Hillary Clinton’s John F. Kennedy Moment: From the John Birch Society to the Alt-Right

Rights: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Rights: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday Hillary Clinton took to the stage in Reno, Nevada to criticize the Trump campaign’s ties to the alt-Right. She spoke of Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Obama’s birth certificate, the anti-Semitic slurs that stream from his alt-Right supporters online, and the casual racism and misogyny he himself utters on a seemingly daily basis. Although Trump did not create the alt-Right, he has become the movement’s figurehead; white nationalists see in Trump a potential for national influence that the far Right hasn’t had since the 1920s-30s. 

The New Right was the Alt-Right of the 1960s

There is an interesting historical echo of this moment. In the fall of 1961, President John F. Kennedy was worried about the “radical Right.” A collection of Right-wing broadcasters had taken advantage of changes in the radio industry in the late-1950s to create a loose network of independent radio stations willing to air conservative programming. By 1961 a dozen Right-wing broadcasters aired on a hundred or more radio stations nationwide. It was the first wave of conservative talk radio and there had never before been anything like it in radio in terms of size and mass influence (not even Charles Coughlin or Huey Long in the 1930s). These conservatives had very different politics from the moderates then in charge of the Republican Party, who during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower had promoted a vision of the welfare state and internationalist foreign policy that was different from progressivism in degree rather than in kind.

Some of Kennedy’s allies counseled that he should ignore these radicals. After all, they were tearing apart the Republican Party for him; let them be a thorn in Richard Nixon or Nelson Rockefeller’s side! But Kennedy and his advisers saw the potential of this conservative network to energize grassroots conservative activism. They were “harass[ing] local school boards, local librarians, and governing bodies”; they were “the mass base without which the Right-Wing movement would be ineffective.” Worse, they would not vote for Kennedy, who had barely squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon in 1960 and anticipated an equally close re-election battle in 1964.

So on November 18, 1961 Kennedy gave a widely-publicized speech at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. In the speech, Kennedy deplored those on the conspiratorial “fringes of our society who have sought to escape their own responsibility by finding a simple solution,” a veiled critique of anti-communists who blamed all the nation’s ills on communist infiltration. He described conservatives as those who “look suspiciously at their neighbors and their leaders” and who “call for ‘a man on horseback’ because they do not trust the people.”

Rights: Russia Insider

Rights: Russia Insider

That phrase, a “man on horseback,” was shorthand for the idea of a military dictatorship. In the early 1960s the Left was afraid that a conservative Army or Air Force general might launch a military coup. That fear was a commonplace in cinema at the time, popping up in the plots of blockbusters like Seven Days in May and Dr. Strangelove. The Left-wing conspiracy theory went like this: conservatives, frustrated with the Kennedy Administration’s bungling of the Bay of Pigs and its lack of anti-Communist oomph, would rally to a “man on horseback” riding into the metaphorical town to save the day. The only way to save America from the global Communist conspiracy was to put a strong man in charge who could utter the hard truths and cut through the bureaucratic (and democratic) red tape to get things done. Sound familiar?

Rights: JFK Presidential Library

Rights: JFK Presidential Library

Kennedy was also worried about the conspiratorial logic of a growing number of conservatives. “They find treason in our churches, in our highest court, in our treatment of water. They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, socialism with communism.” In other words, the emerging New Right had a conspiracy theory problem. It was inculcated in the anti-Communist anxiety of the Second Red Scare, but it became increasingly detached from reality. For groups like the John Birch Society, John F. Kennedy and other liberals were not merely wrong, they were treasonous; John Birch Society leader Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer, accused the President of being a Soviet plant just like every President since Harry Truman.

This conspiratorial mindset has a rather loud echo in the current election. Donald Trump differentiated himself from the other Republican presidential candidates in 2012 by promoting the “Birther” conspiracy theory, claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus unqualified to be President. Like all conspiracy theories, this one was non-falsifiable and every piece of counter-evidence–including a birth certificate–was dismissed as a trumped up phony. It also carried a white nationalist and kulturkampf undercurrent, suggesting that no mixed race African with an Arabic name could  “truly” be American or Christian. (Disgraced former college president Dinesh D’Souza has carved out a niche for himself peddling the idea to gullible moviegoers.)

Conspiracy theories are impervious to evidence and reason, so how do you combat that way of thinking? Kennedy chose to appeal to independent voters rather than fruitlessly trying to convince the committed. He called for Americans to “let our patriotism be reflected in the creation of confidence in one another, rather than crusades of suspicion. Let us prove we think our country great, by striving to make it greater. And above all, let us remember, however serious the outlook, however harsh the task, the one great irreversible trend in the history of the world is on the side of liberty–and we, for all time to come, are on the same side.” Simply put, things aren’t as bad as the John Birchers make it seem.

Hillary Clinton took the same approach last night (and at the Democratic National Convention) beginning with the slogan adorning her podium, “Stronger Together,” an echo of Kennedy’s final “we…are on the same side.” She appealed not to die-hard Trump supporters but to those on the fence, both Republicans disgusted with their Party’s nominee and independent voters. In contrast to Trump’s doom and gloom predictions of American decline, Clinton spoke of hope in a “rising generation of young people who are the most open, diverse, and connected we’ve ever seen.” And her closing line–“Let’s prove once again, that America is great because America is good”– was a dead-ringer for Kennedy’s statement, “Let us prove we think our country great, by striving to make it greater.” (Both were channeling Alexis de Tocqueville, although they arguably mangled his actual meaning.)

A Cautionary Tale

Of course, not all conservatives in the 1960s were members of the John Birch Society, just as not all conservatives in 2016 are eager to support Donald Trump. Indeed, after the 1964 election William F. Buckley, publisher of the influential conservative magazine The National Review, purged the Birchers from his editorial board and caused a sharp division between a fusionist conservative mainstream and a conspiratorial fringe. (Although it’s easy to overstate how different Buckley was from the Birchers; he was not above dabbling in conspiracy theories now and again himself, especially when it came to accusing the civil rights movement of acting as a Communist front). Still, scholars tend to credit Buckley’s purge of the John Birch Society with cementing the New Right as a major player in national politics and conservatism as an intellectually-respectable ideology.

The story of Buckley’s purge might be interpreted as a hopeful historical sign for the aftermath of the 2016 election. Perhaps if Trump is defeated, the Republican Party leadership will be able to “purge” the Party of the alt-Right and assorted Trumpians afterwards. I’m not so optimistic, not least because we have no William F. Buckley. I don’t mean that literally; he died in 2008. But even if conservatives had the will and united purpose to excise Trumpism from the Republican Party–and that’s a massive “if”–I’m not sure there’s an individual that exercises that kind of influence in the much larger and even more splintered conservative movement today. 

Furthermore, some of the most influential voices in contemporary conservatism–including second wave talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh–have rallied behind Trump. Indeed, Trump has essentially bought himself a media outlet in the form of Breitbart. There are whispers that should he lose, Trump will plow time and resources into turning the outlet into an alt-Right counterweight to Fox News. Win or lose, Trumpism is likely here to stay. There will be a contentious debate over the future of Republicanism after the election that could easily last as long as the tussle over conservative control of the Republican Party did (roughly 1960-1980). The prospect of twenty years of intra-party fighting with an uncertain outcome at the end should be sobering to conservatives. The Republican Party leadership, which has almost universally endorsed Trump, albeit with some reluctance, assumes that 2016 represents a momentary eruption of populist energy that can be safely neutered in future election cycles. But if they are wrong, they may be handing fusionist conservative control of the Republican Party over to the insurgent alt-Right for an entire political generation. 

Alt-Right v. New Right

The term “alt-Right” was coined by Richard Spencer in 2010 to describe an amorphous community of white nationalists, monarchists, men’s’ rights activists, and other previously marginalized groups on the far Right. What these groups share is an equal distaste for both the progressive Left and the conservative Right. They accuse progressives of political correctness run amok as evidenced by their unwillingness to express unqualified pride in the accomplishments of (white) Americans. But alt-Righters also attack conservatives as effete defenders of corporate capitalism. (Their favored term is “cuck” or “cuckservative,” a reference to a racist sub-category of porn.) From the perspective of the alt-Right, both progressives and business conservatives are selling out America’s cultural heritage by welcoming in hordes of non-English, non-white immigrants who steal the jobs of American workers, sexually assault native-born women, and refuse to assimilate.

The differences between conservatives and the alt-Right run deep. For the past seventy years, American conservatives have embraced what scholars call “fusionism.” The New Right emerged in the mid-20th century from a loose coalition of Catholic traditionalists, libertarian economists, Southern agrarians, and anti-Communist hawks. Although each group weighted their priorities differently, the uneasy consensus that emerged would call for a laissez-faire approach to State intervention in the economy, robust spending on the military-industrial complex, and regulation of public morality. There have always been fracture points between the various wings of the New Right, but the coalition has more or less held together for sixty years thus far.

Rights: Statista Charts

Rights: Statista Charts

The alt-Right is attempting to give the American Right a European makeover. European Right-wing parties–like the French National Front, the United Kingdom Independence Party, and the Freedom Party of Austria–generally reject laissez-faire ideas about free trade and free markets. (Bear in mind, several of the most influential libertarian economists, like Freidrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, were themselves refugees from the European Right, which had then taken the turn into fascism.) They do share with the American Right a belief in societal decline, but they assign the blame for that decline quite differently. Whereas American conservatives typically blame the secular Left, or to use Francis Schaeffer’s term “secular humanists,” for America’s slouch toward Gomorrah, the European Right has traditionally blamed Jews and immigrants. Xenophobia and anti-Semitism are high on the list of Right-wing concerns in Europe.

Part of this difference is a function of America’s history as a nation overwhelmingly composed of immigrants (some voluntary, some not, though for now I’ll set aside America’s original sin of race-based chattel slavery and its lingering social and institutional aftershocks). Whether English, Irish, German, French, or African, most of us are descended from immigrant stock. Nationalism in America has not traditionally been an ethnic nationalism but an ideological nationalism. To be American meant believing in individual liberties, religious toleration, and a variety of other civic virtues (which are continually contested, to be sure). To the extent that white ethnicity matters, it’s to idealize its erasure via the cultural melting pot. “Idealize” is an appropriate term given the periodic eruptions of anti-immigrant nativism throughout American history, from the Native American Party of the 1850s to the Second Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the alt-Right today. Despite those nativist moments, Old World ethnic boundaries have gradually been eroded away as each new wave of immigrants arrives, beginning the process of acculturation even as they transformed American society in return.

This kind of acculturation–the idea of being changed by immigrants in any substantive way–is as verboten to the alt-Right as it is to the European Right. Immigrants are framed not as potential, productive citizens coming to participate in our grand, national experiment but as criminally-inclined, religiously-extreme, disease-ridden, dangerous others. They do not speak the native language, share her customs, or pray in her churches. Allowing them to settle in the homeland creates an existential threat to the traditional or national way of life; it is tantamount to cultural and ethnic genocide. These concerns are usually framed in apocalyptic terms as a clash of civilizations. A generically-defined Christian West is besieged by hordes of radical Islamic militants. Unless extreme measures are taken–Close the borders! Build a wall! Ship them back!–they will swamp their new homes and replace its values, institutions, and governments with their own. Mosques will replace cathedrals, sharia law will swallow up constitutional law, and the burqa will symbolically dominate the public square (and the beach). In its most extreme expression, European Right-wing radicals have taken up arms to attack Muslims and their progressive enablers, like the slaughter of 77 Norwegians, mostly teenagers, by Anders Breivik in the name of a “monocultural Christian Europe.”

With the enthusiastic help of the alt-Right’s army of twitter trolls, anti-Semitism and xenophobia have been weaponized. Anyone who offers less than a full-throated condemnation of immigration, full stop, may be rewarded with a triple parenthetical around their name, ie (((Paul Matzko))), which is internet shorthand for “Jew,” someone who, according to alt-Righters, is willing to sell their cultural birthright for a politically-correct mess of pottage. Death threats are par for the course. Donald Trump has actively engaged with the alt-Right online, routinely retweeting their comments, fascist quotes, and signaling approval for alt-Right elder statesmen like Klansman David Duke.

And the alt-Right has evolved from a few thousand online Trumpian shock troopers to members of his core campaign leadership. Stephen Bannon, chairman of Breitbart News Network, has boasted about creating the perfect “platform for the alt-right.” And Bannon and Breitbart’s editorial team routinely echo the alt-Right language of kulturkampf, the idea that (white) America will be destroyed by creeping Islamization and Hispanicization unless a strong “man on horseback” rides in to save the day. The American Right hasn’t looked this European since the 1920s and 1930s, when anti-Semitic preachers like Gerald Winrod blamed the Great Depression on an international Zionist conspiracy and the Second Ku Klux Klan supported immigration laws that would keep out Eastern European Catholics. (Incidentally, Donald Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was arrested after a Klan riot in Queens in 1927. The rotten apple doesn’t appear to fall far from the rotted tree.)

A Silver Lining?

If there is a hopeful silver lining to the rise of Trumpism, it is the possibility that this presents a moment for conservatives to reject the politics of xenophobia and rhetoric of kulturkampf. I have been speaking of Trumpism and conservatism as discrete movements thus far, but the reality on the ground is messier. In the past decade, conservative Republicans, while claiming the mantle of Reagan and Buckley, have adopted alt-Right policy positions. Support for restricting immigration has become the new litmus test for Republican Party candidates, with even former immigration reform supporters like Marco Rubio hastening to adopt a harder line. Or consider Ted Cruz, hailed as the last hope of the Never Trumpers in the Republican primaries, who advocated building a wall on the border with Mexico just as vehemently as Trump, sparking a moment of oneupsmanship as Trump added dozens of feet to the height of his imagined wall. The question stopped being whether a wall was a good idea and became instead who could build the biggest. In immigration policy substance Cruz was not far removed from Trump and he played the same paranoid tune, muttering about Ebola-carrying immigrants, radical Islamists and sharia law, and the influx of gang members and drugs.

The question that confronts the Republican Party, both its leadership and its rank-and-file, is whether they want a Party that embraces immigration, diversity, and toleration, or a Party that tries to resurrect the politics of white, nativist resentment. Trump and the alt-Right argue that the alienation of Hispanics is fait accompli, that taking a hard line on immigration is the only way to prevent a permanent Democratic majority. But it was not so long ago that George W. Bush was able to win 44% of the Hispanic vote. If conservatives had not rejected comprehensive immigration reform in the summer of 2007, if support for immigration had instead become a Republican point of pride, then it’s not hard to imagine an alternate history in which the Party enjoyed the support of a growing majority of Latino-American voters, acting as a Republican counterweight to Democratic dominance among African-American voters. (A reminder that the Republican Party has made this mistake before and is still suffering the consequences.)

Rights: Getty Images

Rights: Getty Images

Instead, talk radio fulminated and conservatives rallied, defeating the measure and beginning a decade-long slide towards the alt-Right. Inertia is on their side. Demographic realities might eventually force the Republican Party to change tacks, but waiting for angry, older white voters to die off will take decades, condemning the Party to a Groundhog’s Day nightmare for multiple election cycles. However, steering the Republican Party away from nativism would require a degree of political courage nowhere to be seen among the Party’s current leadership and an unlikely commitment from grassroots conservatives that have been fed a steady diet of fear-mongering and hyperbole for years.

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