Tracing the Origins of Today's Archconservatives (Review)Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, far right, book reviews, political history
Randall J. Stephens is a professor of American and British studies at the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Devil’s Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism
By John S. Huntington University of Pennsylvania Press.
In the early 1960s, William F. Buckley — editor, gadfly and intellectual father of modern conservatism — took aim at the far right. The ultraconservative John Birch Society was hurting the cause, he snapped. Birchers denounced the civil rights movement as a communist front, bent on destroying the country and establishing a Black Soviet republic in the South. They railed against liberal school boards, condemned the press as left wing and called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Since its founding in 1958, the society had grown to roughly 60,000 members. The 1964 Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, told Buckley that it seemed like “every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. . . . I’m not talking about commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks. I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.” Buckley and others blamed such extremists for Goldwater’s devastating defeat. Birchism, he charged, was tanking the GOP and damaging the anti-communist crusade.
More than half a century later, former George W. Bush speechwriter and political commentator David Frum similarly challenged Trumpism. Donald Trump “is changing conservatism into something different,” he lamented. Like-minded never-Trump conservatives lambasted Trump’s authoritarianism, populism, and religious and ethnic bigotry. A day after candidate Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, Republican Paul Ryan, then speaker of the House, responded. “This is not conservatism,” he proclaimed. “What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for.”
But what if this kind of ultraconservatism, from Birchism to Trumpism, is an essential part of modern American conservatism? And what if such extremism is not a bug but a feature of the Republican Party? These are some of the critical questions that John S. Huntington addresses in his thoughtful and engaging “Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism.” He joins other historians like Rick Perlstein, Nicole Hemmer, Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Kim Phillips-Fein who have traced the radical origins of the modern right.
Huntington sees ultraconservatism as a broad part of the right-wing spectrum, encompassing fringe extremists, racists, violent reactionaries and those willing to moderate their views when and where necessary. Far-rightists hoped to wrest the two main parties from the hands of integrationists, communists, globalists and big-government elites. Where that failed, they started third parties, and pieced together a crazy-quilt of conspiracy theories along the way.
Huntington, a history professor at Houston Community College, locates the roots of the far right in the first decades of the 20th century. James A. Reed, a senator from Missouri and leader of the Jeffersonian Democrats, distinguished himself as a white supremacist, small-government stalwart and fierce opponent of the League of Nations. Reed and others like him broke with their party over Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal relief program. In 1936 Reed addressed the Lawyers Association of Kansas City with apocalyptic urgency. The New Deal “came like a thief in the night,” he sputtered, “and has spread with the silence and rapidity of a malignant cancer.” He cautioned that “if it be not speedily cut out, it will soon reach and destroy the heart of American liberty!”
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