U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Retrospective Roundtable on Leo Ribuffo’s Old Christian Right: Entry 2 from Perlstein

Preparing for this presentation was a little bit mind-blowing. Pulling my copy of The Old Christian Right from the shelf, encountering underlining and notes from my first reading in 1995, I was slapped in the face by ideas I’d somehow managed to convince myself twenty-three years later were my own. Back then, I was kindling a fascination with the right in both its mainstream and quote-unquote “extremist” manifestations following the April 1995 Timothy McVeigh bombing and, before that, the November takeover of the House of Representatives by Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolutionaries. I read the book as part of the research for the first feature-length piece of journalism I ever published: “Sleeping With the Enemy: Academia Faces the Far Right,” in the November/December 1995 issue of Lingua Franca magazine, where I was an assistant editor.

The debt to Leo was right there in the magazine table of contents, in the description of the article: “An increasingly visible—and increasingly violent—fringe tests the limits of scholarly empathy.” The introduction to Leo’s book is entitled “’Extremism’ and Empathy.” I started off the article with an attack on the “status anxiety” thesis of Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter that was a virtual Ribuffo paraphrase: that literature, I wrote, dissected right-wing movements as cultural tumors on an otherwise healthy body politic, the basically liberal and modernist orientation of which was seen as self-evident; Bell and his colleagues thus framed the far right as “irremediably Other—Other, that is, not only to these progressive and eminently cosmopolitan social scientists but to American life itself, as it was supposed to be unfolding.” Then my twenty-six-year-old self pretended to a wisdom I hadn’t earned by continuing that a better scholarly practice would be to recognize that right-wing leaders “come out of movements that have histories…that often intersect with those of factions decidedly less kooky,” and use methods that are “often politically routine.” I guess my excuse now for not citing Leo then was that magazine space is always at a premium.

The Ribuffian echoes continue through my first book, Before the Storm, which I began immediately upon leaving Lingua Franca, where the uncited debts begin with the phrase “brown scare,” the title of the most indelible chapter in The Old Christian Right. My first book also includes a Ribuffian reading of the Hofstadterian influence on Eisenhower’s farewell “military-industrial complex” address, in which the old general spoke of how the permanent sense of Cold War emergency caused a citizenry wracked with “imbalance and frustration” to give in to “a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties”; and a quote from another speech in which Eisenhower intoned that “those who take the extreme positions in American political and economic life are always wrong.”

I also found Hofstadterian cadences in speeches by John F. Kenendy in 1961, during the heat of what we might call the “second brown scare” which followed the emergence of the John Birch Society into public consciousness that year, for instance in a Time magazine exposé that claimed the group was “a goose step away from the formation of goon squads.” Under Leo’s influence, I gave extended consideration to the Kennedy administration’s extraordinary efforts, in coordination with Walter and Victor Reuther, to investigate the right, instigated in the first instance by some genuinely frightening and possibly legally actionable preparations for violence by groups like the Minutemen, but which nonetheless ended up, as documented by the late historian John Andrew, with National Review in its sights because, to cite one Kennedy administration memo, that was the institution that posed the biggest threat for the “reeducation of the governing classes” and the “winning of national elections.”

No action came of these investigations, apparently—directly, at least. But one of the lessons The Old Christian Right taught us is that intellectually reductionist understandings of right-wing politics lead to genuinely dangerous political consequences, not just for legitimate political expression on the right but for the left. As his book demonstrates, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own brown scare instincts contributed materially to the expansion of the malign capacities of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Roosevelt, Leo writes, “personally intervened to curtail far right expressions that were only distantly dangerous or merely obnoxious.” Leo then demonstrated for the first time how the brown scare “set precedents for suppression that liberals and radicals would later regret during the Cold War.” He doesn’t mention it, but his eye-opening narrations of the scandalous federal prosecutions that culminated in the farcical conspiracy case of United States V. McWilliams also provided the template for the signal style of repression of what Leo is the only person I’ve seen term the third red scare, under Richard Nixon: John Mitchell’s farcical conspiracy prosecutions in the Chicago 8 and Harrisburg 7 trials that I write about in Nixonland.

That was a bitter fruit of Franklin Roosevelt’s alacrity at working to turn his ideological opponents into actual Nazis in the eyes of the legal system, different sorts of Americans into objective threats to America.

If I continue Leo’s story in Before the Storm, it’s in my demonstration of the way this habit of mind became a political danger to liberalism during the third brown scare. Before the Storm ends, of course, with all the intellectuals and pundits finding in Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat a tautological confirmation that because he was an extremist he lost and that he lost because he was an extremist—that Goldwaterism was a tumor on an otherwise healthy body politic, the basically liberal and modernist orientation of which was seen as self-evident. Because liberals back then dismissed the conservative upsurge as fundamentally alien to America, they could not understand its appeal as it began moving from margin to center.

It wasn’t that the joke was on them. The joke was them. In Before the Storm I quote from post-election forum in Partisan Review that the reason Goldwater was so dangerous was that he represented “a recrudescence on American soil of precisely those super-nationalistic and right-wing trends that were finally defeated in Europe at the cost of a great war, untold misery, and many millions dead.” The guy who wrote that, Phillip Rahv, died in 1973 before he had a chance to vote for Ronald Reagan—but he was already zooming toward the neoconservatism that surely would have found him in harness with the many, many colleagues of his who by 1980 managed to find a way to think of the American right as not so irremediably Other after all.

Leo’s intellectual scandal was daring to point out that “moderates” and those who are (in Hofstadter’s words) supposedly “psychologically outside the frame of normal democratic politics” share a culture. For instance on the subject of anti-Semitism. I thought of that recently when I came across an article from 1907 in McClure’s magazine that I tweeted under the words, “I’m worried about the migrant caravan.” The 1907 article was entitled “The Great Jewish Invasion.” I thought about it when I read the terrible novel The Plot Against America, and thought the family of Senators Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye should sue Phillip Roth for libel for glibly and ahistorically presuming that any supporter of America First must also be a native-born Nazi.

And I certainly must have thought about it in the late 1990s when I wrote in Before the Storm about how the early 1960s anti-communist militia group the Minutemen drew inspiration from a speech in which JFK said, “We need a nation of minutemen, citizens who are not only prepared to take up arms, but citizens who regard the preservation of freedom as a basic purpose of their daily life.”  Or when I wrote there about a propaganda film all new army recruits watched around then that resembled something put out by the John Birch Society, which depicts the Soviet Union’s model town where agents learn to infiltrate the U.S. by studying native arts like flirting with the soda jerk at the pharmacy. The film was introduced by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy—who was also busy at the time as point man for the project investigating the John Birch Society for its extremism.

My eye for this stuff shows Leo’s influence. So much of my own work turns upon what the way America’s gatekeeping political, journalistic, and, yes, intellectual elite understands conservatives and their alleged neuroses says about that elite’s own neuroses. Status anxiety? That’s your epithet? Who was more anxious about status than, to raise again the case of Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstadter—and if I may fold in an irritable mental gesture resembling an idea—Lionel Trilling, than the first generation of children of Jewish immigrants allowed to ascend into the Ivy League?

Reading Ribuffo, we read writers like these so much more astringently. Or those like Arthur Schlesinger, whose central, absurd, argument, our hero points out, was that “the ‘politics of freedom’…was confined to the ‘vital center.’” (Professor Schlesinger, meet Martin Luther King.) My own characterization of this immoderate expression of the moderate will to power is a line from Nixonland that I’ve written that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing quoted frequently: “Moderates can be seized by ideological fever dreams as much as extemists; it has ever been thus.” Leo’s version is sharper. He wrote, “moderates might find the center vital for neurotic reasons.”

Leo also has an aside making a point about all those midcentury pluralists who became Reaganites, by the way. Leo’s asides are the best. From who else but Leo could you learn about the 1920s pre-millenarian dispensationalist who sought to hasten the millennium by learning to speak Yiddish fluently. The more efficiently to convert Jews? Who but Leo could have taught us to predict Fox News’s infamous “War on Christmas” by quoting Gerald L.K. Smith flaying Norman Thomas as the enemy of “Santa Claus, Christmas trees, the Easter Bunny, and the Townsend Plan.” (“The audience,” he reports to us, “already standing, cheered and waved. Smith calmed them with the Lord’s prayer.”) Or predicting the stir Glenn Beck applying Vicks Vapo Rub below his eyes so he would cry on cue would cause by relating the March of Time newsreel of Smith standing before a mirror as he “schools his booming voice in the gospel of discontent.”

It takes an ornery cuss to align himself so forcefully against the common sense of his profession and his class. I learned something about that when I interviewed Leo for a New York Times Magazine article about why Trumpism came as a surprise to many historians. In part, my article was a mea culpa for not being more like Leo—for instance, for accepting the right’s own self-representation that it was a movement formed more or less ex nihilo around the time William F. Buckley founded National Review. I could have just quoted something Leo wrote in 1994 and left it at that.

Twentieth-century American conservatism crystallized in a country that already had deeply embedded patterns of belief and behavior: a sense that the United States was uniquely blessed but also uniquely vulnerable to alien isms; a de facto Protestant establishment that had heightened missionary diplomacy and expansion abroad as well as nativist campaigns at home; a distrust of the central government codified in the Declaration of Independence and re-orchestrated by Jacksonian Democrats and late-19th-century agrarian rebels; a producer ethic requiring real men to make something useful in order to merit prosperity and real women to serve by their side; diverse regional suspicions of various metropolitan centers and the snobs who lived there; and white racism institutionalized in slavery and segregation.

That was from his response to Alan Brinkley’s 1994 American Historical Review essay “The Problem of American Conservatism.” Leo called it, “Why Is There So Much Conservatism In the United States and Why Do So Few Historians Know Anything About It?” I quoted him in the New York Times piece saying that if he were doing a similar piece today he would call it “Why Is There So Much Scholarship on ‘Conservatism,’ and Why Has It Left the Historical Profession So Obtuse About Trumpism?”

Good stuff, right? You should hear what I left on the cutting room floor. That the study of populism “has not recovered from the hatchet job done by pluralist social scientists and ‘consensus’ historians in the ‘50s—even use of the phrase paranoid style…Shows it’s better to have a catchy phrase than a good idea.” He complained about “’public intellectuals’ who don’t know the difference between Mussolini and Tortellini.” And that “twenty years is a long time if you are a twenty-two year old undergrad but shouldn’t be if you are a historian or even a public intellectual,” and that he counts himself as “Those of us esoteric enough to think scholars of conservatism should know something about Hoover and Mark Hanna.”

In any event, Leo told me, “I’m too old to change my methodological ways, and in any case, it’s too late to be discovered as a public intellectual.” Let’s hope not, Leo. But if you’re not interested, I swear I’ll do my best to keep carrying the torch.

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  1. I think this entry in the roundtable would have been better if Rick Perlstein had been more explicit about exactly what neuroses midcentury moderates suffered from and exactly how those neuroses led them to see rightwingers as a cultural tumor on an otherwise healthy body politic.

    Instead, this post is weighed down, at least to some extent, by the sorts of overlong, syntactically pretzel-like sentences that caused me to put down Before the Storm after having read only one-third of it. I admire how much Perlstein knows; am just not always a big fan of how he conveys it. (To be fair, have only dipped into bits and pieces of Nixonland, though I own the book.)

    On a more positive note, this entry does manage to give a sense of Leo Ribuffo’s perspective for those of us who have not read The Old Christian Right.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.