Epistemology, Media Ecosystems, and the Radio Right

I presented a paper at the American Historical Association’s annual conference last January. My paper, titled “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” illustrated the power of conservative radio with the story of a little known yet wildly successful 1962 boycott of Eastern European imports by conservative housewives. Afterwards, David Farber, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, asked me a particularly important question. Before I get to the question, I should note that it was an honor to have him in attendance; my dissertation, of which this paper was a part, can be traced back to a graduate seminar I took with him while he was at Temple University. His encouragement and advice came at a key moment in my academic career.

My memory is not exact, but what Farber asked was, “What is the epistemology of Right-wing radio? How did conservative listeners know what they were being told was true?” It was an excellent question. After all, it’s not just that conservative radio listeners believed what they were being told, but that they believed so strongly that it inspired action. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks translated radio into activism, the kind of sign-waving, door-knocking, literature-passing, coffee klatch-holding, card party-organizing activism that only true believers participate in. You have to be really sure of something to engage so fully, to commit so much of your resources and time.  A vibrant grassroots movement like the New Right of the early 1960s must have required a powerfully convincing epistemology to attract and maintain activists. I stumbled through an answer at the time, but I think I can answer more fully now that I’ve had time to reflect.

The very nature of radio broadcasting as a thing consumed in the privacy of the home or car encouraged listeners to feel a sense of personal connection to the broadcaster. Hearing a voice express emotion is a more intimate experience than reading words printed on a page. Politicians have long taken advantage of this broadcast media effect, like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous “Fireside Chats” during the Great Depression. Americans at the time often reported feeling like Roosevelt was talking to them personally, that he truly cared about their individual struggles. Conservative broadcasters in the 1960s benefited from the same effect. Their listeners–who skewed middle-aged, middle-class, and female by a two to one margin–wrote to McIntire and poured out their concerns for their wayward children, ill spouses, and the decline of their nation. A grandmother in Illinois wrote of her concern for her grandchildren who attended a public school since their father had lost his faith in high school (though combat during WW2 partially restored it). A mother in Pennsylvania included a post-script to her letter in order to brag of her tenth-grader’s prize-winning oratory describing the Navajo Indians. A mother in Wisconsin worried about her daughter drinking alcohol, dating a Catholic boy, and refusing to help with household chores; her husband only attended church part-time and didn’t share her concerns. Another woman watched the 1960 election returns until 4am, confessing that she cried herself to sleep after realizing that the Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy had won.

That sense of intimacy fueled a willingness to trust conservative broadcasters when they spoke on political and social issues. A correspondent from Kansas felt that McIntire’s program armed her with the “facts at hand” and made her feel “a place along with many others who are listening.” That last statement is vitally significant. Radio bound listeners not only to the broadcaster but to each other. The Kansan went on to say that she felt “no longer alone and helpless.” And when the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations shut down conservative broadcasting in the late-1960s, these listeners did not just lose a show. No, they suddenly felt disconnected from a movement of like-minded conservatives. As one listener from the southeast corner of Washington State wrote after the local radio station dropped McIntire’s show, “I feel as tho [sic] my life-line has been cut.” This was not merely hyperbole. Every single weekday for the past five, ten, or fifteen years these listeners had turned on their radios and heard Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and other conservative broadcasters tell them that they were part of a national movement to reclaim America for God and the Constitution.

The sharper among my readers have likely already noticed a disconnect between my argument and my chronology. After all, mass radio broadcasting had existed since the 1920s and there had been conservative voices on the air from the beginning. So it’s only logical to wonder why conservative radio broadcasting would have sparked the creation of the New Right in the late-1950s and early 1960s rather than at any other moment in the preceding four decades. Why at that moment did millions of Americans turn on their radios and suddenly find conservative ideas so much more convincing than before?

What changed between the 1920s and 1960s was the sheer number of conservative programs as well as the number and reach of stations willing to air those programs. There had always been conservative broadcasters, like Father Charles Coughlin, but they were confined to a handful of isolated time slots on stations mostly controlled by the major radio networks. You might hear Coughlin criticize the New Deal on air, but he would be followed by a pro-New Deal program or even one of the President’s own fireside chats. Conservative broadcasters in the early 20th century did not, in other words, have their own media ecosystem. Their listeners were exposed to the broader political spectrum. Also, their reliance on the major networks left them vulnerable to cancellation should they be too strident in their political attacks or if they strayed too far from consensus liberalism.

But that all changed in the 1950s as the major networks shifted their attention to television. The number of radio station licenses continued to climb steadily, but an increasing number went to small, independent station owners unaffiliated with the big networks. These stations were continually strapped for cash and willing to accept programming from previously unthinkable radicals including conservatives.  As a result, conservative broadcasters started popping up all over the country. They cobbled together an informal network of stations that aired predominately conservative programming even if the owners were not themselves conservatives.

For the first time in broadcast history, the vast majority of Americans could listen to conservative radio programs from dawn till dusk every day of the week. During the morning drive, you might listen to an hour of Dan Smoot attacking the Kennedy Administration’s Cuba policy on Life Line. Then you could listen to Christian Crusade as Billy James Hargis ferreted out Communist-sympathizers at the highest levels of the federal government. Next came Howard Kershner’s fifteen minute weekly sermonizing on “the Christian religion and education in the field of economics.” Perhaps your station, particularly if you lived in the South, aired The Citizens’ Council, the radio home for white massive resistance. During lunch, you might listen to McIntire’s Twentieth Century Reformation Hour as he applauded the Polish Ham Boycott. And so on throughout the rest of the day, one conservative program after another keeping up the same basic drumbeat: Communists were everywhere, the Kennedy Administration was weak, and only conservative action could save America. It was a torrent of conservative ideas and calls to action, the first wave of talk radio.

When I call this a media ecosystem I’m referring to the manner in which these programs, despite a lack of any coordination, authenticated each other in the minds of their listeners. How did a listener know that what they were hearing was true? Well, an idea would be repeated in slight variations across dozens of programs. Perhaps one broadcaster might be wrong, but an entire channel’s worth of programs? Surely not. These weren’t the ideas of any lone radical; the same basic opinion on any given current event might be uttered by a range of seeming experts, from preachers (McIntire, Hargis, Fulton Lewis), an economist (Milton Friedman), a lawyer (Clarence Manion), a rear admiral (Chester Ward), and so on and so forth. All ecosystems require critical mass. Chop down too much of the Brazilian rainforest and the jungle may go into a death spiral on its own. The same is true for the conservative media ecosystem in the 1960s. As an unintended consequence of technological innovation, conservative broadcasting could attain the critical mass necessary to persuade millions of listeners that conservatism was no longer a fringe ideology. It was self-authenticating in a way that was previously impossible.

This idea of a media ecosystem–although I’m not sure we used the term–came up briefly during our AHA panel Q&A. Nicole Hemmer noted that all media ecosystems have this self-authenticating epistemology. It is quite simple to construct a left-of-center media ecosystem that provides a similar self-authenticating function today. I might subscribe to the New York Times, check Slate and Vox on a daily basis, fill my social media feeds with like-minded liberals, and end up *knowing* that the news I receive is accurate because I’m hearing similar ideas across a range of sources. Sure, this can easily lead to group think–Someone like Trump could never win the presidency! No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the finals!–but on some level we are forced to do so because we are inherently limited human beings who have neither the time nor skill to be experts in every subject.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that all ecosystems are created equal, but it does mean that we all rely on ecosystems to provide our minds with an epistemological shortcut. Conservatives in the 1960s were no exception.

George Wallace v. Donald Trump, Guess Who?

"Make America Great Ag...er...Stand Up for America!"

“Make America Great Ag…er…Stand Up for America!”

On Election Day last week I lectured on the election of 1968 for my class at Penn State, “From Hippies to Yuppies: America in the Long 1960s.” I am hardly the first to note the many echoes of 1968 on both sides of the contest in 2016. The anger of Bernie Sanders’s supporters at the Democratic Party placing a super-delegate-sized thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton is an echo, albeit a pale one, of the protests that erupted in Chicago in 1968. To the chagrin of younger, more radical voters, the Democratic National Convention had nominated Hubert Humphrey for President despite the veteran politician winning not a single primary contest. On the Republican side in 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign explicitly embraced the slogans of Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 campaigns, calling for a return to “law and order” and claiming to represent a “silent majority” of American voters (insomuch as 47.3% of the popular vote counts as a majority).

But the strongest resonance between 1968 and 2016 may well be the populist rhetoric of George Wallace and Donald Trump. Both men appealed to white working class voters who felt alienated from the major party establishments. In 1968, white ethnics (Poles, Irish, Italians, etc) had a long tradition of voting for the Democratic Party going back to before the New Deal, but the national party leadership had embraced civil rights reform. Wallace stoked these voters’ anger about a federal government more concerned with giving jobs and welfare subsidies to African-Americans than supporting the white working class. Wallace crisscrossed the South and the Rustbelt promising jobs and a government that prioritized the interests of white workers. Nearly fifty years later, Donald Trump has made a similar appeal but with illegal immigrants as the focus of white resentment rather than African-Americans. (He routinely criticized the Black Lives Matter movement but along another axis that more closely resembles Wallace’s criticism of anti-Vietnam War protesters.)

It can be a mistake for history teachers to spend too much time in class making direct (and sometimes tortured) comparisons between past and present. However, the 1960s fall well within living memory and continue to form the political, cultural, and religious background of our lives today. When speaking of the fall of modern conservatism at the hands of the alt-Right, one must first explain its rise in the late-1950s and early-1960s. When discussing the #blacklivesmatter movement, one must refer back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and so on with nearly every facet of contemporary American life.

Play along.

To help my students make some of these connections, I decided to create an in-class game show. Seven students were called to the front of the room. Each was given a microphone and a short quote. If they could correctly guess whether the statement was by Donald Trump or George Wallace, then they would receive a bonus point on their next quiz. If at least four of the seven contestants answered correctly, the entire class would receive a bonus point. To keep the entire class of ~160 involved, I posted an online poll for each quote so that the class could impart the wisdom of the crowd to the contestants. Below I have posted the quotes with links to the online polls. See if you can answer all seven correctly. The answers will be listed at the very bottom of the post, but no peeking.

Question #1: “I remember speaking at Harvard. I made them the best speech they’d ever heard. There are millions like you and I throughout this country. There are more today of us than there are of them.”

Question #2: “But you ladies and gentlemen take heart–gentlemen. I reckon there are some ladies here. I see by the [news]paper that not many ladies are here. [applause and cheering] You’re having the same fight that we’re having in some quarters. But it’s very bad for the folks try[ing] to destroy your traditions and your customs. But you got to get in the mainstream.”

Question #3: “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.”

Question #4: “If any demonstrator ever lays down in front of my car, it’ll be the last car he’ll ever lay down in front of.”

Question #5: “I love the old days, you know? You know what I hate? There’s a guy totally disruptive, throwing punches. We’re not allowed to punch back anymore … I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

Question #6: “I have a great relationship with the blacks.”

Question #7:
Demonstrators: ________ go home! ______ go home!
________: Why don’t you young punks get out of the auditorium?
________: [whispers to someone off camera in audience] What’d you say? You go to hell, you son of a bitch. …
Crowd: We want _______! We want _______!
________ supporter: You ought to take them people over there and put them in a bunch of cages and ship them off in a ship and dump them!

"You win a car, well, a bonus point! And you win a bonus point!"

“You win a car, well, a bonus point! And you win a bonus point!”

The contestants in my class did very well, answering six of the seven correctly. The average margin for the wisdom of the crowd was 2-1 for the correct candidate. Ironically, one of the contestants was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. He received question #6 and answered correctly; you can’t say that he went to polls unaware of exactly what kind of person he was voting for! In any case, I figure that this poll will remain an enlightening classroom exercise for at least the next four years. (#silverlining)

From my fellow history instructors, I would be interested in hearing how you connect past with present in your class and about any exercises you use to do so. Feel free to send me an email or leave a comment.



Question #1: Wallace
Question #2: Wallace
Question #3: Trump
Question #4: Wallace
Question #5: Trump
Question #6: Trump
Question #7: Wallace

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.

Trump Wins, Sad! Panel Accepted by the American Historical Association, Glad!

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey

Creative Commons, Credit: Donkey Hotey, https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/20573036330/

Last Tuesday featured an odd juxtaposition in my little corner of the academic world. I’m a modern American political historian, among other things, so I pay close attention to topics that I might write about later in my career. Possible future monograph titles ranked from least to most depressing:

Trumpmania: How America Lost Its Mind in 2016 But Regained It In 2020 
The Passage of Power: The Years of Donald Trump 

The Rise and Fall of Trumpism 

But within hours of hearing about Trump’s win in the Indiana Republican primary and the subsequent suspension of Ted Cruz’s and John Kasich’s campaigns, I also received word from the program committee of the American Historical Association. They accepted a panel I had organized along with Michael McVicar, Nicole Hemmer, Heather Hendershot, and Kevin Kruse.

Our panel title is “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.” There was something oddly poetic about having our panel on the rise of the New Right fifty years ago accepted even as we watched the movement implode in real time.  Maybe. (I’m a historian; give me at least 20 years to figure it out.) If the Republic falls before then, a member of the panel has suggested that we escape to the Colorado Rockies and join the resistance a la Red Dawn.

Anyways, if you are planning on spending January 5-8, 2017 in balmy Denver, let me know and we can get coffee.

“Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right”

In the two decades since Alan Brinkley called conservatism the “orphan” of political history, scholars have responded by looking for the primary issue(s) which ignited Right-wing activism in the mid-twentieth century. Yet while hot button issues are necessary to rouse support, they are by themselves an insufficient cause. There are always means, media, or institutions around which movements coalesce. To put that in other terms, historians often explain the rise of the New Right by looking at shifts in the demand for conservative ideas. Yet changes in the supply of those ideas were equally important to the rise of modern conservatism. This panel focuses on the media infrastructure of the New Right. Radio, television, paperback publishing, and private intelligence agencies forged scattered conservatives into a national movement.

As Paul Matzko shows in “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” conservative radio broadcasting in the early 1960s stimulated grassroots activism. In one instance, broadcaster Carl McIntire condemned the John F. Kennedy administration for allowing imports from Communist Eastern Europe; a large group of his listeners, mostly housewives, organized boycotts of stores selling Polish hams and other goods. As amusing as the incident sounds in retrospect, it was no laughing matter for the Kennedy administration as detailed in internal White House memoranda.

Anti-ham housewives were an irritant during the 1962 midterm elections, but during the 1964 election season Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign encountered a flood of cheaply-produced, best-selling conservative paperback books. Nicole Hemmer, in “’Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths,’” details the surprising success of these campaign paperbacks, which despite being authored by little known grassroots activists managed to sell upwards of 16 million copies via an informal network of Right-wing publishers and marketing outlets.

Michael McVicar, in “Surveillance—Dossier—Exposé,” reveals a darker side to the campaign to put a conservative in the White House. Using do-it-yourself manuals, Right-wing activists created private intelligence agencies that compiled dossiers on Left-wing politicians and activists. Their goal was to expose embarrassing connections between the Left and Communist front organizations. The anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s had been democratized, commodified, and placed in the hands of grassroots activists.

Despite a self-imposed distance from grassroots activism, even conservative intellectuals like William F. Buckley needed a way to circulate their ideas. In “Firing Line,” Heather Hendershot describes how Buckley used his television program to create a more cerebral strand of the New Right. Grassroots activists are adept at disruption, but Buckley gave the movement an intellectual foundation on which to build a more sustainable movement.

By the 1960s, New Right activists could access conservative ideas in new ways, whether on the car radio on the way to work, as a family gathered around the television set at night, reading a campaign paperback in bed, or writing in to a private intelligence agency for information on a local political candidate. The expansion of the media infrastructure of the New Right enabled new forms of conservative, grassroots activism which would dramatically reshape national and party politics.

Session Participants

Kevin Kruse (Chair), Princeton University
Paul Matzko, Pennsylvania State University
Nicole Hemmer, The Miller Center at the University of Virginia
Michael McVicar, Florida State University
Heather Hendershot, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jade Helm, Operation Water Moccasin, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories

After the Pentagon planned a series of summer military exercises in the South, conservatives accused the federal government of enabling either a foreign invasion or some kind of military coup. The military futilely protested that the presence of foreign military observers was standard procedure and that all observers were from US allies. Several US congresspeople and state government officials called for the exercises to be cancelled.

While that may sound like a description of the conservative criticism of the Jade Helm 15 exercises planned for Texas this summer, it actually is a summary of a similar controversy in Georgia that riled conservatives more than fifty years ago. In 1963 the US military conducted “Operation Water Moccasin III,” a counter-insurgency exercise in the sleepy rural town of Claxton, Georgia. (Claxton’s town slogan: “The Fruitcake Capital of the World.”) One hundred and twenty-four foreign observers from allied nations attended, including Canada, France, and South Vietnam. The United States had been steadily expanding its involvement in the Vietnam conflict, so the exercise was timely.

Conservatives, however, feared that the exercises were really practice runs for a foreign invasion of the United States. Various versions of the conspiracy floated around, but US Congressman James Utt (R-CA) spread one of the most popular in a letter to his constituents. Utt imagined that Operation Water Moccasin was a rehearsal for a United Nations-sponsored takeover of the United States.

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

While it sounds frankly bizarre today, in the early 1960s conservatives feared that the John F. Kennedy administration was planning to phase out the US military in favor of a global United Nations peacekeeping force. Also, throughout 1963 the Kennedy administration lobbied for Senate confirmation on a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would restrict the number and kind of nuclear tests conducted by the US and the USSR. Thus in the summer of 1963 conservatives were on edge concerning the administration, the US military, and the United Nations. It was perfect fodder for conservative politicians, like Utt, with an eye on the 1964 elections.

Utt’s most inflammatory comments regarded the rumored inclusion of “bare-footed Africans” in the exercise. There was no evidence of such, but Utt cited the presence of African troops in Cuba undergoing training for guerrilla warfare as cause for concern. Utt was pandering to a radical conservative fringe. Notice that he lacked any hard information, but he nodded towards the concerns of paranoid anti-Communists. He suggested variously that the United Nations, the Soviets, or even the United States (!) might be responsible for the presence of African troops in Cuba. (As if the same Kennedy administration that had armed Cuban insurgents to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 was now sponsoring African troops in Cuba!) Without coming out and saying so, Utt validated conservative worries that these African troops were involved in Operation Water Moccasin. It’s really a piece of scaremongering art.

Utt also uttered some pretty obvious racial dog whistles. His thirteen-year-old Cuban-American correspondent described the Africans in Cuba as barefooted “savages” wearing “short skirts,” “big rings,” and “talk[ing] funny.” This “whole tribe” even “beat a woman.” Utt followed her description by suggesting that these troops would return to Africa to “murder, pillage, and rape.” It’s likely not an accident that violence against women figures so strongly in the letter; lynchings in America often began with accusations of sexual misconduct towards white women by black men. Utt evoked the idea that if these “savage” Africans abused women in Cuba and Africa, it could happen here too. Dog whistle indeed!

Now think about Utt’s words in the context of the civil rights struggle in Georgia in 1963. During the summer of 1963 civil rights activists in Savannah, Georgia–the closest major city to Claxton–held a series of demonstrations callings for the desegregation of restaurants, hotels, and movie theaters. Unlike the Birmingham demonstrations earlier that year, Savannah’s business and civic leaders adopted a conciliatory approach and the protests were relatively peaceful. Early in 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. gives an address in Savannah in which he calls it “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line.”

That racial progress alarmed die-hard segregationists, providing fertile ground for conspiracy theories linking Operation Water Moccasin to civil rights activism. Some saw Operation Water Moccasin as a plan for a foreign invasion to start an insurgency among discontented blacks in the South. Indeed, versions of this conspiracy resurfaced routinely throughout the rest of the decade. Here’s a map produced by a Christian Right-wing group showing a “Negro Communist State to be Carved Out of the South.” The flyer went on to claim that unless conservatives acted now, “10 Million White People [would] be Driven From Their Homes to Make Room for Black Communist Soviet”!

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary, Carl McIntire Papers

The current brouhaha over Jade Helm 15 follows the pattern of Operation Water Moccasin. Both sets of conspiracy theories began with relatively marginal groups on the conservative fringe. Both received wider attention when more mainstream politicians validated, or at least declined to invalidate, the theories. Both were, of course, hogwash. What’s especially interesting to me as a historian studying the New Right is that Jade Helm switches from the racial dog whistles of Operation Water Moccasin to nativist dog whistles. Fears of African men raping white women have been replaced by worries about Mexican immigrants as a fifth column or as a precursor to Chinese invasion.

All social movements have a paranoid fringe that generate extreme versions of wider concerns. Conservatives in 1963 worried about desegregation, but relatively few of them seriously thought that a United Nations-sponsored African invasion from Cuba was imminent. Likewise in 2015 conservatives worry about the effects of immigration from Central America, but I suspect that not many really buy into the Jade Helm conspiracy theories. Still, politicians are loathe to alienate even a small part of their base, especially when that segment is particularly motivated and loud. It’s easier to try and chart a middle path by pandering to the fringe without formally committing to the conspiracy. Bravery is only infrequently a virtue for politicians.