Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Origins of American right-wing extremism in the 1960s

photo: Pat Buchanan, Newsweek, March 4, 1996

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 presented mainstream America with a shocking wakeup: right-wing extremism, with its dimensions of Christian nationalism, white supremacy, racism, and anti-LGBTQ bigotry, had somehow wound up on the carousel, and was now in control. This shouldn't be a complete surprise, since the Tea Party and the rantings of Pat Buchanan in the previous decades had written many of the scripts of the president with the orange hair. But we need to know more about how the extreme right came to be a mainstream political ideology.

Matthew Dallek's Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right provides one important strand of that background. Dallek argues that the John Birch Society managed to deeply radicalize the Republican political movement from its founding in 1958 to the 2010s. Dallek provides a narrative of the formative years of the Birch Society in the 1950s when activists like Robert Welch marketed an extreme anticommunism among wealthy, conservative businessmen (often including leading members in the National Association of Manufacturers). A striking feature of this story is the speed and virulence with which right-wing activists established new chapters of the John Birch Society in cities throughout the country. And it was largely a white-collar and professional group of men and women who became true believers.

By the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the society had declared itself around strident themes of anticommunism, opposition to the civil rights movement, alliance with segregationist politicians (p. 99), alignment with fundamentalist Christian groups, conspiracy theories (fluoridation of public water supplies), and unhinged attacks on school teachers and libraries thought to harbor "un-American" ideas. When the struggle for civil rights intensified in the 1960s, Dallek documents the alliances that existed between the Birch Society and the segregationist governors George Wallace and Lester Maddox (191, 199). 

What is especially striking about the account Dallek offers is the "no-holds-barred" tactics used by the Birch Society in attacking its enemies. Ruining careers, threatening violence, and making unfounded accusations against their opponents were all in a day's work for this movement completely certain of its moral correctness. The recklessness and malevolence of Joe McCarthy continued in the Birch Society.

Dallek's narrative makes it apparent that there is a great deal of continuity from the early political extremism of the John Birch Society and contemporary right-wing GOP talking points -- anticommunism, conspiracy theories about public health measures, the language of white supremacy, xenophobia, and a propensity towards guns and violence. And, as Dallek demonstrates, many of these themes became talking points for Donald Trump in his first presidential campaign, and central to MAGA political speeches. But there is another similarity as well -- the behind-the-scenes alliances that existed in 1958, and continue to exist today, between highly wealthy donors and the political strategies of extremist politicians. 

Pat Buchanan was not a member of the John Birch Society, so far as I know. But his influence as a far-right advocate of conservative issues -- as an opinion writer, as a presidential assistant, as a speech writer for Nixon and Agnew, and as a serial candidate for President -- has been enormous within the US conservative movement. A scan of the quotes on his official webpage illustrates these themes: Christian nationalism, extreme anti-abortion advocacy, Great Replacement Theory, racist fear of "dependent Americans", anti-immigrant bigotry, rejection of equality of citizenship, fundamental mistrust of the Federal government, anticommunism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and an apocalyptic view of the future of America. Here is one quotation from State of Emergency that encapsulates Buchanan's worldview:

If we do not solve our civilizational crisis — a disintegrating culture, dying populations, and invasions unresisted — the children born in 2006 will witness in their lifetimes the death of the West. In our hearts we know what must be done. We must stop the invasion. But do our leaders have the vision and will to do it? (State of Emergency)

Buchanan ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996. And, as a contemporary Newsweek profile put it, he ran on a platform of fear, mistrust, and hatred (Newsweek, March 4, 1996). Here are the closing paragraphs of the profile, illustrating Buchanan's "ethnonationalism".

Last week on CBS Radio, Buchanan defended his columns that helped free wrongly accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk as "the best journalism I ever did." The critics were "fly-specking," he said. But in his March 17, 1990, column on Demjanjuk, the mistakes were hardly trivial. In arguing that diesel-engine gas could not have killed the Jews at Treblinka, Buchanan ignored evidence of deadly Zyklon B gas at Treblinka (where more than 850,000 Jews died), accused survivors of "group fantasies of martyrdom and heroics" and essentially bought the line of those who minimize the Holocaust.

His old words on immigration may pose an even larger problem in the campaign. "The central objection to the present flood of illegals is that they are not English-speaking white people from Western Europe, they are Spanish-speaking brown and black people from Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean," he wrote in 1984, stressing that the issue is "not about economics." (26)

 (Here is the entry on Treblinka on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. The historical evidence concerning the use of diesel-engine carbon monoxide as a lethal gas at Treblinka is unambiguous, and was documented in Vasily Grossman's initial reporting on Treblinka in 1944 in The Hell of Treblinka; link.And here is an article Dallek contributed to the Atlantic that does a good job of formulating his key findings; link.)


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I grew up in that decade. I do not know if my generation thought much about either right or left wing extremism. Many of us then were just trying to navigate. I was only a child during the McCarthy years and politics was the last topic elders talked about when there were kids present---if they talked about it at all. It seems to me, reading about extremism, say from 1964 onward, extremist views have existed on the left and right for much of the time anyone even thought about it. Maybe that was a counterbalance, up until orange hair appeared? That was a whole different sort of phenomenology. Other influences we at work, I think. I would hold that complexity had, and still has, something to do with this. I don't know how to quantify the effect.

Paul David Van Pelt said...

Today, heard of beheadings of Ukrainians in the current Russian invasion. Is there no end to global tolerance of this crap? Moreover, the preoccupation with the Trump thing is nauseating. Today, the 'news' here highlighted a prison riot, thirty years ago. Another, well placed(?) distraction, designed to sublimate current attention? An Ohio congressman may be sued over his assertions about January 6. A less-than-respected news buffoon blatantly misrepresented the events of that infamous day, within the last 48 hours. Goosestep your way through that mess.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

First of all, sorry about the typos. It seems no matter how careful I am, something goes wrong. It is embarrassing. I did not have such problems with Corel or Microsoft, all those years ago. So much for progress. Now, to Buchanan. I did not think much about him. His time was pedestrian---came and went. Carlson is a bit different but his influence is waning now too. You can only survive on rhetoric for as long as your listeners realize it is only rhetoric, lacking substance, while promoting interests, preferences and motives. TC has spent his limited currency. Happens all the time. There was an early public intellectual, in the 1800s, who drew some attention. Jacoby wrote about him. Robert Ingersoll. His talks allegedly attracted a large following. As far as I understand it, Ingersoll was not trying to hurt anyone. Just wanted to make a buck.