Authoritarian Movement Conservatism threatens democracy


Nearly a decade ago, John Dean, who served as White House Counsel under U.S. President Richard Nixon, wrote a book entitled Conservatives Without Conscience. A self-described Goldwater conservative (indeed, Barry Goldwater had planned to collaborate on this book before his death), he railed against the influence of social conservatives and neoconservatives within his party.

Dean relied heavily on the research of a social psychologist, Dr. Robert Altemeyer of the University of Manitoba, who produced the test and scale for “RWA” or Right-wing authoritarianism. Dr. Altemeyer’s research was a refinement of the authoritarian personality theory originally pioneered by University of California at Berkeley researchers Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanford.

Goldwater-1John Dean and Barry Goldwater intended the book to be a wake up call, a warning about the rise of extremism and authoritarianism in conservative politics.

The warning largely went unheeded by the Republican Party, the media, and indeed the public. Since the publication of the book, the Republican Party has drifted ever farther rightward into radical extremism. As I have warned you many times, “This is not your father’s GOP.”

The Republican Party’s drift into far-right radical extremism is not by happenstance or coincidence. It is due to a decades long, well organized, well financed strategy by “Movement Conservatism.”

Last week the radical extremists of the GOP House Freedom Caucus engaged in a mutiny against the speaker of the House. John Boehner chose to announce his resignation rather than to put the House through the spectacle of on intra-Party coup d’état, an unprecedented action that would damage the speakership and the House.

Heather Cox Richardson, author of “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party,” amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College, wrote this compelling essay at Salon. It is time to get very afraid: Extremists, authoritarians now run the GOP – and no one can stop them:

Movement Conservatives just claimed the head of House Speaker John Boehner. His political death was the price of preventing a catastrophic government shutdown after Movement Conservatives in Congress tied the very survival of the United States government to their determination to defund Planned Parenthood. Movement Conservatives are gunning for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell next. We should be very afraid.

Boehner and McConnell are not wild-eyed lefties. They are on the very far right of the American political spectrum: fervently pro-business, antiabortion, opposed to social welfare legislation. But they are old-school politicians who still have faith in the idea of American democracy.

Movement Conservatives do not. They want to blow up the government and remake America according to their own radical ideology.

Since the 1950s, Movement Conservatives have set out to destroy the form of federal government that came out of the New Deal. After the Great Crash and the ensuing Depression, most Americans believed that the government must regulate business and protect labor in order to create a stable, prosperous society. But businessmen hated the very same New Deal regulations most Americans liked. The captains of industry believed that government meddling in their affairs would disrupt economic laws. This would cripple their enterprises and, in turn, cripple the American economy. But the New Deal consensus was enormously popular, and actually made for a stable economy in which most Americans enjoyed security. Business interests could not fight this consensus on the merits, or they would continue to lose.

In 1951, a young William F. Buckley, Jr., came up with a blueprint for destroying the American consensus. Rational argument was a losing strategy, Buckley wrote in “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” If voters were presented with facts, said Buckley, they would choose government regulation. So a new breed of Movement Conservative leaders must start from the premise that what Buckley called “individualism”—that is, an economy in which individual action was untouched by the state—was as sacrosanct as the Ten Commandments. Buckley gave this same untouchable status to Christianity, another fundamental that could not be questioned. People could quibble about the details of society based on an unregulated economy and Christianity, he allowed, but those bedrock principles could not be compromised. Individualism and Christianity were under attack, he insisted, from New Deal apologists and secular thinkers who had wormed their way into all levels of government and education. The secular New Dealers, Buckley claimed, threatened America’s very survival.

In the same year Buckley wrote “God and Man at Yale,” Eric Hoffer, a former San Francisco dockworker-turned-philosopher, examined the nature of authoritarian government. Having watched the rise of both fascism and communism, the former San Francisco dockworker thought those who wrung their hands over the ascent of a charismatic leader like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin were missing the point. There could be no leader without a mass movement, Hoffer argued.

Eisenhower1His observations about how revolutionary leaders created followers were so compelling that when Dwight Eisenhower became president, he urged everyone to read Hoffer’s book, “The True Believer.” Eisenhower worried deeply about the rise of authoritarian governments. He worried about fascism, communism and religious extremism overseas, but he was also deeply concerned at the rise of Movement Conservatism in America. That movement looked dangerously like the ones Hoffer described. In the years since, Movement Conservatives have continued to follow Hoffer’s script.

Mass movements ultimately need a disaffected population, Hoffer said, people who are either economically or culturally dispossessed. Those isolated individuals need to feel part of something bigger than themselves. They need to believe they can regain their previous relevance. Properly primed, such followers will throw themselves behind a leader who promises to return them to power.

In the early stages of a mass movement, “men of words,” as Hoffer called them, primed the pump for revolution by discrediting the current order of society. They encouraged followers to despise the present as a terrible declension from a glorious past. Then came the men of action—political leaders. As society destabilized, these new leaders created an artificial reality that made their discontented followers feel like they were part of something bigger than them, a movement to save society, a movement so important it was worth sacrificing themselves for it. The easiest way to unify followers was with hate. Leaders of such a movement identified a villain. These villains were usually the weakest members of society, making them easy to attack. And each attack on these new “enemies” fed contempt for them. Followers of a movement made more and more outrageous claims about those they demonized. Eventually those villains became so dehumanized that movement members would kill them, believing such atrocities were vital to reclaiming a glorious future for their nation. At this stage, followers were immune to facts or logic. Indeed, arguing with them only entrenched them in their beliefs, because the sign of a true believer’s faith was that it stood firm in the face of overwhelming opposition.

Eisenhower noted that early Movement Conservatives seemed to fit the pattern Hoffer’s work identified. In Eisenhower’s day, Movement Conservative leaders from William F. Buckley Jr. to Robert Welsh, who began the John Birch Society from his position at the Education Committee of the National Association of Manufacturers, harped on the idea that Communists had taken over the American government and were selling it out to an international cabal. Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy took that war into popular media. He claimed the need to defend individualism and Christianity from the secret plots of godless Communists in the government.

McCarthy began the process of creating an enemy that Movement Conservative followers could hate. His outrageous accusations divided American citizens into good and evil. Buckley and his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, expanded this theme, dividing Americans into “Conservatives” like McCarthy and themselves, who were trying to save the nation, and “Liberals” who wanted to destroy it. Their Liberals were all those who endorsed the New Deal consensus. Although New Deal supporters made up the vast majority of Americans, Buckley and Bozell announced that these traitors must be purged from the country. Instead, the nation must return to its glory days with a new “orthodoxy” of strict individualism and Christianity. Bipartisanship, progressivism and national unity were all a dangerous assault on what they claimed were America’s traditional values.

In the 1960s, Movement Conservatives created a cast of villains. The Brown v. Board decision in 1954 and President Eisenhower’s use of troops to desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957 enabled Movement Conservatives to resurrect old white fears that government activism was simply a way to funnel white tax dollars to African-Americans. Black people threatened America by forcing the government to redistribute wealth, thus inserting communism into the very fabric of the country. In 1968, Nixon made this Movement Conservative argument part of the established Republican Party when he resorted to the Southern Strategy. He expanded the villains’ list, too: he added to it grasping women, all minorities, and anti-war activists in the streets. They were all trying to destroy America.

Nixon’s people were purposely vague in their accusations—the administration’s favorite straw man was the murky “they” of “they say.” That unspecified “they” allowed Nixon’s people to preserve the illusion that they were describing facts. But President Ronald Reagan unhinged the rhetoric of Movement Conservatism even further from reality. He told folksy stories about Welfare Queens who stole tax dollars and hardworking individuals threatened by “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant Capitol.” When journalists fact-checked Reagan, he accused them of bias and rallied supporters against the “Liberal media.” And it played. In 1987, his administration ended the Fairness Doctrine that had required media to present facts and a wide range of opinions. This enabled Movement Conservatives to spew their worldview on talk radio and later television, railing against lazy blacks, women, minorities, workers and “Liberals,” all of whom were destroying America and holding the country back from regaining its former glory. And the more Movement Conservatives attacked, the more they weakened their enemies, and the more they despised them. Just as Hoffer had predicted.

By the time of the George W. Bush administration, Movement Conservatives controlled the Republican Party, and they abandoned reality in favor of their simple story line. A member of the Bush administration famously noted to journalist Ron Suskind that “the reality-based” view of the world was obsolete. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” this senior adviser to the president told Suskind. “When we act, we create our own reality.”

That is exactly what today’s Movement Conservatives are doing. After the last Republican debate, astonished observers noted that many of the candidates’ assertions were flat-out lies. The New York Times editorial board mused: “It felt at times as if the speakers were no longer living in a fact-based world.” But the lies are not random. They tell followers that America has fallen apart because enemies— minorities, women and liberals– have poisoned the government. Only a Movement Conservative leader can purge the nation of that poison and return America to its former greatness. Donald Trump, who currently commands a significant lead, is the salesman who puts it most clearly. He tells his followers that “the world is a mess.” He promises to work outside the old order and replace it with something new and wonderful. He tells them a story in which Christianity is under siege, President Obama is a foreigner, and that immigrants—who actually commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans– are criminals. He refused to contradict a follower who announced that Muslims are a problem that we must “get rid of.” And he promises to “Make America Great Again.”

But Trump is not an outlier. Jeb! says that black people vote for Democrats to get “free stuff.” Mike Huckabee insists that the United States is criminalizing Christianity. Bobby Jindal promises to “fire” Congress. Ted Cruz hints that President Obama is a Muslim and warns that no Muslim should be president. All of the candidates demonize undocumented immigrants.

And Carly Fiorina makes the outrageous claim, on national television, that political opponents murder babies to harvest and sell their brains. Think about that.

The fantasy world of Movement Conservatives is no longer fringe talk. The leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination embrace it. They are playing to a chorus of true believers, and they are preaching what that choir wants to hear. They are following the same pattern Eric Hoffer identified as the path to authoritarianism. Last week, 43 percent of Republicans polled said they could imagine a scenario in which they would back a military coup. This week, Movement Conservatives in Congress knocked off a conservative speaker because he refused to sacrifice the American government to their demands.

We should be very frightened indeed. If we are not careful, John Boehner’s will not be the only head on the block.

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AZ BlueMeanie
The Blue Meanie is an Arizona citizen who wishes, for professional reasons, to remain anonymous when blogging about politics. Armed with a deep knowledge of the law, politics and public policy, as well as pen filled with all the colors stolen from Pepperland, the Blue Meanie’s mission is to pursue and prosecute the hypocrites, liars, and fools of politics and the media – which, in practical terms, is nearly all of them. Don’t even try to unmask him or he’ll seal you in a music-proof bubble and rendition you to Pepperland for a good face-stomping. Read blog posts by the infamous and prolific AZ Blue Meanie here.


  1. That was a great book. My parents were Goldwater Republicans– fiscal conservatives, social liberals, and union members. My 91-year-old Mom couldn’t care less who has an abortion and who marries whom, as long as she doesn’t have to pay for it.

    • “… fiscal conservatives, social liberals…”

      I have heard that phrase all my life and it has proven to be an impossibility. If you are socially liberal, you can’t be fiscally conservative. The “programs” inspired by the socially liberal part means the fiscally conservative part has to cough up the funds to pay for them.

      • I assume you are not speaking of “programs” like mortgage interest and property tax exemptions to the tune of $384 billion that went to the highest earning fifth of taxpayers-per Bloomberg. These and hundreds of billions worth of tax loophole dollars for the wealthiest corporations and individuals are not included in the estimated $100 billion spent on federal corporate welfare each year.

        I doubt you’re referring to state and local “programs” either:

        Republicans and Democrats alike want to spend tax dollars for programs and things they value. If the myth of Republican=fiscal conservative was actually true, Republicans would be equally outraged with social and corporate welfare programs. The Welfare Queen story did have a good run, though.

        • Go back and read what I originally wrote on this. I blame both parties for the never ending spending of the Federal Government on programs they like. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, the spending goes on. That is one of the reasons for the development of the hard right and the fondness for pre-New Deal times.

          As I said, there is no going back…this fiasco has to work itself to it’s natural end. It will be painful and the results unpredictable, but it will eventually end. No government can go on spending the way ours does without destroying itself.

  2. Re-read your history books, there, Steve. The government has always done the bidding of the greedy. It didn’t start, as in your view, at the New Deal. Maybe that was poor people getting helped, finally. The American Revolution was as much about supporting land speculation, trans-Appalachians, as anything. The British government was supposed to support those efforts, but the American elites in Virginia, and Maryland weren’t about to pay for it. The British imposed small taxes to pay to support the military, and we were off and running. Internal improvments during 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, were major components of government policy and political intrigue. And don’t forget government support of slavery, legal and otherwise. If we can just get the government to build us canals, and roadways, and ports and move out the Indians and the Mexicans with the army, we can all do better, and our land investments protected. Even Lincoln started his political career, engineering the move of the capital from Vandalia to Springfield, for the related economic development benefits therein. And don’t get started on railroad incentives and subsidies, that still show up in the land ownership pattern in Arizona. So I guess it just depends on who is benefitting from government assistance. The right people or the wrong people.

    • You have an interesting way of describing the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries history of this country. I’ve heard it before and it is the way leftists tell the history in order to demean the nation and put it in the darkest light possible. Let’s talk about the Revolution. It wasn’t fought by the “elites”…it was fought by commoners. The elites provided some guidance and gave some voice to it, but the War was fought and won by average Americans seeking autonomy from Great Britain. The War was about much more than land speculation, it was about determining WHO actually owned the land…the Americans or the King. It was about free trade instead of mandated trade with only England. It was about ownership of the wealth in America. It was about determining how we would be governed and who would do the governing.

      After the Revolution, we established a Democratic Republic even though many felt that Washington should be crowned a King. He was one of those elites you sneer at who turned down a crown to establish a nation. The Country was growing and all those internal projects you also sneered at allowed for economic growth and they wouldn’t have been built without the government fulfilling it’s Constitutionally ordained duties. Yes, some grew rich at it, but the Nation also grew wealthy with them and began expanding even further.

      We had slavery at a time when slavery was common throughout the world. We also had a growing consensus that slavery was wrong, and after 30 years of trying to accommodate it, we fought a Civil War to change it. As a Nation we had more soldiers killed in that War than in all other wars we have fought combined. More than 500,000 died which was a heavy penance to pay for the sin of slavery, but we did outlaw it with our blood.

      The government was land rich and people poor. It was faced with a dilemma of how to get people to move into the vast expanses of unsettled territory. The government and the railroads struck up a deal that traded railroad lines for land. Yes, we can still see the effects of that deal today, and we should thank God they did it because that was one of the best deals ever worked out by the government. It moved people westward and settled out the Nation from coast to coast. That deal ranks up there with the Louisiana Purchase, the Gadsden Purchase and the purchase of Alaska as far as returns on the investment.

      And, amazingly, this was all done without taxing the American people. It wasn’t necessary to tax the American people until the New Deal rolled around and money was needed to pay for all the “projects” Democrats came up with in their new enlightened vision of Government.

      No, the government in the early wasn’t always benevolent, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It had a specified set of requirements and that was all. It wasn’t supposed to be the safety net for everyone and it wasn’t supposed to make life free of stress and strife. That is what it is viewed as today, but it wasn’t always so. What it is today is unsustainable and doomed to eventually fail. No one will do anything about it because too many benefit from it. It is necessary that it fail so that something better can arise from the ashes.

      • “It wasn’t fought by the “elites”…it was fought by commoners. The elites provided some guidance and gave some voice to it”

        All wars ever.

        • True. But in this war people fought for a cause. The money was worthless, they went through privations like the winter at Valley Forge, suffered the prison ships in New York Harbor, being hung as traitors when captured, etc, They weren’t there because they were drafted to fight, they were there because they believed in a cause.

  3. This was filled with so many points requiring rebuttal and response that my head was left swimming. Instead of doing that, I am just going to do a simple response to the underlying point made by the author. If you look at the history of the government of this Country, you have to go all the way up to the 1930s before you see the government change from what was called for in the Constitution to the Nanny State we have today. FDRs New Deal fundamentally changed the nature of our government from what it was to what it is today. Alexander deToqueville wrote some interesting books on America long before the New Deal. One of his observations was that America would remain a viable and functioning country until the citizens realized they could vote themselve largesse from the national treasury.

    It is as if he could see in the future and saw the New Deal coming. Since the New Deal arrived, more and more of the national treasury has been committed to the pockets of citizens, farms and corporations. I don’t think it is any accident that the start of the New Deal coincided with our never ending cycles of warfare. World War Two followed closely on the heels of the New Deal, then Korea, then Vietnam, then years of bush wars and minor conflicts until the debacle or Iraq started with Desert Storm on through to Afghanistan, and all the while thousands of little special operations that we never heard of…and all the while the government was giving away ever increasing amounts of money it didn’t have. And before you start cackling about it being the fault of Republicans, go back over that timeline. The Democrats were often in control and did their share of warmongering and MORE than their share of giving money away.

    If the Republicans are trying to reclaim the old sense of government, it is because they realize the current version has no future to it. Democrats want to keep and expand the current version even though the ones who can think realize it is unsustainable. We are a nation in decline and, sadly, nothing will stop it. The Democrat version of government will hold fast just as this author predicts because no one will give up their place at the government troft. The Republicans will continue to lose because no one wants the austerity they offer. We will ride this fat little piggy called government till it dies.

    Then what? A peaceful reorganization? Another civil war? Given that – according to this author – 43% of conservatives were ready to join a military coup, I suspect something less than Kumbaya…

    • I don’t think you grasped the point of the article Steve. Your arguments are based in traditional arguments in American politics and culture and you make good points behind your philosophy about our country. The point here is the extremism that is becoming similar to episodes of the past. Liberals are capable of this too when you look at small movements such as extreme enviromentalism or anti-business movements. The thing about what we are seeing today, however, is coming from the far far right. There is no reasonable compromise or debate. It is “my way is the only way and you can take the highway” attitude.

      I have several examples of what I interpret this article to be about, but I will give you one that sums this up. I have a friend and co-worker who is the nicest guy you will ever meet. He is a very religious individual. One day during the anniversary of the Japaneese intern camps he made a comment that just floored me. This guys view was that this country is going to die because we are not willing to do things like the internment camps anymore. He stated that America needs to be able to make those tough decisions and do whatever it takes to make sure we are safe and others don’t win.

      I thought he was joking at first but he clearly was not. This is the type of thinking that frightens me. Refusing to learn from the past, doing whatever it takes…these are the things that will lead to our demise. This is the people’s democracy. Not the corporate democracy and not a military democracy. Anyone who can even justify a coup is out of there mind.

  4. Holy freakin crap! I have been discussing this very issue with my wife for quite sometime. This article is an excellent take on this. I wasn’t aware of the publications mentioned. I have found, to my dismay, that many of these people I work with every day. These are great people and smart, but when you try to debate or fact check some of their views it is almost scary how defensive and extreme they get. They become completely different people. It’s not hard to imagine something like what is mentioned here actually taking place.

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