The year was 1954, and the Cold War was in full swing. Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) was seeing Soviet spies in every corner of the government. And a young sociologist at Columbia University, Daniel Bell, convened a seminar to come to grips with the menace of McCarthyism.
By then, the Senate had censured McCarthy, and McCarthyism had collapsed. The book looked dead on arrival.
But nearly 70 years later, as a congressional committee investigates the far-right attack on the U.S. government on Jan. 6, 2021, the forgotten text has never looked more prescient.
The authors wrote that far-right activists who wrapped themselves in the American flag actually posed a grave threat to the country’s core principles. In the name of protecting U.S. democracy, they warned, the radical right would employ the language and methods of authoritarianism.
If “The New American Right” seemed obsolete when it was first published, that changed quickly. By the early ’60s, it was obvious McCarthy had spawned a movement with real staying power made up of anti-communist organizations.
Take the John Birch Society, which in 1962 counted about 60,000 members and an estimated 9.5 million sympathizers. Its founder, a candy tycoon named Robert Welch, thought “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.’”
Or take the lesser-known Liberty Lobby, founded by an avowed admirer of Nazi Germany. This white supremacist group prophesied an apocalyptic struggle “between the white and the colored world, of which Russia is the Lord.”
Bell’s team of academics revised “The New American Right” and rereleased it in 1963 as “The Radical Right.” It would become a must-read for students of modern American history.
The intellectuals held that the radical right not only loathed communism but also liberal democracy and the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. As Bell noted wryly, its partisans stood ready “to jettison constitutional processes and to suspend liberties, to condone Communist methods in the fighting of Communism.” They blasted free elections and the peaceful transfer of power, lamented the independence of the judiciary and opposed civil rights.
If the Soviets wanted to destabilize the republic, they could hardly have found keener agents than the radical right.
Hofstadter called these activists “pseudo-conservatives” (a term borrowed from philosopher Theodor W. Adorno). They posed as conservatives but in truth were authoritarians with a nihilistic urge to watch the world burn. “Followers of a movement like the John Birch Society,” Hofstadter wrote in one of the book’s essays, “are in our world but not exactly of it.” They lived amid what their successors would come to call “alternative facts.”
Adherents of the movement preached imminent doomsday. In 1963, following the ratification of a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, the Liberty Lobby declared that “the United States has, at best, only a few more years.” In a speech denouncing the radical right, Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R-Calif.) labeled them “fright peddlers.” It became the ’60s equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” a term of derision worn as a badge of honor by the derided.
Bell argued that pseudo-conservatives were driven by a fear of modernity. The United States was starting to shift to a knowledge economy dominated by a “technical and professional intelligentsia.” This rattled pseudo-conservatives, who felt, in Bell’s words, the “disquiet of the dispossessed.”
This sounds more than a little like the forces that helped elect Donald Trump, spark the QAnon extremist ideology and launch the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The radical right of the 1960s, by contrast, never found its Trump — a leader who could unite the movement and give it real political power. Barry Goldwater, the Republican firebrand who ran for the presidency in 1964, was crushed in a landslide, and subsequent Republican presidents did not embrace pseudo-conservatism.
When the radical right first gained strength, it fell to a Democratic president to formulate a counterattack — just as President Biden and his allies in Congress are now attempting. In 1961, John F. Kennedy deplored those who “call for a ‘man on horseback’ because they do not trust the people.” His brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, deemed the John Birch Society “a tremendous danger” and excoriated “those, who, in the name of fighting communism, sow the seeds of suspicion … against the foundations of our government — Congress, the Supreme Court, and even the presidency itself.”
To stave off the threat, the Kennedys had the IRS audit extremist groups and the Federal Communications Commission regulate right-wing radio. But these efforts failed to make a dent in the groups’ appeal.
Pseudo-conservatism only lost relevance in the mid-1960s, after conservatives such as Ronald Reagan disavowed the John Birch Society. Today’s Republicans have yet to follow suit with Trump, QAnon and the Jan. 6 attack. In February, the Republican National Committee declared the insurrection “legitimate political discourse.”
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack began a series of highly anticipated hearings Thursday. The committee, composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans, has so far stood united in its pledge to uncover the truth about what Biden has called “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
But the ideology behind the attack is nothing new. Bell’s team of academics was already sounding the alarm 67 years ago.