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Rick Perlstein: Conservatives have always been this crazy

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Rick Perlstein, having emerged from self-imposed radio silence onto the pages of Rolling Stone (yes, I know; mixed metaphor), is doing a weekly bang-up job — just in time for Clown Season.

His message this week: "Yes, Virginia; these really are your daddy's crazy conservatives."

It's a good-sized good article; here's a taste. After listing the old and the new (stunning parallels between 50s conservatives and our own lovable bunch), he notes (my emphasis and paragraphing):

Dr. Noebel's latest project is to republish a volume he apparently finds freshly relevant, Dr. Fred Schwarz's You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists. Schwarz, an Australian physician who died three years ago, had his heyday in the early 1960s, when he would fill municipal auditoriums preaching his favorite gospel: that the Kremlin dominated its subjects by deploying "the techniques of animal husbandry," and harbored "plans for a flag of the USSR flying over every American city by 1973."

The new version, updated by Noebel – it comes with raves from grateful reviews, like this: "Just as important as it was 50 years ago"; and this: "Should be required reading for every American," and "This book made me a conservative" – is titled You Can Still Trust the Communists: To be Communists, Socialists, Statists, and Progressives Too.

Why does this matter? Because the notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it.

In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin's ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that "most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley."

So what did a "reality-based conservative" like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for "instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know." So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack's "tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights."

And here's the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz's 1996 memoir (Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): "How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism."

The "establishment conservatives," Reagan and Kemp, and the "nut," Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.

You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today's Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all.

Here's the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush:
"It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater."
And so it goes: Reagan is now deemed one of those reality-based conservatives whose disappearance we now lament. Wrong.
Another excellent read; do check it out.

And Paul Krugman reminds us of this:

As always with Reagan, words aren't the point; bail on the audio if and when you like. But hey — shoulders you could land an airplane on. Look, rubes; manly.


(To follow on Twitter or to send links: @Gaius_Publius)

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