Extremism Didn't Begin with Trump, and Won't End with Him EitherRoundup
tags: far right, extremism, Patrick Buchanan
Joseph Lowndes is professor of political science at the University of Oregon and co-author of Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity.
According to the Public Religion Research Institute, an astonishing 30 percent of Republicans believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the country. The poll was conducted as the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection continues to uncover communication among protest organizers, Republican members of Congress and Trump White House staff. Together, they reveal the unavoidable fact that one of the two great political parties in the United States has been transformed top to bottom into a vehicle for far-right extremism.
While Donald Trump’s presidency was the fillip, this fundamental change is the culmination of three decades of dynamic interaction among white supremacists, far-right organizations and populists within the Republican Party. Across these years, party insurgents enlisted the energy and ideas of radicals outside the system to ignite and direct the passions and resentments of White Christian voters inside it. Their success depended on the ability of activists to provoke racial resentments without openly embracing white supremacy.
This phenomenon starts with Pat Buchanan, who was a presidential speechwriter for Richard M. Nixon, communications director for Ronald Reagan, and a popular syndicated columnist and regular Sunday morning talk show guest. He was a consummate Republican insider, yet his GOP primary campaigns in 1992 and 1996 were waged in opposition to the GOP mainstream. He racked up early success against President George H.W. Bush in the 1992 primaries by explicitly playing up White grievance in populist language. With a sluggish economy, unemployment hovering above 7 percent and significant job losses in the manufacturing sector, Buchanan was able to portray cultural liberalism, immigration and Bush’s embrace of free trade as an attack on “Middle America” from all sides.
Buchanan was among the first to understand that the end of the Cold War meant that the post-World War II era of ideological consensus was over. There was now room to begin building a nationalist right that could dispense with democratic pluralism. That time had not yet come, but his prophetic language was resonant enough to secure him a prime-time speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where he delivered his famous “culture war” speech.
When Buchanan ran again in 1996, it was discovered that his campaign co-chair Larry Pratt had appeared with members of the Aryan Nation at a white-supremacist Christian Identity meeting, and another co-chair had attended a banquet honoring people convicted of shooting abortion providers. Two other subnational campaign chairs had organizational ties to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Louisiana state representative. There would be no prime-time speaking spot for him at the convention this time, but his campaign was able to capture the platform committee to keep strong antiabortion language and to add an anti-immigrant plank that called for a constitutional change to the 14th Amendment to undermine birthright citizenship.
Perhaps as consequential for the future development of a far-right GOP was Buchanan’s informal political adviser, Samuel Francis. Francis, an award-winning columnist at the Washington Times, was also a racist and nativist die-hard. He understood that white supremacists and other authoritarians then relegated to the fringes could someday play an important role in the mainstream right. Francis observed about Duke’s 1990 U.S. Senate run that for all of his attempts to cleanse his image, there was a “subtext, communicated by the continuous depiction of Mr. Duke in Nazi uniform and Klan hood by his enemies … that the historic racial and cultural core of American civilization is under attack.” While the symbols of Duke’s past white supremacy could not be openly embraced, they nevertheless spoke to many White voters.
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