If you’re an honest student of American history, there is nothing in Neal Gabler’s “The GOP McCarthy Gene” that you didn’t already know. Gabler explains why Joe McCarthy — not Barry Goldwater, and certainly not Saint Ronald — was the real father of modern movement conservatism.
In this tale, the real father of modern Republicanism is Sen. Joe McCarthy, and the line doesn’t run from Goldwater to Reagan to George W. Bush; it runs from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin. It centralizes what one might call the McCarthy gene, something deep in the DNA of the Republican Party that determines how Republicans run for office, and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon. …
… What he lacked in ideology — and he was no ideologue at all — he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.
So much of the uglier side of the GOP ever since — Nixon, Lee Atwater, Karl Rove — is just warmed-over and updated McCarthyism. As Gabler says, the line runs “from McCarthy to Nixon to Bush and possibly now to Sarah Palin.” One of the reasons historian Richard Hofstadter was able to see where the U.S. was heading in the 1950s and early 1960s is that McCarthy had already set the course.
It isn’t just the ranting about Communism. The myth of liberal elitism began with McCarthy. Certainly anti-intellectualism had existed in America before McCarthy, just as there had been Red Scares before McCarthy. But he’s the one who figured out how to turn anti-intellectualism into a political force in modern politics.
Gabler is right: the Republican Party is held together not by any real ideological coherence (it is a collection of incompatible constituencies with radically different interests) but by a shared devotion to aggression. Or, as innumerable bloggers have put it, to Pissing Off the Liberals.
In (rightly) putting McCarthy ahead of Goldwater, though, Gabler neglects the malignant role Goldwaterite ideology did play in this story: its inherent unsuitability to governing led directly to the nihilism of modern conservatism.
Wingnuts are in denial, of course. One says,
Gabler forgets how William F. Buckley kicked out the McCarthyâ€™s heirs, The John Birch Society, from the conservative movement. Doing so doesnâ€™t fit the theme of a paranoid political party.