Sam Rosenfeld Profile picture
Sep 10, 2018 18 tweets 5 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
1. Re @RuleandRuin’s grumpy piece on the historiography of conservatism (…), @TomSugrue offers the full-throated defense of the discipline’s honor: . I have a more specific point, undeniably motivated by some “presentist” concerns.
2. Does the rise-of-the-right lit really “take the extreme right as representative of conservatism,” as Kabaservice charges? This work, first motivated by dissatisfaction w/ how postwar libs like Bell & Hofstadter pathologized the right, if anything went too far the other way.
3. It had a tendency to internalize too much of the movement’s own self-mythology, in which a Buckleyite mainstream decisively drew boundaries and kept the ship steering down the fusionist true path.
4. Or, in social histories like Lisa McGirr’s (great) “Suburban Warriors,” it strove so conscientiously to lend its subjects dignity that some of the feverishness and gonzo resentments that permeated grassroots conservatism got smoothed away.
5. (Indeed, Kabaservice singles out McGirr both for smearing too much of early sixties Republicanism as Birchite AND for being so “scrupulously nonjudgmental” as to downplay the sheer craziness of Birchers’ beliefs.)
6. Some of the best of more recent work, like @pastpunditry’s “Messengers of the Right” and @eh_miller’s “Nut Country,” document the pervasiveness and centrality of extreme and kooky ideas, indivs, and groups to funding, broadcasting, and organizing rw politics at the grassroots.
7. (In a work-in-progress on what we call “the Long New Right” since the 1950s, @daschloz and I credit such scholars with “bringing the fever swamps back in.”)
8. This is important *as history* because the interpenetration of, and interplay between, extreme and mainstream right elements really has defined conservative politics from the 1950s onward. The John Birch Society, dismissed as marginal by Kabaservice, offers a case in point.
9. WFB made excommunication from the respectable movement a trademark, as w/ the Birchers. But not only were such gestures often made against those Nat. Review had formerly published or employed, they were typically *ineffective* in meaningfully marginalizing popular rw elements.
10. Leading Republicans, not just Goldwater but many considerably to his left, never blanched at engaging with the networks of the postwar hard right, and typically dodged calls to condemn the John Birch Society by singling out Robert Welch personally for criticism instead.
11. A proposed GOP platform plank at the 1964 convention denouncing extremism on the left and the right and naming JBS explicitly ran into opposition not only from Goldwaterites, but also from Dwight Eisenhower and George Romney.
12. There was reason to tread lightly! Credible estimates put peak membership near 100,000 by 1964-65. On the right, important players wore their Birch allegiance openly. It wasn’t just a few fringy congressmen and Ezra Taft Benson and his son.
13. In conservative circles, neither Billy James Hargis nor Clarence Manion, to name two, were marginal or insignificant figures.
14. By the late 1970s/early 80s, moreover, while JBS had declined in #s and organization, the GOP felt less reason than ever to hide or apologize for engaging Birchers. The likes of Dick Cheney and Chuck Grassley gave interviews to the JBS front magazine “News of the World.”
14. JBS is just one example of a broader failure on the part of both modern conservatism and the GOP to police their boundaries against extremism and crankery. That’s important as history, as I said, but it’s also a legacy that brings us directly to our current moment.
16. Yes, the history of conservatism is diverse, contains multitudes, and is filled with heroic stories of noble dissents from unscrupulous turns. But the “noble dissenter” part is key to the story, from conservative critics of McCarthyism to Never Trumpers today.
17. The broad indifference to the task of policing boundaries, and the more specific *ineffectuality* of those cons & Repubs who've attempted to do so (including the '60s heroes of Kabaservice’s own, great “Rule and Ruin”), are central themes in excavating the road to Trump.
18. Despite Kabaservice’s own book-length contribution to telling that story, his historiographical tsk tsk-ing takes us off the main task. /end

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