As noted in a post over the weekend, Donald Trump may not have created the ugliness that now is the mainstream of today's Republican Party and conservatism in general, but he surely has tapped into aspects of America's history that represent the worse parts of human nature and society. Worse yet, he has driven many in the Republican Party who once stood against what I view as a growing embrace of ignorance and extremism away from the party. So-call Rockefeller Republicans now count themselves as independents, if not Democrats, and the GOP has become a veritable coven of know nothings, religious extremists and white supremacists behind a thin veneer that purports to want small government and lower taxes. A lengthy column in the New York Times that I bookmarked last week looks at some of this history and the ugly forces now in control of the Republican Party. Here are excerpts:
Until Nov. 8, 2016, historians of American politics shared a rough consensus about the rise of modern American conservatism. It told a respectable tale. By the end of World War II, the story goes, conservatives had become a scattered and obscure remnant, vanquished by the New Deal and the apparent reality that, as the critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950, liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”
Year Zero was 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. started National Review, the small-circulation magazine whose aim, Buckley explained, was to “articulate a position on world affairs which a conservative candidate can adhere to without fear of intellectual embarrassment or political surrealism.” Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society, anti-Semites and supporters of the hyperindividualist Ayn Rand, and his cohort fused the diverse schools of conservative thinking — traditionalist philosophers, militant anti-Communists, libertarian economists — into a coherent ideology, one that eventually came to dominate American politics.
I was one of the historians who helped forge this narrative. . . . Goldwater’s loss, far from dooming the American right, inspired a new generation of conservative activists to redouble their efforts, paving the way for the Reagan revolution. Educated whites in the prosperous metropolises of the New South sublimated the frenetic, violent anxieties that once marked race relations in their region into more palatable policy concerns about “stable housing values” and “quality local education,” backfooting liberals and transforming conservatives into mainstream champions of a set of positions with enormous appeal to the white American middle class.
Then the nation’s pre-eminent birther ran for president. Trump’s campaign was surreal and an intellectual embarrassment, and political experts of all stripes told us he could never become president. That wasn’t how the story was supposed to end. National Review devoted an issue to writing Trump out of the conservative movement; an editor there, Jonah Goldberg, even became a leader of the “Never Trump” crusade. But Trump won — and some conservative intellectuals embraced a man who exploited the same brutish energies that Buckley had supposedly banished.
The professional guardians of America’s past, in short, had made a mistake. We advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump. . . . . Which poses a question: If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?
In the 1994 issue of The American Historical Review that featured Alan Brinkley’s “The Problem of American Conservatism,” Ribuffo wrote a response contesting Brinkley’s contention, now commonplace, that Trilling was right about American conservatism’s shallow roots. Ribuffo argued that America’s anti-liberal traditions were far more deeply rooted in the past, and far angrier, than most historians would acknowledge, citing a long list of examples from “regional suspicions of various metropolitan centers and the snobs who lived there” to “white racism institutionalized in slavery and segregation.”
[W]e can now see a history that is indeed unsettling — but also unsettlingly familiar. Consider, for example, an essay published in 1926 by Hiram Evans, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in the exceedingly mainstream North American Review. His subject was the decline of “Americanism.” Evans claimed to speak for an abused white majority, “the so-called Nordic race,” which, “with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.” Evans, a former dentist, proposed that his was “a movement of plain people,” and acknowledged that this “lays us open to the charge of being hicks and ‘rubes’ and ‘drivers of secondhand Fords.’ ” But over the course of the last generation, he wrote, these good people “have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed,” watching a “moral breakdown” that was destroying a once-great nation.
This “Second Klan” (the first was formed during Reconstruction) scrambles our pre-Trump sense of what right-wing ideology does and does not comprise. (Its doctrines, for example, included support for public education, to weaken Catholic parochial schools.) The Klan also put the predations of the international banking class at the center of its rhetoric. Its worldview resembles, in fact, the right-wing politics of contemporary Europe — a tradition, heretofore judged foreign to American politics, called “herrenvolk republicanism,” that reserved social democracy solely for the white majority. By reaching back to the reactionary traditions of the 1920s, we might better understand the alliance between the “alt-right” figures that emerged as fervent Trump supporters during last year’s election and the ascendant far-right nativist political parties in Europe.
The general belief among historians, however, was that the Klan’s national influence faded in the years after 1925, when Indiana’s grand dragon, D.C. Stephenson, who served as the de facto political boss for the entire state, was convicted of murdering a young woman.
But the Klan remained relevant far beyond the South. In 1936 a group called the Black Legion, active in the industrial Midwest, burst into public consciousness after members assassinated a Works Progress Administration official in Detroit. The group, which considered itself a Klan enforcement arm, dominated the news that year. The F.B.I. estimated its membership at 135,000, including a large number of public officials, possibly including Detroit’s police chief. The Associated Press reported in 1936 that the group was suspected of assassinating as many as 50 people.
Stephen H. Norwood, one of the few historians who did study the Black Legion, also mined another rich seam of neglected history in which far-right vigilantism and outright fascism routinely infiltrated the mainstream of American life. The story begins with Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit-based “radio priest” who at his peak reached as many as 30 million weekly listeners. In 1938, Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, began reprinting “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a forged tract about a global Jewish conspiracy first popularized in the United States by Henry Ford. After presenting this fictitious threat, Coughlin’s paper called for action, in the form of a “crusade against the anti-Christian forces of the red revolution” — a call that was answered, in New York and Boston, by a new organization, the Christian Front. Its members were among the most enthusiastic participants in a 1939 pro-Hitler rally that packed Madison Square Garden, where the leader of the German-American Bund spoke in front of an enormous portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas. . . . . Young Irish-Catholic men inspired by the Christian Front desecrated nearly every synagogue in Washington Heights. The New York Catholic hierarchy, the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts largely looked the other way.
Anti-Semitism in America declined after World War II. But as Leo Ribuffo points out, the underlying narrative — of a diabolical transnational cabal of aliens plotting to undermine the very foundations of Christian civilization — survived in the anti-Communist diatribes of Joseph McCarthy. The alien narrative continues today in the work of National Review writers like Andrew McCarthy (“How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda”) and Lisa Schiffren (who argued that Obama’s parents could be secret Communists because “for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or ’60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics”). And it found its most potent expression in Donald Trump’s stubborn insistence that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Trump’s connection to this alternate right-wing genealogy is not just rhetorical. In 1927, 1,000 hooded Klansmen fought police in Queens in what The Times reported as a “free for all.” One of those arrested at the scene was the president’s father, Fred Trump. (Trump’s role in the melee is unclear; the charge — “refusing to disperse” — was later dropped.) In the 1950s, Woody Guthrie, at the time a resident of the Beach Haven housing complex the elder Trump built near Coney Island, wrote a song about “Old Man Trump” and the “Racial hate/He stirred up/In the bloodpot of human hearts/When he drawed/That color line” in one of his housing developments. In 1973, when Donald Trump was working at Fred’s side, both father and son were named in a federal housing-discrimination suit.
The 1960s and ’70s New York in which Donald Trump came of age, as much as Klan-ridden Indiana in the 1920s or Barry Goldwater’s Arizona in the 1950s, was at conservatism’s cutting edge, setting the emotional tone for a politics of rage.
In 1965, Congress once more allowed large-scale immigration to the United States — and it is no accident that this date coincides with the increasing conservative backlash against liberalism itself, now that its spoils would be more widely distributed among nonwhites.
The liberalization of immigration law is an obsession of the alt-right. Trump has echoed their rage. “We’ve admitted 59 million immigrants to the United States between 1965 and 2015,” he noted last summer, with rare specificity.
A puzzle remains. If Donald Trump was elected as a Marine Le Pen-style — or Hiram Evans-style — herrenvolk republican, what are we to make of the fact that he placed so many bankers and billionaires in his cabinet, and has relentlessly pursued so many 1-percent-friendly policies? More to the point, what are we to the make of the fact that his supporters don’t seem to mind?
Here, however, Trump is far from unique. The history of bait-and-switch between conservative electioneering and conservative governance is another rich seam that calls out for fresh scholarly excavation: not of how conservative voters see their leaders, but of the neglected history of how conservative leaders see their voters.
It is a short leap from advertising and reality TV to darker forms of manipulation. Consider the parallels since the 1970s between conservative activism and the traditional techniques of con men. . . . . The dubious grifting of Donald Trump, in short, is a part of the structure of conservative history.
Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in the grim essays of William F. Buckley, the scrupulous constitutionalist principles of Barry Goldwater or the bright-eyed optimism of Ronald Reagan. They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage. It will not be a pleasant story. But if those historians are to construct new arguments to make sense of Trump, the first step may be to risk being impolite.