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Magazine / FROM THE ARCHIVES

The Radical Right Returns

A new generation of conspiracy theorists is following in the footsteps of John Birch Society members and other archconservatives.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

October 2, 2010

He was born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, and raised in Abilene, Kan. He worshipped as a Presbyterian. He was educated at the U.S. Military Academy and embarked on a long military career that took him to the pinnacle of responsibility, as supreme commander of the Allied invasion of Nazi-held Europe in World War II. The war won, his fellow Americans resoundingly elected him to the highest office in the land.

None of these facts about Dwight Eisenhower, known affectionately as Ike, made much of an impression on Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer in Belmont, Mass., and the founder in the 1950s of the John Birch Society, an arch-conservative group sharply focused on the threat of communist subversion. For Welch, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." This stark judgment, Welch insisted, was "based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt."

This history seems depressingly relevant amid a season of scurrilous accusations leveled against the person who now inhabits the Oval Office. The Cold War ended nearly two decades ago, with America the victor, but now a new generation of conspiracy theorists has cropped up. The Radical Right, as the Birchers and their kinfolk were known, is back. The movement has returned, if not to the center of American politics, then to some worrisome place not all that far from the mainstream.

 

Let's be clear: President Obama's policies, leadership style, and performance record are all fair game for sharp attack in our freewheeling, democratic political culture. But the bill of personal indictment against Barack Hussein Obama the man -- that is, the particular spate of accusations that cast him as somehow un-American -- is absurd. He was born in the United States, as the Constitution requires the president to be, not in Kenya, as the so-called birthers claim. He is not a Muslim, even though his father was and even though it is not a crime to be a Muslim or, for that matter, an atheist, as other folks suspect him of being. He is not a socialist, although he is a believer in activist Big Government.

Yet such fusillades are, if anything, intensifying, with a raft of insinuations about Obama's character from right-wing assailants in the blogosphere, on talk radio, and from other sources. Amid this battering, the share of Americans who believe that Obama is a Muslim has increased to 18 percent from 11 percent just after his inauguration, according to the Pew Research Center. For his detractors, the label "Muslim" seems to be an indirect way of saying that Obama is un-American, with polls suggesting that about a quarter of Americans believe that most Muslims in the U.S. are not patriotic.

No less weighty a personage than Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, former American history professor, and possible contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, makes the case for Obama as "other." "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anticolonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?" Gingrich told National Review Online. "That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior."

In offering this comment, Gingrich was echoing a denigrating cover story in Forbes, by conservative writer Dinesh D'Souza, who, in reference to Obama's Kenyan-born father, said: "Incredibly, the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s. This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation's agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son." D'Souza has defended his piece -- which the White House attacked as a "new low" -- as "a psychological theory."

Such suspicions about Obama are part of a wider and swelling cluster of anxieties of a traditional nativist type, reflected in an earlier age by citizens worried about the influx of Catholic immigrants in big cities in the North. The core nativist question, a staple of the modern Radical Right, is always the same: Who is a real American?

Today's nativist agenda extends from opposition to the construction of mosques -- and not just the one proposed for a site a few blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan -- to calls for repeal of the 14th Amendment provision that automatically grants citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. The rollback cause, agitated by the influx of illegal Hispanic immigrants from south of the border, has been embraced by Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Although the debate over Muslims and Islam is, in certain respects, quite different from the debate over Latino immigration, a tie binds the two matters: the fear, which a significant chunk of Americans feel but the evidence does not bear out, that the country is being changed for the worse by non-native elements that cannot or simply will not assimilate into traditional American culture.

Thus, there is the phobia that the country is in imminent danger of succumbing to Islamic law, known as sharia, even though 75 percent of the people identify themselves as Christians and less than 1 percent say they are Muslim. That approximates the share of Buddhists and is far less than the 15 percent who say they have no religion.

As for the fear that the U.S. is being overrun by wave after wave of illegal immigrants, the supposed tsunami is actually subsiding because of hard economic times. "The annual flow of unauthorized immigrants into the United States was nearly two-thirds smaller in the March 2007 to March 2009 period than it had been from March 2000 to March 2005," the Pew Hispanic Center found in a recent report.

Prestigious academics have at times given respectable voice to such trumped-up fears. The late Samuel Huntington, who was well known for his view that the post-Cold War world would be defined by a clash of civilizations, came to include America as part of this thesis. "The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages," he wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy in 2004.

The return of the Radical Right, circa 2010, also marks the return of what the late historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in American politics." At the conclusion of his classic essay on the topic, published in the early 1960s and as valid as ever, Hofstadter wrote, "The recurrence of the paranoid style over a long span of time and in different places suggests that a mentality disposed to see the world in the paranoid's way may always be present in some considerable minority of the population." He noted, too, that the political movements exhibiting the paranoid style "are not constant but come in successive episodic waves.... Catastrophe or the fear of catastrophe is most likely to elicit the syndrome of paranoid rhetoric."

Tremors

In the Cold War era, the seminal shock to the U.S. body politic was the fall of China to Mao's Communist legions in 1949. China occupied a large place in the imagination of American conservatives, who strived for the conversion of hundreds of millions of souls to the faith of Jesus. China's abrupt shift to the camp of the godless, in league with the Bolsheviks in the neighboring Soviet Union, was precisely the sort of large and disturbing development guaranteed to nourish conspiracy theories. Who lost China? In aggressive pursuit of an answer to that politically loaded question, aspiring right-wing politicians, Richard Nixon among them, built a national fan base.

There were, in truth, some Communist agents in the nation's capital. Historians have generally concluded that Alger Hiss, who served in the State Department, was a Soviet spy, as Whittaker Chambers, whose case was backed by Nixon, alleged. Where the Radical Right went off the rails was in imagining that the entire government had sold out to the Reds -- the theme of the 1964 book None Dare Call It Treason by John Stormer, a Christian pastor and educator and a John Birch Society member. In selling millions of copies, despite an obscure publisher, the book showed that there was a substantial appetite for such literature. For all the media's attention to the Radical Left that emerged in the 1960s, the Radical Right quite likely played to a far larger audience.

Although few mainstream politicians claimed membership, prominent conservatives sometimes spoke in terms that echoed the movement's vocabulary. When Barry Goldwater, a hard-line Cold Warrior, declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," in accepting the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 1964, he invoked the very word, extremism, that defined the Radical Right. It was no accident: Goldwater thought that Robert Welch's characterization of Eisenhower as a communist agent was absurd, but he publicly defended members of the Welch-led John Birch Society, calling them, in 1961, "the kind of people we need in politics."

Today's Radical Right derives its energies largely from the 9/11 attacks, an even bigger jolt than the loss of China to communism a half-century earlier. Nine years after the event, the aftershocks continue to convulse American politics. For a new generation of politicians, "extremism in the defense of liberty" is again no vice. Tom Tancredo, the Republican former House member now running for governor of Colorado as a candidate of the American Constitution Party, has suggested bombing Mecca as a response to any nuclear attack on the U.S. by Islamic terrorists.

The near-total collapse of the banking system and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression hands today's extremists an agitating ingredient absent from the early decades of the Cold War. With experts pointing to the mounting national debt as a ticking time bomb, a popular "fear of catastrophe" -- the incubator for paranoid thinking, in Hofstadter's terms -- is a palpable feature of our frazzled culture.

In the 19th century, a rollicking era characterized by boom-and-bust cycles, nativist sentiments had a basis, in part, in economic anxieties. In the mid-1850s, the political fortunes of the militantly anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party -- which emerged from the fraternal Order of the Star-Spangled Banner and elected governors, big-city mayors, and scores of members of Congress -- were markedly improved by a financial panic in the fall of 1854. Northern white Protestants who made up the party's core saw Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany as a threat to jobs and, even more, as a "religious minority thought to be antithetical to American values," with a suspected primary allegiance to Rome, noted Tyler Anbinder, a history professor at George Washington University who specializes in 19th-century American politics.

The Great Depression in the 1930s spawned the noxious spectacle of Father Coughlin, the radio broadcaster whose conspiratorial worldview was infused with the notion that a gullible President Roosevelt was being led down a dark road by conniving Jewish financiers such as Bernard Baruch, "who whispered into his perturbed ears the philosophy of destruction.... Did they not, in season and out of season, obstruct our president from driving the money changers from the temple?"

An economic recovery, if and when it arrives in full force, can be expected to take the edge off nativist attitudes. But it is very unlikely that recovery will altogether stanch such sentiments. In the first place, the 9/11 attacks remain as a root source of American fears of the "other," fed by the plausible possibility of new attacks. A core birther concern is Obama's legitimacy as commander-in-chief -- an issue that has seeped into areas of the military, with Lt. Col. Terry Lakin, an Army doctor, now facing a court-martial for refusing to serve in Afghanistan on the grounds that his orders came from an ineligible president. Upon signing an affidavit of support for Lakin's demand that Obama produce a birth certificate, retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a West Point graduate and frequent Fox News contributor, issued a statement declaring: "Our military MUST have confidence their commander-in-chief lawfully holds his office, and absent which confidence grievous consequences may ensue."

The campaign to sow doubts about Obama's legitimacy has yet to become a McCarthy-era-like drive to indict the entire government as being riddled with enemy agents. "I have here in my hand a list of 205 names ... known to the secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department," Joseph McCarthy, a first-term Republican senator from Wisconsin, declared in a sensational speech in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1950. But critics on the watch for Islamic subversion are starting to train their sights on the Obama administration's lower-rank officials.

"Shariah: The Threat to America," a new report by the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank in Washington, devotes three pages to the proposition that "there is, arguably, no more dramatic example of a senior U.S. government official failing to perform his duty to know -- and, seemingly, to fulfill his oath of office -- than that of John Brennan, Homeland Security adviser and counterterrorism adviser to President Obama." The report all but accuses Brennan, an Arabic speaker who formerly served as the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, of being a closeted Muslim, based on comments he has made, such as referring to Jerusalem as "Al Quds," an Arabic name for the city that translates as the "holy place," in a speech earlier this year at New York University's Islamic Center. "Indeed, it is hard to overstate the danger associated with the president of the United States having as his top adviser in these sensitive portfolios someone so severely compromised with respect to Shariah and the threat it poses," the report asserts.

It is not only liberals who view such pronouncements as hyperbolic. "Islam in America is of recent vintage. This country can't be 'Islamic.' Its foundations are deep in the Puritan religious tradition," Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born expert on Islam and a supporter of the Iraq war, wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Although Obama has defended the right of Islamic leaders in the U.S. to build a community center, with a mosque, near the site of the twin towers, it's hard to characterize his administration as being soft on Islamic militancy. He retained George W. Bush's Republican Defense secretary, Robert Gates, and approved a major escalation of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan as his first big national security decision. He made David Petraeus -- the architect of the Iraq troop surge and a hero to supporters of that war -- his top general in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has ramped up drone attacks on Islamic terrorism suspects in Pakistan and elsewhere -- a tactic that human-rights activists have sharply criticized as amounting to an "ill-defined license to kill without accountability."

On top of the national security and economic worries, a third reality is stirring anxieties among some on the Right. The United States is in the midst of a demographic transition in which non-Hispanic, white Caucasians -- traditionally the base of the Radical Right -- are declining as a share of the total population and are destined to become a numerical minority midway through the 21st century. The evolution is stoking concerns that white people, once the main source of racism, will become the target. In an outburst last year on his Fox News Channel show, conservative commentator Glenn Beck, a white male, called out Obama as a "racist" in reverse -- "a guy who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Beck is teaming up with fellow Fox commentator Sarah Palin at speaking events steeped in nostalgia for a seemingly (and gauzily defined) lost America. At the pair's August rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Palin declared, in an apparent swipe at Obama: "We must not fundamentally transform America as some would want; we must restore America and restore her honor." The language of restoration is a staple of nativist rhetoric through the ages. In a 2008 appearance on Fox News, Christine O'Donnell, now the GOP nominee for Senate in Delaware who has modeled herself on Palin, said flatly of Obama, "He's anti-American."

Portrait Of Today's Radical Right

It's important to note that nativist sentiments are by no means confined to elements in the Republican Party or parts of the conservative movement. Over the past half-century, the Democratic Party has also been a wellspring of populist nativism, such as that embraced by the race-baiting Alabama Democrat George Wallace in the 1960s. In 1968, Wallace won almost 10 million votes and five Southern states in his bid for the presidency on the American Independent Party ticket. (He later rejoined the Democratic ranks.)

Indeed, the GOP has the greater historical claim as the party of tolerance, with its founding on an anti-slavery platform in the 1850s, a stance that made a vote for the party of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, anathema to generations of Southern white Democrats in the post-Civil War era.

In recent decades, however, nativism has been evident largely in various precincts of the Right -- and in political party terms, in GOP circles. This raises a host of questions: How big is today's Radical Right? From what parts of society do its members hail? How fast is it growing?

Precise answers are elusive -- this is not, after all, a census category. Still, reasonable inferences can be made from the survey data from reputable organizations such as Gallup.

Gallup's standard polling question on political ideology gives respondents five choices to describe their "political views": very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal. For the most recent poll, published in June, the breakdown was 10 percent, very conservative; 32 percent, conservative; 35 percent, moderate; 15 percent, liberal; and 5 percent, very liberal; with the remaining few percent not answering.

The survey points to the country's broad conservative tilt, even at a time when Democrats control the White House and Congress. At the ideological poles, there are twice as many very conservative Americans as very liberal ones -- 24 million to 12 million, given an adult population, 18 years and older, of 235 million.

Over the past two decades, moreover, conservative ranks have hardened significantly. Today, very conservative Americans make up 24 percent of all those who view themselves as conservatives; in 1992, the very conservative share of the conservative bloc was only 14 percent. And back then, the very conservative comprised only 5 percent of all Americans, compared with today's 10 percent.

The upshot is that very conservative is a distinct minority strand of opinion in America, but not a tiny one. True, to be very conservative does not make a person, by definition, a member of the Radical Right -- at least not in the textbook sense that Hofstadter meant: folks tinged with paranoia about subversive threats to America. The tea party movement tilts very conservative, but its paramount concern with the nation's dire fiscal straits, and particularly the level of government spending, is firmly planted in reality.

Still, even if the Radical Right can be reduced to, say, a mere 5 million of the pod of 24 million very conservative Americans, that equals the number of people who watch Katie Couric, the bane of Sarah Palin, on the CBS Evening News on any given night.

Gallup provided additional data to National Journal to fill out this portrait. The very conservatives are more likely to be male than are the members of all other ideological groups; are more likely to hail from the South; and are more likely to be 65 and older. The age breakdown between very conservative and very liberal Americans on the dimension of age is particularly telling: The 18-to-29 age group supplies a scant 13 percent of the ranks of the very conservative, but makes up 31 percent of the very liberal pod. The very conservative are also significantly less likely to be college graduates than are the very liberal.

Future Of A Political Pathology

For linking conservatives, at least Far Right conservatives, to a "paranoid style," Hofstadter was castigated by critics who called his work a bid to make conservatism not merely disreputable, but psychologically pathological -- to consign to the loony bin anyone in America who was not a moderate or a liberal.

Hofstadter, though, took pains to make clear, at the outset of his essay, that "in using the expression 'paranoid style,' I am not speaking in a clinical sense but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes.... The clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others."

The paranoid style, in other words, is foremost a condition of the political culture that waxes and wanes according to circumstances. The style lends itself to opportunists -- perhaps Gingrich is one -- who take calculated advantage of an environment ripe for the cultivation of paranoid attitudes.

A president, for all the powers of the office, is not apt to find such an environment easy to change. Eisenhower chose to ignore the campaign to vilify him as un-American, which in the end proved a winning strategy. But he had the political leeway, as a military hero with "a huge reservoir of popularity," to take the high road, as a biographer, the historian Fred Greenstein, noted in an interview.

Obama is more exposed to the heat from the Radical Right. For one thing, he lacks the insulation of military service -- as did Bill Clinton, whose past as a Vietnam-era draft evader nourished conservative accusations that he was an unreconstructed '60s Leftie. Also, and probably more important, Obama has the misfortune of living in an age in which the media standards of the past have all but crumbled.

Today's mainstream media, including the national television networks, seize on the politically pathological as a spectacle capable of attracting a momentary audience in the frenetic information market in which headlines can easily shift six times a day. NBC's Today show, no less, invited Florida pastor Terry Jones, whose Pentecostal church membership numbers only in the dozens, to appear for an interview in New York City, at which he said that he would not, after all, burn the Koran, "not today, not ever." The comment was enough to make the grade for an MSNBC.com "breaking news" blip.

In this atmosphere of never-ending carnival theater, the Obama White House finds itself devoting its public opinion-shaping energies to such tasks as correcting misperceptions about the president's religious beliefs. In early September, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs felt obliged to declare that Obama is a "committed, mainstream Christian" -- and not the radical "liberation theology" kind of Christian that Fox's Beck was calling him. Score one for Beck.

Will this war of words remain only that -- and not morph into the kind of war that claims flesh-and-bone victims? "I fear political violence, political assassinations," Thomas Whalen, a social science and history professor at Boston University, said in an interview. "That's the next step -- when you say someone is not an American."

Although Obama, with his seemingly exotic lineage as the Hawaiian-born, Indonesian-raised son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, may be an irresistible target for the paranoids of the Right, history suggests that targets can always be found.

Today Obama; tomorrow, well, how about Mitt Romney, gearing up for another run at the GOP presidential nomination? He is a Mormon -- and as such, a member of a church that some Americans, notably some evangelical Protestants, have long viewed as a cult and not authentically Christian. In the run-up to the 2008 Iowa caucuses, anti-Romney robo-calls cited such former Mormon practices as "baptizing the dead." Lee Harris, a political writer who was raised as a Southern Baptist, said in an interview, "Christian fundamentalists have a much more negative attitude toward Mormons than people realize." Noting the importance of the Religious Right constituency in the Republican Party, Harris added, "I find it amazing that people think Romney is going to get anywhere."

If the Cold War era is any guide, at some point the Radical Right will bring forth a Radical Left -- a reaction to a reaction. In the 1960s, the so-called New Left gravitated toward its own conspiratorial sense of politics, portraying the U.S. as a serial oppressor of poor nations such as Vietnam under the guise of anti-communism. President Johnson, a Democrat, the architect of the Great Society -- the most liberal experiment in politics since the New Deal -- and the force behind the passage of landmark civil-rights legislation, became a despised figure for the Far Left. "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" the street protesters chanted.

A new New Left might be finding its own edgy voice. In the pages of The Nation, the author Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote, "The role of the Left should not be to uphold or defend the government, meaning, for now, the corpo-Obama-Geithner-Petraeus state, but to change it, drastically and from the ground up." She added: "As the tea partiers keep reminding us in their nasty and demented ways, these are revolutionary times."

But at this juncture, the fever is mainly on the Right. At some point, the fever will break; it always does. The only question, as ever, is what wreckage it will leave behind.

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