When Allen West, the Republican congressman from Florida, said he had “heard” that up to 80 members of Congress were members of the Communist Party, but refused to say who they were, I began once again to worry about the declining standards of excellence in American life. Once upon a time, Joe McCarthy (eventually) named names.
Oh, what a falling off was there! To see figures like West stumbling around and accusing liberals of communism, the Democratic Party of socialism, Obama of militant Islamic sympathies is like watching a Broadway revival of Oklahoma! performed by tone-deaf weightlifters from Bulgaria. There were once high standards for rabble-rousing. Think Father Coughlin. Think Joe McCarthy. Think Pat Buchanan. They played on American paranoia as if on a violin. (OK, fiddle.) They had a unified vision of conspiracy that encompassed Jews, blacks, Zionist bankers, greedy plutocrats, and Bolsheviks. The problem with today’s demagogic paranoids is that they are struggling with the same relativistic, politically correct universe as everyone else.
Consider the Jews. Completely off limits. Partly this is because of the presence of Jews in every dimension of American life, but it’s also because Jews are spread across the political spectrum. Back in Father Coughlin’s time, finding a Jewish Republican was something like searching for the afikomen on Passover. Even during McCarthy’s heyday, right-wing Jews were still a rarity, despite the Jewish Roy Cohn at McCarthy’s side. But since the rise of the Jewish neoconservatives in the 1980s, there have been a substantial number of Jews on the right. If you had had Sheldon Adelson in 1950, you might never have had the Hollywood 10.
The same goes for Zionist bankers, a staple of right-wing conspiracy-mongering rhetoric. You can’t use “Zionist” as a slur because Israel is that holy ally who is constantly being betrayed by Obama and his ilk. Then, too, it’s hard to go after bankers when your entire political agenda revolves around ensuring that the wealthiest people in the country—i.e., bankers—pay as little in taxes as possible. As for greedy plutocrats, goodbye also—and hello!
That leaves blacks, who gradually usurped Jews as the right’s favorite national specter. But just as Jews became “normalized” throughout American life since Father Coughlin’s tirades in the '30s, so have blacks followed, though more slowly and painfully, a similar process since Reagan’s welfare queens. It’s hard as well to get the rising numbers of prominent blacks in the GOP to reliably pursue the subtle context of racial politics. West himself denounced George Zimmerman after the killing of Trayvon Martin.
But the most important element of right-wing demagogic populism is the most impossible to retrieve: Soviet communism. Commentators and pundits love to draw tiresome analogies between today’s Tea Partying radical right and the rise of the radical right in the Goldwater, John Bircher, National Review '60s, but there is simply no basis for comparison without the Cold War. Bolshevism was the linchpin that held all the other facets of conspiracy together. Jews, unions, Zionists, even plutocratic bankers somehow all comprised a tainted trail that always led back to Moscow.
The effect on the radical right of the loss of communism is incalculable. The right wing is like a vulnerable adolescent who has suddenly been jilted. Hatelorn, you might say, the right is on the rebound from one substitute bête noire to another, but nothing sticks because there is no unifying adhesive on the order of the menace from the Kremlin. This is why you get the utter weirdness of the right talking about Obama’s Washington as if it were actually Soviet Moscow: a totalizing, centralizing monster out to collectivize American life and crush personal freedom and individual rights. There was a time when Stalin’s murder of tens of millions haunted the American imagination. Now it’s the possibility that everyone can have his tonsils out for free.
From hipsters to Mad Men to A Streetcar Named Desire to pompadours and victory rolls, nostalgic revivals are everywhere. In the political realm, expect the next six months to be full of retro-red menace, as the GOP searches desperately to recapture the love of its life.