Rise of the Far-Right Ultras


The rise of America’s far right.


In 1956, the former commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service made a surprising political turn: He announced in an essay in The Washington Post that he saw taxation as a Marxist scheme to “bring capitalism to its knees.” Even though T. Coleman Andrews had served in government only a year before, under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, once out of Washington he turned against the entire enterprise of the modern state. Any progressive or liberal, he insisted, was “either a dupe or, at heart, a dictator.”

Andrews’s bold words made him a hero within a growing world of right-wing activists, and they drafted him to challenge Eisenhower for the presidency. His supporters were a motley crew comprising members of For America (an organization that built on America First, which had opposed US entry into World War II); Southerners who hoped to block the integration of public schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education; and business opponents of labor and the welfare state. They were drawn to Andrews’s dire political vision and to his depiction of the United States as being on the verge of a communist takeover. As one supporter put it, “It matters very little if…Roosevelt or Eisenhower is a Communist or not. What does matter is that they have advanced the Communist cause and American Liberals, by participating in the advance of the cause of Communism are unwitting dupes of the International Communist Conspiracy.”

Running as the candidate of the States’ Rights Party, Andrews won just over 111,000 votes in the 1956 election. At the time, the liberal mainstream dismissed the far-right constituency for which he spoke as politically marginal. Such activists (along with the supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy) would later serve as the prototypes for the deranged, pathetic wackos that Richard Hofstadter chronicled in his famous essays on the “paranoid style” in American politics and the rise of “pseudo-conservatism”—freakish figures desperately clinging to national identity and social status who were to be pitied more than feared. Confident in the telos of liberalism as seen from his perch at Columbia University, Hofstadter concluded that the right was hysterical, a fringe force that might be disruptive but would never prove dominant. But were people like Andrews and his supporters merely on the margins of American conservatism, or were they representative of its ethos and worldview?

Ever since Hofstadter published his essays, historians have taken issue with his dismissive stance. The scholarly consensus has shifted to an interpretation of the conservative movement of the mid-20th century not as a mobilization of zealous cranks but rather as a force that must be taken seriously, its leaders motivated not by paranoia or rage but by deeply held ideas and a canny understanding of their interests. However, as the far-right end of the American political spectrum has grown in recent years—from QAnon and Tucker Carlson to the Capitol rioters and those making death threats against school board officials—and as substantial parts of the Republican Party have actively encouraged or tacitly benefited from this shift, it is also worth asking how marginal the followers of people like Andrews truly were. When it comes to American conservatism and the right, how should we think about the relationship between fringe and mainstream?

The historian John Huntington’s Far-Right Vanguard offers the fullest portrait yet of the ultraconservative mobilization of the 20th century. Whereas many scholars of the right have focused on the self-conscious development of a conservative movement that took shape in the 1950s, espousing such high-minded principles as individual freedom, support of the market, and opposition to communism, Huntington pushes the story back to World War I and the 1920s. He suggests that we should see the rightward edge of American politics as itself a spectrum, with the white-power militias and the neo-Nazis, the vigilantes and those who peddled a belief in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as the farthest extreme.

When we take this broader view, it becomes clear that the ultraconservatives were neither completely marginal nor assimilated into a mainstream right. Huntington argues that they made up the “base of the conservative movement”: its networks, its members, its readers and listeners, the people who tuned in to early right-wing radio programs, showed up at rallies to defend the House Committee on Un-American Activities, subscribed to National Review, and canvassed for Barry Goldwater. For Huntington, they were at once “fellow travelers and acerbic critics” of modern conservatism, forming a “vanguard” of the movement that helped to entrench the melodramatic tropes and conspiracy theorizing that remain so foundational today.

Huntington acknowledges that there is a real distinction between the far-right activists he describes, who believed that the United States was headed for an apocalyptic confrontation but who did not themselves engage in acts of terrorist violence, and right-wing extremists such as the Minutemen and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1950s and ’60s, who stockpiled arms and assassinated civil rights activists. But he also insists that the dividing line between the ultras and the mainstream right was and still is far more “porous” than has been commonly understood. Activists, leaders, ideas, and resources flowed easily between the world of the ultraconservatives and their more reputable mainstream comrades. The two political communities were separated more by tactics than by ideology. Here, in this driven, Manichaean mobilization of the mid-20th century, is where we can find the predecessors of today’s politics of reaction.

Huntington starts his narrative in the 1920s. The opposition to the New Deal and to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he argues, built on the political conservatism of the previous decade: the revival of the Klan as a mass political movement bent on protecting a white Protestant America from immigrants and Black Americans; the culture wars focused on keeping the teaching of evolution out of schools; the fear of Bolshevism and anarchism following the Russian Revolution and the strike wave of 1919. All of this inculcated a vision of a besieged America that crystallized in opposition to the New Deal.

Huntington describes leaders like James A. Reed, the former Missouri senator and the founder of the Jeffersonian Democrats, who argued that FDR had usurped control of the Democratic Party. An inveterate racist, Reed warned that the League of Nations would prove to be a vehicle whereby the “degenerate races” of the world could dominate whites and insisted that New Dealers would “rush into homes, spy upon people, shoot down citizens without warrant and without right…and undertake in every imaginable way the supervision and regulation of humanity.” Reed was a lifelong Democrat, but with Roosevelt in the White House, he called for reclaiming the party of the Solid South. As he put it, “You cannot make socialism and communism democracy by calling them the ‘new deal.’”

Reed worked with other opponents of the New Deal in the 1930s like the American Liberty League. They never broke away to form a new political party but instead attempted to build support for Alf Landon, the Kansan who challenged Roosevelt in 1936 on the Republican ticket. Although unsuccessful, their efforts left behind an ideological framework that adapted the “anti-communism of the First Red Scare for a new era of preponderant liberalism.”

In the 1940s, this emerging community of ultras found new cause for outrage in the expansion of the federal government during and after World War II. Sewell Avery, the president of the Chicago-based mail-order retail company Montgomery Ward, became a hero to the right when he refused to recognize or negotiate with a local union that his workers had organized in the spring of 1944. The federal government took over the company, and Avery was carried out of his office by military police, insisting to the press that “the kind of slavery that is being gradually put into effect now with government help is far worse than anything that ever happened before.”

Although the World War II era is often mythologized as a time of national unity, Huntington suggests that it instead “marked a continuation of substantial social and political divisions.” The fierce conflicts of the late 1930s that saw the rise of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the intensification of class conflict following the sit-down strikes, and the flourishing of opposition to FDR in Congress did not dissipate with the United States’ entry into the war. On the contrary, for certain circles the growth in federal power symbolized by the Montgomery Ward controversy seemed a harbinger of tyranny to come.

The Cold War nurtured the extreme right, legitimating its fears while fueling the anxiety that not enough was being done to defeat the Red Menace. Even as mainstream Republicans grew concerned that Joseph McCarthy’s brandishing of lists containing the names of alleged communist sympathizers might damage their cause, the Wisconsin senator emerged as the ultras’ next hero; as Gen. Robert E. Wood, the former president of Sears, Roebuck, declared, “McCarthy is doing a great job that had to be done to put traitors and spies out of our government.” Billy James Hargis, the Christian evangelical leader, depicted the United States as divided between Christianity and communism. Rhetoric likening communism and socialism to disease and perversion was everywhere on the right. Another conservative writer of the mid-1950s spoke of a “highly-organized socialist conspiracy” that had “infected every artery of our country,” while Southern California Representative James Utt (echoing the Pizzagate fanatics of today) likened the welfare state to pedophilia: “The child molester always entices a child with candy or some other gift before he performs his evil deed. Likewise, governments promise something for nothing in order to extend their control and dominion” over the people.

The early successes of the civil rights movement—most notably Brown v. Board of Education—also served to spur the far right, as white Southerners joined the Citizens’ Council movement to challenge the Supreme Court and resist integration. By 1956, there were some 90 Citizens’ Councils in the South, which may have had as many as 250,000 members. Even though these were people who “blanketed the South with segregationist propaganda” and took as their inspiration a speech by Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Tom P. Brady warning that the United States faced a choice between “Segregation or Amalgamation,” they mostly eschewed the violence of the Klan. They were, they insisted, “respectable” members of society.

Within the broader world of the right, this double act existed as well. Republican politicians and conservative intellectuals distanced themselves from the outright racists and the anti-communist conspiracy theorists who believed that President Eisenhower was serving his masters in Moscow, and yet, like the ultras, they argued on “principled” grounds that the Supreme Court had overstepped its authority in Brown, that unions were akin to tyrants, and that communists should be barred from teaching in public schools.

Throughout the 1940s and early ’50s, the political community of the right was a big tent, with ultras mingling easily with Republican Party regulars. But that began to change in the late ’50s, as the ultras became a more cohesive force and as the possibility of winning elections began to seem within reach for conservative Republicans. With the establishment of publications like National Review, “gatekeepers” (as Huntington terms them) such as William F. Buckley Jr. began to draw a line between their version of conservatism and that of the ultras. When the Harvard-educated businessman Robert Welch founded the John Birch Society in 1958, it brought together many of the strains of the far right into a single political organization and forced the strategic questions into the open. The Birchers now had to decide how to use their clout and whether they would try to work within the Republican Party or form a third party. Conservative politicians were faced with a similar dilemma: Should they accept the support of the Birch Society and other ultras, even though this might make it harder to win over centrist Republicans and other voters?

When Richard Nixon tried in 1962 to repudiate the Birchers while running for governor of California (despite their strength in the southern part of the state), he lost the election. With the rise of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, both the ultras and the Republicans had their answer. Goldwater was willing to associate with and to encourage his far-right supporters, but he did so through the vehicle of the Republican Party: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” he thundered at the party convention that year. His ultra politics helped to doom his candidacy, as the press portrayed him as mentally unstable and trigger-happy. But at the same time, even in the midst of Goldwater’s defeat, the most committed of his supporters saw signs of victory.

The Conservative Society of America peddled neon bumper stickers announcing “27,000,000 Americans Can’t Be Wrong.” They continued to mobilize, backing George Wallace’s independent presidential bid in 1968 and flirting with the idea of starting a third party—and as they did, Republicans began to worry that they had taken the support of the ultras for granted and might be “losing their right wing to Wallace.” For Huntington, the defection of the far right to an independent candidate suggests its partisan flexibility. But with the Wallace campaign, the Republicans also realized that they not only needed to court and flatter the far right but that by doing so, they might appeal to dissenting Southern Democrats as well.

Huntington’s narrative draws to a close in the 1970s, when the rise of Reagan’s more mainstream style of conservatism siphoned off some of the passion of the ultras, while the anti-communism that had once held the mobilization together ceased to be such a powerful unifying force. But it is not hard to see the impact that midcentury ultraconservatism had on the conservative institutions of the United States—the Republican Party above all, but also right-wing media, think tanks, and the movement’s general gestalt. A new conservatism had emerged out of the center-right’s dalliance with the far right: The extreme rhetoric, the effort to build a separate media universe, the fanatical celebration of free markets, the hostility to bureaucracy and the public sphere itself, and the willingness to denounce political opponents as “traitors”—all hallmarks of the ultra-right during the midcentury—became representative of conservatism as a whole. From Newt Gingrich to the Tea Party and finally to Donald Trump, the harsh motifs and ferocious imaginary of the far right had been merged into the conservative mainstream.

Far-Right Vanguard chronicles a network of activists who will not be familiar to most readers today. People like the Louisiana firebrand Kent Courtney, founder of the Conservative Society of America, and Los Angeles libertarian Willis E. Stone, who pushed for repeal of the 16th Amendment, are not exactly household names. But the book’s real value is not so much in its research as its interpretative frame.

Historians have long known about the kinds of groups that Huntington describes here. But in most other accounts, the moments of the right’s greatest success come when its leaders are able to reach beyond those circles and appeal to a larger electorate, to define a politics that distances them from the extremists. Huntington reverses this order: The fans of Sewell Avery, the backers of For America, the Citizens’ Councils, the people who believed that the income tax was a Marxist plot—these were the ones who actually powered the right and pushed it forward. They were the voters, the supporters, the contributors, the subscribers. As the historian David Walsh has argued, even if people like Buckley sought to distinguish the genteel intellectualism of National Review from the loony paranoia of the Birchers, in reality his magazine succeeded precisely because it was able to reach out to the base that the far right had created. He raised funds for National Review from ultra donors and published the writers who wrote for American Mercury, which trafficked in anti-Semitism. And in truth, Buckley shared more with the far right—including his defense of McCarthy and his hostility to the civil rights movement in its early years—than his admirers might like to remember.

Throughout the period Huntington describes, the intellectual and ideological overlap between the “mainstream” right and the ultras was always more extensive than later conservative politicians cared to admit. They shared the libertarian antagonism toward government, the passionate hatred of unions, and the fierce critique of federal action to protect the civil rights of Black Americans. Their differences mattered less than their common ground.

Long after the end of the Soviet Union, conservatives continued to rail against socialism. As the political culture turned rightward, the vitriol of the far right only intensified. Today, the organizations, the worldview, and the “paranoid” political style that in the 1950s seemed like relics now appear instead to be the predecessors of the vaccine resisters, the school-board activists, and the backers of Trump. “Indeed,” as Huntington notes, “Trump and the modern Republican Party represent the culmination of the long ultraconservative movement.”

But is this the whole story? While the intransigent rhetoric of the midcentury ultraconservatives is echoed by the right today, in other ways the ultras seem like a very distinct mobilization. Most of Huntington’s focus is on the leadership of the movement rather than its social base. But the far-right politics he traces seems to have found its most loyal supporters in the world of business—specifically among the midsize manufacturers and affluent suburban professionals who might have been most directly challenged by the changes of the New Deal. Out of the real disruption to their power in the workplace—Sewell Avery, outraged that the federal government had the temerity to challenge his basic property rights and tell him to recognize a union!—they fashioned a broad conspiracy theory in which the reforms of the New Deal really were a communist takeover.

The same was true, in different ways, for the white Southerners who joined the Citizens’ Councils. After all, they were not wrong to perceive that something was changing, that the absolute power that had once belonged to them over the lives of Black people was being hemmed in. But their rage and sense of betrayal morphed into a fantastic vision of the world in which they were entirely victimized by malign, mysterious outsiders. Anti-communism bound the movement together and gave its incoherence a clarity it would otherwise have lacked.

Today, by contrast, the social base of the far right—while not entirely clear—seems likely to include fewer people who are actually the owners of manufacturing enterprises, who might be considered members of a genuine (if local) social elite. They are not necessarily downwardly mobile or economically desperate: The January 6 insurgents, for example, seem to have included many white-collar, middle-class employees—doctors, architects, people in marketing. Some may own businesses, but these are probably smaller than the manufacturing enterprises that fueled the postwar right. No longer can their mobilization be understood simply as a defense of actual economic practices or a literal Jim Crow state; in many ways, it seems as if the privileges these people seek to preserve are in fact illusory. Similarly, the liberalism that the right rails against is not really that of the New Deal any longer—it is instead the strange mash-up advanced by the contemporary Democratic Party, which concedes so much social and political authority to business from the start.

Where the organizations and individuals that Huntington describes sought to defend a particular social order out of which they had emerged and in which they had prospered, today’s right (especially in those parts of the country that have been ravaged by plant closures and deindustrialization) channels a widespread sense of powerlessness that has come unmoored from any material interpretation. Its energy, at times, seems to come from the untethering of the white working class from the collective institutions, such as labor unions, that once helped to give its members a way of understanding themselves and their struggles as part of a broader social conflict and at their best helped to foster a spirit of common purpose and solidarity. In the absence of these connections, many of these workers may have the sense that they are perilously isolated, forced to confront a ruthless world as lone individuals—their only commonality and refuge being that of race. Today’s far right is shot through with the rhetoric of entrepreneurship alongside fantasies of racial displacement. The ravening embrace of market individualism and the presumed creativity of the businessman that is constantly reiterated and celebrated at the top of the social order is reinforced by the lived economic experience of the self-employed, the middle managers, the small business owners—groups pressed between ideals of autonomy and an increasingly fragile economic reality—and by the precarious nature of many jobs today, whose temporary, insecure, and degrading qualities are justified by the dream that they are only the prelude to a big break. Anti-communism as the glue holding the movement together has been replaced by a frenetic emphasis on self-preservation and self-enrichment—aspirations that must be defended against those immigrants, foreigners, and people imagined as racial subordinates who threaten to usurp the material security and wealth that ought to go to those most deserving, to the true Americans.

The libertarian vision of mid-20th century conservatism helped to create the atomized social world that powers the far right today. What is remarkable, then, is the rise of a new strain of conservatism that actively seeks to distance the movement from the free-market faiths of Goldwater and Reagan. Articulated in its more elaborate form by writers such as Michael Anton at the Claremont Review of Books, this conservatism tries to position itself as speaking for a muscular working class, castigating “globalism” and the soulless power of cosmopolitan elites who are sapping the energy of the virtuous (and male) people of the nation. An earlier version of this framework animated the 1992 and ‘96 presidential campaigns of Patrick Buchanan, whose trajectory illustrates how closely its typology veers toward anti-Semitism and the sensibility of fascism. At the same time, most of the actual prerogatives of the wealthy and the extremely wealthy have continued to be defended by Trump’s Republican Party, so that the policy agenda put together in the economic departments and think tanks far from the Birch Society coffee klatches has remained relevant and germane—not replaced entirely by Trump’s posturing against free trade. Yes, at the end of the Trump years, organizations like the Business Roundtable were suddenly horrified by the specter of insurrection and a challenge to the legitimate transfer of power—but until then, they were happy to take the tax cuts.

The contemporary right, in other words, may echo certain preoccupations of the postwar ultras, and it may borrow their melodramatic tone. But socially and politically it is different, as is the broader context in which it operates. In his 1975 article “The Lower Middle Class as Historical Problem,” the historian Arno Mayer described an “inner core of conservatism” that might be embraced by the lower-middle classes, especially in moments of “acute social and political crisis.” Mayer might not have imagined how the ranks of this social group would swell with the decline of unions and the revival of ideas of self-branding and going it alone. But he described the way that the office professionals, small shopkeepers, accountants, and marketers—the predecessors of today’s Internet merchants and Web entrepreneurs—would join together to protect the power of “those higher social classes and governing elites on whom [they] never cease to be dependent and for whom [they] feel envy exacerbated by resentment.” This element of social analysis is needed to make sense of what we are living through today.

Far-Right Vanguard borrows a metaphor of the left—the “vanguard”—to describe the ultraconservatives of the 1940s and ’50s. They pioneered a political style that remains potent today, an ideological infrastructure that underlies the Trump faction of the Republican Party. But in resurrecting this world and showing its centrality to the emergence of the postwar right, Huntington forces the reader to consider how different our own time may be—and the possibility that the resurgence of the right today not only builds on the legacies of the 20th century, but may be threatening and dangerous in new ways.

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