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There is No “Mainstream” Conservatism

The line between the far right and “mainstream” conservatism is rapidly crumbling. But the two were never very far apart in the first place.

Congressman Steve King of Iowa speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Gage Skidmore / Flickr.

If you go by most of what you see in the media, you would think politics is governed by some strange version of Newtonian physics. “Both sides” are perennially to blame, and if there’s ever dangerous excesses on one end of the political spectrum, then they must of course be evened out by the existence of equally dangerous excesses on the other end.

It’s why, after George Soros was mailed a bomb, Chuck Schumer felt the need to announce that “despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum.” And why the New York Times, after more explosives were sent to individuals hated by the Trump-loving Right, decided the explosives were adding “to [a] climate of overheated partisan rancor.”

Yet we’re now at a moment when it’s indisputable that only one of these “sides” has actually become a vehicle for dangerous, violent extremism.

I’m speaking about the quickly fading line between the far Right and “mainstream” conservatism. This isn’t really a new phenomenon. The dividing line between US conservatism and fringe bigots of various kinds has always been pretty flimsy; the old, “respectable” conservatism represented by William F. Buckley and pined for by today’s centrist pundits was also a deeply racist one. It’s not a mystery why the Klan endorsed Ronald Reagan for president twice.

But just consider some of the events of the past few weeks. The “theory” that the bombs sent by Trump superfan Cesar Sayoc were a “false flag” orchestrated by the Left quickly moved from far right internet message boards to being broadcast by “mainstream” conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Michael Savage, various Fox News guests, and even a Republican lawmaker, Matt Gaetz. Gaetz, along with “mainstream” conservatives like Newt Gingrich, also floated the idea that the thousands of Central American migrants traveling to Mexico and the US-Mexican border were being funded by some mysterious agent of chaos. One of these conservatives was pundit and prolific conspiracy theorist Erick Erickson, who for some reason was invited this past Sunday onto Meet the Press where he play-acted as a sober moderate and lectured conservatives to drop the crazy talk.

It called to mind the recent episode in which conservative legal thinker Ed Whelan invented an alternative “explanation” for Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged assault of Christine Blasey Ford that involved a Kavanaugh doppelgänger, defaming an innocent man in the process. It also calls to mind that, even now, a majority of Republicans believe Obama was born in Kenya.

This is far from the only recent instance of crossover between the far and “mainstream” Right. British far-right figure Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. “Tommy Robinson”) was invited by Republican congressman Paul Gosar to speak to the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of right-wing House Republicans founded by Steve King. This is only a few months after Gosar traveled to London and spoke in support of Yaxley-Lennon at a protest peopled with other far-right figures, where he called Muslim men a “scourge.” The Arizona GOP said nothing.

Speaking of Steve King — the Republican congressman who, whoopsie daisy, just happens to somehow constantly retweet, meet with, and sound exactly like neo-Nazis — his “mainstream” colleagues seem to have a hard time condemning him. Here’s a parade of local GOP officials defending King and whitewashing his various racist comments (“he’s a godly, upright man”; “I think that he says what he means”;“maybe it’s crude, maybe a little mean, but it gets the point across”). One GOP county chair, when asked if King’s statement that “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” was racist, responded: “I think it’s a reality.” (The head of the Republican Congressional fundraising arm did finally criticize King on Tuesday.)

King has helpfully made clear an obvious truth that would be considered too “partisan” if uttered by anyone in the media. Referring to the Freedom Party of Austria, a far-right party of actual Nazis, King said: “If they were in America pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans.” And he’s not wrong: this November features a gaggle of real-life, no-kidding neo-Nazis and white supremacists running as GOP nominees.

Meanwhile, the Proud Boys, a ridiculous but nonetheless violent fascist gang led by Vice founder Gavin McInnes, have been welcomed into the Republican Party fold, with McInnes invited by the Metropolitan Republican Club of New York City — traditionally a hub for the GOP’s establishment elite — to give a lecture. The talk involved McInnes re-enacting the 1960 assassination of Japanese Socialist Party leader Inejiro Asanuma, complete with caricatured Asian eyes, and concluding, “Never let evil take root,” a line reportedly met with hooting and cheering by the Republican audience. The Proud Boys also acted as “security” for Joe Gibson, a far-right activist who was briefly a Republican Senate candidate from Washington, and a recent protest by the gang was organized by a local GOP official in Florida.

We can also see this shift in Fox News, the most popular and powerful media arm of the conservative movement. Fox has long been a bastion of racist dog-whistling, as Megyn Kelly’s tenure at the network can attest, but it’s recently opted to swap the dog whistle for a bullhorn. Tucker Carlson runs shows about the dangers of Roma immigration and supposed anti-white discrimination in South Africa, while Laura Ingraham told viewers that “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people” through both illegal and legal immigration, and that “the America that we know and love doesn’t exist anymore” in parts of the country. Earlier this week, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade suggested that the migrants headed toward the US are carrying unnamed “diseases,” which Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale accurately called “a staple of racist and anti-semitic incitement for hundreds of years.”

But the fact that Fox has never been far from these more alarmingly explicit appeals to racism is key, because the same goes for “mainstream” conservatism. As the Left has been at pains to point out for the past three years, other than on trade and some aspects of foreign policy, there is very little real substantive difference between Trump and “mainstream” conservatives, which is why Republicans, including his fiercest “opponents”, vote almost exactly in line with Trump’s policy positions most of the time. It’s also why Trump’s approval ratings are sky-high among Republicans and why “mainstream” conservatives have walked back their previous disapproval of Trump and now declare they’re “thrilled” with him. As one pollster has said, the “Never-Trump” Republicans that tend to appear on TV and in op-ed pages don’t really exist in real life.

Take a look at the recent midterms, which have seen the entire GOP heavily stoking racism in advance of voting day. The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, affiliated with House speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP leadership, has been running some breathtakingly racist ads. But the GOP’s “moderate” elements have been flirting with extremism for a while now.

Hatred of refugees, which motivated the latest far-right terrorist attack, was stoked by the “mainstream” Right in 2015, when 31 governors (all but one of them Republican) refused to resettle any Syrian refugees in their states. Hapless “moderate” Jeb Bush suggested letting in only the Christian ones. The following year, Ted Cruz, then another “moderate” alternative to Donald Trump, ran a campaign ad that was essentially Willie Horton for immigrant communities.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual confluence of “mainstream” conservatism’s brightest lights, has for many years been a cesspool of far-right talking points, ideas, and figures. Figures like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney were fixtures for years (Gaffney, a conspiratorial, anti-Muslim hate-monger, was also an adviser to Ted Cruz in 2016, and other GOP hopefuls that year lined up to be associated with him). Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician, turned up once at CPAC to a forty-second standing ovation. This was the same year Wilders had been invited to the Capitol by Jon Kyl, the extremely conservative Republican former congressman who was considered a “pragmatic” choice to fill John McCain’s seat in Arizona.

“Mainstream” conservatism’s connections to the far right go further than this, however. It’s the family of conservative magnate Richard Mellon Scaife — considered “mainstream” enough for Bill Clinton to eulogize in 2014 — who became the single biggest funders of the anti-immigration movement. Likewise, it’s a constellation of the largest “mainstream” conservative donors who bankroll the country’s most virulent purveyors of Islamophobia, some of whom make up today’s “alt-Right.”

In fact, Islamophobia — something of a gateway drug to outright white supremacy — has for a good while been a tolerated, if not accepted, part of “mainstream” conservative politics. The racist hysteria over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in 2010, was fanned by “mainstream” conservatives like Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, currently outgoing Florida governor Rick Scott, then-gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, and many more. Peter King was a solidly “mainstream” Republican when he embarked on his series of congressional hearings into American Muslims, which were defended by conservatives like Joe Lieberman. Republican congresspeople in 2012 attended anti-Muslim rallies and demanded an investigation into what they believed was Muslim Brotherhood “infiltration” of the State Department. This hunch was based on the fact that Huma Abedin, who is of Indian and Pakistani heritage, worked there.

So when we see headlines these days about Republicans palling around with Islamophobic extremists or warning about sinister Muslim infiltration, it’s alarming — but it’s also where the party’s been heading for a long time.

Or take the president’s latest extremist policy: his pledge to end birthright citizenship. The “mainstream” Right beat Trump to the punch on this issue a while ago. “Mainstream” conservatives were fretting about “anchor babies” more than a decade ago, and it was in 2010 that Lindsey Graham first proposed changing the Fourteenth Amendment to stop what he called a tactic of “drop and leave” by migrants. In fact, Republican legislators have been pushing to end birthright citizenship for decades, introducing bills to undo it in every single Congress since 1991. They’ve been cheered along in these efforts by “mainstream” conservative intellectuals like the Heritage Foundation and George Will.

There’s so much more one could point to, including the fact that that the current right-wing conspiracy theories about George Soros were pushed for years by “mainstream” conservatives. The point is, their recent, more explicit alignment with the far right is not due to some hostile “takeover” by Trump. All he’s done is opportunistically jump on tendencies that were alive and well in “mainstream” conservatism for years. Jeff Sessions, after all, isn’t some racist imp conjured out of some dark, racist portal; he was an Alabama senator for two decades.

In fact, the “mainstream” Right quite openly told us who they were. The Department of Homeland Security sharply drew down its investigation into far right extremism at the start of Obama’s presidency because of furious objections from “mainstream” conservatives, after a report on the subject was produced in 2009. John Boehner, the Republican House minority leader at the time, said the DHS was targeting “American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” Rush Limbaugh said the report was singling out “ordinary, everyday conservatives.” Michelle Malkin complained it “demonizes the very Americans who will be protesting in the thousands on Wednesday for the nationwide Tax Day Tea Party.”

In other words, “mainstream” conservatives angrily went to bat for far right extremists, explicitly aligning themselves and their own supporters with those of far right movements, and quashing investigative work into terrorist networks that have only gotten more dangerous since then.

It’s all led to this point, where the barrier (if it ever really existed) between the far right and “mainstream” conservatism is rapidly crumbling. Centrists can talk about both sides, but socialists — besides being in the habit of calling for free healthcare instead of ethnic cleansing — have nowhere near the presence, ideological influence, or general sway in the Democratic Party as the far right does in the GOP. Whatever polarization is happening, it’s mostly happening on the side sprinting full-tilt toward out-and-out fascism.

Centrists and liberal technocrats pride themselves on their adherence to evidence-based analysis and objectivity. They also maintain a fastidious aversion to anything that might seem partisan or divisive. But these two things are incompatible. The Republican Party is a far-right party, and it’s only going to become more extreme. Will establishment politicians and media finally start acknowledging this reality? Or will they continue to soft-pedal the truth for the sake of political decorum?