“Extremism in the Defense of Liberty:” The Rise of American Conservatism

by Cormac Kelly

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credits: Paul Becker, Anthony Crider, Chad Davis

The mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6 did not operate outside history. The conspiracy theories and white rage which led them up the Capitol steps have underpinned the conservative movement since the 1960s. QAnon and Stop the Steal have their roots in anti-communist fantasies peddled in the twilight of McCarthyism. White anger over integration in the same period morphed into race-based nationalism. Over the last sixty years, American conservatives have conjured myths and played to white fears to rally support and demonize their opponents, reshaping American politics in the process. Their success is the result of a destructive relationship between presidential candidates and the far-right. Their worldview is a binary struggle between good and evil, leaving little room for compromise. 

As conservatism has overtaken the Republican Party, the reactionaries have become a powerful authoritarian and anti-democratic force, helping elect candidates who parrot their worldview. This is no longer the Party of Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. We owe this change to two failed and forgotten presidential candidates: Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Governor George Wallace in 1968.

In the early 1960s, America’s conservatives were overwhelmingly white, Protestant, anti-communist, and incensed at the perceived overreach of the federal government on a variety of issues, especially civil rights. They argued the Soviet Union’s rise was the product of US appeasement, that communist sympathizers were active in the government, and leftists were fomenting domestic unrest to make America a socialist state. In a network of newsletters, book clubs, and radio stations, conservatives preached that the liberal consensus politics of both the Republican and Democratic parties endangered the country. Only their brand of conservatism could save America. It was necessary to destroy rather than simply defeat their opponents to preserve their vision of liberty.

The 1964 candidacy of Republican Senator Barry Goldwater provided the first opportunity for this movement to enter the mainstream. Goldwater captured conservatives’ attention with his 1960 bestseller The Conscience of a Conservative. The book blamed America’s woes on liberals, charging Democrats and Republicans with appeasing the Soviets and undermining liberty by expanding federal authority. Goldwater urged an offensive war against the Soviets, while leaving many domestic policy questions to the states. He did not believe in conspiracy theories. But his combative message rallied the far-right behind him. He faced a choice: disavow the paranoid right or embrace them and accept their grassroots support.

This dilemma centered on the place of the John Birch Society within conservatism. The Birchers were a far-right group 100,000 strong who believed communists controlled the federal government. Co-founder Robert Welch promoted these beliefs in exacting detail in his book, The Politician. Making copious use of the phrases “we think,” “we believe,” or “in our firm opinion,” Welch accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a communist and ascribed similar motives to the civil rights activists working to reorder American society. Goldwater avoided their conspiratorial rhetoric and hated The Politician. However, as ardent conservatives, Birchers provided a loyal volunteer base. Candidate Goldwater thus said of the Society, “I am impressed by the people in it. They are the kind we need in politics.” It was a Faustian bargain which guaranteed support for his presidential ambitions but empowered an element whose paranoid approach to politics came to dominate his campaign.

Goldwater was even less pleased to have the support of ex-FBI agent Dan Smoot. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told all who worked for his agency that leftists of any kind were un-American and linked most forms of social activism to communism. Smoot carried these beliefs into conservative politics via his syndicated radio show and newsletter The Dan Smoot Report, reaching tens of thousands across the country. He told his viewers of an “invisible government” which, regardless of party, worked to make America a socialist state. Risking defamation, Smoot provided his audience with long lists of the people he claimed constituted this deep state. Only if conservatives controlled Congress and the presidency could the “invisible government” be purged and leftists suppressed. Despite some reservations about certain parts of Goldwater’s foreign policy, particularly his support for NATO, Smoot could not hide his excitement in 1964, calling Goldwater’s candidacy “a great, thrilling awakening experience.” Goldwater did not repudiate him.

Senator Barry Goldwater, the stern frontman of American Conservatism in 1964. Library of Congress

Through the unwavering momentum of conservatives in the Republican Party, Goldwater captured the Republican nomination at their convention in San Francisco. 

Goldwater’s convention acceptance speech was devoid of humor or much praise for his fellow Republicans. He claimed Americans had “followed false prophets” who squandered the country’s potential through incompetence and bureaucracy. He encouraged peace through strength since “only the strong can remain free.” His supporters expected such rhetoric. In the months leading up to this moment, moderate Republicans and Democrats had repeatedly labelled conservatives as extremists. Now that Goldwater was the nominee, conservatives wanted validation. 

Near the end of his speech, Goldwater delivered. “I would remind you, that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Conservative supporters burst into nearly a minute of uproarious applause, cheering, and blasting horns. Senior members of his campaign staff wanted that line omitted. Goldwater underscored it. He continued, “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Former President Eisenhower said the speech was offensive to “the whole American system.” It didn’t worry conservatives. As Bircher Robert Welch pointed out, buzzwords like “racist” and “fascist” were tools of communist sympathizers. Having seized control of the Republican Party, conservatives now had the opportunity to spread their ideology on an unprecedented scale. The 1964 general election campaign brought conservatism into the mainstream, and the movement exploded in popularity. 

The dramatic expansion of conservatism was not due to Goldwater’s speeches. Unlike his combative bestseller, Goldwater’s speeches throughout the campaign were dull policy lectures ranging from the intricacies of defeating the Soviets to his libertarian opposition to civil rights legislation. His power lay in what he represented: a figurehead for the conservative movement. Goldwater’s campaign gave conservative activists a free hand to evangelize their cause, and they made the most of it, injecting conspiracy theories into mainstream political discourse on a scale hitherto unseen in American national politics. 

Before Twitter and Fox News, there were mass market paperbacks. Costing between fifty cents and a dollar, with a form on the last page for bulk orders, these books made reactionary conspiracy theories go viral during the 1964 election. Three conservative activists—John Stormer, Phyllis Schlafly, and J. Evetts Haley—each produced books supporting Goldwater, which sold enough copies to be in the homes of one in ten Americans.

John Stormer, chairman of the Missouri Federation of Young Republicans, used his book None Dare Call It Treason to expose the US government and liberal media for repeatedly sabotaging anti-communist efforts at home and abroad. He claimed religious organizations working for ecumenicalism were communist fronts. Stormer concluded by listing various ways his readers could save America, from joining the John Birch Society to voting for Goldwater. 

The conspiracy theories of Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo were less wide-ranging. Schlafly, a Republican who a decade later became the nemesis of the Women’s Liberation Movement, focused on the US government. “The Soviet Empire would die of its own anemia if the Democratic Administration didn’t keep giving it massive blood transfusions,” she wrote. The only antidote was to lead America rightward, beginning with electing Goldwater, and purge the government of communist infiltrators. 

And then there was J. Evetts Haley. A Texas cattle rancher and historian, Haley presented in A Texan Looks at Lyndon the case that President Lyndon Johnson—a fellow Texan—was grotesquely corrupt. There was some truth to this accusation, yet Haley took it to the extreme, claiming the atheistic Johnson was responsible for the Kennedy assassination and that the only reason Johnson could have supported the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was because the Soviets were bribing him. 

Stomer, Schlafly, and Haley all backed up their claims with footnotes or endnotes. All three portrayed conservatives as freedom-loving underdogs yet called for the suppression of the left. Their books sold millions of copies. The Goldwater campaign made no effort to disavow them. 

The combined force of conservative media whipped up enthusiasm for Goldwater’s campaign. 3.9 million Americans volunteered for Goldwater. Johnson had half as many volunteers despite broader support. The newspapers trumpeted Johnson’s out-fundraising of Goldwater. Left unmentioned was the fact that while Johnson’s donors numbered in the tens of thousands, over a million people donated to the Goldwater campaign.

All this impassioned support was not enough to carry Goldwater to the White House. On Election Day 1964, he was decisively defeated, losing by nearly sixteen million votes and carrying only six out of fifty states. He had however won the South—the first time a Republican had done so in a century. White Southerners resented Johnson’s civil rights stance. The prevailing belief of most political analysts, as well as the Republican and Democratic Party leadership, was that this stinging loss was a lethal blow to the conservative movement. With Goldwater’s defeat, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter prophesied the return of civility to American politics

For a brief time, it seemed that way. Since he was no longer running for president, Goldwater denounced the John Birch Society. He also urged his fellow conservatives to follow whoever the Republican nominee should be in the 1968 election. As it turned out, Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination. By that point, however, the conservative movement was in uproar about a candidate taking the party from the right and rallying a disturbing amount of conservative support. 

Governor George C. Wallace. Library of Congress

Governor George Wallace harnessed white rage like no presidential candidate before. As governor of Alabama, he knew the strength of inflammatory speech in rousing support and used it to gain power, telling a journalist, “I started off talking about schools, highways, prisons, and taxes—and I couldn’t get them to listen. Then I began talking about n*****s—and they stomped the floor.” In his speeches and confrontational appearances on national television, Wallace cultivated a national following of working class whites in both north and south who believed the major parties no longer cared about them. 

In 1968, Wallace ran as a third party candidate, peeling off white Democrats and conservative Republicans who, after years of being told by conservative ideologues that it was dangerous to compromise, saw no reason to back the far more moderate Richard Nixon. Wallace, however, did not have the support of any of the famed conservative authors, each of whom adhered to party loyalty and followed Richard Nixon. 

Wallace honed his racist arguments for his northern audiences. He referred to “states’ rights” instead of segregation, all the while avoiding overt racism in favor of criticizing perceived legal preferences for Black Americans. To cries of “tell’ em George,” Wallace played on racial animosity in his speeches, telling how civil rights demonstrations begat anarchy. Both parties were responsible for hamstringing the power of the police to preserve “law and order.” Wallace used the riots which followed Martin Luther King’s assassination to whip up his white audiences saying, “we don’t have riots in Alabama. First one of ‘em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all.” His audiences responded with cheers and chants of “we want Wallace.”

In 1964, Goldwater avoided overt populism and stoking white rage. Wallace put these elements on full display. His campaign on the West Coast was run by Birchers. He received massive support from the Christian right, particularly Evangelical Christians Billy Hargis and Fred Schwartz, the latter of whom ran the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade. The CACC was famed for its 1961 Hollywood Bowl anti-communist rally, where John Wayne and Ronald Reagan preached to the faithful. Yet by the late 1960s, anti-communist paranoia was no longer de rigueur in the conservative movement. Nonetheless, Wallace used the CACC’s system of computer-generated personal mailers to spread fear of impending anarchy and present himself as the nation’s savior. 

Wallace gave his audiences an uncompromising vision of politics, where the major parties were selling out American interests and only he could stop them. He savaged Republicans for abandoning states’ rights. He claimed Democrats and Republicans “have kowtowed to every group of anarchists that have roamed the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles and throughout the country.” This animus towards anyone to his left led Wallace’s rallies to regularly descend into violence as left-wing student hecklers were thrown out of the hall. Positioning himself as the defender of free speech, Wallace clearly enjoyed the combative atmosphere these confrontations generated. At one rally, Wallace supporters seized their metal folding chairs and beat students until they were stopped by the police. Wallace tied his antipathy for the left to his calls for law and order. Referring to civil rights activists and student leftists, one campaign ad promised if Wallace was elected he would “get rid of them.”

Alabama Governor George Wallace, holding a photo of “agitators” while speaking to a White Citizens’ Council group in Atlanta, 1963. Library of Congress

While Richard Nixon decried Wallace supporters as “nuts and kooks,” the Alabama governor gained noticeable traction amongst urban whites in the north. America’s largest federation of unions, the AFL-CIO, was dismayed to find that a third of its members supported Wallace. Both Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey and Wallace produced campaign films. Wallace’s generated five times as much funds as Humphrey’s, despite being a third party candidate. His campaign raised nine million dollars which, as with Goldwater, came mostly from small donors. Attending one rally in a northern city, Hunter S. Thompson said the audience’s enthusiasm made it appear like a “political Janis Joplin concert.”

Wallace did not become president in 1968. However, with nearly ten million votes, a shift of 1% in two states would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives and handed him the power to act as kingmaker by delivering the South to whichever candidate offered to repeal civil rights legislation. Despite his defeat, Wallace left an important legacy. His campaign showed conservative leaders the power of white rage as a tool to rally support. 

Wallace used the same tactics again in the 1972 presidential race, this time running in the Democratic primary. Again, he played directly to the disaffection of working class whites, particularly railing against the busing of Black children to white schools. This strategy proved remarkably successful, winning him five states in the primary. However, his presidential ambitions were cut short while campaigning in Maryland by a deranged assassin. Shot five times, Wallace survived, although he was permanently paralyzed below the waist. 

The near-death experience focused his thinking and led him to realize the damage he had caused. In 1979, Wallace began contacting civil rights leaders and old opponents, confessing his sense of guilt and asking for forgiveness. Civil rights activist John Lewis recalled that Wallace “literally poured out his soul and heart to me.” In 1982, Wallace ran a final time for governor of Alabama. He won, in large part because of Black support. During his final term, Wallace appointed a record number of Black officials to positions throughout the state. 

In the last years of his life, Goldwater was deeply disturbed by the conservative movement. He openly criticized the influence of the religious right and their use of the Republican Party to legislate on issues of abortion, homosexuality, and drug use. In 1996, Goldwater told longtime Republican Senator Bob Dole, “we’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?” Both he and Wallace died in 1998. 

The conservative movement Goldwater and Wallace left behind used white rage and conspiracy theories to rally support and maintain power. The movement had a respectable face under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, George H.W., and George W. Bush. Yet behind those presidents, stoking division, were the reactionaries: Limbaugh, Coulter, Breitbart, a bevy of evangelical pastors, Fox News pundits, and many others. Their audience now numbered in the tens of millions. Republican leaders relied on these reactionaries, incorrectly believing they could control them. Comfortable in that delusion, conservatives moved further and further right, claiming only they could save America, and, in the pursuit of power, making a mockery of the ideals they claim to protect. The conservative movement will not collapse after Trump leaves the White House. The reactionaries will live on, injecting fear and hatred into American discourse. If the Trump presidency has proven anything, it’s that these two forces are the most powerful recruiting tools in politics. 

Cormac Kelly conducts research on the far-right in Britain and the United States. He is a graduate of the College of Wooster.

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