The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

What Time Is It?

Posted on | August 28, 2022 | Comments Off on What Time Is It?

Not long ago, I mentioned how Ace of Spades has for a while been referring to certain Republicans as believing it’s still 2003, i.e., they’re stuck in the obsolete politics of Bushism, incapable of dealing with the current reality. Ace makes the same point in referring to those who know What Time It Is, i.e., fully conscious of the current political reality.

Politico has an interview with Vanderbilt University history professor Nicole Hemmer, author of a new book called Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. It should go without saying — because she is employed in academia — that Hemmer is a left-winger who vehemently hates all Republicans, but from the interview it seems that she at least notices some important points about the history she covers:

One of the biggest factors contributing to the fragility of Reaganism was the end of the Cold War. I think in some ways we’ve forgotten how much Reagan was a Cold War president and that the conditions of the Cold War shaped his rhetoric, shaped the policies that he preferred, and really were necessary for the kind of conservatism that he championed. When the Cold War ends, it loosens not just the motivation for conservatives to get involved internationally, but also the motivation for them to champion democracy, which they hold on to a little more lightly after Reagan leaves office.
There’s also a massive shift in terms of domestic politics. It had been a goal of conservatives for so long to capture the presidency, and then they had captured it [in 1980], and they didn’t get everything they wanted. They knew that was partly because they hadn’t won control of Congress at that point for something like 40 years. So there is a real refocusing on congressional politics, not just in opposition to Bill Clinton but in opposition to George H.W. Bush as well.

This is something that I think most conservatives simply haven’t factored into their understanding of Reagan, and the meaning of Reagan’s legacy. Nothing mattered to Reagan more than defeating Communism, which had been the focus of his politics ever since the late 1940s when, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he found himself targeted by Communists who had taken over other film-industry unions. As president, Reagan was willing to compromise on domestic policy if it helped him increase his ability to confront the Soviets. This was why, for example, Reagan was willing to sign the 1986 amnesty bill, a necessary compromise that has been completely misunderstood by some Republicans. Cold War anti-Communism was the “glue” that held the Reagan coalition together and, without the existential threat of an aggressive nuclear-armed Soviet Union, the conservative movement lost focus after 1990. A lot of the Cold War hawks just weren’t down for the fight over domestic issues that came to the forefront of politics in the 1990s. For them, the 9/11 attacks were a godsend, putting international geopolitics back in the center of public policy, but the subsequent failure of the Global War on Terror — the unpopularity of fighting an endless “insurgency” in Iraq — left them embarrassed, though unrepentant.

But why bring up Liz Cheney at this point, eh? The larger point is that times change and politics change, and that nostalgia for the Good Old Days is not helpful as a guide to organizing one’s public policy priorities in the here and now. We must know What Time It Is, or else be defeated because of our obsolete goals and tactics. Meanwhile, in the Politico interview with Hemmer, I smiled when I read this part:

“Middle American radicals” is a term that was popularized by Sam Francis, who — spoiler alert — becomes a pretty out-and-out white nationalist by the 1990s, and who was an adviser to the Buchanan campaign. The idea was that there were these people in middle America — today, we often call it “the flyover states” — who were generally white, generally Christian of some stripe, and who had been radicalized by the politics of the second half of the 20th century. There was a sense that they were under threat, that they were no longer the dominant demographic, that they were losing power and losing control of politics. But now they were finally rearing up and fighting back.
It’s a lot like the Silent Majority that Richard Nixon talks about, but Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority was supposed to be the opposite of radical. They were supposed to be the reactionaries who were holding the center during a period of change and upheaval in the United States. The idea behind these Middle American Radicals was that no, actually, these are the people who want to radically remake American politics. Sam Francis, and later Pat Buchanan, really tapped into those folks.

Guys, I knew Sam Francis. Literally had beers with the guy, and have often thought that, on the night of the 2016 election, I could hear ghostly laughter coming from the general direction of the cemetery in Chattanooga where Sam Francis is buried. Somewhere in my bookshelves, there’s an autographed copy of Revolution From the Middle which, in hindsight, was either a roadmap for, or a prophecy of, the Trump revolution. Of course never in a million years could Sam Francis (who died in 2005) have imagined that Donald Trump would have been the man to inspire those “Middle American radicals” he talked about; that was Andrew Breitbart’s doing, when he arranged to have Trump speak at CPAC 2011. So that makes two visionary architects of the Trump revolution that I had beers with, literally. All successful political movements begin on the radical fringe, inspired by “extremists.” When Sam Adams started stirring up trouble in Boston? “Extremist”!

While nostalgia for the politics of yesteryear is generally misguided, nevertheless history offers inspiring examples of leaders who emerged in moments of crisis, men who knew What Time It Is and didn’t mind being called “extremists” for speaking the unpopular truth. Deo Vindice.



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