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Chemtrails over the country club
Conservative politics has always intermingled freely with fringe nonsense
We are less than a week from Inauguration Day, which means that — strange as it seems — we are drawing closer to the inevitable moment when Donald Trump will be fondly remembered by liberals as an avatar of a saner brand of conservative politics.
A joke, of course, but not really. In a great essay written a while back, the historian Corey Robin documented Philip Roth’s continual re-writing of his own recollections — Nixon was the absolute worst in 1974, but by the Reagan Era he was fondly remembered in contrast to the Gipper. It was Bush’s tenure in office that prompted The Plot Against America as allegory, but then by 2017 he was complaining that neither Nixon nor Bush “was anything like as humanly impoverished as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
I don’t know exactly what drives this perennially retrocasting of past iterations of conservatism as reasonable, but I was reminded of Robin’s essay when I read Ezra Klein and Tim Alberta commiserating on the idea that “there is no longer any buffer between mainstream thought and the extreme elements of our politics.”
As a description of the present this is absolutely correct. Conservative thought exists on a spectrum between Q Anon lunatics putting on horns and storming the capital and guys with PhDs arguing that in the long-run corporate tax cuts raise wages. But there is no firewall between these groups. The Covid cranks and the distinguished Federalist Society legal scholars not only sit side-by-side at the Hudson Institute, they are sometimes the same person.
But while I obviously understand the rhetorical potency of claiming that the bad actors in today’s politics are not just bad but uniquely so, I don’t think the claim holds up to analytic scrutiny. Right from the start the conservative movement was a stew of highbrow policy objections to the New Deal Consensus (some of which were even correct!) with paranoid conspiracy theories about communist control of the government and with hard-core white nationalism. Mediating between the respectable and less-respectable faces of conservatism is often a group of grifters, largely because the whole premise of the enterprise is that pitching the long-term benefits of regressive tax policy is not an electoral winner. So different notions ranging from Ike being a Communist to Obama being a Kenyan to the idea that Bill & Hillary Clinton have been assassinating political enemies for decades come and go according to the whims of the moment.
The conservative crucible
I’ve heard a number of people remark over the past four years that they can’t wait to read the sure-to-be-coming eventual Rick Perlstein volume on the Trump years. But that’s because readers of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland are primed to find the Trump era marriage of ideological hardliners with grifters and nutjobs unsurprising. As he details brilliantly, this is the way it’s always worked.
The conservative movement’s purpose was to overthrow the Eisenhower-era surrender to the New Deal consensus. At around the same time you had nutty people like the John Birch Society charging that Eisenhower was possibly a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy,” which, although it was never mainstream conservative doctrine, was never hermetically sealed off from the mainstream either. Harry Lynde Bradley and Fred Koch were early financial sponsors; Goldwater was involved with Bircher front groups; and as political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld wrote in 2019, the “purge” of the Birchers by William F. Buckley has been greatly overstated:
Contrary to movement myth, Buckley did not “purge” the Birchers from the movement in the 1960s. National Review articles in 1962 singled out the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, for personal condemnation while sparing ordinary members of his organization. (A more full-throated attack on the group followed three years later, but only after Goldwater’s defeat.)
Goldwater, too, criticized Welch personally — but went no further. His campaign was powered by best-selling tracts like Phyllis Schlafly’s “A Choice, Not an Echo,” steeped in the Birchers’ baroquely paranoid style. A who’s who of the hard right, including the anti-Semite Gerald L.K. Smith, enthusiastically supported his candidacy, and the campaign did little to disavow them.
Even the party establishment that resisted Goldwater’s nomination blanched at calling out extremism. A proposed platform plank at the convention denouncing extremism and explicitly naming the Birch Society failed to find support even from Dwight Eisenhower and George Romney. By the early 1980s, long into the Birch Society’s decline, Republicans would feel less reason than ever to hide or apologize for engaging Birchers; the Society’s magazine, The Review of the News, featured interviews with the likes of Dick Cheney and Chuck Grassley.
The Bircher conspiracy theories had their antecedents, of course, in the work of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. And the McCarthy trajectory instructively sets the pattern for all the rest — despite some constant discomfort with him, he was an accepted figure in conservative and GOP circles until after the apogee of his power. Once he became a political embarrassment he was mostly cut loose. (Though Buckley and Brent Bozell wrote a sympathetic book about him and as recently as 2003, you were getting takes like “Two Cheers for McCarthyism” in National Review). The fact remains that at the moment of maximum danger, the mainstream right was trying to co-opt his energy.
McCarthy himself was not an organizer or an institution-builder, but the Birchers were. They had a long tail of significant influence in American electoral politics.
Birchers in office
John Schmitz, for example, was a John Birch Society member and California state senator starting in 1964. He won a special election to move up to the US House of Representatives and then won re-election in his own right. When he antagonized the Nixon administration by saying things like “I didn't care that Nixon went to China, I was only upset that he came back,” Nixon recruited a more moderate primary challenger to Schmitz, who lost, and then Schmitz launched a third party bid for president (which he obviously lost). Eventually, he returned to the California state legislature as a Republican in good standing and chaired the constitutional amendments committee. He was stripped of his chairmanship after describing a committee hearing about abortion rights as “infested by … a sea of hard, Jewish and arguably female faces and murderous marauders of the pro-abortion encampment.”
That’s the basic relationship between the far-right and the conservative mainstream in American politics — Schmitz got punished by Nixon for attacking Nixon, and then eventually sidelined for being an embarrassment, but he was also welcome at other times.
Larry McDonald, a conservative Democrat, won a primary in 1974 by accusing the incumbent of being in favor of school integration. In congress he got perfect 100 scores from the American Conservative Union every year except one, and DW-NOMINATE rates him as one of the most conservative members ever to serve in Congress. He became the actual president of the John Birch Society in 1983 and he was ultimately killed when the Soviets shot down a commercial flight he was on: Korean Airlines Flight 007. (This death is, admittedly, unlikely to dissuade conspiracy theorists).
It’s as if you had not just a Q Anon affiliate, but an actual high-ranking member of a Q organization serving in Congress.
What’s different in his case from today — and it is a big difference — is that McDonald was a Democrat. It’s not that the right-wing fringe used to be more frozen out of politics, it’s that party politics used to be less ideologically organized, so lots of hard-right figures entered the mainstream via the Democratic Party rather than the GOP.
Racism is definitely not new in America
There have a been a ton of takes on Trump and racism over the years, and the attempted insurrection at the Capitol specifically brought to mind the terrorist violence that helped end the Reconstruction-era experiment in multiracial democracy.
Flash forward to the 1940s and 1950s and you have a situation where there’s no need to even talk about the role of the racist fringe in American politics because they’re not fringe at all! Instead, across the 11 states of the Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, you have segregated school systems and mainstream elected officials who want to keep it this way. These officials are overwhelmingly Democrats, but many of them are ideologically conservative and after 1938 or so, a cross-party Conservative Coalition generally holds sway in congress.
As Schlozman and Rosenfeld write in their book chapter on The Long New Right, the goal of conservative movement activists and intellectuals was to shake up this system— bring the conservative Democrats into the Republican Party, turn the GOP into a conservative party, and use it as a tool to govern the country.
Just as that involved collaboration with Birchers against the intra-party enemy Eisenhower, obviously the whole point was to work with racists, which is why National Review ran takes like “Why The South Must Prevail.” Buckley of course walked away from that view later, and good for him. But it’s just a reminder that, as with McCarthy, there was never a firewall.
Relatedly, Strom Thurmond who ran for President in 1948 on a pro-segregation ticket switched parties in 1964 saying he admired Barry Goldwater because Goldwater “boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform.” Goldwater, of course, officially opposed the law for libertarian rather than racist reasons, but five of the six states he won in 1964 were in the Deep South, and indeed Goldwater carried all four of the states that voted for Thurmond’s Dixiecrat party in 1948.
Between those two presidential elections, Thurmond was the lead author of the Southern Manifesto promising resistance to Brown v Board of Education. This manifesto was sufficiently extreme that a decent minority of the members of congress from Jim Crow states (Lyndon Johnson and Estes Kefauver, for example) didn’t sign it. But the mainstream was sufficiently permeable that it’s not as if the signatories were driven out of public life after the Civil Rights Act. Thurmond infamously held on in the Senate into the 21st century. Joel Broyhill and Richard Poff, the two House Republicans who signed it, were in Congress until the 1970s. And Democrats like John Stennis (until 1989), Russel Long (1987), John Sparkman (1979), and James Eastland (1978) just kind of switched electoral coalitions: they started running and winning by courting Black voters.
In other words, the conservative movement was all-in on segregation when it counted. And in both parties there was never a mass cancelation of the segregationists; they just walked away from a now-embarrassing viewpoint. What happened, as the party system got better sorted, was that in many ways kooks and extremists became more useful to conservatives.
The Clinton conspiracies
The mau-mauing of Hillary Clinton over her decision to disregard State Department email protocols was absurd, but absurd in a “making a mountain out of a molehill” kind of way. By contrast, if, as First Lady of the United States, she had murdered her friend and former colleague Vince Foster, that would have been a big deal.
She did not do that, but The Wall Street Journal editorial page was pretty insistent that maybe she did.
Dan Burton shot a watermelon in his backyard to try to prove the existence of a massive coverup, and then after that was selected by his colleagues to lead the House Oversight Committee. A staffer of his was forced to resign for releasing selectively edited and misleading transcripts of testimony given by Webster Hubbell to Burton’s committee. His name was David Bossie and he went on to be the lead plaintiff in the Citizens United case and then later Deputy Campaign Manager for Donald Trump. In May 2019, Bossie got tossed from Trumpland when it turned out that he was defrauding conservative donors for personal gain. Burton himself stepped down after it was revealed that he was taking laundered campaign cash from Pakistani military intelligence and went on to become a lobbyist for the Church of Scientology.
Like Schmitz, in other words, these guys sort of bounce in and out of mainstream circles according to circumstance. Nobody holds the anti-Clinton conspiracy obsessives in particularly high regard, and when they get caught doing actual crimes, they end up out of favor at least temporarily.
Former Rep. Steve King’s crank racism made him a mid-list powerbroker for years, until his very weak showing in the 2018 midterms made him look like an electoral liability, at which point his next racist tirade suddenly brought down the hammer.
The Trump difference
None of this is to deny the obvious reality that Trump Era politics is different than the politics of the past. If anything, the problem is that it’s different along too many dimensions:
We’ve never before had a president who is so personally uninterested in and disconnected from what the actual job is.
The media and political worlds have become much more nationalized, with much less in the way of region- or location-specific weirdness.
The ideological organization of the parties is much more rigorous now, so while you might say various unflattering things about various Democratic members, none of them is going to be a right-wing crank, whereas historically we had right-wing cranks in both parties.
The electoral system now exhibits a very strong pro-GOP bias in state legislatures, and in the House, and has an enormously strong pro-GOP bias in the senate.
Voters have become more entrenched in their partisan preferences.
This all leads to a pretty distressing situation largely because the electoral penalty paid by right-wing cranks is diminishing. Someone like Marsha Blackburn can easily win a Senate race in Tennessee, even though she had to run in what was both a really bad national political environment for the GOP and against a well-liked moderate former governor of the state. A large majority of the voters in Tennessee are Republicans, and they understand politics in nationalized partisan terms — including someone who thinks Blackburn is a bit kooky and who admired Phil Bredesen’s integrity and moderate approach. That person understands the national stakes and sides with McConnell.
In this sense, I think Ezra Klein’s great book Why We’re Polarized is much more insightful than the Alberta article he was praising.
The relationship between the racist and conspiratorial fringe and mainstream conservatism has always been fluid, and there has never been a group of “grown ups” who keep the kooks in check. But what does keep them in check is a desire to win elections. In the modern day, thanks to polarization, the electoral penalty for kookery or extremism has fallen; and thanks to unfair maps, the Republicans don’t need electoral majorities to win and govern. The combination has allowed kooks to be elevated to the highest ranks of power, and ensures that Senate Republicans put a much higher premium on preserving party unity than on checking even Trump’s most unpopular or inappropriate actions.
This is a genuinely dangerous situation, and nostalgia for the alleged guardrails of the past is not the answer.