The Question of Extremism in American Politics
by Matthew Dallek
November 11, 2020
Matthew | I'm a political historian and have written a couple of books. The first, The Right Movement, was on Ronald Reagan's first campaign for Governor of California. In the book I explored how Reagan and the conservative movement were able to inoculate themselves from the charge that they were extremists or even pseudo-fascists who opposed Democracy. Of course, that charge had dogged the conservative movement for years before Reagan won office in 1966, and it continues to dog the Republicans through today. It has been a constant tension within the party, and one that has evolved for decades in American politics. Right now, I'm writing a book about the history of the John Birch Society, as a political movement.
frank | I can't wait for that.
All right, great! Well, I have only started to write it. The Birchers are interesting because they really personified extremism in the 1960s. They were extremism made flesh for a lot of people. I think it's fair to say they were the most controversial grassroots political movement on the right in the '60s. Robert Welch, the founder of the Society, had famously charged Dwight Eisenhower as a dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy. They tried to impeach Earl Warren, the Supreme Court Chief Justice. You get a sense, of course, of the ways in which they were seen as extreme. Yet they were also a quite successful grassroots movement with between 60,000 and 100,000 members nationwide.
Between the John Birch Society, and whoever occupies the right-wing extreme posts now, has the message changed? Has the true conservative component of the party shifted what it wants? Isolationism during World War II and President Trump’s rhetoric now feels like some sort of return.
Yes. Well, it certainly is not static. The first thing I will say is that there was an alternative tradition in the conservative movement that we see echoes of today. This alternative tradition was established by some of these more radical constituents like the John Birch Society, those who saw Communist conspiracies within the United States, the people who made the argument that Jews were controlling the international system, or those who argued that international institutions were dictating America's foreign policy. They tended to be isolationists in some ways, although there were certainly divisions, even on that count. But of course, going back to World War II, America First, was deeply isolationist. There were also elements in it that were anti-semitic.
After the 1960s, Trump’s predecessors kept this tradition alive. It was not necessarily the mainstream in the conservative movement, but it was a part of the coalition. It was a part of the coalition that some conservative leaders tried to wall off and tried to kick out of the party of the mainstream. But, I would say not very effectively.
The extremists were people like Phyllis Schlafly who led, among other things, the Stop the ERA movements. Pat Robertson, who described in his book a one-world conspiracy among international institutions and elites to control all elements of American life, and literally to destroy American freedom.
In more modern times, the two parties also rely on some of the conspiratorial strains of conservative extremism.
The idea that there are elites in Washington and on Wall Street, who are conspiring to fundamentally change the character of the country, to basically put big government in control of all their lives and destroy their freedom.
There are racist elements in right-wing extremism – we saw these when Trump rose to political fame during Obama’s presidency as a leader of the “Birther” movement. That remains such a critical moment of the past decade because it brought together these extreme ideas that there was a grand conspiracy, potentially, at the heart of government. That the country had been duped and that the nation's first African American president was actually “foreign-born,” that he was “a left-wing radical.” He wasn't “a true American.”
When John McCain was running for president in 2008 and the woman at his rally said, "Barack Obama is a Muslim" and was spouting some of these baseless theories, McCain stood up to her. The reason that got a lot of play is that that was a pretty unusual thing for a conservative leader to do.
I do think that the issues have evolved, and what is at the forefront of the debate has shifted, but some of the rhetoric, the anti-establishment rhetoric, the use of race and religion and gender, this idea that leftists are fundamentally un-American, and that the left is conspiring to destroy family values and freedom, that represents an alternative tradition that is traceable roughly from the 1960s through today.
I’ve been reading Myron Magnet, and all the ideas you outlined above, the appeal to the culture over policy, to elites conspiring against family values, had a big influence on Karl Rove and the Bush campaign. Their conclusion became “compassionate conservatism”, which on its face is different from what we see in the GOP now.
That's an interesting example.
In some ways, I think Bush represented the tension within the conservative movement between extremists and much more mainstream ideas.
He was pro-immigration reform.
He did quite well among Latino voters in Texas and nationally, which was really important to his coalition and all of his political victories. He appointed the nation's first African American woman as Secretary of State, and before Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, of course.
When Trent Lott was caught saying he wished Strom Thurmond basically had won the presidency when he ran on the segregationist platform in 1948, Bush and his team moved to oust Lott as Senate leader, which is hard to imagine happening in today’s White House. At the same time, Bush attended an event in South Carolina at Bob Jones University. He then ran his 2004 reelection campaign in part by supporting referendums in key swing states to ban gay marriage. We see a tension within the movement, even within George W. Bush's campaign. McCain, of course – look who he picked for Vice President, Sarah Palin.
Conservatives had to put together the coalition, but the coalition has included extremist elements, in terms of both the ideas and the individuals that are embraced. Romney even. He took the endorsement from Trump. Why did that matter in 2012? It wasn’t because Trump was a real estate mogul or even a Reality TV star. It was entirely, I think, because of the Birther smear against Obama.
There was a large portion of Republicans during the 2016 election who were vocally opposed to Trump.
Can the party return to a version of moderate after President Trump?
It's an interesting question. When Trump goes away, is no longer President, no longer the leader of the party, it's almost inconceivable that aspects of not just his personality — but his ideas on trade, immigration, his incendiary rhetoric around race, won’t be part of any Republican campaign.
It's going to be hard for any Republican in the near term to completely distance himself and become like John Kasich, for instance, and succeed politically.
There is a reason why Trump won the nomination, and why he won the presidency, and why he is still at 43%. There is a real market, a real constituency, for a lot of his ideas.
Trump was decades in the making. He didn't just emerge overnight.
There's a reason there's a conservative infrastructure to support Trump. You've got Fox News. There's Breitbart. You now have the Daily Caller, people like Kellyanne Conway and Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh. These people have been around for a long time, and they have been very influential in the conservative movement.
Even those like Bob Dole, who are really the embodiment of what people would call the establishment, have courted this faction of the party. When he was running for president, he had to go to Pat Robertson's Christian coalition and appear at the conference and declare, in essence, "I have a 100% rating from you. I'm with you. I'm with you, Robertson, every step of the way."
Did Bob Dole subscribe to Pat Robertson's conspiracy theory about this global world order that was destroying American freedom? No, I don't think he did. At the same time, he recognized what Robertson and Robertson's supporters had tapped was an essential part of the conservative coalition, and that Dole was going to have to prove his loyalty to that if he was going to win the nomination.
The infrastructure and the ideas that the radical half of the party has built will still be very much a part of the conservative appeal and, in some ways, will be fundamental to the coalition that they're going to build. That's not to say it's going to remain static. Of course, nothing ever does in politics.
But I don't think Trump is this total aberration and I don’t expect Trumpism to disappear from the Republican party once Trump is no longer president.
Both left and right are leaning into “extremes,” in direct opposition with each other. What does that mean for democracy?
One thing that has enabled the country to survive so long, more or less intact, is that there has been an important element of pragmatism within the political parties and within the constitutional structure. It's very hard to get things done. Radical change is very hard to enact. We have peaceful transitions of power. There has also been, in the modern era, respect or regard for democratic norms and democratic institutions.
With Trump on the right, first and foremost, and Sanders on the left to a lesser extent, though he’s certainly playing a part in this, we get a steady drumbeat of attacks against the system, against the idea that our institutions can function in any sort of effective way. What does Sanders say? The system is rigged. There is a corporate establishment. There is a political establishment and they are conspiratorial.
Sanders and Trump, even though there are major differences between them on policies and important stylistic differences, there's also a shared sensibility. This idea that the establishment has completely screwed people over, that while the rich have gotten richer, everyone else has been left behind, and that this is part of an orchestrated campaign or plot to elevate this top one percent. The idea that there is a military-industrial complex that is taking people into wars and that politicians are beholden to it.
Look at their positions on trade. They both argue that globalization has done more in the way of harm to people than it has in achieving the goals of opening up borders and promoting tolerance and economic dynamism.
In terms of what does that rhetoric do to democracy? It continues to erode people's faith in democratic institutions. There is trampling on democratic norms that we have seen, obviously, with Trump.
It speaks to people's anger, which is genuine, and to their fury about economic inequality, which is real.
Part of the problem is that there has been a legitimate failure on the part of the American government and American politics. You can take the example of growing income and economic inequality over the past five decades. Trump and Sanders are tapping into something clearly real, something that is deeply felt. At the same time, I think these are worrying trends for democracy and that we have seen some of the fruits of that rhetoric in the Trump administration with the attacks on the judiciary, and Congress, and calling the media the enemy of the people, or in Sanders' case, the corporate media.
Right. Not me, I’m the independent media.
I don't know who owns you guys...
Oh, really? Okay, good. That's cool.
I think the appetite for this sort of leadership [on both sides] shows anger within the electorate, rage even – which drives a base and certainly calls for participation. But voter turnout is still abysmal. Does that apathy symbolize distrust in the system to such an extreme people don’t want to participate? Is it just too hard to vote?
Trump and Sanders have spoken, and I think you're right, they have spoken to people who have felt left out of the system and they probably have brought some people to the polling booth who might otherwise not go because they just don't think that there is a candidate for them.
Sanders has brought people into the process, especially young people, and given them a stake, and he has spoken to their legitimate anxieties in a way that other candidates, like Joe Biden, have not done and are not able to do.
That's a real contribution to democracy, to participatory democracy.
In terms of why overall participation rates are so low, it’s a complicated question. As seen with these most recent primaries, the youth vote did not really grow. If anything, in 2016, we saw increased turnout for Trump, but that was not the case among African American voters for Hillary Clinton. It didn't seem to be true for Latino voters, either. Where was the big turnout on Super Tuesday for the Democrats? African-American voters; and in the suburbs among white, educated, upper income women – the same voters who turned out to give the Democrats the House in 2018.
Two, I think you're right, voting has become very hard to do in this country. Seven-hour waits in Texas. Hours-long waits in California. These are obviously disgraceful things that shouldn't happen, but they do continue to happen. Look at the Iowa caucus; think about how hard it is to actually go out and vote or caucus. The barriers to entry are really high.
On top of that people are cynical. They don't think, with whoever they vote for, anything is going to change. The things that people do in Washington, those things don't matter. I don't think that's accurate, but certainly, that feeling is understandable.
Where was the big turnout on Super Tuesday for the Democrats? In the suburbs. White, educated, upper income, women – the same voters who turned out to give the Democrats the House in 2018.
But, another word about the question of extremism: I would say that all extremism is not necessarily a bad thing.
The abolitionists were considered extremists, and in many ways they were. They were extremists for freeing the slaves and for human equality and liberation.
Sometimes what seems to be extreme or impossible at one time, does become possible, right? Public sentiment changes and part of the reason it changes is that there are mass movements and they have a cause and political leaders. The mass movements are not necessarily always taking extreme positions, although sometimes they do take positions that seem impossible to achieve in a given moment in time. Then, over time, they become achievable. They become reality.
I think the way it has manifested itself in contemporary politics, in the past 50 or 60 years, has represented this very anti-establishment anger and hostility towards people in power, a sense that the system is broken and at the heart of it, there is something or someone keeping us down. There is something or someone who is getting rich while all the rest of the people are left to suffer and struggle.
Again, there are elements of that that are true. There is real corruption. There is real corporate greed. There are a lot of things that do manipulate the system, but that argument really does make people more cynical, who already feel cynical.
But, of course, with extremism, comes intolerance. On the left, but mostly on the right, what we see, especially in times of economic anxiety, but also fundamentally as a part of American political life, is that extremism oftentimes presents itself in terms of intolerance. Intolerance toward religious minorities or racial and ethnic minorities or immigrants. The anti-black racism, nativism, anti-semitism. These things are alive as well in American life.
Often they are given oxygen and energy by these extremist groups and extremist ideas. That, of course, is a worry trending in American politics and one of the things that political leaders and the political system should tamp down as much as possible, as opposed to breathing life into it.
Is it even...
Achievable or fixable?
Yeah. Where do you go? How do you go?
One way to address these extremist challenges is when the policies of the country become more responsible for the vast majority of the country. When we are reducing inequality, when people feel more empowered at work, when people in the service economy are not so worried that they don't have to live paycheck to paycheck, when there is good access to good education, higher education, whether it's a community college or four-year public universities in a way that students don't have to come out with tons of debt, the stakes feel a little less existential.
It's not just the failures of our political system and American government; there are a lot of other structural factors like industrialization and globalization, the rise of social media, the focus on politician's personal lives, aggressiveness to root out scandals, to report on mini-scandals that have all contributed to this age of polarization. At some point the country and the government is going to have to be able to again address issues like climate change, which is increasingly central and existential for a lot of people understandably, then the extremists have less oxygen and there are people who don't feel as livid at the system.
The argument that the system is rigged, that the establishment is corrupt. I think those arguments have less weight for people if the county and the government can eventually get to address some of these big systemic problems in American society.
The last thing I'll say is we're still struggling with the country's original sin, which of course was racism and slavery. We're still living in the shadow of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, which was just a partial revolution. It became extremely important, but it obviously did not go far enough, and I think a lot of people continue to feel like they don't have a real stake in our society. That it is not necessarily democratic for them.
So the elusive quest to achieve racial equality and racial justice is another massive challenge that has got to be confronted.