‘Radical right’ book warns of extremists ahead of Jan. 6
By then the Senate had censured McCarthy and McCarthyism had collapsed. The book looked dead on arrival.
But nearly 70 years later, as a congressional committee investigates the far-right attack on the US government on January 6, 2021, the forgotten text has never seemed more prescient.
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The authors wrote that far-right activists who wrapped themselves in the American flag actually posed a serious threat to the fundamental principles of the country. In the name of protecting American democracy, they warned, the radical right would use the language and methods of authoritarianism.
If “The New American Right” seemed outdated when it was first published, that quickly changed. By the early 1960s, it was evident that McCarthy had spawned a movement with real resistance power made up of anti-Communist organizations.
Take the John Birch Society, which in 1962 had about 60,000 members and about 9.5 million supporters. Its founder, a candy tycoon named Robert Welch, believed that “traitors in the US government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, run by a ‘socialist world government'”.
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Or take the lesser-known Liberty Lobby, founded by an avowed admirer of Nazi Germany. This white supremacist group prophesied an apocalyptic struggle “between the white world and the colored world, of which Russia is Lord.”
Bell’s team of scholars revised “The New American Right” and reissued it in 1963 as “The Radical Right”. It would become essential reading for students of modern American history.
Intellectuals argued that the radical right not only hated communism but also liberal democracy and the basic tenets of the US Constitution. As Bell wryly noted, his supporters stood ready “to abandon constitutional processes and suspend liberties, to tolerate communist methods in the fight against communism”. They castigated free elections and the peaceful transfer of power, deplored the independence of the judiciary and opposed civil rights.
If the Soviets wanted to destabilize the republic, they could hardly have found more active agents than the radical right.
Hofstadter called these activists “pseudo-conservatives” (a term borrowed from the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno). They posed as conservatives but were in reality authoritarians with a nihilistic urge to watch the world burn. “The followers of a movement like the John Birch Society,” Hofstadter wrote in one of the book’s essays, “are in our world but not exactly of this.” They lived in the midst of what their successors would call “alternative facts.”
Adherents of the movement preached the impending apocalypse. In 1963, following the ratification of a nuclear treaty with the Soviet Union, the Liberty Lobby declared that “the United States is, at best, only a few years older.” In a speech denouncing the radical right, Sen. Thomas Kuchel (R-California) called them “fear mongers.” It became the 1960s equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables,” a term of derision worn as a badge of honor by the mocked.
Bell argued that pseudo-conservatives were driven by fear of modernity. The United States was beginning to transition to a knowledge economy dominated by a “technical and professional intelligentsia”. This rattled the pseudo-conservatives, who felt, in Bell’s words, “the angst of the dispossessed”.
It’s more than a little like the forces that helped elect Donald Trump, spark extremist QAnon ideology, and launch the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
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The radical right of the 1960s, by contrast, never found its Trump – a leader who could unite the movement and give it real political power. Barry Goldwater, the Republican firebrand who ran for president in 1964, was crushed in a landslide, and subsequent Republican presidents have not embraced pseudo-conservatism.
When the radical right first gained strength, it fell to a Democratic president to formulate a counterattack — just as President Biden and his congressional allies are trying now. In 1961, John F. Kennedy lamented those who “call a man on horseback because they don’t trust the people.” His brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, viewed the John Birch Society as “an enormous danger” and rebuked “those who, in the name of the fight against communism, sow the seeds of suspicion…against the foundations of our government – Congress, the Supreme Court, and even the presidency itself.
To ward off the threat, the Kennedys asked the IRS to audit extremist groups and the Federal Communications Commission to regulate right-wing radio. But these efforts have failed to dent the appeal of the groups.
Pseudo-conservatism only lost relevance in the mid-1960s, after conservatives such as Ronald Reagan disavowed the John Birch Society. Today’s Republicans have yet to follow suit with Trump, QAnon and the Jan. 6 attack. In February, the Republican National Committee declared the insurgency “legitimate political discourse.”
House committee investigating January 6 attack began a long-awaited series of hearings on Thursday. The committee, made up of seven Democrats and two Republicans, has so far remained united in its promise to uncover the truth about what Biden called “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.”
But the ideology behind the attack is not new. Bell’s academic team was already sounding the alarm 67 years ago.