Republicans’ ‘McCarthy gene’

REPUBLICANS’ ‘MCCARTHY GENE’…. The story of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign serving as the catalyst of the modern conservative movement, which reshaped the Republican Party, is well known. But Neal Gabler presents an interesting idea today, arguing that the real father of modern conservatism is Sen. Joe McCarthy. Indeed, as far as Gabler is concerned, “the McCarthy gene” runs deep in the GOP’s DNA, “and because it is genetic, it isn’t likely to be expunged any time soon.”

McCarthy, Wisconsin’s junior senator, was the man who first energized conservatism and made it a force to reckon with. When he burst on the national scene in 1950 waving his list of alleged communists who had supposedly infiltrated Harry Truman’s State Department, conservatism was as bland, temperate and feckless as its primary congressional proponent, Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, known fondly as “Mister Conservative.” […]

McCarthy was another thing entirely. What he lacked in ideology — and he was no ideologue at all — he made up for in aggression. Establishment Republicans, even conservatives, were disdainful of his tactics, but when those same conservatives saw the support he elicited from the grass-roots and the press attention he got, many of them were impressed. Taft, no slouch himself when it came to Red-baiting, decided to encourage McCarthy, secretly, sealing a Faustian bargain that would change conservatism and the Republican Party. Henceforth, conservatism would be as much about electoral slash-and-burn as it would be about a policy agenda.

For the polite conservatives, McCarthy was useful. That’s because he wasn’t only attacking alleged communists and the Democrats whom he accused of shielding them. He was also attacking the entire centrist American establishment, the Eastern intellectuals and the power class, many of whom were Republicans themselves, albeit moderate ones…. McCarthyism is usually considered a virulent form of Red-baiting and character assassination. But it is much more than that. As historian Richard Hofstadter described it in his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” McCarthyism is a way to build support by playing on the anxieties of Americans, actively convincing them of danger and conspiracy even where these don’t exist.

It does sound pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

Gabler’s point seems to be a stylistic one, not an ideological one. Goldwater championed a libertarian, anti-government conservatism. McCarthy championed a political blood-lust, premised on scapegoats, cultural resentment, and fear.

In this sense, while the traditional model shows a line from Goldwater to Reagan to Bush, Gabler points to a different line — McCarthy to Nixon to Bush to Palin. Indeed, if Karl Rove has a godfather, in this model, it’s Joe McCarthy.

Gabler concludes, “There may be assorted intellectuals and ideologues in the party, maybe even a few centrists, but there is no longer an intellectual or even ideological wing. The party belongs to McCarthy and his heirs — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Palin. It’s in the genes.”

It’s a good piece and a compelling case. Take a look.