Previous | .Next

Historic Building Blocks of the
Contemporary US Right

From Roosevelt to Reagan

The Old Right Stuff

The roots of various contemporary right-wing movements and intellectual currents in the United States draw from a variety of historic ideological sources, generally rooted in the early hegemony of White Anglo-Saxon Protestantism consisting of Eurocentrism, White supremacy, male privilege, heterosexual norms, and Christian superiority.

As a settler society, the US has also produced a political right that is intrinsically linked to the assumptions of the early dominant settlers. The resulting ethnocentric and nativist movements have reinforced the current of White supremacy that infuses US culture. It influences institutions and individuals in ways that are frequently invisible to those with disproportionate access to power and privilege based on racial, ethnic, religious, or gender identity.

Between World War I and the Depression, the map of the political right was drawn in broad strokes with the palette knife of racialized nativism. The Ku Klux Klan, born out of the social and economic chaos of Reconstruction to defend white privilege against federal intervention in the South on behalf of freed slaves, saw a resurgence as the violent wing of the nativist sector in the 1920's in a period of economic growth prior to the Depression. In this case social stress was a more causative factor than economic stress. White supremacy, however, was not merely a marginal activity of the "extreme" Klan but could be found in respectable academic and political circles in the form of the eugenics movement and anti-immigrant organizing. Prejudice against Negroes was so widespread it would be difficult to argue that it represented a uniquely right-wing viewpoint. Antipathy towards Asians and Mexicans was the norm. Anti-Semitism was considered unremarkable. Henry Ford had no qualms identifying the alien "Other" as "The International Jew," in the Dearborn Independent. Buy a Ford motor car and you might find an antisemitic tract slipped into the glove box.

Catholicism was still suspect well after the turn of the century, but for many the identity of the main alien threat was ideological Bolshevism and anarchism--often linked to Jews-- though these ideas were also racialized as they were popularly associated with non-Anglo-Saxon southern Europeans such as Italians, and eastern Europeans such as Slavs. The Palmer Raids starting in late 1919 are an example of state authoritarian repression that enjoyed widespread public support as a bulwark against alien ideas and individuals. Deportation ships set off to deliver the foreign threat back to Italy and Russia.

The Scopes "Monkey" trial over the teaching of evolution instead of creationism, and the reinvigorated temperance movement leading to Prohibition, represent efforts by evangelicals to restore America to the proper path. Godless permissiveness leading to immorality, coupled with godless collectivism leading to communism, were the twin evils being perpetrated on the idealized nation by modernist liberals with their secular and foreign ideas. The subversive-hunting nativists fixated on the Bolsheviks of the Red Russian revolution, "The root anti-subversive impulse was fed by the Menace. Its power strengthened with the passage of time, by the late twenties its influence had become more pervasive and folkish," wrote Frank Donner. "Bolshevism came to be identified over wide areas of the country by God-fearing Americans as the Antichrist come to do eschatological battle with the children of light. A slightly secularized version, widely-shared in rural and small-town America, postulated a doomsday conflict between decent upright folk and radicalism--alien, satanic, immorality incarnate."1

Diamond observes that "[T]he American Right of the Depression was characterized by (1) the strident racism and anti-Semitism of its large, mass-based organizations and (2) the anti-New Deal economic agenda of its corporate lobbies. Both camps were strongly nationalistic, and both shared an aversion to U.S. government intervention abroad."2 Some economic conservatives opposed Roosevelt as a tool of collectivist organized labor, some thought him an outright socialist, some preferred their anti-Bolshevism in the earth-tones of fascism. Elizabeth Dilling's Roosevelt's Red Record is a vivid example of the conspiratorial scapegoating that accompanied many attacks on Roosevelt from the far right.

The mass organizations of the Depression years were led by charismatic demagogues such as William Dudley Pelley, Gerald Winrod, and Gerald L. K. Smith, who peddled a blend of nativism, anti-communism, antisemitism, populism, and conspiracy theories.3 Father Charles E. Coughlin was especially significant because of his use of radio to build a social movement. He also brought Catholics to the fore as participants in the "Us" circle against the alien "Them."4

The ideas of the Old Right were complex and often contradictory, but if we were a fly on the wall at a Newport Beach mansion during a cocktail party celebrating the end of WWII, we would probably have heard the following sentiments:

  • Natural oligarchies of governance were composed of those persons with the "proper breeding," a popular phrase which valued the bloodlines and racial hierarchies that motivated the interwar eugenics movement. Dark-skinned immigrants and Negroes could be trained to act like Americans but could never really be Americans.

  • Roosevelt's New Deal was a socialist experiment slowly emasculating democracy which relied on the vigor of an unrestricted capitalist marketplace.

  • We had been pulled into WWII but now that it was over, it was time to heed George Washington's admonition to beware foreign entanglements and pay attention to rebuilding our nation's business and industry and disciplining the unruly labor unions.

  • "Parlor pink" liberals were greasing the skids toward communism with subversive moles burrowing into federal agencies to gnaw from within.

  • Freud and Dewey (and perhaps Darwin) were crackpots whose disciples ran through the streets overturning the apple carts of order and discipline. Dewey especially had destroyed public education by taking Biblical morality out and putting in a utopian quest for values and meaning that called into question God-given parental authority and natural hierarchies.

  • Over by the wet bar there were whispers that it was the Jews to blame for poisoning the wellspring of American liberty...although such ideas would not be proper to mention in public.

Post-War Fusionism

European Fascism and Nazism gave the militant domestic nativists and their right-wing populist mass movements a bad name. After WWII the so-called respectable right sought to distance itself from the fascist movements and to craft an electoral coalition to roll back communism overseas, restore traditional morality and return gender (and for some racial) roles to pre-war status, and to challenge the statist and collectivist assumptions of Roosevelt's New Deal at home. What emerged was modern conservatism, built around economic libertarianism, social traditionalism, and militant anticommunism.5 Jerome L. Himmelstein wrote that "The core assumption that binds these three elements is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order--harmonious, beneficent, and self-regulating--disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities."6

The attempt to build a working coalition was called fusionism, and the chief architects were Frank Meyer, M. Stanton Evans, and William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley, who had written for the libertarian journal Freeman, went on to found the influential National Review in 1955.7

Key libertarian influences, according to Himmelstein, came from "leaders of the Old Republican Right like Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft; neoclassical economists like Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman; and a variety of iconoclastic individualists and objectivists like Albert Jay Nock and Ayn Rand."8

Social traditionalist influences were equally diverse according to Himmelstein, with "arguments rooted in natural law, Christian theology, and nineteenth century European conservatism and its notions of tradition."9 Post WWII influential thinkers included Leo Strauss, Eric Vogelin, Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver.10

Militant anticommunism was spread through a series of interlocking organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the Hoover Institute, Reader's Digest, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Crusade for Freedom, American Legion, and the Reserve Officers Association.11 Specific constituencies were networked by groups that carried on the themes of the McCarthy Period after the Congressional Witch Hunt was discredited in elite circles. These groups included the reactionary John Birch Society and the far right Liberty Lobby.12

Simultaneous with the rise of the Cold War, there was a resurgence of Christian evangelical fervor. This new awakening is best known through the crusades of the Rev. Billy Graham who facilitated the re-emergence of evangelicals into the public social sphere following a long period of inward-direction that occupied most evangelicals following the public humiliation they had suffered after the Scopes trial.13 More politicized para-church ministries such as Moral Re-Armament emerged to combat godless communism, and more secularized groups, albeit still implicitly rooted in Christian social traditionalism and moral orthodoxy, also were formed. The Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge and Christian Anti-Communism Crusade are typical examples.14 At the same time, fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and charismatics moved toward more acceptance and respectability, first within the evangelical movement, then denominational Protestantism, and then into the larger secular sphere.

Throughout this period the far right (race haters, antisemites, white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, and neonazi groups) mobilized primarily to oppose the civil rights movement.


The New Right Coalition

Rebuilding after Goldwater

The 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign was the high point of Old Right fusionism. Most influential Goldwater supporters were not marginal Far Right activists, as many liberal academics postulated at the time, but had been Republican Party regulars for years, representing a vocal reactionary wing far to the right of many persons who usually voted Republican.15 This reactionary wing had an image problem, which was amply demonstrated by the devastating defeat of Goldwater in the general election.16

If reactionaries wanted to dominate the Republican Party, they had to face their image problem. This meant creating a "New Right" that distanced itself (at least publicly) from several problematic sectors of the Old Right. Overt white supremacists and segregationists had to go, as did obvious anti-Jewish bigots. The conspiratorial rhetoric of the isolationist John Birch Society was pronounced unacceptable by interventionist William F. Buckley Jr., whose National Review was the authoritative journal of fusionist conservatism.17 While the Old Right's image was being modernized, emerging technologies and techniques using computers, direct mail, and television were brought into play to build the New Right. Richard Viguerie built the first right-wing direct-mail empire by computerizing the list of Goldwater and Wallace contributors.18

When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968, his campaign payoff to the emerging New Right included appointing conservative activists such as Howard Phillips to Government posts. Phillips was sent to the Office of Economic Opportunity with a mandate to dismantle social programs allegedly dominated by liberals and radicals. Conservatives and reactionaries joined in a "Defund the Left" campaign. As conservatives in Congress sought to gut social-welfare programs, corporate funders were urged to switch their charitable donations to build a network of conservative think tanks and other institutions to challenge what was seen as the intellectual dominance of Congress and society held by such liberal think tanks as the Brookings Institution.19 Starting in the mid 1970s a large and vigorous network of national and statewide think tanks, periodicals, and electronic media emerged to eclipse liberal intellectual dominance in domestic and foreign policy debates.20

A New Evangelical Awakening

But corporate millionaires and zealous right-wing activists can't deliver votes without a grass-roots constituency that responds to the rhetoric. Conveniently, the New Right's need for foot-soldiers arrived just as the growing number of Protestant evangelicals marched onward toward a renewed interest in the political process.

A more aggressive form of evangelicalism emerged in the 1970s, typified by right-wing evangelical activist Francis A. Schaeffer, founder of the L'Abri Fellowship in Switzerland and author of How Should We Then Live?, which challenged Christians to take control of a sinful secular society.21 Schaeffer (and his son Franky) influenced many of today's Religious Right activists, including Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and John W. Whitehead, who have gone off in several theological and political directions, but all adhere to the notion that the Old Testament Scriptures reveal that man has been given dominion over the earth and the New Testament transfers God's covenant to Christians, then Christians owe it to God to seize the reins of secular society to exercise this dominion.22

The most extreme interpretation of this "dominionism" is a movement called Reconstructionism, led by right-wing Presbyterians who argue that secular law is always secondary to Biblical law. While the Reconstructionists represent only a small minority within Protestant theological circles, they have had significant influence on the Christian Right.23 Dominionism is a factor behind the increased violence in the anti-abortion movement, the nastiest of attacks on gays and lesbians, and the new wave of battles over alleged secular humanist influence in the public schools. Some militant Reconstructionists even support the death penalty for adulterers, homosexuals, and recalcitrant children.

While dominionism spread, the numbers of persons identifying themselves as born-again Christians was growing. By the mid-1970s, rightists were making a concerted effort to link Christian evangelicals to conservative ideology. The coalition really jelled in 1979, when Robert Billings of the National Christian Action Council invited rising televangelist Jerry Falwell to a meeting with right-wing strategists Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Richard Viguerie, and Ed McAteer. The idea was to push the issue of abortion as a way to split social conservatives away from the Democratic Party. This meeting came up with the idea of "Moral Majority," which Falwell turned into an organization.24

While the Moral Majority began hammering on the issue of abortion, the core founding partners of the New Right were joined in a coalition by the growing neoconservative movement of former liberal intellectuals concerned over what they perceived as a growing communist military threat and the appalling immorality and irrationality of the '60s counterculture. Reluctantly, the remnants of the Old Right hitched a ride on the only electoral wagon moving to the Right. To reach the grass-roots activists and voters, New Right strategists openly adopted the successful organizing, research, and training methods that had been pioneered by the labor and civil-rights movements.25 Viguerie especially championed the idea of using populist rhetoric to build a mass base for conservatism.26

The New Right coalition of the late 1970's "represented a reassertion of the `fusionist' triad of moral traditionalism, economic libertarianism, and militarist anticommunism," explained Sara Diamond.27 On the economic front, the idea was to roll back federal policy to eradicate the influence of New Deal social welfarism and state regulation of corporate prerogatives. Socially there was a backlash mobilization of persons horrified--or at least discomfited--by the social liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had sent a shock through traditionalist communities. It was bad enough that women wanted to be on top...they wanted to be on top of each other! If America was to reject the harlot of Babylon, decent people had to fight back. In 1980 Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan sauntered all the way to the White House by strumming these economic and social themes.


Toppling Blocks and Shifting Sands


Reagan did try to push some of the social issues favored by the Christian Right in Congress, but many mainstream Republicans refused to go along. While Congress continued to pass bits and pieces of the lengthy (and sometimes competing) agendas put forward by the Christian right, economic libertarians, militarists, and xenophobic authoritarians, some sectors of the Christian right felt betrayed by the failure to deliver on promises to outlaw abortions, sanctify prayer in the public schools, and exorcise the Department of Education. Key hard right activists such as Phillips and Viguerie denounced Reagan for negotiating with the Soviets over arms reductions, joining with militarists to drive another wedge into the New Right. 28

The election of George Bush--eastern, elite, educated at Yale, for God's sake--further alienated the Christian Right, despite Bush's selection of Dan Quayle as a running mate to pacify social traditionalists. The Christian Right did briefly kept its ties to the Bush White House through chief of staff John H. Sununu, who worked closely with the Free Congress Foundation. The Bush White House also staffed an outreach office to maintain liaison with evangelicals. This cozy relationship, however, soon changed as pragmatic secular operatives elbowed social conservatives out of the Oval Office. Meanwhile the militant tactics of Operation Rescue and other aggressive anti-abortion groups highlighted a woman's right to choose as a wedge issue that further split Republicans. Out of this frission came a revanchist movement that dubbed itself the Paleoconservatives to show their allegiance to key themes of the Old Right, especially Eurocentric monoculturalism, White cultural or racial superiority, heterosexual patriarchy, and isolationist nationalism.

The edifice of the US political right seemed doomed to topple along with the Berlin Wall in late 1989. With the end of the Cold War, who needed cold warriors? The Christian right was itself tipsy from news of important leaders caught with their hand in the till or handling prostitutes. Trickle Down theory had mostly dried up. The New Right alliance that had been cobbled together to support Reagan eventually collapsed. After the scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker which rocked televangelism, and Pat Robertson's failed 1988 Presidential bid, some pundits predicted the demise of the Christian Right. But they overlooked the huge grass-roots constituency that remained connected through a infrastructure of conferences, publications, radio and television programs, and audiotapes, etc. The new conservatism reformed and continued on in diverse ways.

How did various right wing groups take the end of the Cold War so easily in stride and come to construct the government as the new subversive enemy? The Red Menace was the central scapegoat for the US political right during the twentieth century, and state collaboration with right-wing countersubversion movements was common. Many periods of economic or social conflict that generated right-wing populism preceded the rise of communism and anti-communism. After the collapse of communism in Europe, sectors of the conspiracist right simply reached into its historic baggage and pulled out old clothes to put on the new scapegoat. They claimed the goal of the age-old collectivist enemy was still a "New World Order," just as they had been predicting for centuries. Furthermore, this sector of the Americanist right had long asserted that a primary danger of communism was internal subversion, not just external invasion. And the John Birch Society and Liberty Lobby had argued that behind communism hid the shadowy elites who also manipulated Wall Street.29

This transition was particularly painless for the new Christian right because prior to the collapse of communism many of its leaders had embraced a new variation on the theme: the secular humanist conspiracist theory.30 According to Marsden, this new analysis "revitalized fundamentalist conspiracy theory."

"Fundamentalists always had been alarmed at moral decline within America but often had been vague as to whom, other than the Devil, to blame. The "secular humanist" thesis gave this concern a clearer focus that was more plausible and of wider appeal than the old mono-causal communist-conspiracy accounts. Communism and socialism could, of course, be fit right into the humanist picture; but so could all the moral and legal changes at home without implausible scenarios of Russian agents infiltrating American schools, government, reform movements, and mainline churches."31

A number of Christian right ideologues adopted the secular humanist conspiracist theory, including Timothy and Beverly LaHaye and Dr. James Dobson. Goldwater supporter John Stormer updated his 1960s book for the 1990s and shifted focus from anti-communism to claim secular humanism now played a key subversive role in undermining America.32 In a similar way, militant Protestant fundamentalist elements in the antiabortion movement claimed a conspiracy of secular humanists as the source of godless disregard for what they argued was sinful murder of the unborn.33

One of the core ideas of the US right during this century was that modern secular liberalism was a handmaiden for collectivist godless communism. The secular humanist conspiracist theory decouples scapegoating allegations from godless anti-communism and returns them to the earlier underlying tracks leading from the original anti-modernist and anti-enlightenment fundamentalist impulses and allegations about demonic conspiracies.34 As a result, sectors of the new Christian Right now compete with the John Birch Society and the Liberty Lobby as major sources of conspiracist narrative in the US.

Secular humanists-pictured as the torchbearers of liberal godlessness and New Deal statism-could be scapegoated from a variety of perspectives, economic, anti-elitist, moral, as well as religious. The idea of the secular humanist conspiracy also paralleled and buttressed the resurgent libertarian theme that collectivism drains the precious bodily fluids from individual initiative, and also saps the vigor of the free market system. It also echoed the concern of conservatives, neoconservatives, and paleoconservatives over creeping moral decay and the failure of New Deal liberalism. This resulted in some remarkable tactical coalitions following the rise of the New Right, especially around issues of public school curricula and government funding for education.

The strongest glue that bound together the New Right pro-Reagan coalition was anticommunist militarism. Neoconservatives, even some who were Jewish, were often willing to overlook the long-standing tolerance of racist and anti-Jewish sentiments among some in the Old Right. When Bush enthused about a New World Order as he sent troops off to storm the desert sands of Kuwait, it signaled the end of the original New Right coalition. Isolationists, right-wing economic populists, and business nationalists formed a new coalition to oppose the Gulf War. Neoconservatives, who were overwhelmingly interventionist, gaslighted the emerging isolationist paleoconservatives by decrying their racialist and antisemitic credentials. Paleoconservative Pat Buchanan's long-standing bigotry was suddenly "discovered" and denounced by his former allies.

Electoral Conservatives Regroup at the Grassroots

Culling a cadre from campaign contributors to his failed 1988 presidential bid, Pat Robertson went back to the future with a scheme to take over the Republican Party from the ground up. Robertson and organizer Ralph Reed created the Christian Coalition, which moved quickly into the local and state electoral arena. The Coalition joined with other Christian right groups, such as the Traditional Values Coalition of Lou Sheldon, and Concerned Women for America led by Beverly LaHaye, to target school boards, public libraries, and state legislatures. Meanwhile, the Washington, DC chain of right-wing institutions such as the Free Congress Foundation, Madison Center, and the Heritage Foundation continued to train conservative activists from college newspaper reporters to elected state officials. The Christian right reassembled its key components, then launched an outreach campaign to conservative Catholics and moral traditionalist, even reaching out to include a handful of high profile Jews. Anti-homosexual campaigns overtook anti-abortion organizing as the hot-botton issue and fundraising focus for social issue conservatives.35

The 1992 Republican convention represented the ascendancy of the activist right, with politically-mobilized conservative Christians emerging as the largest voting block within the GOP. Meanwhile, neoconservatives, who championed the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan contras, were given posts in the Clinton administration as it scuttled to the right. Even Barry Goldwater, toast of the reactionaries in 1964, lambasted the narrow-minded bigotry of the Christian Right, which traced its paternity to his failed Presidential bid. The militant apocalyptic rhetoric of Buchanan and others at the 1992 Republican convention was condemned by liberal and conservative pundits, but despite many claims otherwise, there is no evidence that this had a significant effect on voting outcomes.

John C. Green is a political scientist and director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Ohio. With a small group of colleagues, Green has studied the influence of Christian evangelicals on recent elections. Green found that contrary to popular opinion, the nasty and divisive rhetoric of Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and Marilyn Quayle at the 1992 Republican convention was not as significant a factor in defeat of Bush as were the issues of the economy and jobs. While votes flowed in both directions, on balance the Republicans gained more votes in 1992 by embracing and elevating the Theocratic Right than they lost. Christian evangelicals also appear to have played a significant role in mobilizing voters for the Republican ticket in 1992. This explains why Republican leader Bob Dole was forced to retract his criticism of Senate candidate Oliver North with his long-standing ties to the Theocratic Right. Green and his colleagues note a significant "widening gulf between Evangelicals and Seculars," concluding that a new kind of party alignment may be appearing: a division between devout religious voters and non-religious voters, which seems to be replacing the old ethno-religious politics which was based on cleavages involving religious traditions and denominations.36

Mainstream pundits are split over the degree to which the Christian Right poses a threat to democratic values. Sidney Blumenthal first dismissed the issue then by 1994 was running up warning flags. Mona Charen, a reliable barometer of elite reactionary opinion and intelligence agency agendas, defended the Christian Right, including her friend Paul Weyrich, in a July 1994 syndicated column published in the paleoconservative Conservative Chronicle. The battle lines were drawn, but they were hardly clear. Different factions within the Democratic and Republican parties both cheer and fear the Christian Right and its theocratic wing.

The base-broadening effort of social conservatives continued, with Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition writing in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review about the need for the Right to move from such controversial topics as abortion and homosexuality toward bread and-butter issues such as taxes-a tactical move that did not reflect any change in the basic belief structure. Sex education, abortion, objections to lesbian and gay rights, resistance to pluralism and diversity, demonization of feminism and working mothers-these are core values of the coalition being built by the Christian Right and its allies. By November of 1994, the electoral activist right had gained control of significant sectors of the Republican Party, and helped sweep into the House of Representatives a large number of conservative and reactionary politicians.


Strange Bedfellows

One of the key organizing tactics of the Christian right has been the use of populist rhetoric. As globalization has disrupted social, political, and economic systems across the planet, many different types of right-wing populist movements have appeared in response. The effect of globalization on the economy is hardly an analysis limited to the left. Consider this quote from Business Week:

"The Darwinian demands of global competition have led to waves of corporate downsizing. Real median incomes haven't moved much for two decades, while the earnings gap between the richest and the poorest Americans has widened. This has heightened workers' economic insecurity and sown doubts about the future."37

Conservative analyst Kevin Phillips wrote: "The sad truth is that frustration politics has built to a possibly scary level precisely because of the unnerving weakness of the major parties and their prevailing philosophies." Phillips cited both Republicans and Democrats for "ineptness and miscalculation." After decrying liberal elitism and arrogance, Phillips condemned Republican politicians who have "periodically unleashed the anti-black and anti-Israel messages they now complain about in more blunt politicians as `bigotry.'" According to Phillips, "If Patrick Buchanan is to be put in a 1930-something context, so should the second-rate conservatives and liberals responsible for the economic and social failures from which he and other outsiders have drawn so many angry votes."38 For a growing portion of the population in the 1990s, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans offered hope for redress of grievances. After the collapse of communism and the Gulf War a significant right-wing populist movement emerged, with several distinct sectors. Economic nationalists still loyal to the electoral system rallied around the populist candidacy of Ross Perot.

Serious statistical research in the US is scarce, but Hans-Georg Betz, in his study Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe, noted one common theme there was xenophobia and racist scapegoating of immigrants and asylum-seekers in an electoral context.39 Betz's review of voting demographics in Europe reveals right-wing populist parties attract a disproportionate number of men, persons employed in the private sector, and younger voters. In terms of social base, two versions of right wing populism have emerged: one centered around "get the government off my back" economic libertarianism coupled with a rejection of mainstream political parties (more attractive to the upper middle class and small entrepreneurs); the other based on xenophobia and ethnocentric nationalism (more attractive to the lower middle class and wage workers).40 These different constituencies unite behind candidates that attack the current regime since both constituencies identify an intrusive and incompetent government as the cause of their grievances. Anecdotal evidence suggests a similar constituency for right wing populists in the US.41

Further to the right a series of overlapping right-wing social movements with militant factions coalesced into the patriot movement, with an armed wing, the citizen militias spawning violent confrontations. Remnants of the Christian Patriot movement and members of the neonazi underground interacted with the militia movement.42 Anger over gross government abuse of power against the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the Brach Davidian sect at Waco, Texas swirled into a frenzy that exploded in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. During the mid 1990's armed militias were sporadically active in all fifty states, with numbers estimated at between 20,000 and 60,000. The larger and broader Patriot movement involved as many as 5 million persons who suspected the government was manipulated by secret elites and planned some form of tyranny.43 This sector overlapped with a resurgent states rights and county supremacy movement, with its novel manifestation, common law courts, set up by "sovereign" citizens claiming jurisdiction and dismissing the US judicial system as corrupt.44

Accompanying the backlash against social liberation and global corporatism has been the use of scapegoating as a political tool. In studying the debate over welfare, Lucy A. Williams argued the importance of "The development of a right-wing populist movement, based on fear and nostalgia...led to the scapegoating of welfare recipients as the cause of all economic and social woes. Race and gender played central roles in the promotion of the stereotype of the unworthy welfare recipient. The Right used welfare as a wedge issue, an issue which could pry voters away from their traditional allegiances.45 As Hardisty has observed, "Several different forms of prejudice can now be advocated under the guise of populism."46 Scapegoating has already become mainstream in US political/electoral circles, and it has both economic and social roots.

A significant factor in shaping these right wing populist backlash movements is a male identity crisis heavily influenced by the US inability to win the Vietnam War, which created among many men a sense of betrayal in high places. At a time when men feel unable to fulfill traditional roles as provider and defender, a reversion to paramilitary behavior is to be expected.47

Another factor can be examined by a visit to the religion, new age, and prophesy shelves of bookstores. There is an avalanche of new and re-issued titles on apocalyptic millennialism, a trend that will probably accelerate as the year 2000 approaches. The role of apocalyptic millennialism in shaping recent events such as the Weaver family shootings in Ruby Ridge, ID, the Branch Davidian conflagration in Waco, TX, and the Montana Freeman standoff is obvious yet under-appreciated.48 Apocalyptic millennialism can enter public discourse in both religious and secular guises.

Some academics who study millennial expectation note that the ramp up period prior to a millennial date can be marked by people turning inward in preparation, and in extreme cases suicide.49 Conversely, some people who believe the end of time means there will literally be no time for punishment, act out on their feelings of revenge by killing their enemies. During the post-millennial ramp down period, people can turn outward, and express anger over failed expectations by blaming scapegoats.50 In any case, as O'Leary points out, "the study of apocalyptic argument leads to the conclusion that its stratagems are endless, and not susceptible to negation through rational criticism."51 He suggests patience, a sense of tragedy in history, and a sense of humor for mending communities that have experienced tragedy, as the best strategy.

Whether religious or secular in style, various right-wing populist movements can cause serious damage to a society because they often popularize xenophobia, authoritarianism, scapegoating, and conspiracism. This can lure mainstream politicians to adopt these themes to attract voters, and even legitimize acts of discrimination (or even violence).

It is important to see that fascism in its stage as a mass movement is a form of right wing populism that relies on scapegoating, often in the form of conspiracist theories of subversion. What would it take to push current right wing populist movements into a proto-fascist stance? Mary Rupert offers some ideas about how such a transformation could happen within the patriot movement. Dubbing the patriot movement "A Seedbed for Fascism," Rupert suggests the "major missing piece in looking at the Patriot Movement in relation to fascism is that it does not overtly advance an authoritarian scheme of government. In fact, its emphasis seems to be on protecting individual rights." According to Rupert, there are two "portents of possibility," that could shift this situation:

"First is the below-the-surface disposition of the Patriot Movement towards authoritarianism, and second is the way in which Patrick Buchanan...picked up and played out the Patriots' grievances."52

For sectors of the Christian right to move in a fascist direction, the authoritarian dominionist and Reconstructionists sectors would have to extend their influence significantly. The Promise Keepers is an example of a populist mass movement that could move in the direction of clerical fascism, but it could also remain a para-church movement of renewal with a subtext of male heterosexual supremacy.

While the far right flirtation with fascism makes for colorful headlines, the largest and most influential sector of the right in the US are the electoral conservative coalitions. Jean Hardisty argues that it is the confluence of several factors that has assisted this success of the resurgent right in the US since the 1970s: a conservative religious revitalization, economic contraction and restructuring, race resentment and bigotry, backlash and social stress, and a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.

The synergy is key, explains Hardisty:

"Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history. While they usually overlap to some extent, they also can be seen as distinct, identifiable phenomenon. The lightning speed of the right's rise can be explained by the simultaneous existence of all five factors. Further, in this period they not only overlap, but reinforce each other. This mutual reinforcement accounts for the exceptional force of the current rightward swing."53

Previous | .Next

Online Articles:

Spotlight On

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections