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How Conservatism Became Radical…

Note: This column is based, in part, on research conducted for my new book.

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In the late 1970’s a trio of young and very conservative political activists created a new organization that aimed to takeover and then remake the Republican Party. The state of our current politics is proof that they succeeded. 

John T. “Terry” Dolan is mostly forgotten now, but he was a true architect of the modern GOP. Dolan had been a paid organizer for Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential campaign and became the executive director of what he and his colleagues – Charles Black and Roger Stone (yes that guy) – called the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC).

President Reagan shakes hands with Richard Viguerie at a White House meeting with conservative leaders of the New Right in 1981. Terry Dolan is next to Reagan…certainly not to his left

NCPAC helped upend American politics, arguably as much as Ronald Reagan’s landslide presidential election victory did in 1980. The group used the dark political arts of direct mail fundraising, negative attack ads and third-party “independent expenditure” campaigns to take over conservative political messaging and then take over conservatism. The shrill attack ads, the politics of anger and grievance, the deep partisanship of our time didn’t just happen. There is an origin story, and the 1980 election is as good a place as any to see how the next 40 years of American politics unfolded. 

Ideology – think of it as what voters believe versus what is real – has increasingly shaped both parties, but it entirely overtook only one of them. We live largely in the world young, brash, ambitious Terry Dolan envisioned when he said he wanted to create a conservative ideological movement. 

Dolan was a fascinating character – charismatic, charming, cunning and frequently cruel. The photo above captures some aspects of his personality, I think. He could turn a pithy phrase, as when he said of NCPAC’s attacks on its Idaho target in 1980. “We’re out to destroy the popularity ratings of several liberal senators,” Dolan said, “and it’s working. Frank Church [a 24-year Senate incumbent and Idaho’s senior senator] is screaming like a stuck pig, and I don’t blame him.” 

It’s difficult to remember these days that the Republican Party once was home to moderates, even liberals, politicians like Oregon’s Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall, Washington’s Dan Evans, Charles Percy of Illinois, Jacob Javits of New York and John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky who once held the seat now occupied by Mitch McConnell. Terry Dolan detested Republican moderates and aimed to purge the party of all of them. It’s taken a while, but Dolan’s vision of 40 years ago has been realized and in the process the Republican Party has become the radical outlier of our politics.  

When a political party’s basic ideology embraces the radical it soon follows that many party supporters are radicalized, too. Both major political parties have clearly moved toward their extremes, but the evolutionary evidence of an extreme conservative transformation is easy to see, and radicalization on the right is vastly more pronounced than anything on the political left. A couple of examples of how this has worked.

Conservative legislators from Boise to Birmingham have broadly rejected the scientific evidence related to coronavirus, shunning mask wearing and rejecting vaccines. These ideological radicals have largely chosen to believe not what their eyes – or science and experts – tell them, but what their ideology espouses. 

The ideology of science denial

It would be simply ironic if it were not so obviously tragic that while the Idaho legislature was debating a measure last week that would prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing a mask mandate, the one step backed by vast scientific consensus that is effective in controlling the spread of a deadly virus, it was forced to shut down for two weeks when several members fell ill to the disease. Yet, because of the pull of ideology the legislature almost certainly will return and pick up right where it left off. 

Most conservative legislators have, of course, refused the simplest, most effective public health action in favor of minimizing the disease, embracing the fiction that it is overblown or that it will, as their clueless leader infamously proclaimed, just go away. Remember when he said the country would be back to normal by Easter – last Easter? 

This attitude is roughly the equivalent of hitting your thumb repeatedly with a hammer and proclaiming there is no correlation between the cold metal and a sore thumb. It is the triumph of belief over reality. 

There are a thousand other examples of this magical radical thinking. The crackpot lawyer who helped spread the big lie about the presidential election being stolen now admits in a court filing that “no reasonable person” could believe her assertions, but millions still do believe. 

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, a born-again reincarnation of his state’s 1950’s senator Joe McCarthy, is another prime exhibit. Johnson is a conspiracy theorist’s conspiracy theorist, a wide-open conduit for Russian disinformation, a guy whose basically been rewriting or denying the reality of a pro-Trump mob’s attack on the U.S. Congress in January. 

Johnson initially and absurdly claimed that assault was the work of leftwing provocateurs and then more recently allowed that the deadly attack was the work of  “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law.” Johnson is articulating an ideology belied by hours of television footage of the attack. His opinions, no matter how obviously wrong, trump objective reality. Yet, as conservative columnist Michael Gerson noted, Johnson suffers no pushback from his fellow conservative ideologues because he’s channeling the belief system of most of the Republican Party. 

“One of the United States’ venerable, powerful political parties,” Gerson wrote this week, “has been overtaken by people who make resentment against outsiders the central element of their appeal. Inciting fear is not an excess of their zeal; it is the substance of their cause.” That brings us back to the aforementioned Terry Dolan. 

Dolan and the people who helped him, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms and direct mail impresario Richard Viguerie among them, realized more than 40 years ago that they could traffic in fear and big lies about their opponents and be successful, because, as Viguerie candidly admitted, fear, breeding resentment and grievance, is the powerful motivator of political behavior. 

Dolan’s enemies were “elites,” clueless liberals, “baby killers” and politicians he defined as dangerous to families and national security. The right’s bogeymen now include new evil forces –  “cancel culture,” socialist indoctrination of young people and nefarious plots such as early childhood education. It’s not a political agenda designed to address any real problem, but it has been the centerfold of the Republican playbook for a long generation. And it truly is the substance of the angry ideology of the modern conservative movement.

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Additional Reading:

If you are up for some additional reading, I have some recommendations…

The Covid Queen of South Dakota

I haven’t lived in South Dakota since I graduated from college – Go Jacks! – but I still follow the news from the prairie, including news about South Dakota governor Kristi Noem. You may remember her – a big Trump fan – welcoming the former president to a big event at Mt. Rushmore last summer and then encouraging tens of thousands of motorcycle aficionados to descend on Sturgis, all during a raging pandemic. 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem

Stephen Rodrick assesses how it all turned out in Rolling Stone

“South Dakota has 880,000 citizens scattered over the country’s 17th largest state, providing built-in social distancing. In theory, it should have a Covid death rate in the bottom 10, near fellow sparse states like Maine and Wyoming. Instead, there are now more than 1,900 dead — one in 470 South Dakotans — and one in eight have tested positive for Covid, the second-highest rate in the country. Noem appeared on Face the Nation in February, and host Margaret Brennan asked how she could square her pro-life stance with her state having the highest Covid death rate since July. ‘Those are questions you should be asking every other governor in this country,’ said Noem. ‘I’m asking you today,’ said Brennan.”

Access the full story here:


The clown king: how Boris Johnson made it by playing the fool

An engaging portrait of the UK prime minister in The Guardian

UK prime minister Boris Johnson

“Observe classic Johnson closely as he arrives at an event. See how his entire being and bearing is bent towards satire, subversion, mockery. The hair is his clown’s disguise. Just as the makeup and the red nose bestow upon the circus clown a form of anonymity and thus freedom to overturn conventions, so Johnson’s candy-floss mop announces his licence. His clothes are often baggy – ill-fitting; a reminder of the clothes of the clown. He walks towards us quizzically, as if to mock the affected ‘power walking’ of other leaders. Absurdity seems to be wrestling with solemnity in every expression and limb. Notice how he sometimes feigns to lose his way as if to suggest the ridiculousness of the event, the ridiculousness of his presence there, the ridiculousness of any human being going in any direction at all.”

The link:


Off-road, off-grid: the modern nomads wandering America’s back country

If you’ve seen the Academy Award nominated film – Nomadland – you’ll want to read another piece from The Guardian

“’If the Great Recession was a crack in the system, Covid and climate change will be the chasm,’” says Bob Wells, 65, the nomad who plays himself in the film Nomadland, an early Oscar contender starring Frances McDormand. Bob helped April to adopt the nomad way of life and change her life in the process.

“Today, he lives exclusively on public lands in his GMC Savana fitted with 400 watts of solar power and a 12-volt refrigerator. His life mission is to promote nomadic tribalism in a car, van or RV as a way to prevent homelessness and live more sustainably.”

Read the whole thing:


The names change every decade, but iconic NBA stars are always reincarnations of Elgin Baylor

Finally, remembering one of basketball’s all-time greats: Elgin Baylor.

Surely the most underrated truly great player in NBA history

I grew up listening to Laker games on KNX from Los Angeles. And, yes, I wanted to be a radio play-by-play guy like the great Chick Hearn. I loved, among other things, Chick’s pre-game introductions of Baylor: “And…at forward, 6’5″ from Seattle, the captain of the Lakers, Number 22…Elgin BAYLOR…”

A great piece about the great Elgin from perhaps our best current sportswriter, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post.


Thanks for reading…stay safe, and if you haven’t yet get the dang shot…

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