Eight Lessons from History to Help Make Sense of Today’s Madness

By Abby Scher

I learned to peer beyond my political bubble in the early 1980s, first when Ronald Reagan was elected president and destroyed the New Deal coalition in which I was raised and then when Phyllis Schlafly’s Stop ERA women indeed stopped the Equal Rights Amendment for women from becoming the law of the land by defeating those of us fighting to win its passage in the Illinois legislature. We needed three more states for the Constitutional Amendment to be enacted, and Illinois was one state where we had a chance. On the steps of the Springfield, Illinois, capital were white women with lacquered hair wearing skirt suits and beige stockings carrying red Stop ERA signs. They seemed to have stepped out of the past, so how could they stop the forward march of history?

Well, they did. I found out later many were part of a resurging right-wing Christian movement. And I learned the hard way that you have to understand who your political opponents are and not take them for granted in your own righteousness. I ended up researching a doctoral dissertation about right-wing and liberal women in conflict over fundamental questions about U.S. life and governance during the conspiratorial red-baiting era after World War II and during McCarthyism in the 1950s.

McCarthyism took place during the Korean War when Democrat Harry Truman was president. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s fellow Republicans were happy to go along with his outrageous, made-up stories about subversives in the State Department or wherever to try to capture the power that they lost during the major political realignment of the New Deal in the 1930s—particularly the right-wing, isolationist Republicans led by Robert Taft who wanted to dismantle Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act and Keynesian management of the economy.  The moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower who generally accepted the New Deal and were relatively liberal on race may have won the presidency in 1954 within this cauldron, but they lost the party in the long run, as we have seen.

Here are eight lessons this history taught me in my struggle to understand my country now.

  1. Movements do not always reveal all the roots of their positions when they are fighting their opponents, not the alt-Right nor the anti-communist movement I studied in the 1950s. That means we have to do our research. The women I studied did not foreground their anti-Semitic, right-wing Christian worldview until the conspiratorial bullying of Senator McCarthy lost some of its potency and their more secular-minded allies ran for cover. Many of those who claimed President Obama was an imposter, a secret Muslim born abroad, were racist right-wing Christians who saw him as the anti-Christ. The Tea Party’s overlay with the Christian Right was often overlooked by secular reporters covering the movement who were tone-deaf to its underpinnings.
  2. War abroad roils up right-wing sentiment, ethnocentrism, and male power at home. We take for granted the backdrop of the Korean War during McCarthyism and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars during our own period. But the blowback from war is hugely formative on the home front. Yes, war fans the flames of Islamophobia but it does more. I first glimpsed the “more” during the right-wing backlash to Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and after he was elected. That’s when a new group, the Oath Keepers, composed of former military and police officers, rose up during the Tea Party movement to defend the white republic. Heavily armed militias and the fetish of male power in the barrel of a gun gained new force. And while Trump may have encouraged them, I would argue far right white nationalists began their latest killing spree in the Obama years with the 2009 killing at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
  3. Right-wing populism helps us understand racial scapegoating as immigrants, or blacks or Jews are blamed for economic failures that corporate management of the economy on behalf of the wealthiest create. Its adherents feel like victims, like they are losing power, whether we think so or not. Sometimes they are losing power. My former colleague Chip Berlet also argues that when right-wing populism nurtures conspiracies to explain capitalist failures, it does not grapple with those failures head on. Instead it creates arguments no more grounded in reality than Senator McCarthy’s claim in 1950 that there were exactly 205 members of the Communist Party secretly subverting America in the U.S. State Department.
  4. The far Right can be stopped when other parts of the Right or the demoralized center start opposing them. They should be encouraged to do so. Blacklists of course continued beyond McCarthy’s fall and into Ike’s presidency, but the senator’s individual power was punctured in 1954 after he attacked the Army, and the Army’s lawyer famously asked, after the senator smeared one of his young aides on national television, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” So far Trump’s corrosive bullying, dehumanization of migrants and people of color, and abuse of power and civic norms have not faced such a credible challenge from within his party.
  5. The Far Right was actively made to be toxic and thrown out of polite company. While no moderate, William F. Buckley succeeded in sidelining virulent antisemitism on the Right in the 1950s to salvage conservatism as a force through his new National Review While anti-Semites did not have a platform in National Review, racists did and the magazine was vocally racist against African Americans and the rising civil rights movement until forced to use dog whistles by changing times to retain credibility. The rise of the internet and Fox News means the sidelining of the far Right by some conservative and more mainstream media is over.  Once again, we need to actively work to sideline Fox News and internet outlets that give a platform to the racist and conspiratorial right, whether through advertiser or vendor boycotts.
  6. Virulent conspiratorial antisemitism of the type seen in the Pittsburgh massacre is rooted in a far right Christian view of Jews having demonic powers as the spawn of Satan. This can be secularized to Jews being the cause of all the crises dispossessing white people as they manipulate and control the world economy and fellow minorities in conspiracies that do not mention Satan. For white nationalists, we Jews are seen as the guiding power manipulating blacks, immigrants and the wave of Honduran migrants seek shelter in our country.
  7. Popular-front politics bringing together unlikely allies are vital in standing up to and defeating the far right. The liberal-socialist-communist popular front of the 1930s was weakened by infighting as any cursory student of history knows. We have to set aside our snarkiness and learn to work in bigger coalitions without attacking those in the trenches with us. Maybe we will learn something. I discovered in my research the nonpartisan League of Women Voters and its Democratic and Republican women members was one of the few institutions to stand up to McCarthyism. Who are the unlikely allies of today?
  8. We cannot take for granted that the democratic systems and norms we feel are insufficiently democratic will stand without our defense. When systems and governments don’t work and lose legitimacy, strong-man, authoritarian solutions may seem attractive. Meanwhile, we activists get stuck in our trench warfare fighting to defend one single arena that is under siege. Or we don’t even show up hoping the checks we send to support nonprofits or movements will be enough. Somehow, we need to fight on behalf of true democracy, economic, gender and racial justice for all, the climate and the common good all at the same time. We can do that by holding out our hands to all those in movement, creating the solidarity that both gives us hope and weaves together the future that will sustain us.

Abby Scher is a former co-editor of Dollars & Sense and a current board member. 

Note: This post was updated to correct an error. The original version suggested that Illinois was one of three states any one of which could get the ERA enacted, when in fact ratification from three more states was needed at that point. –Eds.

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