It suddenly feels like conservatism has gotten crazier than ever.
Republican debate audiences cheer executions and boo an active-duty soldier because he is gay. Politicians pledge allegiance to Rush Limbaugh, a pill-popping lunatic who recently offered "feminazis" a deal: "If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, we want you to post the videos online so we can all watch." Thousands of "Oath Keepers" — "Police & Military Against the New World Order"— swear to disobey the illegal orders certain to come down the pike once Barack Obama institutes martial law. One major Republican presidential candidate talks up indentured servitude — and another proposes turning schoolchildren into janitors. Only 12 percent of Mississippi Republicans believe Barack Obama is a Christian. Arizona Republicans push a bill to allow bosses to fire female employees for using birth control.
And so on and so forth, unto whatever wacky new wingnuttism just flashed over the wires today.
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I'd argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What's changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
I'm in a unique position to judge. A sixties obsessive since childhood, I misspent my teenage years prowling a ramshackle five-story used-book warehouse that somehow managed, until last October, to stay one step ahead of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's building inspectors. There, I collected volumes from a decade gone mad: texts by Black Panthers decrying "AmeriKKKa"; by New Leftists proclaiming that "the future of our struggle is the future of crime in the streets"; and by right-wingers like preacher David Noebel, who exposed the "Communist subversion of music" by which Russian spymasters deployed Pavlov's techniques to rot the minds of America's youth via their bought-and-paid-for agents, the Beatles. People who thought like Black Panthers and New Leftists, of course, proved a historical flash in the pan. People like Noebel, however, have proved a constant in American history. In fact, Noebel himself is still with us. In the 1970s, he was a favorite source for James Dobson, the still enormously popular Christian Right radio pschologist and Republican power broker. Most recently, Noebel's reputation got a boost from an admiring Glenn Beck on Fox News, and now he’s a Tea Party favorite.