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The History of the “Right Wing Conspiracy”

by Kevin Smant on Dec 11, 1998

Hillary Clinton caused a sensation earlier in this turbulent year when she charged that a “right wing conspiracy” was behind the allegations of wrongdoing leveled against her husband.

The charge continually crops up in the defenses of the president offered by many Democrats. They argue that the Monica Lewinsky matter would never have come up save for the lawsuit filed by Paula Jones. Conservative donors in part funded the suit, they explain, while right-wing newspapers and periodicals publicized it. At least so say Mrs. Clinton and other friends of Bill.

However, what many forget is that this is not the first time that an American politician has used the cry of a rightist “conspiracy” to change the subject away from his troubles.

The idea of such a conspiracy has a long history. Conservatism in the United States has always contained a radical fringe. Its opponents have often used this charge against it.

After 1933, for example, radicals within conservative groups such as the Liberty Lobby and America First staunchly opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and his interventionist foreign policy. But their ideas smacked of racism, anti-Semitism, and a rigid isolationism.

Thus Roosevelt and other Democrats easily changed the subject away from such problems as the recession of 1937-38 simply by pointing to the extremism of their opponents.

In the 1950s, liberals and Democrats despaired when their champion, Adlai Stevenson, was defeated twice for the presidency. But they changed the subject by linking conservatives to the outrageous actions of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

In 1961, John F. Kennedy suffered through a difficult first year in office. But Kennedy shifted the national debate by attacking the John Birch Society and its claims that the government was 60 percent under the control of the Communists.

Kennedy’s speeches condemning the rise of a vague “radical right” effectively positioned him as a centrist battling against the extremes. He and others further linked Senator Barry Goldwater, America’s foremost conservative politician, whom many expected to be Kennedy’s Republican opponent in the 1964 election, to this radical right as well. Kennedy benefited from the comparison. His poll numbers soon rose.

The Goldwater movement never escaped the extremist tag. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign eagerly connected Goldwater to the radicalism of the John Birch Society. Johnson also suggested, in the famous commercial showing a nuclear bomb exploding and obliterating the image of a girl picking a daisy, that Goldwater’s extreme anti-communism would make him trigger-happy in his use of nuclear weapons.

The linking of conservative “extremism” to the nuclear issue has been a continuing theme for Democrats. In the 1980 election, President Jimmy Carter claimed that even his daughter Amy believed that “nuclear proliferation” was the most crucial issue in the campaign, and that Ronald Reagan’s radical anti-communism would lead him to employ atomic weapons recklessly.

Pointing out his opponents’ “extremism” has been a constant theme of the Clinton administration. In 1995 Clinton and others were quick to suggest that “antigovernment extremists” and the words of the “right wing” in general had contributed to the Oklahoma City bombing.

It is true, of course, that political parties always contain radical fringes. This opens them to attack from their opponents, who seek to tie all party members to the radicals in their midst. During the late 1960s, for example, Republicans routinely linked all Democrats to long-haired, extreme opponents of the Vietnam war.

Furthermore, to an extent the Right has only itself to blame for being vulnerable to the charge of being soft on radicalism. Responsible conservatives have historically failed to condemn their extremist, fringe elements.

In the 1950s, Senator McCarthy’s often indefensible methods received tacit Republican support. In the early 1960s, few Republicans rose to challenge the claims of the Birch Society. In 1964, Barry Goldwater unwittingly gave his opponents ammunition when he said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Some mainstream conservatives have occasionally tried to counter the “extremist” label. William F. Buckley Jr. and his magazine, “The National Review,” in a 1965 special issue, read the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement. Buckley denounced its claims of communist infiltration as “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

Yet such actions have been rare. The “extremist” tag will continue to be a weapon in the arsenal of those opposed to conservatives (as conservatives have used it against liberals). In the past it has worked—from FDR’s four electoral victories to Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win over Goldwater in 1964. Judging by President Clinton’s current approval ratings, and by Democratic gains in the recent midterm elections, it is working again.

Thus, for Republicans and conservatives, the question of extremism and how they will deal with it will not soon go away. A short while ago, a doctor from New York state was murdered. Many are assuming that another “extremist”, this one on the fringes of the conservative anti-abortion movement, carried this out. Once again conservatives have an opportunity to decisively condemn such an act. Will they take it?

If they do not, Democrats, history shows, will surely use it against them.

Dr. Kevin Smant teaches history at Indiana University South Bend and is a writer for the History News Service.