If you’re disgusted by the unhinged hyper-partisanship that distorts our political debates beyond reason, here’s some good news—we’ve overcome these forces before.
American political history has been marked by periodic eruptions of the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics.” Wingnuts have masqueraded under different names and causes at different times, but they have always been committed to an “us against them” framing of domestic debates while inflaming group hatred in the name of politics and alleged principle. They prey on fear and ignorance.
Survey Wingnut rhetoric through the ages and the usual suspects keep surfacing: appeals to religious suspicion; ethnic and racial divisions; foreign subversion of sovereignty; and perhaps the oldest conspiracy theory of them all—accusing the president of the United States of being a tyrant and a dictator bent on destroying the Constitution.
Even our most beloved and broadly unifying figures were not immune from Wingnuts’ attacks in their time.
When George Washington served as the shaky young republic’s first president, newspapers such as the Aurora (edited by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson) obsessively attacked him, calling on Washington to resign the office while declaring that, “the mask of political hypocrisy has been alike worn by Caesar, a Cromwell and a Washington.” Washington’s onetime ally Thomas Paine turned on him in vicious fashion after the Jay Treaty of neutrality with Great Britain, writing, “The world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter; whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”
Pamphlets published by early partisan opponents such as William Duane denounced Washington’s “tyrannical act,” “Machiavellian policy,” and “monarchical privilege.” The former commander of the Continental Army was unaccustomed to being attacked with such impunity, and he proved to be surprisingly thin-skinned, complaining in his last letter to Thomas Jefferson that he was being slandered “in such an exaggerated, and indecent terms as scarcely be applied to a Nero; a notorious defaulter; or even to a common pickpocket.”
Washington’s presidential successor, John Adams, served amid accelerated partisan attacks in the press that divided the parties between alleged allegiances to England or revolutionary-era France. Overreaction predictably followed: In 1798, Congress passed the Alien Act, which empowered the president to arrest foreigners involved “in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government.” Then came the infamous Sedition Act, cracking down on freedom of the press and threatening to fine or imprison individuals who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government.” By the election of 1800, a backlash was in full swing, with Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican allies on the offensive, claiming that, “Mr. Adams and his Federalists wish to sap the Republic by fraud, destroy it by force, and elect an English monarchy in its place.”
In turn, Jefferson was accused of being a violent radical who wanted to bring the French guillotine to America—an “infidel” and a “howling atheist.” The New England Palladium newspaper proclaimed: “Should the infidel Jefferson be elected to the Presidency, the seal of death is that moment set on our holy religion, our churches will be prostrated, and some infamous prostitute, under the title of goddess of reason, will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the most High.” The Federalist Gazette of the United States framed the election this way: “The only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘shall I continue in allegiance to God—and a religious president; or impiously declare for Jefferson—and no God!” After Jefferson’s inauguration—in which he declared “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle”—his opponents pushed for impeachment, arguing that the “self exalted tyrant shall be hurled head long from his political zenith to dwell with Jacobins and devils in the pit.”
Conspiracy theories would make their initial mark with such targets as the Freemasons, inspiring an early third party. But the obsession with religious difference that first attached itself to the freethinking Jefferson would manifest itself more thoroughly when combined with fears over early Catholic immigration.
In 1852, anti-Catholic anxieties gave rise to the Know-Nothing movement—so named because members were supposed to deny all knowledge of the secret society when asked by saying, “I know nothing.” Their apparent embrace of ignorance did not appear ironic until decades later. Instead, the Know-Nothings were briefly a force to be reckoned with. Their mission was not subtle: The movement’s newspaper, the American Organ explained that the group’s goal was “to resist the insidious policy of the Church of Rome and other foreign influences against the institutions of our country, by placing [in] all offices none but native-born Protestant citizens.” Transforming into a Nativist political party called the American Party, it quickly gained influence by partly filling the void left by the implosion of the Whigs. Within two years, the American Party was ascendant, successfully electing governors in nine states, eight senators and 104 members of the House.
The rapid rise of flag-waving bigotry to political prominence provoked an anguished letter from Abraham Lincoln to his friend Joshua Speed: ‘How can any one who abhors the oppression of Negroes be in favor of degrading classes of white people? ... As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it: ‘All men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings gain control, it will read: ‘All men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners, and Catholics!’”
Lincoln’s election in 1860 as the first Republican president provoked even more furor. Southern Democrats took the outcome of the election as their cue to spark secession, with Jefferson Davis claiming his Confederates were “upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution” while allies similarly twisted the Bible by conjuring up faith-based defenses of slavery.
The now near-sainted figure many see as America’s greatest president was hated and disrespected by many contemporaries, called a dictator and worse. “Confederates called Lincoln a ‘tyrant,’ a ‘fiend,’ and a ‘monster’,” recounts Don E. Fehrenbacher in his essay “The Anti-Lincoln Tradition.” “In speeches, sermons, and songs, in books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, they also portrayed him as a simpleton, a buffoon, a drunkard, a libertine, a physical coward, and a pornographic story-teller.” Another attack on Lincoln was telling in light of future national evolutions—accusations that our sixteenth president was an advocate of “miscegenation,” reflecting his own satirically alleged heritage as “King Abraham Africanus the First.”
Abuse of Lincoln was not limited to the Confederate states. In a drunken speech on the Senate floor, Delaware’s Democratic senator Willard Saulsbury declared, “I never did see or converse with such a weak and imbecile a man; the weakest man I ever knew in high place. If I wanted to paint a despot, a man perfectly regardless of every constitutional right of the people, I would paint the hideous ape-like form of Abraham Lincoln.” A copperhead Wisconsin newspaper editor named Marcus M. Pomeroy wrote that Lincoln was “but the fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism” and a “worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero.” With the election of 1864 looming, Pomeroy wrote, “The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer. … And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.”
Months later, John Wilkes Booth did just that, albeit with a pistol, while shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis”—the Virginia state motto, “Thus always to tyrants.”
In the backlash to Reconstruction after the Civil War, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were born. Formed by Confederate veterans, members of this terrorist organization fancied themselves noble defenders of a Southern way of life under siege by occupying forces. But the KKK actually reached its apex of influence during the 1920s. Parading under the American flag in marches on Washington and preaching law and order against a backdrop of foreign-associated anarchist bombings that claimed dozens of lives, they also advocated for “100 percent Americanism” in response to the unprecedented wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. This twentieth-century incarnation of the Klan attracted several million members, and its reach extended far beyond the borders of the former Confederacy, with some of its largest klaverns in Indiana, Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
As always, its leaders paid lip service to lofty ideals to obscure the ugly base alloys. The KKK’s imperial wizard, William Joseph Simmons, declared his faith in “the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man,” while simultaneously circulating a statement proclaiming: “We exclude Jews because they do not believe in the Christian religion. We exclude Catholics because they owe allegiance to an institution that is foreign to the Government of the United States. To assure the supremacy of the white race, we believe in the exclusion of the yellow race and in the disenfranchisement of the Negro.”
Later in the decade, another imperial wizard named Hiram W. Evans took a less strictly racial view of the Klan’s mission, instead pitting “the great mass of Americans of the old pioneer stock” against “intellectually mongrelized ‘Liberals.’” “We are a movement,” Evans wrote, “of the plain people, very weak in the matter of culture, intellectual support, and trained leadership. We are demanding, and we expect to win, a return of power into the hands of the everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized, average citizen of the old stock.” It was a message of rural real Americans against liberal urban interlopers that repeatedly resurfaces in our politics.
The Roaring Twenties also saw heated debates over evolution, most infamously the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, which pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow in a Tennessee courtroom, a drama captured in Inherit the Wind and H. L. Mencken’s courtroom dispatches. Bryan, a three-time populist Democrat presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, was the era’s premier spokesman for religious fundamentalism. In 1924, Bryan declared, “All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution. It would be better to destroy every other book ever written, and save just the first three verses of Genesis.” The basic debate between creationism and evolution remains in play decades later.
Demagogues always do well during economic downturns, and the Great Depression was a workers’ paradise for Wingnuts on all sides. Louisiana populist Huey Long grabbed power across his home state in the name of making “every man a king” and was planning to run for president against Franklin D. Roosevelt from the left before being gunned down at the mammoth state capitol building he had constructed. One of Long’s disciples and a founder of the “Share Our Wealth Society” was a preacher named Gerald L. K. Smith. He swung from the left to the right, first forming the isolationist America First Party and then the Christian Nationalist ticket to run for president while proclaiming the virtues of anti-Semitism in the pages of his newspaper, The Cross and the Flag.
At the same time, domestic Communist Party members tried to present their ideology as “20th Century Americanism” even while genocide was systematically carried out in the Soviet Union. Father Charles Coughlin, the radio priest, drew massive audiences with his attacks on the always-popular targets of plutocrats and international bankers (“the sands of intrigue and of evil machinations have filtered through the hour glass of their control”), while stridently advocating isolationism in the face of Nazi expansion. Coughlin called for “100 percent for Americanism—in an America that still stands by the traditions of our forefathers—traditions of liberty, traditions of godliness, traditions upon which we must establish a sane Christian nationalism.”
The New Deal and its excesses proved to be a flashpoint for ideological debates that occasionally came unhinged. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst directed his papers nationwide to print exposés on the radicalism of the New Deal and its alleged infiltration by Communists. When pressed by FDR’s White House for an apology, Hearst offered only this front-page editorial: “Let me say that I have not stated at any time whether the President willingly or unwillingly received the support of the Karl Marx Socialists, the Frankfurter radicals, communists and anarchists…which constitute the bulk of his following,” Hearst wrote. “I have simply said and shown that he does receive the support of these enemies of the American system of government, and that he has done his best to deserve the support of all such disturbing and destructive elements.”
After World War II, anxiety turned more toward the Cold War threat of communism. Heated opposition to the establishment of the United Nations echoed the hostility to the League of Nations a generation earlier (“it seeks to destroy Nationalism, Patriotism, and Christianity”), this time unsuccessfully. While the left wing tried to extend wartime alliances with misty hymns to “Uncle Joe” Stalin and backed the labor-fueled Progressive Party candidacy of onetime FDR vice president Henry Wallace, anti-Communist Democrats blasted their dangerous naïveté, most memorably Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote that Progressives “cannot believe that ugly facts underlie fair words. However they look at it, the USSR keeps coming through as a kind of enlarged Brook Farm community, complete with folk dancing in native costumes, joyous work in the fields and progressive kindergartens. Nothing in their system has prepared them for Stalin.”
Throughout the civil rights era, the twin accusations of communism and anti-constitutionalism were used to delay progress and discredit activists—including Martin Luther King Jr.
Meanwhile, the right-wing hunt for the “enemy within” took on new urgency in Washington. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunts offered a textbook look at Wingnut logic, laid out in this June 1951 speech accusing Harry Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, of consciously aiding and abetting Communist gains globally:
“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this Government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. Who constitutes the highest circles of this conspiracy? About that we cannot be sure. What is the objective of the great conspiracy? I think it is clear from what has occurred and is now occurring: to diminish the United States in world affairs, to weaken us militarily, to confuse our spirit with talk of surrender in the Far East and to impair our will to resist evil. To what end? To the end that we shall be contained, frustrated and finally: fall victim to Soviet intrigue from within and Russian military might from without.”
This epic rant boasts all the Wingnut heraldry—the unveiling of a great conspiracy by evil imposters to weaken America from within, diluting our stock, sapping our resolve, and making us vulnerable to enemies who are hell-bent on destroying our way of life. And of course the sinister conspiracy goes straight to the top of the opposing party in power, in this case George C. Marshall, the general who did more than any other to prepare America to win World War II and subsequently secure the peace. Because McCarthy eventually imploded (as all Wingnuts do), it is tempting to dismiss him as a grubby, loudmouthed bully whose bark was worse than his bite. But in his heyday, no public poll showed him with less than 34 percent support among the American public.
McCarthy’s mantle was picked up by groups such as the John Birch Society, whose founder Robert Welch fully embraced whacked-out theories of Red subversion and attacked President Eisenhower as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Arguing that “Moscow and Washington are, and for many years have been, but two hands of one body controlled by one brain,” Welch warned of a secret plan to create a worldwide police state controlled by the Kremlin. He built out his network through such policy initiatives as “Get the US out of the UN,” and “No to Gun Control,” as well as such satellite single-issue groups as the Movement to Restore Decency. Anyone considered insufficiently anti-Communist was deemed a “comsymp”—short for Communist sympathizer. The godfather of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., denounced the Birchers as “damaging to the cause of anti-communism” in the pages of his National Review magazine. Conservative author Russell Kirk noted: “Cry wolf often enough and everyone takes you for an imbecile or a knave, when after all there are wolves in this world.” Bob Dylan even took the Birchers to task in his folk tune “Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The discredited organization still endures today, having moved its headquarters to Joe McCarthy’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin.
Old anti-Catholic riffs reemerged during the 1960 campaign as John F. Kennedy aimed for the presidency. In Texas, the Baptist convention passed a resolution “cautioning members against voting for a Roman Catholic candidate”—buoyed by the old argument that a Catholic president would put loyalty to the pope ahead of loyalty to the United States. Just weeks after his election, a virulently anti-Catholic retired postal worker tried to assassinate JFK in Florida.
Kennedy’s tentative embrace of civil rights caused him to be hated by some in the South. When James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, he was escorted by three hundred federal troops, while more than 2,000 students protested, chanting, “Two, four, one, three, we hate Kennedy.” A movie theater in Georgia showing the film PT 109 decorated its marquee with this message: “See how the Japs almost got Kennedy.” The once-brilliant newspaper columnist turned bitter Bircher, Westbrook Pegler, openly fantasized about Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1965, writing “Some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies."
Throughout the civil rights era, the twin accusations of communism and anti-constitutionalism were used to delay progress and discredit activists—including Martin Luther King Jr. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called King “the most notorious liar in the country.” In At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965–1968, Taylor Branch details how Hoover “cultivated King as the fearsome dark symbol of the latest 20th century threat to tranquility on Main Street America—succeeding immigrants, Depression gangsters, Nazis and communists.”
While Southern society rallied against King under the auspices of the White Citizens Councils, there were roadside billboards scattered throughout the South purporting to show King at a Communist training camp. Alabama governor George Wallace told the New York Times in 1963 that, “President [Kennedy] wants us to surrender this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-Communists who have instituted these demonstrations.” But even an avowed segregationist like Wallace indignantly denied that he was racist, saying, “I never made a statement in my political career that reflects on a man’s race. … My only interest is in the restoration of local government.”
States’ rights were the rationale; defense of the Constitution the ennobling ideal. And so when South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond (the 1948 presidential candidate for the pro-segregation Dixiecrat ticket) argued against the Voting Rights Act on behalf of a caucus of Southern senators who called themselves “Constitutional Democrats,” he pulled out all the rationalizing rhetoric, arguing that “the Negro is almost a favored class of citizen in America” and making the case that the 14th Amendment had questionable legitimacy because it was passed during Reconstruction. After the Civil Rights Act passed, Thurmond declared that the day marked the “final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of the law, for it is here that we will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency in the year of our Lord, 1965.”
The late 1960s proved to be the most civically unstable since the 1860s. Culture wars erupted as nonviolent protests were replaced by race riots, and peaceful antiwar activists were eclipsed by hundreds of shootings, arsons, and bombings attributed to left-wing radical groups like the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers. The backlash brought Richard Nixon and the Republicans into the White House on a message of law and order that would twist into the horrific abuse of power scandals surrounding Watergate, further decreasing trust in government. The scars of the era’s excesses would be carried forward by the baby boomers’ fractious political debates—pitting crew cuts against the longhairs—well into the opening years of the twenty-first century.
In the long journey from frontier expansion to landing on the moon, there are clear common undercurrents to the paranoid politics advanced by the Wingnuts during different eras in America.
There is always the divisive drumbeat of ‘us against them’—the demagogue’s favorite formula. There is always an emotional appeal to an idealized past, targeted to people who feel besieged by cultural change, paired with the promise of a well-deserved return to power after years of resentment. And there is always the sale of special knowledge, pulling the curtain back on a monstrous conspiracy that will prove once and for all that your political opponents are not just misguided, but evil. The result is not only vindication, but also the self-serving sense that only you can save the republic.
Against this backdrop it’s easy to see the patterns in our recent history, where the angry impulse to delegitimize duly elected presidents of the United States leads to irrational hatreds and cynical posturing. But for some folks, there is a temptation to look at this twisted American history and then use it to rationalize away the unhinged excesses of our own times. The more self-congratulatory among them might be tempted to compare their feuds favorably to the founding fathers’ ugliest partisan fights, providing both benediction and absolution for any hate they might hurl at opponents.
But that self-serving spin obscures the real lesson: Today’s unhinged hyper-partisans are not likely to look any better or wiser in the rearview mirror than the Wingnuts of our past. Instead, they will be at best a stale and bitter punchline of our times and then fade, unloved, into obscurity.
Excerpted from the newly revised edition of Wingnuts, by John Avlon, published by Beast Books. Copyright 2014.