First, the usual disclaimer: every cause, movement, ideology, religion, or political party necessarily attracts its fair share of kooks, neurotics, con artists, and would-be Führers. It is in the interaction between the lonely, isolated soul that paradoxically seeks both self-expression and extinction in the mass, and the volatile dynamic of crowd psychology that the pathological aspects of belief systems play out.
The contemporary American conservative movement and its principal vehicle, the Republican Party, are different in scope and intensity from other movements or causes we have seen in this country. While loopy cults like the flat earthers might be able to fill the conference space of a large hotel, and while large and influential organizations like the Catholic Church have their quota of nuts, renegades, and crooks, no cause has achieved quite the same combination of deranged views and raw, pervasive national power as American conservatism.
I first got to know the movement on Capitol Hill. Having spent much of the Watergate decade on foreign shores, I was unprepared for the New Right. To be sure, there were still plenty of moderate Republicans in the mold of Chuck Percy or Bob Michel, but the young operatives—members and staff alike—were increasingly different, something I hadn’t encountered before.
One of the things that instantly marked them was a propensity for politicized religion. I naively assumed that every educated person accepted science. So it was something of an epiphany when an office colleague remarked, in the manner of declaring water wet, that dinosaur fossils were a hoax—although he did not elaborate on whether the hoax was engineered by paleontologists to undermine our faith, or by God in order to test our faith.
Another colleague announced that for August recess, she would travel to Greece to missionize the heathen swarming there. Given that Greece was one of the first places in the ancient world to Christianize, and that roughly 99 percent of contemporary Greeks are Christian, it gave me a new insight into the concept of sectarianism as well as what it means to carry coals to Newcastle.
"While loopy cults like the flat earthers might be able to fill the conference space of a large hotel, and while large and influential organizations like the Catholic Church have their quota of nuts, renegades, and crooks, no cause has achieved quite the same combination of deranged views and raw, pervasive national power as American conservatism."
From that farcical foretaste, I began to witness more weighty signs of the ascendancy of the Religious Right. Many members of Congress—no one on the outside knows how many—became covert members of the Fellowship, usually referred to as “the Family.” Its only publicly known event is the National Prayer Breakfast, a clambake to which presidents give dutiful obeisance and where lobbyists hover. But the secretive group also held a lot of closed meetings on and around Capitol Hill for congressmen, who always blocked out time on their busy schedules.
Picture Christian dominionism with a big dollop of fascism, and you’ve pretty much pegged the Family. The organization and its Republican acolytes were one more milepost on the road to the present, where pseudo-religious grifters like Robert Jeffress or Jerry Falwell, Jr. can declare with straight faces that Donald Trump is God’s instrument on earth.
Trump’s depiction of Washington, D.C., as a swamp is an old conservative trope, dating from at least the FDR presidency. Even non-conservatives, and especially the media, have heavily assimilated the pervasive propaganda that D.C. is one big Georgetown, with aging New Frontiersmen sipping cabernet in their shabby-genteel townhouses as they sneer at Real Americans. But Georgetown hasn’t been a thing for at least a quarter century. And while much of the local population is minority and indeed votes Democratic, that ignores the real power structure that lies beneath the surface.
One has to live and work in politics in D.C. for a while to appreciate just how “wired” the city now is on behalf of the conservative-industrial complex. Beginning with CATO and the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s, the town has been overrun by right-wing foundations, policy shops, law and lobbying firms, salons, fake jobs for out-of-office Republicans, and media operations.
Despite their ostensible hated for the Beltway, the place exerts a magnetic attraction for these professional conservatives and nurtures what passes as the conservative intellectual class in America. None of them would admit that they can spend a more agreeable existence in McLean, a posh Virginia suburb of D.C., than, say, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, despite their imaginary identification with the common clay. Instead, well-compensated service in Washington, like storming Omaha Beach, is considered combat duty that principled conservatives undertake for the good of the cause.
Even the despised federal workforce, presumed to be liberal if not communist, is rife with a surprising number of such people. While employment by the federal Moloch might be antithetical to their every principle, better that they should occupy the job than a liberal. They might spend the day formatting documents at the Bureau of Land Management, but come the evening they head for the back room of a conservative watering hole where they can plot the revolution.
A bar is actually the perfect place to understand the tenor of the conservative movement. After two or three beers, don’t be too surprised to hear expressed a wistful sympathy for the Austrian paperhanger who built the Autobahns, couched in suitably coded terms. (On the Right, “Austrian School” does not always mean Friedrich Hayek’s economics.) Likewise, they cannot see why Jefferson Davis isn’t properly venerated.
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One such fellow, employed by Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation, fancied himself the world’s greatest amateur military strategist and adored Blitzkrieg operations maybe a little too much. His phone message, recorded in stilted German, announced that the caller had reached the general staff H.Q. of the Habsburg Empire. So within D.C.’s conservative ecosystem, perhaps Sebastian Gorka turning up at a Trump inaugural ball wearing a student-prince uniform bearing the medal of a Hungarian fascist order is not a complete outlier.
Latterly, the strongman adoration has shifted away from the Teutonic lands to Mother Russia. In the last couple of years, the antics of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and his staffer Paul Behrends on behalf of the Kremlin have made the news. One Senate staff member I knew always thought Vladimir Putin was the bee’s knees; he subsequently ended up taking the Tsar’s ruble by writing screeds criticizing the United States for a Kremlin-subsidized Moscow “foundation.”
"So what does this American conservative movement believe? As I learned from observing it among the activists in its D.C. incubator, it believes anything, everything, or nothing depending on who their temporal messiah is and on how it serves their goal of seizing and maintaining power."
Paying attention to the would-be intellectuals of D.C.’s conservative menagerie can yield insight into what makes the Republican Party tick. Many observers were surprised at the rapidity of the collapse of Republican laissez-faire and free trade dogma under Trump. But while the think tanks owned by the Kochs and the Business Roundtable relentlessly trumpeted that ideology, there was always substantial dissent among the non-wealthy conservative intelligentsia. Charles Lindbergh’s ghost still walked among them, and free trade was just another scam by George Soros and other rootless cosmopolitans.
By the end of the Bush, Jr. Saturnalia of deregulation and nonfeasance that helped collapse the economy in 2008, many of these conservative intellectualoids became theoretical Bolsheviks—particularly if Bank of America foreclosed on their beach house. As I recall hearing them talk, they sounded indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders.
Their theoretical Bolshevism had its limits. All it took was someone to yell, “Hey, Obama is a socialist Mooslim n*****!” to make them instantly forget the idea of hanging Wall Street CEOs from lamp posts and instead return to the Republican fold like iron filings obeying a magnet. Their performance was a clear refutation of the so-called economic foundations of ideological belief that are espoused by Marxists as well as capitalists.
So what does this American conservative movement believe? As I learned from observing it among the activists in its D.C. incubator, it believes anything, everything, or nothing depending on who their temporal messiah is and on how it serves their goal of seizing and maintaining power. This mental reflex—one can’t call it a philosophy—now animates a significant slice of the American population. We can see the results now.
And what do we see? Gun fetishists parading around in paramilitary garb and playing soldier like eight-year old boys, while all too often, one of their even more disturbed comrades grabs an AR-15 and 200 rounds of ammo, and heads for the mall; religious nuts proclaiming the Apocalypse to be a feel-good story, and Leviticus as superior to the Constitution; embittered geriatric shut-ins marinating in the poison of Fox News for six hours a day; alt-right thugs, Klansmen, and Nazis; libertarian cranks believing their double-wide is a sovereign nation entitling them not to pay taxes; pseudoscientific nutrition crackpots theorizing that eating soybeans causes homosexuality and the breakdown of America’s morals.
These beliefs cannot be categorized other than as the antithesis of rationality.
This is not merely irrationality, but active hostility to reason. One ostensibly well-educated Hill staffer of my acquaintance, who knew history and foreign languages rather well, once explained that he was uninterested as to whether the night sky was filled with stars and planets, or whether they were just tiny lights inside a Ptolemaic ethereal dome.
One could not help but think of Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s exchange with his interrogator, the cynical O’Brien, as to whether objective reality exists apart from the Party’s commands:
“But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever.”
“What are the stars?” said O'Brien indifferently. “They are bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.”
The triumph of belief over reality: a more succinct summation of American conservatism would be difficult to find.