William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review (where I work), once confessed in private, “I wish to hell I could attack them without pleasing people I can’t stand to please.”
By “them” he meant the members of the conspiracy-mongering, anti-Communist, anti–United Nations, anti–civil rights John Birch Society (named after a Christian missionary who was killed in 1945 by Communist forces, making Birch the first American casualty in the Cold War). The people Bill couldn’t stand to please, of course, were liberals.
And yet Buckley did eventually go after the Birchers, at first trying as best he could to denounce their leader, Robert Welch, without alienating the rank and file. Eventually, this needle became impossible to thread, specifically when Welch began insisting that President Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
Buckley and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, along with conservative intellectuals such as William Baroody of the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a fellow) and Russell Kirk, convened a meeting at The Breakers hotel in Florida to address the problem. Buckley would lead the effort of anathematizing Welch, beginning with a six-page editorial excoriating him. Goldwater would follow up with a letter to National Review calling for Welch’s resignation.
This approach was risky. Many Birchers were not crackpots. Some were prominent businessmen who had supported both Buckley’s magazine and the movement behind the Goldwater candidacy.
In A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr., Alvin Felzenberg recounts one occasion when a major supporter of NR leaned on Buckley to stop criticizing Welch and form a “common front” against the Left. When he reminded Buckley of the financial support he’d given the magazine, Buckley responded that the National Review was “not for sale.”
Buckley denounced the Birchers in part because they were undermining the very cause they claimed to be fighting for. By making anti-Communism seem paranoid and extremist rather than prudent and necessary, the Birchers were making it easy for liberals to demonize and dismiss conservatism wholesale.
The Cold War is over, thank goodness. But similar patterns have been emerging on the right. In many ways, we’re witnessing a perfect example of history repeating itself as farce.
Whereas during the Cold War, the claim was made that the East Coast Republican establishment was insufficiently committed to the fight against Communism, the new hotness is that the GOP establishment is insufficiently committed to fighting . . . the GOP establishment. Extremism in Steve Bannon’s hashtag war against the elite is no vice, and moderation in pursuit of getting things done is now no virtue.
Republican Roy Moore is the new Welch (or at least one of several new Welches). He threatens to provide conservatism’s critics with precisely the caricature they crave.
He is a twice-disgraced former judge who believes 9/11 was divine retribution for our sins and an anti-Muslim bigot who can’t quite bring himself to rule out the death penalty for homosexuals. But he won the Alabama Senate primary anyway, largely on the grounds that he was the most anti-establishment candidate. To Alabama primary voters, his extremism is apparently proof that he won’t “sell out.”
If Moore is the new Welch, Buckley and Goldwater’s heirs have rejected the mantle of opposition, at least in this case. Last week, Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul endorsed Moore, citing his devotion to the Constitution and (in Lee’s words) his “reputation of integrity.”
As for conservatives outside the Senate, reactions have varied. Some have been outspoken in denouncing Moore. Others, like Sean Hannity of Fox News, have gone all in.
Part of the problem is structural. Despite all of the paranoid screeds one hears daily, the establishment, however defined, is weaker than at any time in memory. The balkanized and democratized media landscape of the Internet makes the kind of intellectual gatekeeping Buckley once mastered nearly impossible, particularly at a time when gatekeeping of any kind is viewed as “rigging the system.”
Buckley’s reluctance to please people he couldn’t stand has gone from an understandable sentiment to an ideological commandment for many on the right. Rather than learn from our successes, conservatives seem determined to make a virtue of our mistakes.