Read Part 1 here.
The Republican Party as Breeding Ground
In the previous instalment, we explored the degree to which Barry Goldwater served as a sort of ideological midwife to the extreme right-wing candidates typified by those waving the Tea Party banner today. An undeniably galvanizing figure for American conservatives, Goldwater was described thusly by none other than John McCain, the man who introduced America to Sarah Palin:
"...he transformed the Republican party from an Eastern elitist organization to the breeding ground for the election of Ronald Reagan.
Glen Jeansonne, in the preface to Kurt Schuparra's Triumph of the Right: the Rise of the California Conservative Movement, 1945-1966, voices similar sentiments.
Goldwater edged Rockefeller on the strength of his vote in southern California, yet was trounced by Lyndon Johnson nationally. Goldwater in defeat, however, was John the Baptist to Ronald Reagan.
It should come as no surprise then, that Goldwater's influence - extreme or otherwise - continues to be felt today. But does the genesis to today's arguably extreme conservatism - one that has articulated a desire to claw back the gains of the New Deal and to promote an interpretation of the Second Amendment that suggests there is no prohibition against the separation of church and state - have even earlier antecedents?
To find out, we need to return to Goldwater's speechwriter Harry V. Jaffa, distinguished fellow of the Claremont Institute, training ground for today's Tea Party front-line warriors, as we discovered in the previous instalment.
Jaffa "received his B.A. from Yale University, where he majored in English, in 1939, and holds the Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research", and at this latter institution would have been taught by a faculty which has included progressives such as William Kunstler, Hannah Arendt and Helen Caldicott. But, while the New School is best known for its liberal bent, it has always included conservatives in the ranks of its professors, among them the man who became his insipiration, Leo Strauss.
One of Strauss' students, Robert Locke, described him in 2002 as follows:
Strauss believed that liberalism, as practiced in the advanced nations of the West in the 20th century, contains within it an intrinsic tendency towards relativism, which leads to nihilism. He first experienced this crisis in his native Germany's Weimar Republic of the 1920s, in which the liberal state was so ultra-tolerant that it tolerated the Communists and Nazis who eventually destroyed it and tolerated the moral disorder that turned ordinary Germans against it. A Jew, he fled Germany in 1938. We see this problem repeated today in the multiculturalism that sanctions the importation into the West of Moslem fundamentalists whose foremost aim is the destruction of the Western society that makes that tolerance possible, and in an America so frightened of offending anyone that it refuses to carry out the basic duty of any normal state to guard its own borders.
Can we also see today the origins of some of the talking points so avidly distributed by those of the far right who wish for Muslim-Americans to become today's version of the Japanese-American internees of World War II?
Esoteric Meanings for the Enlightened Elites
Strauss, like his disciple Jaffa, believed in the classic foundations of political philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle (a coupling to which Jaffa adds a later embellishment, Thomas Aquinas). Locke points out, that in addition to himself and Jaffa, those who have eagerly supped from the Straussian cup include "Justice Clarence Thomas; Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes; former Secretary of Education William Bennett; Weekly Standard editor and former Quayle Chief of Staff William Kristol; Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind; former New York Post editorials editor John Podhoretz; former National Endowment for the Humanities Deputy Chairman John T. Agresto".
Interestingly, Strauss is also known for unveiling the concept of the Straussian text, or:
philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken men's attachment to their societies. Ideally, it then offers an alternative based on reason, but understanding the reasoning is difficult and many people who read it will only understand the "calling into question" part and not the latter part that reconstructs ethics...philosophy has a tendency to promote nihilism in mediocre minds, and they must be prevented from being exposed to it.
Jaffa, who echoed this concept in saying "the absolutely wise have the right to rule", as discussed by David Gordon in Jaffa on Equality, Democracy, Morality, would clearly agree, especially because, as Gordon demonstrates by quoting the following remarks, Jaffa, too has a taste for the hermetic, just as Strauss does.
If it is true, as some say, that God created ex nihilo, then God Himself belonged to the Nothing that was prior to Creation. That is to say, the highest reality is predicated if that Being – God – whose nothingness (uncreatedness) is of the essence of his perfection.... God, as potentiality rather than actuality, is non-being rather than being, at least as non-being and being are understood by merely human intelligence. Moreover, to say that 'nothing prevents anything from changing or being changed into anything else...' is to say nothing different than saying that nothing (viz. Nothing) limits the power of God."
When I first read this, I was inclined to dismiss it as murky Heideggerian metaphysics; but in fact the remarks are of crucial significance to understanding both Strauss and Jaffa. They express a standard doctrine of several Kabbalists. The foremost historian of Kabbalah (and incidentally Strauss's friend), Gershom Scholem, clarifies Jaffa's dark saying: "More daring is the concept of the first step in the manifestation of Ein-Sof [the Infinite] as ayin or afisah ('nothing,' 'nothingness'). Essentially, this nothingness is the barrier confronting the human intellectual faculty when it reaches the limits of its capacity. In other words, it is a subjective statement affirming that there is a realm which no created being can intellectually comprehend, and which, therefore, can only be defined as 'nothingness.' This idea is associated also with its opposite concept, namely, that since in reality there is no differentiation in God's first step toward manifestation, this step...can thus only be described as 'nothingness'.... its particular importance is seen in the radical transformation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo into a mystical theory stating the precise opposite of what appears to be the literal meaning of the phrase. The monotheistic meaning of creatio ex nihilo loses its meaning and is completely reversed by the esoteric content of the formula.... This view, however, remained a secret belief and was concealed behind the use of the orthodox formula..."
A Philosophical Pretext for Duplicity and Code Words
Hermeticism, kabbalah, Aristotelian....small wonder that some credit Strauss and Jaffa as providing the intellectual heft behind the Tea Party movement - although it is hard to imagine Sarah Palin winking her way through some of these concepts. She might, however, embrace what columnist Jim Lobe calls Strauss' Philosophy of Deception, in which:
"The people are told what they need to know and no more." While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy"
In this context, the duplicity behind the Tea Party's founding as an ersatz grassroots organization takes on a new clarity.
The Tea Party...passionate, well-meaning people who think they are fighting elite power, unaware that they have been organised by the very interests they believe they are confronting. We now have powerful evidence that the movement was established and has been guided with the help of money from billionaires and big business.
Passionate, well-meaning masses who receive the 'exoteric' message, while the 'esoteric' messages are reserved for the insiders, or elites. This also brings into sharp relief the phenomenon of conservative 'code words' we have seen emerge.
"Taxing the rich" becomes "wealth redistribution".
"Censorship": Applied to media outlets who don't buy the thinly veiled racist or discriminatory comments and/ or " common sense opinion" of conservatives.
"Liberal media bias": Applied to any media outlets who don't buy the thinly veiled racist or discriminatory comments or "opinions" of conservatives.
"Class warfare": Applied when the wealthy are questioned about their motives for pursuing more wealth at the expense of the environment, the country, or the less fortunate.
"Big Government": Government under control of the opposition.
Even before Strauss was weaned politically, though, there were been radical fringes within the conservative ranks, as Conservapedia - "the Trustworthy Encyclopedia" - cheerfully admits, citing taxpayers' revolts that, once again, sound familiar to our modern ear (although most recently the term has been "Spending Revolt".
During the Great Depression, other conservatives participated in the taxpayers' revolt at the local level. From 1930 to 1933, Americans formed as many as 3,000 taxpayers' leagues to protest high property taxes. These groups endorsed measures to limit and rollback taxes, lowered penalties on tax delinquents, and cuts in government spending. A few also called for illegal resistance (or tax strikes). The best known of these was led by the Association of Real Estate Taxpayers in Chicago which, at its height, had 30,000 dues-paying members.
Illegal resistance. Sounds familiar doesn't it? The playbook remains relatively unaltered, particularly when it generates the desired results.
When All Else Fails....Treason
In defending Pastor Stephen Broden, who made the remarks suggesting that revolution was an available remedy if the ballot box did not produce the desired results, Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis said that Broden was speaking in a hypothetical manner.
Does he have lessons to learn about staying on message and sticking to the index cards that usually accompany the robotic but successful utterances of most winning candidates? Yes.
But does he deserve the stain of someone who has ventured into whack-job territory? Absolutely not, and those who would put him there are engaged in character assassination.
The problem is that in the antecedents of alternative far-right movements like the Tea Party, we have seen the most anti-Constitutional and extreme gambits attempted. And in an election cycle that has seen death threats, physical violence, veiled threats about "second amendment solutions" and the appearance of semi-automatic weapons at rallies, should we not keep a weather eye out for the next level of extremism?
And what might that look like?
In 1934, pro-business Conservatives formed a group called the American Liberty League (an organization whose name would not be out of place in the plethora of astroturf groups in play in today's election cycle). Funded largely by the duPont family, the league was backed by powerful industrialists and quickly amassed a massive war chest, with $500,000 accumulated in its first year of existence.
With a staff of 50 in their 31-room, New York City headquarters, the League was FDR's most formidable foe. It launched chapters at 26 colleges and universities and spawned 15 front groups across the country to spread anti-labour, anti-communist and anti-Semitic hatred. The League distributed 50 million copies of extremely right-wing, often blatantly fascistic, pamphlets. It bankrolled a speakers' bureau, hosted nation-wide radio shows and launched lawsuits targeting the New Deal's 1935 Wagner Act because it allowed collective bargaining.
Created in August 1934, this anti-New Deal association of wealthy corporate leaders masqueraded as a patriotic grass-roots organization, and said its goals were "to combat radicalism, to teach...respect for the rights of persons and property, and generally to foster free private enterprise." It attacked government funding for poverty relief and social services and opposed all "burdensome taxes imposed upon industry for unemployment insurance and old age pension."
One of the founders of the league was John W. Davis, (also a founder of the Council on Foreign Relations CFR), and considered the last conservative presidential nominee (in the 1924 contest versus Calvin Coolidge) ever fielded by the Democratic Party. Following his defeat by Coolidge, Davis voted Republican thereafter, finding the party more conducive to his conservative political leanings.
When the league attempted to recruit retired USMC Major-General Smedley Butler, twice honoured with the Medal of Honour, to lead a coup attempt against the government of FDR, they made a mistake that was their undoing. Butler blew the whistle on them, testifying before the McCormack-Dickstein Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities.
Butler was first approached by two former state commanders of the American Legion. One [Bill Doyle] dropped out of the picture after the initial meeting. "The other said his name was Jerry MacGuire," the General told the Committee: "MacGuire said he had been State Commander, the year before,... in Connecticut."
These men, Butler later told me, eventually described "what was tantamount to a plot to seize the Government, by force if necessary."
The General placed little stock in what his visitors said until they showed that they meant business by displaying a bank book listing cash deposits of over $100,000 for "expenses."
Butler's testimony compellingly tied the coup plotter's to the American Liberty League, but while the coup attempt was aborted, the involvement of high-level American industrialists and political figures in a fascist plot to overthrow a democratically elected U.S. government was deemed too sensitive for further investigation, and the McCormack-Dickstein Committee declined to pursue the matter further.
So it appears that history has shown that people who believe that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" will go to lengths that the more moderate among us might find unthinkable, even resorting to extra-legal methods when constitutional practices prove insufficient. Certainly, Nobel-prize-winning economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman thinks so, writing in his 2003 book "The Great Unraveling":
It seems clear to me that one should regard America's right-wing movement...as a movement whose leaders do not accept the legitimacy of our current political system.
Am I overstating the case? In fact, there's ample evidence that key elements of the coalition...believe that some long-established American political and social institutions should not, in principle, exist - and do not accept the rules that the rest of us have taken for granted."
Krugman is by no means alone. Other keen critics of the political scene have made similar observations, such as Chris Hedges in his article How Radical Christian Conservatives May Succeed in Destroying Democracy and Robert Reich, in his article The Perfect Storm That Threatens American Democracy.
A relatively few Americans are buying our democracy as never before. And they're doing it completely in secret.