Going to extremes

Going to extremes

How some national and local conservatives deal with the wacko right

 For progressives who see him as a cranky, old, anti-choice war hawk it’s sometimes hard to understand why the far right dislikes and distrusts John McCain. A recent essay in the New Yorker magazine, however, captures the essence of that divide in the following McCain monologue from his “Straight Talk Express” campaign bus:

“One afternoon, McCain talked about his surprise at the resurrection of [the isolationist] element in his party, which has been particularly visible in the candidacy of the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul. ‘We had a debate in Iowa. I mean, it was, like, last summer, one of the first debates we had. It was raining, and I’m standing there in the afternoon, it was a couple of hours before the debate,’ McCain said. ‘And I happen to look out the window. Here’s a group of fifty people in the rain, shouting “Ron Paul! Ron Paul!”’ McCain banged on the table with both fists and chanted as he imitated the Paul enthusiasts. ‘I thought, Holy shit, what’s going on here?… [H]e [Paul] has tapped a vein. And it’s a combination of isolationism, the old part of our party, and the conspiracy. You know’—McCain lowered his head and spoke in a mock-confiding voice— ‘“We have made an important discovery: the headquarters for the organization that’s going to merge three countries into one—Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.—is in Kansas City!”’  (Emphasis supplied).

There, in that one rambling paragraph, particularly at the end, McCain sums up what divides him from the conservative movement’s extreme right. The senator is willing to acknowledge (and even make light of the fact) that there is a difference between conservatism – hard line, jingoistic, unapologetic conservatism – and the truly wacky, irrational, Ann Coulter-right that accuses Barack Obama of being a secret Islamic agent and urges preemptive attacks on Iran in hopes of speeding the arrival of the Second Coming. Notwithstanding some recent backtracking and half-hearted public statements, McCain seems to understand that it’s possible to be conservative without being reactionary or paranoid or xenophobic or cozying up to those who are.

The right’s seamy underbelly    

McCain’s battle with the extreme right is not a new phenomenon. American politicians of all major political parties have wrestled throughout the nation’s history with the issue of how closely to embrace fanatics and kooks of varying persuasions. From the end of the Civil War until the latter 20th Century, the Democratic Party featured an unholy alliance of convenience between liberal northerners and white, mostly southern, racists. In the 1950’s President Eisenhower privately detested and denounced one of the nation’s all-time paranoid fear mongers, Joseph McCarthy, but never mustered the courage to do so in public. At other times, — particularly in the late 60’s and early 70’s – progressives have occasionally hesitated to forcefully denounce conspiracy theorists and some of the wackier elements on the far left.

In recent decades, however, the challenge of what to do with the kooks has mostly fallen to Republicans and conservatives. Especially with the advent of the anonymous media of call in talk radio and the internet as outlets for disaffected people with fear of change in their hearts and time on their hands, there has been a minor explosion of shouters and haters on the American scene. Add the recent arrival of several extreme right-wing multi-millionaire “philanthropists” with a willingness to underwrite vast new “think tank” empires to the mix and you’ve got a recipe for potent, well-funded and toxic movement that’s hard to ignore.     

Indeed, over the last three or four decades, many formerly extreme personalities and ideas have succeeded in infiltrating “mainstream” conservative thought. From media institutions like Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times to policy ideas like state-sanctioned torture, the U.S.-Mexico “border wall” and Mike Huckabee’s plan to “abolish the IRS,” the far right has had some notable successes.

Still, as John McCain has shown, the extreme right is not an unstoppable force. Most conservatives are willing to draw the line and disavow the crazier elements within their movement. Especially in light of the America’s changing demographics and the increasing availability of 24/7 news and information capable of debunking the most absurd fringe ideas and conspiracy theories, it’s possible to imagine the extreme right finding itself confined to a shrinking segment of the public spectrum – kind of like the political equivalent of professional wrestling or “extreme cage fighting.”

Meanwhile in North Carolina        

Politicians, of course, are not the only ones that have to deal with friends on the fringe. Indeed, one of the more interesting angles on this issue is the matter of how conservative movement organizations handle the issue. Here in North Carolina, groups like the Locke Foundation and the Pope-Civitas Institute seem to want to straddle the fence.

On the one hand, both groups – particularly the former – clearly crave acknowledgement and acceptance as sources of serious, non-partisan policy analysis. Both have invested significant resources in snazzy websites and staffs that can crank out frequent reports and policy papers. Both frequently use the term “libertarian” (with a small “L”) as a moniker in an effort to cultivate their images as “idea shops” rather than mere annexes for unemployed and would-be Republican politicians and campaign staff.                   

Having said this, it’s interesting to note that both organizations maintain close connections to what can only be described as the fringe elements.

Just this week, a person described by the Locke Foundation as the “Associate Editor” of its Carolina Journal newspaper and website, penned a “Carolina Journal Exclusive” in which he purported to have infiltrated a Planned Parenthood gathering. As it turned out, the infiltration produced nothing juicier than some quotes about the importance of comprehensive sex education and an excuse for the writer to fulminate about the evils of birth control.

Interestingly, the author has not confined his contributions to “serious” idea shops like the Locke Foundation. Indeed, it appears that he has published multiple articles on seriously fringe websites like World Net Daily and The American Daily (the latter of which features this tribute to Joe McCarthy). These articles include “Homosexuality: A Public Health Disaster” and “God’s Thermostat” in which, based on the author’s literal interpretation of the Bible, he concludes that global warming activists communicate the message that “human life is essentially meaningless.”  

Not that this author is the only one in the Locke-Civitas orbit with links to and sympathies for segments of the extreme and/or loony right. As noted previously in this space, one of Civitas’ “legislative analysts” spent much of 2006 as campaign manager for America’s most embarrassing congressional candidate, Vernon Robinson.

Another Civitas staffer (the group’s chief voice in immigration policy), has written extensively for a number of extreme conservative religious websites and journals. In one piece, he attacks the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (an international treaty signed by 185 nations) in a fashion that would probably resonate in parts of Teheran and Riyadh:

“Physically stronger, men are ultimately responsible for creating the conditions in which women may freely choose to be chaste. The medieval notion of chivalry is grounded in this reality. Men can no longer condone—and participate in—the subversion of feminine modesty. Married men must devote themselves with zeal to the care and comfort of their wives and children. Single men must shield themselves, their sisters and their girlfriends from impurity. The very preservation of our nation’s liberty requires such self-restraint, virtue, and—yes, boys—chastity. It is time true patriots and real men led the way.”

In another article, he argues against arch Christian fundamentalist James Dobson’s views on in vitro fertilization as too liberal and contrary to the literal dictates of the Bible. There are other examples for both organizations.

Reality check

As they go forward, conservative politicians and movement leaders have a choice: disavow the wackier fringe members of the movement as John McCain seems inclined to do (at least for the most part) or embrace and include them in their day-to-day efforts. For now, North Carolina’s two most prominent conservative think tanks seem to have opted for the latter option. It will be interesting to see if they continue to adhere to this approach.

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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