Monday, September 5, 2016

The Bircher Long March

For a long time there was an established narrative, both within and without the conservative movement, that in the early 1960s William F Buckley and his allies banished the John Birch Society and other fringe elements from the conservative movement, paving the way for the more economically-focused John the Baptist Goldwater and redeemer Reagan. Conservatives have been very invested in this narrative, and defend it vigorously. Allan J Lichtman has questioned this view, and thus entitled his stellar history of the conservative movement White Protestant Nation, drawing a rebuke from David Frum in his book review. He saw movement conservatism as a repository of noble ideas, not resentments aimed at preserving a certain kind of country and social order.

This election year, however, appears to have proven Lichtman's thesis. It seems that, contrary to the old narrative, that the Birchers and assorted right wing practitioners of what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style" never went away at all. The so-called "alt-right," inheritors of the racist and xenophobic traditions in conservatism dating to the 1920s, now have more pull with the Republican nominee than the free marketeers who think they represent conservatism. That candidate has built his campaign on whites resentful over losing "their" country, exactly the kind of thing that Lichtman saw as the core of conservatism.

Like most funguses, the nationalist right has flourished in darkness on a diet of eating shit. For years it lurked in the background, finding an airing in the less savory corners of the talk radio world apart from the Hannitys and Limbaughs. Those who fancied themselves the leaders of the conservative movement looked up to economists like Hayek and Friedman, and writers like Ayn Rand. They really thought that their movement was united by notions of limited government and cultural restoration.

Like Mao's army during the Long March or Castro's guerillas up in the Cuban mountains, the Birchers bided their time in the boondocks, gathering strength and ready to strike at the movement's rulers, who were losing legitimacy faster than they realized. Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy was like the attack on the Moncada barracks: a failure in the short term, but galvanizing. Soon came Glenn Beck and the Tea Party and the cries of "take our country back," the phrase that encapsulates the true heart of modern conservatism. The election of a black liberal president tipped the balance in favor of the Birchers. They had the power of the conservative lizard brain's revulsion on their side, which wipes the floor with the intellectual conservatism of the likes of Frum, David Brooks, and George Will.

The average conservative foot soldier has no clue who the Cato Institute or Friedrich von Hayek or Milton Friedman or Arthur Laffer are. They are much more likely to know Alex Jones, who is the most listened-to practitioner of the paranoid style in many decades. The average conservative is not a college young Republican with a copy of The Fountainhead on their nightstand. It's an exurban talk radio fan driving a pick up truck to their lower middle class job while listening to Michael Savage. Instead of being defeated in the early 1960s, the Birchers have played the long game, and are now running the show. The Frums, Brookses, and Wills of the world are modern day Alexander Kerenskys, victims of the revolution they were foolish enough to think they were in control of.

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