As this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) opens, we're seeing an interesting new phase in the evolution of the American right. While political movements usually have internal debates about where they should position themselves ideologically, the right has become the "big tent" the GOP always claimed to be. Worried about the Bilderberg Group imposing a one-world government? Want to go back to the gold standard? Spend a good portion of your time painting Hitler mustaches on pictures of President Obama? Don't feel fully dressed unless you're wearing colonial-era garb? Then come on in -- we couldn't be happier to have you.
CPAC is always something of a bacchanalia of paranoia and hate, as right-wing pundits and Republican politicians offer the audience a steady stream of insults at liberal politicians, at which they whoop and cheer. (Remember when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a "faggot"? That was awesome!) But in a bold move, this year's conference is being co-sponsored by none other than the John Birch Society, whom the organizers apparently think of as nothing but good conservatives.
It wasn't always this way. When the society was founded in 1958, mainstream Republicans were terrified that the organization's crazy ideas would rub off on the GOP. However loud their supporters might be, it was understood that when Robert Welch, the society's founder, accused Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist agent, these were not people you wanted to get too close to.
As Rick Perlstein describes it in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, "the argument raged" in the editorial offices of William F. Buckley's National Review magazine: “Was the groundswell to their right an opportunity or a nightmare?” At a January 1962 meeting in a Palm Beach hotel attended by Goldwater, Buckley, and other conservative leaders, "they settled on a compromise: National Review would attack Robert Welch, not the John Birch Society. Goldwater would take the line that Robert Welch was a crazy extremist but that the Society itself was full of fine, upstanding citizens working hard and well for the cause of Americanism."
Today, the society itself seems good enough to invite to the party. In fairness, not all conservatives are happy with this development. At National Review, they've been displeased about the PR optics. When the sponsorship was announced in December, a number of their writers expressed their dismay; for instance, Mark Krikorian wrote:
The problem is not the specifics of most of the Birchers' policy concerns. ... The problem, rather, is the central role that conspiracy theory plays in the Birchers' worldview. This is a sign of political immaturity at best, and disordered thinking at worst. If you really think Eisenhower was a Soviet agent, or that the World Trade Center was brought down in a controlled demolition, the problem is not that you're factually incorrect or that your value priorities are different from mine. The problem is that you are simply clueless about how human society functions and you have no business being taken seriously.
True enough. But the folks at Buckley's old haunt surely must realize that conspiracy theories are enjoying a resurgence on the right. If the Tea Party movement has a spiritual leader, it's Glenn Beck, who spends an hour every night sketching the socialist Obama conspiracy on a blackboard. That movement, of which every Republican now wants a piece, is absolutely suffused with conspiracy theories. They don't believe that the president's policies are ill-conceived; they believe he is actively working to destroy the country so he can impose a fascist dictatorship and begin herding people into concentration camps. People at tea party rallies inevitably talk about how they are stockpiling supplies and ammunition for the coming civil war.
That's what the "mainstream" conservatives are allying themselves with. So why not bring the Birchers in, too? It's a big tent.
-- Paul Waldman