When the GOP Went Off the Rails

As a thirteen-year-old, I watched William F. Buckley’s Firing Line with my dad, attended Teen Age Republican summer camp, and during the 1968 Nebraska primary campaign, at the behest of a Nixon campaign advance man in Omaha, furtively ripped down Rockefeller and Reagan signs. Three years later I was a McGovern campaign volunteer, but I still watched and admired Buckley on PBS. Today I disagree about political issues with friends and relatives to my right, but we agree on the contours of reality. I never really loathed any president (until now), and over the years I voted for a few Republicans for state and local office.

People on the left are by no means all scrupulously reasonable — many give themselves over to the dubious and untrue. But the politics of Fantasyland are highly asymmetrical. That is, starting in the 1990s, America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left. Moreover, it now has unprecedented power — as of 2016, effective control over much of the US government. Why did the grownups and designated drivers on the left manage to remain more or less in charge of their followers, while the reality-based right lost control to its fantasy-prone true believers?

One reason, I believe, is religion. The GOP is now quite explicitly Christian, the first time the United States has had such a major party. It is the American coalition of white Christians, papering over doctrinal and class differences — and now led, weirdly, by one of the least religious presidents in modern times. If more and more of a political party’s members hold more and more extravagantly supernatural beliefs, doesn’t it make sense that the party will be more and more open to make-believe in its politics and policy? The Southern Baptist minister and professor Roger Olson bemoans the fundamentalist takeover of evangelicalism. “An analogy,” he wrote recently, “is what has happened to the Republican Party,” where moderates were marginalized. But that isn’t just an analogous dynamic: the transformations of Christianity and of the political right happened simultaneously and amplified each other. I doubt the GOP elite deliberately engineered the synergies between the economic and religious sides of their contemporary coalition. But there it is nonetheless. As the incomes of middle- and working-class people flatlined, Republicans pooh-poohed rising economic inequality and insecurity; economic insecurity does correlate with greater religiosity; and for white Americans, greater religiosity does correlate with voting Republican. For Republican politicians and their rich-getting-richer donors, that’s a virtuous circle, not a vicious one.

Another main way fantasists took over the GOP is with the flowering of conspiracism I described in the preceding two chapters. After 9/11, more Democrats than Republicans believed that the Bush administration allowed or arranged the attacks. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, seen by twenty million Americans in theaters, nudged many liberals toward belief in an untrue conspiracy, but the mainstream left didn’t push that fantasy. America simply has many more fervid conspiracists on the right, as research about belief in particular conspiracies confirms again and again.

Richard Hofstadter argued in the 1960s and many others have since that the right is inherently more fertile ground for such paranoia. Maybe. In any case, only the American right has had a large and organized faction based on paranoid conspiracism for the last six decades. As the pioneer vehicle, the John Birch Society zoomed along and then sputtered out, but its fantastical paradigm and belligerent temperament has endured and reproduced in other forms and under other brand names. When Barry Goldwater was the right- wing Republican presidential nominee in 1964, he had to play down any streaks of Bircher madness, but in his 1979 memoir With No Apologies, he felt free to rave on about the globalist conspiracy’s “pursuit of a New World Order” and impending “period of slavery,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ secret agenda for “one-world rule,” and the Trilateral Commission’s plan for “seizing control of the political government of the United States.” The right had three generations to steep in this. Its exciting taboo vapors wafted more and more into the main chambers of conservatism, becoming familiar, seeming less outlandish. Do you believe that “a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government”? Yes, say 34 percent of the people who voted Republican in 2012.

Look at today’s John Birch website: its concerns and spin are unremarkably Republican — abolish the Fed, pull out of the UN, kill Common Core, give moral support to the latest martyred right-wing lawbreaker who can’t abide some government program or rule. Woodrow Wilson was in office when the Birch Society’s founder came of age, and he demonized Wilson ever after — “more than any other one man [he] started this nation on its present road to totalitarianism.” Which seemed quaint — until recently, when right-wingers like Glenn Beck revived that odd obsession with a president from a century ago.

Wilson pushed the League of Nations, the failed forerunner of the United Nations — and the UN, according to the far right in the 1950s and the mainstream right since the 1990s, is a headquarters of the globalist tyranny…. The Republican Party’s platform started depicting the UN as a bogeyman in 1996; the 2004 platform demanded that “American troops must never serve under United Nations command,” but that document still had lots of references to the UN’s utility and importance — the last one that did. (The 2016 GOP platform calls for a constitutional amendment to protect homeschooling “from interference by states, the federal government, or . . . the United Nations.”)

This is not just symbolic wankery. It has had effects in the real world. Take Agenda 21, for instance. In 1992 the UN held an Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to start getting everyone on the same page concerning the environment and the new notion of sustainable development, especially concerning CO2 emissions. It adopted a voluntary blueprint called Agenda 21. And then nobody outside the environmental do-good sector paid attention. From 1994 to 2006, there was exactly one reference to Agenda 21 in The New York Times.

But then the far right discovered it — exposed it! — and refashioned Agenda 21 as a secret key to the globalist conspiracy. (Conspiracists love learning the names of little-known government programs, especially if they contain numbers — the air force’s Area 51, CIA’s Operation 40, Special Ops’ US war games in 2015 called Jade 15 — then repeating them until they become, dum-dum-dum, shorthand for shadowy evil.) By 2012, American right-wingers knew to be scared, very scared, of this vague, twenty-year-old international environmental plan. Agenda 21 and sustainable development, they say, were just totalitarianism and Communism by a different name. When the Obama administration created the White House Rural Council to promote economic development in places like Appalachia, a Fox News anchor warned that it was “eerily similar to a UN plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one-world order.” When Newt Gingrich was the front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination and mentioned it during a debate, applause prevented him from finishing the thought. At that moment, Beck had just published his dystopian novel Agenda 21, and on his TV program one of the main Agenda 21 hysterics provided a perfect glimpse into the conspiracist mind: “You’re not going to find anything that isn’t Agenda 21 these days…. People recognize many, many things that are wrong but they don’t realize that they’re all connected.”

By then, conservative activists all over the country were using Agenda 21 as the scary catchphrase to defeat ordinary county and city land-use plans, carbon-emission information programs, plans for high-speed trains, traffic decongestion, bike lanes, and home energy meters. The Republican National Committee called it a “comprehensive plan of … global political control” including “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.” The last two GOP platforms have had anti-Agenda 21 planks, and a dozen state legislatures passed resolutions decrying it.