Something about our psychology makes us believe that what we experience today is wholly unique to ourselves and this day. Technically that is correct. Go back fifty years and half the players involved in the current drama over “extremists in Congress” weren’t even alive. But, like a thousand punk songs that sound like “Wild Thing” but are not “Wild Thing,” as Mark Twain supposedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” A good example is the current state of the Republican Party.
We just went through four years of a crap bastard president, who, thanks to his ability to command a strong bloc of voters, has shifted the Republican Party back to the hard right. While there is a sloppy leadership battle going on between the party’s shrinking establishment wing and its outright authoritarians, the Republican rank & file is very much dominated by fascists, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, militants, and lunatics. And, while the Republican congressional caucus has a small handful of no-shit bugeyes, there are far more far-right wingnuts in state and local office. Lately, we’ve been focusing on the Georgia crazy lady and her pistol packing pal from Colorado as if they are an anomaly, when, historically, the MAGA-cracked are the latest iteration of something very old in our politic.
A little more than 50 years ago, the Republican Party had a similar problem with the far-right, a rancid collection of fascists, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, militants, and lunatics. Like today, whether or not the mob was formally aligned with the GOP, they were a pain in the ass for the party’s business wing. Like today, the inmates eventually took over the party and pushed destructive policies, destroyed constructive politics, elected crackpots to office, and, ultimately, fielded a presidential candidate.
The story picks up in the late 1940s with a senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy. A hero of the right, a villain for everyone else, McCarthy made his name in the Second Red Scare, a four-year period (1950-54), where the Senator accused pretty much anyone politically to his left of being a communist. McCarthy held congressional hearings, duplicated in the states, in which labor organizers, entertainers, civil rights workers, and pretty much anyone who had expressed a progressive idea in public was grilled about their alleged beliefs and pressured to incriminate “fellow travelers.” Innocent people lost their livelihoods and families were destroyed. Some fled the country to live in exile, others took their own lives.
McCarthy was so loud and relentless that he became an overarching presence in the daily news. His ability to command press attention was central to his power, which, for four years, was immense. McCarthy garnered respectability through the patronage of the Kennedy family and, later, President Eisenhower, who “supported his goals but not his methods.” McCarthy also had a ruthless sidekick in the attorney Roy Cohn, close friend of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover – who recommended Cohn to McCarthy – and later an important mentor of Donald J. Trump.
In 1954, McCarthy started investigating the US Army, a misstep which gave the establishment – now tired of his antics – an opportunity to crush him. It didn’t take much to stop McCarthy. The man was a blowhard. When pressed, he could not back up his accusations. His “lists” of communists and fellow travelers were mostly blank. Many of the “Reds” McCarthy “exposed” were already out in the open; others were people who went to a union meeting or two, given up by people McCarthy bullied into talking. It did not take long to expose Old Joe as a fraud.
While McCarthy was censured, he was allowed to serve out his term, powerless. His influence greatly diminished to a fringe, he spent the rest of his life ranting from the sidelines, drunk on booze and high on morphine, a pariah to most Americans. However, in the fringe was one man who looked at McCarthy as a god.
Robert W. Welch, Jr. was a retired candy manufacturer from Massachusetts. Welch was also a rabid anti-communist, a racist, an anti-Semite, and a conspiracy theorist. In 1958, Welch formed the John Birch Society (JBS) with eleven other men, including Fred Koch, patriarch of the Koch Family.
Welch explained JBS’s philosophy and goals the Blue Book. Central to the philosophy is Welch’s belief that “both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government.’”
Who were these traitors? According to Welch, the “conspiratorial cabal” was made up of the Bavarian Illuminati, “the Insiders,” the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. Oh, and Satan – at the head of the plot to destroy America was Satan.
As with MAGA, the Society advertised itself as welcoming of all people. However, its rhetoric and affiliations expose that claim to be a lie. As Graham Lester points out in the Daily Kos, the JBS schtick is an American update of European antisemitism, though without the sturm und drang. JBS also had a close relationship with the White Citizen’s Council – a Klan-friendly group of racists from the South.
This is not to say that the average Bircher was a 1960s version of a Charlottesville tiki-torcher. Many were also suburban moms and dads, owners of a split-level, three-bedroom house, drivers of a new station wagon, and raisers of 2.5 children. As Republican Senator Barry Goldwater told William F Buckley, “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.” They also had a few militants among them.
One early JBS member was a Missourian named Robert DePugh. A fervent anti-communist and buddy of Robert Welch, DePugh drifted away from JBS, frustrated that the organization was too “weak.” In 1960, he formed a group called the Minutemen, the granddad of today’s militia movement. The Minutemen trained for guerilla warfare, threatened public officials, plotted bombings, and sold heath supplements. None of these activities endeared DePugh or the Minutemen to JBS or the Republican Party, but, echoing today’s Republican mainstream, the GOP was mostly quiet about their militant fellow travelers.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas, leaving Lydon B. Johnson president. From his first day in the Oval Office and through 1964, Johnson set about pissing off nearly every white person in the South, all the Dixiecrats, plenty of Republicans, the John Birch Society, and conservatives like William F. Buckley. This collection of Southern racists, Midwestern conspiracy mongers, and Northern elitists found a presidential candidate in Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. They worked hard to make Goldwater the Republican nominee (Robert DePugh didn’t like LBJ much, either, but he thought Goldwater was a “pussy”).
While the conservatives, racists, and far-right were able to get their ideal candidate in Goldwater, they had a problem: Robert Welch’s public image was that of Alex Jones, but, as JBS leader, he commanded a damn big and influential voting bloc. Goldwater he needed JBS to win the presidency, but he couldn’t have Robert Welch as its leader.
In January 1964, Goldwater, William F. Buckley, and some other conservative leaders held a couple private meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, at which they plotted to sideline Welch while not alienating JBS members. Buckley committed to use his magazine, National Review, to undercut Welch while propping up JBS. In a February commentary, Buckley did just that. As planned, Goldwater and others backed Buckley’s criticism in letters published in the magazines subsequent issues.
Buckley and Goldwater were successful in sidelining Welch, but it was too little, too late. No matter the demographic make-up of the organization, the John Birch Society was a batshit crazy conspiracy outfit, dabbling in anti-Semitisms and allied with committed white supremacists. Goldwater wasn’t a pretty package either. His anti-communism was so extreme that the Johnson campaign had no problem framing Goldwater as a very dangerous man. None of this helped Goldwater’s candidacy. To say that Goldwater got trounced is an understatement. Johnson won reelection with 61% of the vote. Even more historic was his Electoral College win: 486 to Goldwater’s 52.
While Johnson spent the next four years deepening the United States involvement in the War on Southeast Asia, the Republican Party turned on itself. Goldwater was put on the shelf. The Southern white supremacists were asked to dog-whistle. And, with the help of William Buckley, the John Birch Society were marginalized (though not destroyed – they still live on). Coming into the 1968 presidential election, the Republicans had repaired the party. In reliable warhorse Richard Nixon, they had a strong candidate, one who was acceptable to the mainstream and who could speak to the extremists in code. Defeating a Democratic Party in shambles, Nixon walked into the White House.
It would take eight more years for the hard right to regain influence in the Republican Party and another four before they had a “true conservative” – Ronald Reagan – in the White House. Reagan’s two terms as president created fertile ground for the reemergence of a strong far-right – a mélange of fascists, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, militants, and lunatics who eventually found a president in a pretend businessman, reality TV celebrity.
While today’s far-right rhymes with yesterday’s right-wing, the circumstances of 1964 are different than those we now experience. To start, today’s extremist violence is far less persistent and focused than what went down in the 1960s, especially in the Deep South. Yesterday’s right had clear political goals, which they worked at with a single-focus. Today’s far-right is gut reaction when it isn’t fantastical. It also can’t stop looking at the cameras.
The 1960’s right sole concern was power, not self-enrichment and personal brand-building. That seriousness and sense of purpose that extended from the fringe into the conservative establishment and the Republican Party, so that when the establishment felt power slipping away, they were able effectively, react, retreat, reset, and reposition themselves for a rebuild and future power. Paramount to their success was that the GOP and conservative establishment had a real intellectual base and a series of ideas, ideas which compared to today’s right actually seem constructive.
The MAGA movement, the militias, the white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, thugs, and lunatics are rabidly anti-intellectual, ruled solely by prejudice, impulse and wants. Today’s conservative establishment has reduced its vocabulary to No, Can’t, and Don’t. The Republican Party is so bereft of ideas that in 2020 it failed to produce a party platform. The establishment is weak and in panic, losing members by the day, totally unable, if not unwilling, to reign in a far-right that is undisciplined, unfocused, overconfident, and dangerous. As with their leader, the MAGA movement is a toddler with a loaded gun.
Some believe that today’s conservative establishment do as their forerunners did with the Birchers and police the MAGA right. Perhaps they can, but it will take far more than a vocal Mitt Romney, the occasional grumble from Mitch McConnell, and delayed criticism by powerless, retired office holders to corral the crazies and commit the party to an eight-year rebuild, one that does not rely on electoral trickery and anti-democratic legislative stunts. The rebuild would start with convicting Trump in his second impeachment trial and then banning him from holding office.
But, even is the GOP fails in policing its own, there is no reason to assume that the “party’s over.” It is not like the 50ish years between the GOP’s John Birch Society “purge” and MAGA was absent of Republican far-right extremism. In the 2016 elections, the Republican Party – not just Trump – reveled in misogynist, violent hyperbole. The Obama administration was beset with racist terrorist threats from the Tea Party and its allies. From the 1980s to now, the Republican Party has been a safe space for militant anti-abortion extremists. The party has never policing violent anti-abortion rhetoric or has been proactive about bombings and assassinations carried out by its supporters.
We can go further back, all the way to Reconstruction, for plenty of examples of both major parties – and some minor ones – not just harboring extremists, but championing them. Given what is acceptable to the mainstream today, party platforms pre-1970 often read like right-wing terrorist manifestos. For much of its history, the mainstream politicians embraced Barry Goldwater’s dictum “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” in the context of which it was spoken.
Marjorie Taylor Greene is no more an aberration in American politics than denying people of color the right and ability to vote. Understand that and know that Greene facing expulsion, censure, or a severe talking or the “purge” of MAGA from the GOP will not reset the Republican Party or fix America’s problem with right-wing extremism. Until the Republican Party falls, the song remains the same.