The GOP faces a battle for its soul. On the side of Trumpism are self-styled militias at state capitols, QAnon chat rooms about the fictitious “deep state,” Jan. 6 rioters, white supremacists and their allies — as well as the officials who defend this set: the 197 of 207 House Republicans who voted against impeachment, the Arizona GOP apparatchiks who censured their own governor for acknowledging Joe Biden’s election victory in their state, the Oregon Republicans who approved a resolution calling the Capitol attack a “false flag” operation organized by Donald Trump’s enemies to harm his reputation.
On the other side are the Republicans still living with us in the real world.
Can the deranged fringe be contained and our politics restored to something like normal? If social media platforms keep Trump out, Senate Republicans convict the former president, GOP leaders rally voters to defeat Trumpian candidates in the 2022 primaries, and Trump acolytes in places like Arizona and Georgia lose statewide races, the party could diminish his legacy and weaken his followers, relegating them to the periphery.
It seems unlikely, but it’s happened once before. In the postwar decades, a slash-and-burn conspiratorial style took hold of the right wing, posing a challenge to several pillars of American democracy, including free and fair elections, the acceptance of facts in political debates and the peaceful transfer of power. Just as QAnon followers see a deep-state conspiracy to destroy Trump, some John Birch Society members viewed liberals as communist agents and dupes. The armed Minutemen of the 1960s echo in the gun-toting pro-Trump extremists in Charlottesville and Lansing, Mich. Talk radio kingpins such as Rush Limbaugh share a heritage with right-wing media stars Dan Smoot and Clarence Manion. And the Proud Boys share a sensibility with the white supremacists who formed Citizens’ Councils in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown decision desegregating schools.
By stigmatizing, punishing and outvoting the forces that wanted to burn it all down in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans ostracized them; the United States put a lid on the toxic stew of bigotry, conspiratorial thinking and White Christian identity politics, and defended democratic values like truth, equality and racial justice. It was a whole-of-society strategy, more effective than anything unfolding today. Clearly, it didn’t keep those forces at bay forever. But in the right circumstances, it could work again.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the federal government, the national media, the U.S. military and civic groups took a stand that made it harder for violent, conspiratorial, white-supremacist elements to become the dominant force in either party. This elaborate and diffuse containment effort helped make those elements toxic in the eyes of a majority of Americans, defining extremists as threats to democracy and racial progress, rendering them less electable. This work could serve as a basis for a new counter-reaction to Trumpism.
At the federal and state levels, liberal elected officials used their bully pulpits to denounce and repudiate the far right as politically unacceptable. Addressing a Democratic fundraiser at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles in November 1961, President John Kennedy sought to drive a wedge through his political opponents in the GOP when he excoriated the “counsels of fear and suspicion,” “the discordant voices of extremism” that sought little more than “an appealing slogan or a convenient scapegoat.” Speaking for a lot of Americans, Kennedy expressed faith in “the basic good sense and stability of the great American consensus [that] has always prevailed” — a refrain that Biden’s campaign echoed in its call for unity, decency and reason.
JFK’s take was more mythology than historical reality; political conflict has been far more common than consensus. Nonetheless, many Republicans joined Democrats in excluding the radical right from the mainstream. GOP Senate Minority Whip Thomas Kuchel castigated the John Birch Society, which held that the greatest threat to America stemmed from a domestic communist conspiracy, as a group of “fright peddlers” (and reveled in the encomiums he received from constituents afterward). Just as House Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.) voted this month to impeach Trump on charges of inciting the attempted Capitol insurrection, a minority of Republicans in Congress once pushed their colleagues to keep extremists from dominating the party. The existence of a pro-civil-rights, pro-government wing of the GOP led by Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and others divided the party but helped temper some of the racist and anti-Semitic impulses in Richard Nixon’s and Ronald Reagan’s movements. Those dissenters made it more costly and embarrassing for GOP leaders to link arms openly with their most unhinged supporters and to give public expression to their basest impulses.
An estimated 20 percent of those arrested for their part in the Capitol riot are former or active-duty military members. The military in the 1960s was aggressive about policing far-right extremists whom it considered subversive. In 1961, for instance, the Defense Department reassigned and admonished Gen. Edwin Walker for seeking to teach his soldiers that Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, were communist agents. Walker resigned from the service, and when a reporter asked him a tough question after a congressional hearing where he was testifying, Walker gave him a black eye. At the same hearing, a Capitol Police officer kicked out American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell (who had praised Walker as a “great American”). Walker then went back to Texas and came in last in a six-person Democratic gubernatorial primary. When his former aide, Maj. Arch E. Roberts, was caught giving a conspiracy-crazed speech to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Army suspended him, too.
The FBI and local law enforcement, in a handful of instances, played a constructive role. The participation of Birch Society members in Barry Goldwater’s ultraconservative White House campaign deepened fears that a homegrown fascist movement would sow violence, pitting citizen against citizen. In a small town in Illinois, police broke up a Minutemen group armed with 81-mm mortars and machine guns that was planning to wage war on imagined communists inside the United States. The FBI recorded thousands of pages in its investigation of Birch activities as part of its Subversive Trends of Current Interest Program, and J. Edgar Hoover, despite his hatred for the left, refused to endorse the far-right theory that Eisenhower was a communist.
In the same way private firms felt compelled to cut ties with members of Congress who spread Trump’s election lies, people associated with the postwar far right faced economic pressure. Human rights, labor and political watchdogs such as the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, Group Research Inc., Americans for Democratic Action and the AFL-CIO published reports about extremists and fed dirt to local reporters and editors to discredit hate groups, while the civil rights movement used boycotts to change Jim Crow laws and check the power of white supremacy. Belonging to an extremist group could imperil someone’s income. After a 1962 ADL report named Massachusetts-based Philip Jenkins, who worked in the leather industry, as an incorporator of the John Birch Society, he told the group that Jews in his industry were alarmed by his associations. He wanted his name expunged from the report. In 1963 a Bircher from Delaware reported that a New Jersey Lockheed factory required employees to sign a form stating they did not belong to the society. A Saturn missile plant in New Orleans that year reportedly fired Birch members because they belonged to the organization.
In the ’50s and ’60s, there was a less-fractured media culture in which elites could more easily freeze out the fringe. Newspapers, magazines, television and radio programs could counteract the growing number of rightist outlets. Wall-to-wall coverage of Birchers and their allies — one Columbus, Ohio, student newspaper branded them “a threat to our national morale”; an editorial cartoon represented Birchers standing on a vulture’s wing alongside the KKK while the vulture pecked at the Statue of Liberty — engendered some sympathy among conservatives who thought the victims were martyrs, but it also warned GOP leaders and activists to put some distance between themselves and the most racist, conspiratorial, anti-Semitic and nativist members of their coalition. It’s unclear whether boycotting Fox News advertisers or other pressure campaigns could have the same effect today.
Unfortunately, efforts to corral the radical right petered out in recent decades; with the benefit of hindsight, we can conclude that they were not enough. The far right has deep roots in American politics that are not easy to extirpate.
The Reagan counterrevolution, reacting partly to efforts to contain the Goldwater movement, gave energy and cover to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan and other fringe figures in the political coalition. Birch ideas (conspiracism, science denialism, deep-state suspicions) burrowed into the GOP. An anti-government dogma has attracted mainstream adherents since the 1980s. The alternative universe of right-wing media led to Fox News and its offshoots, giving oxygen to political coverage that privileged outcomes over facts. And social media has amplified the loudest views while removing some of the shame of harboring them. Inequality, the decline of manufacturing and competition from China turbocharged the ideas Trump exploited: anti-globalism, anti-free-trade, anti-immigration, all seen as keeping White people down.
Republican leaders have at times found it convenient to punish expressions of extremism. The George W. Bush White House, for instance, forced Sen. Trent Lott to step down as Senate minority leader for his remarks praising Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential run. But Bush also campaigned at racist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and his supporters smeared John McCain for having supposedly fathered a child of color (he had adopted a Bangladeshi girl).
The postwar decades show how Trumpism emerged and how democratic society might turn it into a minority within the Republican Party. Only by imposing political consequences on Trump’s wackiest followers can Americans hope to loosen their grip on the GOP, a strategy that some Never Trump organizations (Republican Voters Against Trump, the Lincoln Project and the Republican Accountability Project) have grasped, even if they have found limited success so far.
It is never too late to intensify that effort. Anything that works to define anti-government extremists as toxic threats to our country is helpful. This work held off the far right for a time. And any period, short or long, that this fringe spends in the wilderness is a boon to American democracy.