Soros, who use their gigantic fortunes – built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution – out to “socialize” the United States? 1954: Here’s a right-wing radio host fingering “gigantic fortunes, built by virtue of private enterprise under the Constitution … being used to ‘socialize’ the United States.” Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, “fed up with elitist judges” arrogantly imposing their “radically un-American views” — including judges on the Supreme Court, whose rulings he’s pledged to defy? 1958: Nine Men Against America: The Supreme Court and its Attack on American Liberties, still on sale at sovereignstates.org.
Only the names of the ogres have changed — although sometimes they haven’t. Dr. Noebel’s latest project is to republish a volume he apparently finds freshly relevant, Dr. Fred Schwarz’s You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists. Schwarz, an Australian physician who died three years ago, had his heyday in the early 1960s, when he would fill municipal auditoriums preaching his favorite gospel: that the Kremlin dominated its subjects by deploying “the techniques of animal husbandry,” and harbored “plans for a flag of the USSR flying over every American city by 1973.” The new version, updated by Noebel – it comes with raves from grateful Amazon.com reviews, like this: “Just as important as it was 50 years ago”; and this: “Should be required reading for every American,” and “This book made me a conservative” – is titled You Can Still Trust the Communists: To be Communists, Socialists, Statists, and Progressives Too.
Why does this matter? Because the notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it. In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin’s ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that “most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley.” So what did a “reality-based conservative” like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for “instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know.” So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack’s “tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights.” And here’s the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz’s 1996 memoir (Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): “How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism.” The “establishment conservatives,” Reagan and Kemp, and the “nut,” Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.
You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today’s Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all. Here’s the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush: “It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.”
And so it goes: Reagan is now deemed one of those reality-based conservatives whose disappearance we now lament. Wrong. Deeply informed by the whackadoodle far-right, Reagan at earlier points in his career loved to quote its nostrums: that according to Communists blueprints “by 1970 the world will be all slave or all free”; that, as he said in a 1975 interview – rehabilitating a quote supposedly from Vladimir Lenin but in fact made up by the founder of the John Birch Society – once Lenin and his comrades had organized the “hordes of Asia,” then conquered Latin America, “the United States, the last bastion of capitalism, [would] fall into their outstretched hands like overripe fruit.” But he was also a good politician, and as such he learned to avoid saying things that disadvantaged him politically. The reason he didn’t effectively fight tax increases was because, with a Democratic Congress, he didn’t have the power to do so. Every time he actually had to sign one he made his preferences perfectly clear, blaming wicked liberals for forcing his hand and adding that this was why liberalism had to be defeated — so that he wouldn’t have to sign one again.
This was “reality based.” But so, politically at least, is the obstructionism of today’s supposedly non-reality-based conservatives: They block all tax increases because they can. And it’s worked, hasn’t it? That’s because as conservative power has steadily increased since the 1960s, more and more of what conservatives actually believe — and have always actually believed —has come to shape American society and its institutions.
That dynamic has ever been accompanied by another: As more and more of the sub-rosa conservative extremism – think: women who use birth control are sluts, taxation is theft, all public goods should be privatized – finds its way into high-level debates in the halls of Congress, into the decisions of an increasingly right-leaning federal judiciary, into presidential campaigns and the A sections of major metropolitan newspapers, mainstream pundits declare that conservatism is on its way out, since, like a vampire, it cannot survive in the light of day. When Barry Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election by a landslide, the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker proclaimed that “with tragic inevitability” conservatism had “cracked like a pane of glass.” Yet somehow conservatives managed to survive and thrive — electing Ronald Reagan for two terms as California governor, starting in 1966. After Reagan’s handpicked successor lost the Republican nomination in 1974, Joseph Kraft of the Washington Post pronounced that “the rout of Reaganism in this state announces what seems to be a national possibility, the possibility of closing the parenthesis on the era of backlash politics which has been so strong in the country since Ronald Reagan rode out of the TV movies back in 1966.” In similar vein, in her book on the generation of activists behind Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994, Nina Easton argued that the insistence by leaders like Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed that liberalism was “a slippery slope to socialism and to Communism” would destroy “the public support he needed if he was to achieve his vision of a mass movement.”
It didn’t. And yet, like clockwork, today’s prophet of conservative doom, the journalist Jonathan Chait, finds conservatism cracking like a pane of glass now that, in the face of the demographic time bomb of an increasingly younger and browner electorate that he says makes the triumph of enlightenment liberalism all but inevitable, its latent extremism is finally surfacing — breaking “new ground in the realm of foolhardiness,” as he puts it.
Here’s the problem: To this way of thinking, the triumph of enlightenment liberalism is always inevitable. Now it’s demographics that’s the inexorable force (I debunk that argument here); in the 1960s, it was the certainty that Americans would never consent to give up their big-government perks. And yet, somehow, alongside the ordinary tacking of American political preference between Democrats and Republicans, conservatism continues to thrive. That’s because power begets power: Democrats can be counted on to compromise with conservative nuttiness, and the media can be counted on to normalize it. And it’s because there will always be millions of Americans who are terrified of social progress and of dispossession from whatever slight purchase on psychological security they’ve been able to maintain in a frightening world. And because there will always be powerful economic actors for whom exploiting such fear, uncertainty and doubt pays (and pays, and pays).
Conservatism is not getting crazier, and it’s not going away, either. It’s just getting more powerful. That’s a fact that a reality-based liberal just has to accept – and, from it, draw strength for the fight.
Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.
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