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Ultras: The Rise of America's Far Right (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, far right, political history, John Birch Society



Kim Phillips-Fein teaches American history at New York University’s Gallatin School and is the author of Invisible Hands and Fear City.

FAR-RIGHT VANGUARD: THE RADICAL ROOTS OF MODERN CONSERVATISM

By John S. Huntington

 

 

In 1956, the former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service made a surprising political turn: He announced in an essay in The Washington Post that he saw taxation as a Marxist scheme to “bring capitalism to its knees.” Even though T. Coleman Andrews had served in government only a year before, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, once out of Washington he turned against the entire enterprise of the modern state. Any progressive or liberal, he insisted, was “either a dupe or, at heart, a dictator.”

Andrews’s bold words made him a hero within a growing world of right-wing activists, and they drafted him to challenge Eisenhower for the presidency. His supporters were a motley crew comprising members of For America (an organization that built on America First, which had opposed US entry into World War II); Southerners who hoped to block the integration of public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education; and business opponents of labor and the welfare state. They were drawn to Andrews’s dire political vision and to his depiction of the United States as being on the verge of a communist takeover. As one supporter put it, “It matters very little if…Roosevelt or Eisenhower is a Communist or not. What does matter is that they have advanced the Communist cause and American Liberals, by participating in the advance of the cause of Communism are unwitting dupes of the International Communist Conspiracy.”

Running as the candidate of the States’ Rights Party, Andrews won just over 111,000 votes in the 1956 election. At the time, the liberal mainstream dismissed the far-right constituency for which he spoke as politically marginal. Such activists (along with the supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy) would later serve as the prototypes for the deranged, pathetic wackos that Richard Hofstadter chronicled in his famous essays on the “paranoid style” in American politics and the rise of “pseudo-conservatism”—freakish figures desperately clinging to national identity and social status who were to be pitied more than feared. Confident in the telos of liberalism as seen from his perch at Columbia University, Hofstadter concluded that the right was hysterical, a fringe force that might be disruptive but would never prove dominant. But were people like Andrews and his supporters merely on the margins of American conservatism, or were they representative of its ethos and worldview?

Ever since Hofstadter published his essays, historians have taken issue with his dismissive stance. The scholarly consensus has shifted to an interpretation of the conservative movement of the mid-20th century not as a mobilization of zealous cranks but rather as a force that must be taken seriously, its leaders motivated not by paranoia or rage but by deeply held ideas and a canny understanding of their interests. However, as the far-right end of the American political spectrum has grown in recent years—from QAnon and Tucker Carlson to the Capitol rioters and those making death threats against school board officials—and as substantial parts of the Republican Party have actively encouraged or tacitly benefited from this shift, it is also worth asking how marginal the followers of people like Andrews truly were. When it comes to American conservatism and the right, how should we think about the relationship between fringe and mainstream?

The historian John Huntington’s Far-Right Vanguard offers the fullest portrait yet of the ultraconservative mobilization of the 20th century. Whereas many scholars of the right have focused on the self-conscious development of a conservative movement that took shape in the 1950s, espousing such high-minded principles as individual freedom, support of the market, and opposition to communism, Huntington pushes the story back to World War I and the 1920s. He suggests that we should see the rightward edge of American politics as itself a spectrum, with the white-power militias and the neo-Nazis, the vigilantes and those who peddled a belief in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as the farthest extreme.

Read entire article at The Nation

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