By Jake Strickler, Editor-in-Chief
“Whenever I feel bad, I go to the library and read controversial periodicals. Though I do not know whether I am a liberal or a conservative, I am nevertheless enlivened by the hatred which one bears the other. In fact, this hatred strikes me as one of the few signs of life remaining in the world. This is another thing about the world which is upside down: all the friendly and likable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,
And nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’, but it’s free.
Feelin’ good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues,
And, buddy, that was good enough for me.”
- Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee” (1970)
Last week, I wrote about the forces currently tearing the Republican Party apart, like a pack of wild dogs, into at least three distinct camps: the standard-bearing moderates and centrists; the radical, nativist, Trumpite “basket of deplorables” (the pejorative used by Hillary Clinton to describe “half” of Trump’s supporters back in September which has been embraced – and commercialized – by the group with contrarian glee); and those caught in the middle, still unsure about just what they’re going to do when they step into a voting booth in just under three weeks.
Over the next few weeks, I will examine how this nasty public breakup has been decades in coming, the fault lines now turned gaping chasms having been chiseled into the party’s structure at the inception of the modern conservative movement in postwar America. When viewed through the broad lens of history (as all political movements regularly should be but so infrequently are), Donald Trump can be seen for what he really is: a natural culmination, rather than an anomalous sideshow attraction. Along the way, I will also attempt to justify my obsession (but, to be immediately clear, not identification) with America’s far right.
This story begins with the most unlikely of persons: a constitutional lawyer, political activist, and mother of six named Phyllis Schlafly, who passed away on September 5th of this year at the age of 92. Though news of Schlafly’s death made the front page of the New York Times, it’s unlikely that many outside of political history junkies and members of right-wing circles really took notice. Residing in the former category myself, with a special emphasis in the latter, the headline took my breath away. I grew cold and clammy and stared at my computer screen in shocked silence for a few beats; a sensation I’ve only experienced upon learning of the deaths of personal cultural heroes like Lou Reed.
Mrs. Schlafly was, for me, a sort of photo-negative of somebody like Lou Reed: a cultural and political icon whose ideology I find so abhorrent that her passing would have provided a moment of schadenfreude if not for the fact that, in my own way, I admired her. Not for her beliefs but for the tenacity with which she clung to them. She may have been a deleterious kook, but she was a fighter. As political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote in the New Republic in 2005, “If political influence consists in transforming this huge and cantankerous country in one’s preferred direction, Schlafly has to be regarded as one of the two or three most important Americans of the last half of the twentieth century.” Wolfe follows this up by noting that “every idea she had was scatter-brained, dangerous, and hateful. The more influential she became, the worse off America became.”
I first encountered Mrs. Schlafly as a sophomore at the University of Colorado in Boulder, when I was scarcely eighteen. At the time, I was volunteering for a far-left book collective (your neighborhood one-stop-shop for titles on anarcho-syndicalism and the complete works of Ward Churchill) and working at a rare bookshop specializing in Beatnik lit and other American Weirdness (though getting paid in books does not, I think, fully constitute employment). It’s safe to say that my political ideology, along with that of the crowd I ran with, leaned radically to the left. Frankly, expressing sympathy with the American conservative movement in Boulder tends to be tantamount to high treason. My friends and I like to describe the city as existing in a bubble of its own reality: support for the left-wing is so prevalent that it becomes self-reinforcing, and even the most utopian, radical beliefs dependent on fundamental structural changes to the external world come to be seen as badges of rationality and moral fortitude. Mix this with a heady dose of new-age spirituality and you’ve got a rather interesting place in which to come of age.
When my roommate came home one day with a copy of Schlafly’s 1964 book A Choice not an Echo, rescued, I like to imagine, from the licking flames of an anti-right book burning (Boulder’s great for little ironies like that), it was in the spirit of pure punk provocation that it became a permanent fixture on our coffee table. We may have been pinko leftists but we also had a sense of humor, and the put-on was a favorite move of ours. It delighted us to no end to have a visitor plunk down on the couch, notice the book, and start flipping through its screeds against the Eastern elites ensconced in their Ivory Towers and liberal Kingmakers promoting an “America Last” foreign policy in pursuit of endless personal profit, her eyes widening with fright throughout. I thought these people were like me, she thought. Why do they have this paranoid right-wing nut-job stuff sitting around?? The game was to see how long we could keep the ruse up; how long before we admitted that we weren’t, in fact, stockpiling water and nonperishables in the basement in preparation for fascist takeover by agents of the New World Order.
Affectations, however, have the tendency to become habits, and before long I had developed an extreme interest in the American conservative movement and the decades-long war that had cleaved this country down the middle into opposing ideological camps. Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan became the lodestars of my obsession. And as I began to study these men in depth, Schlafly’s name popped up around just about every corner.
Schlafly’s rise to prominence closely, and not coincidentally, parallels the growth of a couple of fascinating American social and political movements. The first is the rebirth of Evangelical Christianity, with the archetype of the tent-revival huckster-priest skewered so effectively in novels like Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 Elmer Gantry and Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 Wise Blood being legitimized by a new breed of celebrity mega-pastors like Billy Sunday, Billy Graham and, later, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This first movement was made possible by the second: the rise of fervent anti-communism fueled by the Red Scare “witch-hunt” politics of men like Senator Joe McCarthy and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover.
The horrors of WWII mixed with the threat of communist subversion and nuclear apocalypse to drive mass numbers of Americans into the fold of fundamentalist Christianity in order to make sense of an increasingly nonsensical world. With the specter of godless communism haunting the East, a turn to traditionalist (even anti-modern) religious values became a rational choice. The Cold War was couched in terms of a battle between good and evil. WE’RE right and THEY’RE wrong. This sense of collective moral responsibility, in turn, prompted a fetishization of “traditional American values,” an extraordinarily nebulous term that is very difficult to define without first defining what these values aren’t.
American author Norman Mailer perhaps came the closest to defining this dichotomy as it was emerging in a couple of essays collected in his 1959 bestseller Advertisements for Myself. In 1957’s highly influential “The White Negro,” Mailer made the claim that, in response to an irrational and hostile world, Americans had divided themselves into two groups: those who sought rationality and order through collective conformity, and those who embraced irrationality through fervent individualism a desire to escape the sterility of the corporate world, the mainline church, and the ticky-tacky suburban tract home. Written in the nascent years of the Civil Rights Movement, Mailer claimed that these “outsiders” frequently found solace in certain cultural trappings of the African-American community, specifically hipster slang; anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist political stances; existentialist philosophy; and the kind of jazz that people like Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman were playing. His next move was to give names to these diametrically opposed groups: as he writes, “One is Hip or one is Square (the alternative which each new generation coming into American life is beginning to feel), one is a rebel or one conforms, one is a frontiersman in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society, doomed willy-nilly to conform if one is to succeed.”
In a later essay, Mailer attempts to develop a working taxonomy of the Hip and the Square. To be wild is hip; to be practical is square. To be spontaneous is hip; orderly square. Associative; sequential. Rebel; regulator. Differential calculus; analytic geometry. Thelonious Monk; Dave Brubeck. Trotsky; Lenin. Dostoevsky; Tolstoy. The present; the past and/or future. Sin; salvation. Manners; morals. Marijuana; liquor. While this list is tongue-in-cheek, the revolutionarily important takeaway is not that Americans had begun to see themselves as divided along very specific lines, whether of race, class, gender, political and economic belief, or, most importantly, culture (many of these had been obvious for centuries), but that the possibility of crossing these lines was becoming evident.
One couldn’t choose their skin color or gender (yet), but one could choose whether to be hip or to be square, progressive or traditionalist, individualistic or collectivistic, or, finally, liberal or conservative. And while this realization enlivened the progressives, essentially giving birth to “identity politics” and the various social justice movements of the 1960s, it scared the hell out of the traditionalists. Both became radicalized in equal measure; while for the left-wingers this radicalization was frequently celebratory and optimistic, it was increasingly protectionist, self-insulating, and exclusionary on the right. The unshaven, pot-smoking weirdos running around Greenwich Village reciting poetry about angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo or standin’ on the pavement signin’ ‘bout the government were not merely eccentrics and intellectuals in the eyes of conservatives; they were existential threats to the moral and social order of the country, as evidenced by small-press bestsellers like Richard Wurmbrand’s 1976 Marx & Satan and David Noebel’s 1965 Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles (which, if you ever need a Christmas present for me, would be one that’s virtually impossible for anybody to top). If the country lacked moral and social cohesion, how could it ever stand up to the threat of the Communist Internationale? Clearly something had to be done.
In 1960, two extraordinarily impactful developments in American politics took place. First, Vice President Richard Nixon lost the Presidential race to the young Senator Jack Kennedy because Nixon, unable to shave away his five o’clock shadow before the first televised Presidential debate in history, sent an aide out to purchase a depilatory cream that made him look like the monster from a Roger Corman movie (which, frankly, he quite often was). This victory empowered idealistic youth, who saw the system working in their favor (as well as being a testament to the power that the money Old Papa Joe Kennedy made during his bootleggin’ days could buy). But it also enraged the nascent Conservative movement, not least because Kennedy’s Catholicism rankled their mainline Protestant sensibilities. This leads to our second major development of the year. Arizona’s own Republican Senator Barry Goldwater (who we really are featuring heavily this week), published a slim little manifesto called The Conscience of a Conservative that went on to sell over four million copies. In Goldwater’s words: “The Conscience of a Conservative was the college student underground book of the times. It was virtually ignored by the media, most college professors, and other liberals, who had long held a monopoly on the information flowing to the American people…it became a rallying cry against three decades of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the liberal agenda.” Hmmm…“college student underground book,” a description that could easily be applied to the work of left-wing contemporaries like Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon, or Eldridge Cleaver.
But there was a major difference with Goldwater’s book. As Pat Buchanan writes in his introduction to the 1990 edition, “By 1960, with world war a receding memory and affluence accepted as a permanent condition, America’s young were in search of a ‘cause’ beyond themselves to which to dedicate their lives…John F. Kennedy was capturing America’s mood with his campaign cry of, ‘Let’s get this country moving again!’ Across the South, black students were conducting sit-ins, supported by the white liberals of the Freedom Rides. Civil Rights had become the great cause of liberalism on the move. But what about the Right?” In Conscience, the squares had found their own manifesto, something of which the Left was hardly in short supply. In the brewing battle between “crewcut and longhair” (Mr. Buchanan), Goldwater gave the crewcuts their “New Testament…the core beliefs of [their] political faith.” Buchanan continues, “Every great movement – social, political, or religious – in its infancy, is marked by militancy. Its faithful shine with a spirit of sacrifice, a willingness to accept defeat and humiliation rather than compromise principal. Its True Believers are impatient, to the point of intolerance, with the half-hearted and the half-committed. He who is not with us is against us.” Radical stuff! Let the hippies go off and play revolutionary with Fidel Castro’s bearded band of commies down in Havana; the conservatives had found their own rallying point. And they were preparing for all-out war.
But for all the tough talk, the surprising thing about actually sitting down and reading The Conscience of a Conservative is how elegant and well-reasoned it is. An excerpt from early in the book exemplifies this, and gives evidence of just how much power Goldwater’s words held: “The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy…Only a philosophy that takes into account the essential differences between men, and, accordingly, makes provision for developing the different potentialities of each man can claim to be in accord with Nature.” Over the remaining 100 pages, Goldwater applies his lofty rhetoric to tangible issues like States’ Rights (loves ‘em/hates federal overreach), Civil Rights (fully in support of racial equality, but believes that federal intervention, except in cases of violation of Constitutionally-defined natural rights “enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom”), agricultural subsidies (leave it to the free market), labor (unions are great, unless they compel membership), taxes and spending (do less of both), The Welfare State (“If we take from a man the personal responsibility for caring for his material needs, we take from him also the will and the opportunity to be free”), education (FEDERAL GOVERNMENT STAY AWAY), and “The Soviet Menace” (don’t negotiate, don’t concede a thing, bomb ‘em to hell if they bat an eyelash).
In 114 pages, Goldwater outlines the framework agenda which the conservative movement has used as its rhetorical roadmap for the last 55 years: small government, small spending, small taxes, neoliberal economic policy, and the necessity of carrying a big stick with which to defend American values at any cost. Needless to say, the hippies didn’t like it. At the outset of the 1960s, the scene was set for a cultural battle that would play out over the next decade and leave the country transformed in every way imaginable. But that’s for next week, when the story really starts to get exciting. And Phyllis Schlafly? Remember her? She’s about to come in like a hurricane. For tonight, I’ll let Mr. Bob Dylan sing us out with a line from “I Shall Be Free No. 10” off 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan:
Now, I’m a liberal, but to a degree
I want everybody to be free
But if you think that I’ll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door or marry my daughter
You must think I’m crazy!
I wouldn’t let him do it for all the farms in Cuba!