I’ve started reading Rick Pearlstein’s “Before the Storm–Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”. Goldwater represented a fringe political movement in the 1950s and 1960s but that agenda is obviously the dominant political force today.
Its all there. The wingnut militarism, the hatred and fear of everything from the UN and communists to unions and Social Security. And, of course, it was all wrapped in the flag and topped off by a rock-jawed individualism.
What’s striking about the early conservative radicals is how totally pissed off they are. That’s not unusual in a political movement, of course, but usually a political movement has some kind of tangible grievance. But the early conservatives were rich beyond their wildest dreams. They were living through the greatest economic, technological, and scientific boom in history. Goldwater, for example, owned a chain of department stores in booming Arizona. America had just defeated the fascist threat and found a way to preserve capitalism and democracy through the Great Depression. Life was good!
But for some reason, Goldwater and his friends were consumed with hatred and fear and a sense that everything worth having had been betrayed. Social Security and its onerous taxes were an outrageous affront to liberty. Unions were one step short of a Stalinist dictatorship. America should have nuked China rather than allow the Korean War to devolve into a “truce”. And so forth.
Not incidentally these grievances dovetailed nicely with other, more southern grievances. In 1957 President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Arkansas to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central High. A recent NPR special described the action:
Fifty years ago this month, Little Rock began to desegregate its public schools. Nine black students were assigned to attend the city’s Central High. But when the school opened right after Labor Day, white segregationists gathered in a mob. Gov. Orval Faubus defied a federal judge and called in the National Guard to keep the black students out.
The mob won that first day; the mob and the governor, who sensed their power and passion.
The NAACP kept the nine students home for three weeks out of fear for their safety.
A court ordered Faubus to withdraw the Guard, and he did. The Little Rock Nine returned to school on Sept. 23. Outside the building, local police tried to control at least a thousand angry segregationists. When they threatened to storm the school, the police got the children out a back door.
The mob beat several black journalists, one a World War II combat veteran. The pictures were broadcast on television.
That night, the president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, took control.
“An extreme situation has been created in Little Rock,” he said. “This challenge must be met, and with such measures as will preserve to the people as a whole their lawfully protected rights.”
He ordered units from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. They were there by dawn on Sept. 24, 1957. The next day, soldiers escorted the nine students through the front door and into their classrooms.
There was no real trouble on that day. But more was coming.
“My fellow citizens, we are now an occupied territory,” responded Gov. Orval Faubus, appealing to generations-old fears.
“In the name of God, whom we all revere,” Faubus continued, “in the name of liberty we hold so dear, in the name of decency, which we all cherish, what is happening in America?”
As the Goldwater conservatives saw it, this was another outrageous affront to freedom. A political coalition was born.