Rudy Giuliani’s latest gambit to contaminate a US election with Russian active measures lays bare the ideological and operational affinity between elements of the Republican Party (base and congressional wings) and Putin’s Russia. It began before Trump and will continue after.
At crux is a shared hostility towards liberal democratic pluralism, its foundation in rational empiricism, individualism and rights based on law and accountability. The affinity is for politics of hierarchy, authority, racial tribal identity sustained by and nurtured by an enrolling, evolving narrative to maintain in group mobilization.
Let’s walk through the concentric rings of political evolution and awareness that led to that affinity. How did the US conservative Movement described below become the de facto GOP base? How did it then conquer congressional Republicans and party apparat?
Answering these questions makes it easier to see how the Movement itself then walked away from post-1945 US national identity traditionally understood as it discovered superseding shared priorities and enemies in its perception of Putin’s Russia.
This moment of recognition marks a seismic change in the balance, nature and composition of American politics. The Movement not only stepped outside the foundational framework of American constitutional pluralism. It became an aware participant in the larger and long running Continental European struggle between the European Reactionary and the revolutionary principles of 1789: the US constitutional order here and the overthrow of monarchy there.
The U.S. was uniquely vulnerable to this shift precisely because our political history until recently remained apart from and immune to European political philosophies and operational realities of Left and Right – terms themselves that come from the French Revolution in 1789.
The Movement’s emergence in U.S. milieu as a traditional European Right actor hostile to empiricism, individualism, rights-based legal structures did not happen in secret. U.S. surprise at 2016-20 can be attributed in part to our previous isolation from European political history here. Changes in U.S. politics occurred through familiar organizational expression of two party political platforms, personalities and interest group dynamics.
Trump’s blatant demonstrations make some aspects undeniably obvious, finally. But how did we get here?
This post is Part I – how the Movement evolved. Part II will show how U.S. missed this danger. And present some ideas for how to respond in 2021.
Most current US political observers still do not understand the importance of the elder Bush’s 1992 defeat. That failed campaign in many ways marked the conservative Movement’s rise and eclipse of the traditional GOP.
In the late 1970s, a coalition outside of traditional Republican politics began to form. At the core were three entities: Paul Weyrich’s Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, Howard Phillips’ the Conservative Caucus and a new political animal, something called a “political action committee” – formed in 1978 as National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC). Together, they became known as the “New Right” – a name coined by Phyllis Schlafly to distinguish them from Robert Taft/Goldwater conservatism. (Note Richard Spencer would copy this move when proclaiming the “Alt Right” in 2010).
The New Right goal was simple: win. They rejected the conservative Republican status quo and its willingness to accept Democratic Party majorities as legitimate.
Paul Weyrich and Howard Phillips, who handled grass roots organizing, in 1979 realized Christian and social religious conservatives were a latent political force that could change power dynamics. They orchestrated an alliance between Rightist Catholics and Evangelicals – who since the 1920s abstained from overt politics – called “the Moral Majority.”
Weyrich united Evangelical hostility to U.S. government pursuit of gender and racial equality through tax regulation with Catholic repugnance to Roe v. Wade. (Evangelicals after Roe until 1979 largely nonplussed by abortion as an issue). They recruited an unknown named Jerry Falwell to run it.
The Moral Majority joined other extra-party organizational groups including anti-Statist tax revolters, then-new Neoconservatives who left the Democratic Party for the GOP to revenge Saigon’s Fall/Nixon detente to form in their own self-aware terminology “the Movement”. The Movement’s goal was to galvanize, infiltrate, and eventually direct the traditional Republican Party.
This is the Big Bang: the origins of the pro-business, national security and Christian conservative coalition that would propel the GOP and Movement to political dominance. Morton Blackwell, a Viguerie friend, provided intellectual [sic] justification for the Movement strands and created his Leadership Institute. He trained generations of young aspiring activists and campaign professionals how to attack mainstream Republicans and Democrats. (I met with him then to discuss his ambitions).
Viguerie and Blackwell also resurrected and made famous the moribund, inactive Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). From its earliest days CPAC gave voice to Viguerie’s advice: “Successful politicians do not bore the voters.”
The New Right as public label for the Movement largely created many of today’s still existing practices: with Richard Viguerie, it created the concept of direct mail (today’s text, emails and trad mail outreach).
The New Right/Movement also created the idea of negative attack ads – using them first in 1978. Terry Dolan, NCPAC’s founder, explained these new PACs would create “hit lists” to take out ideological enemies. As he famously declared,”we want people to hate Birch Bayh without even knowing why.”
Dolan saw the future when he said in 1980:
Groups like ours are potentially very dangerous to the political process. We could be a menace, yes. Ten independent expenditure groups, for example, could amass this great amount of money and defeat the point of accountability in politics. We could say whatever we want about an opponent of a Senator Smith and the senator wouldn’t have to say anything. A group like ours could lie through its teeth and the candidate it helps stays clean.
NCPAC and Dolan took Viguerie’s direct mail money to defeat prominent Senate Democrats like George McGovern, Birch Bayh, Frank Church and John Culver in an unprecedented, negative wave. American politics changed.
NCPAC, Weyrich’s Committee for Survival of a Free Congress and the Conservative Caucus were the public face of the Movement by 1980 to many observers. However, even then, the Movement/New Right convened a secretive, unaccountable policy council of activists, political figures and wealthy, high dollar donors. Much of today began back in the late 1970s/early 80s. Even international funding. The Korean CIA/Moon Church and Col. Bo Hi Pak a huge investor in NCPAC. And of course, launched The Washington Times newspaper.
The Movement played a significant but still subordinate part in Reagan’s 1980 victory. Ed Fuelner’s (and Viguerie’s) truly infant Heritage Foundation assumed new stature organizing the Movement agenda for Reagan. Nonetheless, GOP traditional status quo – epitomized by Jim Baker in the White House – successfully marginalized Movement personnel and agenda to back burner status. On domestic and foreign policy fronts few spoils came to the Movement.
Viguerie saw Movement domestic politics marginalization under Reagan early on. He threatened to withhold New Right and especially social conservative Christian support for Reagan and Jack Kemp’s signature, massive tax cuts until Reagan/Baker showed action on Movement priorities such as abortion, anti-gay, and anti-Equal Rights Amendment. Reagan typically responded with rhetorical gestures.
Reagan was far more receptive to Neoconservative foreign policy ideologues than to Viguerie, Blackwell, Phillips’ social conservatives. Their anti-Soviet focus dovetailed with traditional Republican opposition to Nixon-Kissinger detente.
Reagan embraced massive defense buildups, confronted Soviet expansionism in Central America, and renewed American assertiveness in defending Europe. Yet even here, Baker and then George Schultz succeeded in marginalizing most Neoconservative impulses (and those from allies like Weinberger at DoD). Howard Phillips, the New Right founder, and others within the Movement savagely denounced Reagan’s 1987 INF Treaty with Gorbachev.
Movement marginalization continued even more clearly under Bush 1989-1992. Bush’s “kinder, gentler America” 1988 speech foreshadowed the Movement/New Right on the bench. Within the Bush WH, a then largely unknown Bill Kristol as Quayle’s Chief of Staff served as lonely Movement conduit to a powerless Quayle.
The Movement felt truly betrayed. Bush’s famous “Read my lips, no new taxes” at the 1988 Convention in 1990 became a budget deal and large tax increases. Newt Gingrich’s opposition to Bush on this marked his emergence as a visible firebrand against the GOP establishment. Bush also signed the Americans for Disability Act. C. Boyden Gray championed new market-based environmental regulatory approaches, etc. Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and Powell refused to invade Iraq after evicting Saddam from Kuwait. And quashed Neoconservative Wolfowitz’s 1992 DoD plan for U.S. global hegemony.
The GHWB pragmatism over ideology is summarized by Richard Darman’s withering smack down of junior WH aide Pinkerton – “Brother can you paradigm?” Darman contemptuously mocked his call for a new think on domestic policy.
Both the Perot and Buchanan 1992 campaigns seized on Movement galvanic anger against Bush on the Right. Movement strands went to both.
1992 also marked the emergence of online – then called “cyberspace” – as an important Movement organizing platform. Across CompuServe, GENIE, USENET fora Movement proponents seethed. As did Churches and AM Talk Radio too. These alternative media rejected Bush. (Readers may recall my conversations with John White in Texas who organized the Perot foreign policy team).
The Movement strands of Buchananite white racial grievance, Norquist-esque tax issues, Neocon disdain for Baker/Bush ‘restraint’ and evangelical/Rightist Catholics fractured over Perot/Buchanan but remained glued against their joint enemy, mainstream Republicanism and secondarily Democrats.
By rejecting Bush in 1992, they discovered they could seize GOP power on their own. Without so-called Establishment permission. Talk Radio and Newt Gingrich’s bomb throwing in the House soon moved to Weyrich’s cable TV studios, Limbaugh’s foray into syndicated TV and quickly the new Internet. The Clinton impeachment, despite Newt’s mishandling of the House and the Starr Report, showed the Movement strands remained united when facing a common enemy.
Fox News’ mid 1990s launch provided a new platform for Movement messaging. Initially, FOX’s launch remained a blend of traditional Republican conservatism with more Movement-friendly programming in the evening with Bill O’Reilly, Hannity across the hapless Alan Colmes.
By 1998 many Movement grandees agreed to coalesce around George W. Bush, an evangelical anti-Bush Bush. (Grover and I had a long conversation then on a bike ride abroad how his good friend Karl Rove helped ensure Bush acceptability to constituent strands).
Bush famously campaigned as as moderate against Gore. In Philadelphia at the 2000 convention America saw a Potemkin image. Dick Cheney prepared secretly to launch a government by the New Right. The old Movement alliance of business and Neoconservatives would be unleashed.
Cheney in the Office of Vice President (OVP) began before 9/11 to implement a truly radical, unfiltered reign. I saw it, dealt with OVP at the time. After the contested election, the WH/OVP already had two channels: one through OVP for the Movement connected and approved, another generic, less-significant for general Republican audiences. (Democrats didn’t rate).
Movies such as W. and the entertaining Vice and political literature give Americans today a better glimpse into Bush-Cheney/OVP radicalism. Yet it’s largely “old news” and forgotten.
Unified Republican/Movement government 2001-2006 imposed a culture of fear, retribution, brutal vindictiveness and extra-legalties across DC. Amazingly, this shared reality is airbrushed out of collective memory – journalists, professional policy practitioners and political figures now choose to forget.
One minor, recent example highlights the amnesia. A newly retired national security figure from an intelligence entity prominent on Twitter expressed complete solidarity with Bill Kristol. The individual agreed with Kristol’s declaration “Never Forget! Always Remember!” about Trump excess.
One can and should unite now in a front against Trump. No doubt. And 2001-08 is not yesterday. Yet it’s bizarre for a professional from a government entity subjected to brutal, withering, prolonged, multi-year existential attack by the White House, Kristol, Feith, Ledeen, Frum, FDD/AEI, NRO, Cheney, Bolton, the Wurmsers, their allies on the Hill, Limbaugh, Fox News etc. to overlook that and align with those attackers. Without caveat.
US political culture – let some alone individual career professionals – is not good at memory.
The Bush Administration famously said “We are an empire now. We act and you are left to just analyze what we do”. It sums up the New Right and dominant Neoconservative strand then. It is also undeniably TRUMPIAN.
Trump succeeded in doing to the Intelligence Community, State Department and DOJ what Bush-Cheney and the Neocons tried to do: to destroy the legitimization of empirical, factual governance and intelligence and subordinate government and intelligence to ideological/political narrative.
The WH and Movement in power vindictiveness moved to destroy critics, strip clearances, terminate jobs, invoke IRS investigations, secretly impose Stellar Wind, entrap critics with FBI investigations (see the failed AIPAC case and other DOJ gambits). This first manifestation of the Movement in power 2001-2006 today simply didn’t happen. Even if they lived it. One can only wonder what the collective memory of Trump era Movement in power will be 10 years from now.
COMING UP: PART TWO – The Movement Ejects Neocons 2006-20
Neocon incompetence led to political eclipse by 2007-08 within the Movement. The Financial Crisis/Great Recession further weakened the clout of Movement business internationalist strands.
Vladimir Putin also in 2007 denounced the US Neoconservative project at the Munich Security Conference. A fateful convergence.
To be continued…
Does the good doctor have any insight into why so many Sanders/Corbyn people are so committed to denying that Russian interference could even be a possibility? It’s very strange. A lot of people would not just agree with the following propositions but probably claim to have discovered them:
– post-Soviet Russia is a disaster, and a polity basically geared to protecting the ill gotten wealth of its elite
– the spillover of this wealth into western financial and real estate assets corrupts our polities
– the Conservative Party/Trump are demonstrably financially in hock to Russian interests
but they absolutely reject even the possibility that the same wealthy elite would use state resources it controls to give politicians it’s giving money to a helpful push over the top, and impute all kinds of turpitude to anyone who does not reject it.
And it’s not as if we’re getting any money. To a large extent it’s a floating signifier, a kool kidz of twitter fashion trope, but that just begs the question why specifically that became the trope.
The common political 20th century template – both Right and Left in common de facto cause against the liberal democratic center. Joint lazy invocation of ‘neoliberalism’ the shorthand.
Intellectually, in 1980s, for example, the Left in US academy began a significant rehabilitation of Schmitt and Nietzsche. Their effort with Heidegger took a blow with renewed attention to his clear fascism in Black Notebooks.
Operationally, it’s seen in Left US political entities around Sanders (Our Revolution dark money entity, the ‘Dirt Bag Left’, Greenwald, etc.) or pubs Nation, Jacobin. In clearest form – accelerationist support for Trump to de-legitimize the hated “center”.
Putin fabricated his anti-liberal democratic ideology for re-election 2012 to prepare revanche. Both Left and Right opportunistic in seeing that hostility as an asset.
To embrace scope, scale of Russian interference is in effect to defend the liberal center and the associated international economic and strategic footprint.
Bannon, because of his interest in fascist thought (Evola, Guenon, Heidegger) adopted three above, using Sanders allies like Tulsi Gabbard to attack center in joint fashion.