My colleague John Cassidy wrote not long ago about his difficulties, shared by the fine historian Jerrold Seigel, in finding an apt historical analogue for the Tea Party caucus as it exists today. Nothing quite like it anywhere else, he mused—and then Cassidy won this Francophile heart, at least, by citing as a possible model the Poujadists and Poujadisme, the small shopkeepers’ revolt in France in the nineteen-fifties—a movement that seemed to wither away when de Gaulle came to power, though it’s still alive today in many of the doctrines and practices of the French National Front. (Siegel, being provocative, must have enraged a few others by comparing our shutdown artists to the Islamic Jihad.)
As it happens, I’ve been doing some reading about John Kennedy, and what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really isyour grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party. Half a century ago, the type was much more evenly distributed between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans, an equitable division of loonies that would begin to end after J.F.K.’s death. (A year later, the Civil Rights Act passed, Goldwater ran, Reagan emerged, and we began the permanent sorting out of our factions into what would be called, anywhere but here, a party of the center right and a party of the extreme right.)
Reading through the literature on the hysterias of 1963, the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate. And fifty years ago, as today, groups with these beliefs, far from being banished to the fringe of political life, were closely entangled and intertwined with Senators and Congressmen and right-wing multi-millionaires.
In their new book, “Dallas 1963,” Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis demonstrate in luxuriant detail just how clotted Dallas was with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit. The John Birch Society, the paranoid, well-heeled, anti-Communist group, was the engine of the movement then, as the Tea Party is now—and though, to their great credit, the saner conservatives worked hard to keep it out of the official center, the society remained hyper-present. Powerful men, like Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, sympathized with the Birchers’ ideology, and engaged with General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme right-wing military man (and racist) who had left the Army in protest at Kennedy’s civil-rights and foreign policies—and who had the ear of Senators Strom Thurmond and John Tower. It was Walker who said of the President, “He is worse than a traitor. Kennedy has essentially exiled Americans to doom.” (It should be said that even William F. Buckley’s principled excommunication of the Birchers was unhappily specific: there was nothing wrong with claiming that the international Communist conspiracy had come to be more and more powerful under Eisenhower and Kennedy, he said; the mistake was in thinking that either man really wanted it that way, rather than that they were just feckless dupes of the encirclement.)
Medicare then, as Obamacare now, was the key evil. An editorial in the Morning Newsannounced that “JFK’s support of Medicare sounds suspiciously similar to a pro-Medicare editorial that appeared in the Worker—the official publication of the U.S. Communist Party.” At the same time, Minutaglio and Davis write, “on the radio, H.L. Hunt (the Dallas millionaire) filled the airwaves with dozens of attacks on Medicare, claiming that it would create government death panels: The plan provides a near little package of sweeping dictatorial power over medicine and the healing arts—a package which would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life or death power over every man woman and child in the country.” Stanley Marcus, the owner of the department store Neiman Marcus, heard from angry customers who were cancelling their Neiman Marcus charge cards because of his public support for the United Nations.
The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a “Wanted” poster, with the headline “WANTED FOR TREASON.” The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. “He has beenwrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States”; “He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.” Birth certificate, please?
The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is howtiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.
Perhaps this is in large part because the real grievance can’t quite be articulated. The common core belief, then and now, is actually descended from “Huck Finn” ’s unforgettable Pappy and his views on the “guv’mint”: the federal government exists to take money from hard-working white people and give it to lazy black people, and the President is helping to make this happen. This conviction, then and now, may not fairly be called racist in the sense that it isn’t just (or always) an expression of personal bigotry; rather, it is more like a resentment at an imagined ethnic spoils system gone wrong. (Hatred is less the key than a throbbing sense of unfairness.) Presumably, it makes space for a handful of hard-working black and brown people who are being victimized, too. (If there is much doubt that there is a racial component, the disparate reactions to Obama’s mythical foreign birth in Kenya and Ted Cruz’s actual one in Canada should put it to rest.) A focus group on the current state of the G.O.P., conducted by Democracy Corps, an organization put together by James Carville and Stanley Greenberg, was on the whole quite sympathetic to Tea Party and to evangelical feelings of alienation from incomprehensible social change, making it plain that the core grievance is still the over-riding feeling that “their party is losing to a Democratic Party of big government whose goal is to expand programs that mainly benefit minorities.”
So we don’t have to look any further than our own past to find exact cognates for today’s movement to the right. The fever won’t break, because it’s always this high. The best hope one can hope for is that, somehow, the adjustments to reality get made, even in the face of the ideology. Reality has a way of doing that to us all.