The Right Devolves From J.S. Bach to Skinhead Rock

The ascendency of conservatism beginning in the late 1960s was likely due in part to an increasing preference of the public for what it held to be the "normal" and "traditional." (Photo: Getty/Stock Photo)

The Right Devolves From J.S. Bach to Skinhead Rock

How conservatives fell in love with trash culture, and why it reflects their rage.

The pivotal 1960s saw self-described defenders of traditional culture and mores draw the line against those whom they thought transgressed those standards. This divide kicked off America's culture wars, with conservatives posing as champions of the old order, and with traditional liberals in a stance of dithering ambivalence. The object of the controversy was the emerging sixties youth culture.

It was a decade of moral panics over what was to become a new coinage in the American vernacular: "lifestyle." Rows broke out over dress codes, hair lengths, recreational drugs (that often weren't yet illegal), and youths' quickness to use the f-word. The atmosphere of the period is captured like a fly in amber in the earnest tone of the Dragnet episode, "Blue Boy," which strikes us now as high camp.

A few of the left degenerated, at least in cases like the Weathermen, to violence as a creed. Slogans like "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" exemplify this. Yet the guerrilla theater of the Yippies and others couldn't coherently explain most of what they advocated, much less implement it.

The ascendency of conservatism beginning in the late 1960s was likely due in part to an increasing preference of the public for what it held to be the "normal" and "traditional." Republicans donned the mantle of the party of personal responsibility. For the high-toned GOP theoreticians of the day, this translated into rhapsodies about Western Civilization (invariably capitalized), and prophecies of doom should America forsake its values.

This haughtily arched eyebrow is exemplified by William F. Buckley's playing Bach sonatas on his harpsichord and delivering the judgment that "... the least of [Bach's] cantatas will do more to elevate the human spirit than all the black student unions born and unborn." The fact that this arbiter of propriety had also written to defend the thuggish vulgarian Joseph McCarthy might have struck a dissonant note, but few noticed.

Professed concern with the supposed slide in culture reached a pinnacle in the 1980s, with moral scolds like Bill Bennett, Ronald Reagan's education secretary, issuing regular homilies about the kids these days. Since he incessantly reminded people that he was a registered Democrat, Bennett was a useful token to tell voters that old-fashioned New Deal liberals should leave their party for the GOP.

Republicans' cultural scolding soon turned punitive and racially charged. Bennett went on to become George H.W. Bush's drug czar, in which capacity he mused that drug dealers should be beheaded. This was accompanied by moral hysteria over crack cocaine, which was assumed to be a vice solely indulged in by blacks. The GOP's house sociologist, Charles Murray, chimed in, asserting that black culture per se was responsible for crime, poverty, and dysfunction; in this connection, "culture" was a code word for "genetic predisposition."

In 1987, philosopher and professional curmudgeon Allan Bloom published perhaps the most highbrow attack on liberal culture, The Closing of the American Mind, a sometimes opaque diatribe against the prevailing university curricula that he claimed were undermining the Western literary canon in favor of moral relativism. The lack of traditional standards, Bloom maintained, had turned America's young into "lazy" "dullards."

But already, there were signs of a countermovement within conservatism. The frat-boy Republicanism pioneered by National Lampoon editor P.J. O'Rourke became an actual thing. Conservatives eagerly adopted tag lines from pop culture: "make my day," hasta la vista, baby," "insured by Smith & Wesson." This trend continued into the 2000s, with conservative propagandists claiming the gonzo humor of a not-for-all-ages TV cartoon embodied the living soul of "South Park conservatives."

The intention was to make Republicans hipper and more accessible to the young and working class, but a dominant note always crept in: the would-be tough guy, the heavy, eighth-grade sarcasm, the macho pose, and a tinge of authoritarianism, bullying, and love of violence.

This strain of conservative culture soon merged with a historically recurring phenomenon: the cult of authenticity. A similar cult was a feature of elements of the 1960s New Left: mainly well-off, university-educated youngsters who appropriated proletarian attire like jeans, denim work shirts, and army-surplus fatigue jackets to show their unity with the exploited.

This same cliche asserted itself among conservatives since 1980 in an even more strikingly hypocritical way than among the New Left. The party funded by and working for the benefit of the rich simulated working-class cred by utilizing the regular-guy motif wherever possible: wealthy, pampered presidential son George W. Bush was "a guy you could have a beer with;" he boasted about his poor college grades and his habit of thinking with his gut - which didn't assist his handling of Iraq.

With the 2008 crash, conditions were ripe for the New Conservative Man to emerge. The John the Baptist heralding this new type was Joe the Plumber, a heavily publicized stalking horse of the McCain campaign. He projected a free-floating grievance against the world and a sense that his birthright had been thwarted by shadowy persecutors.

Complementing this mascot was no less than vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose intellectual emptiness made the younger Bush look like Montesquieu. But her invocation of the "real America" of the overwhelmingly white small towns was both a racial dog whistle and an appeal to anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism (with the elites in this case being experts like scientists rather than billionaires), and an opposition to sophistication of any kind.

The New Conservative Man soon assumed bizarre characteristics, more puzzling than hippies because on average the conservatives were older. It was the scruffy, bearded look; vulgar T-shirts designed to provoke passersby; the shaved head, emblematic of Aryan Nation convicts and skinhead types internationally; firearms fetishism, which for all the Freudian snickering it evokes, held the real potential for ideological bloodletting; a nihilistic longing for destruction ("tear it all down") harkening back to Mao's Red Guards; and a cultish leader worship reminiscent of the Manson Family.

The New Conservative Man has become a far more grotesque--and far more dangerous--version of what horrified prim and proper conservatives a half century ago.

The last forty years have seen conservative doctrines mostly dominate the country: in trade and economics, much of social policy, the outsourcing of government functions and slashing of government's logistical capacity (as its dismal performance during the pandemic has made clear). Yet the voting base of the party that successfully promoted these policies sees itself as persecuted outcasts, as a counterculture against the same prevailing order that it consistently ratifies with its votes.

Many of them now dress like motorcycle gang members or indulge in public weirdness hitherto considered the province of schizophrenics, and think of themselves as edgy, "born to lose" social outlaws. That label might apply to some who have dropped out of the middle class, but most seem to have done reasonably well for themselves, if average income is any guide. Yet the outsider garb and rowdy behavior reflect a rage based on deep resentment of society and its norms.

(As an ex-Republican who fled the party in horror a decade ago, I occasionally encounter the flotsam of my past. A few months ago, a former professional colleague who now relishes the rebellious allure of the far-right deprecated me as a "normie," a psychologically revealing alt-right term for timid conformists who haven't swallowed the Kool-Aid. His derision was prompted by my suggestion that wearing a face mask in a lethal pandemic might be a good idea, as well as my hesitation to consider Vladimir Putin an all-around swell guy).

This transformation of the conservative base into walking trash-cultural cliches has been accompanied by a similar makeover among American religious fundamentalists, the largest single constituency within the Republican coalition. Formerly the prudish, uptight moral judges of the rest of us, increasing numbers of evangelicals have adopted a kind of Hell's Angels' parody of Christianity in the form of "Ultimate Fighting Jesus." This is a conceit which swaps the traditional image of the Prince of Peace for that of a martial-arts tough guy.

This curious metamorphosis first became clear with the religious right's fierce defense of Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, which viewers jaded by secularism saw as a "homoerotic exercise in lurid sadomasochism." The anti-Semitic subtext was also noted, a feature of conservatism that has now metastasized to levels hardly seen in a major Western country since the 1930s. The mutation of Christian fundamentalism into a militant adjunct of authoritarian conservatism was sealed by its complete abasement before the Baal-like idol of Donald Trump, accompanied by the risibly ribald antics of Jerry Falwell, Jr., fundamentalism's most powerful figure.

By the 2010s, Republican cultural attitudes had travelled so far that the party reversed its draconian position on illegal drug use, previously a stigma of out-groups the GOP disliked and feared. The opioid epidemic that has raged for years mainly among rural whites in Sarah Palin's mid-America has done a remarkable job in softening the conservative position on drug addiction. The fact that electoral support for Trump correlated strongly with counties having the highest opioid abuse rate is a highly significant, but little-remarked, cultural artifact of a seismic shift, regardless of how politically convenient the Republican establishment's shift in attitude was.

It all culminated in the horrifying scenes of insurrection of January 6, where hardcore conservatives became a lethal street theater. Disgusting scenes of rioters smearing their own shit on the floors of the Capitol were made hallucinogenic beyond the talents of Fellini by these same violent thugs piously assembling to pray before seeking to hang the vice president of the United States. Resembling the Joker trashing Gotham City, the QAnon shaman in his buffalo horns is the recruiting poster of the new conservative movement.

Through the lens of popular culture, this emblematic vanguard of the GOP, once the party of accountants, family doctors, Shriners, and dowdy matrons with corsages and big hats, has become a mashup of Deliverance, Red Dawn, Fight Club, and Pasolini's Salo. The New Conservative Man has become a far more grotesque - and far more dangerous - version of what horrified prim and proper conservatives a half century ago.

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