A few weeks before the election, I phoned an acquaintance who was burrowed into a sinecure in the federal government despite his theoretical conservative detestation of the Beltway Leviathan and its evil works. This phenomenon is surprisingly common; an old colleague of mine on the budget committee routinely devoted all the ingenuity of Hell to making ingenious proposals to cut federal salaries, benefits, and pensions despite the fact that he had been a federal bureaucrat himself since leaving college.
I asked him who he was going to vote for: “Trump” was his answer. Regardless of his severe allergy to all forms of libertinism, gays, and social permissiveness, he was opting for a vulgar, goatish libertine marinated in the decadent values of Babylon-on-the-Hudson. Even more confusing was the fact that he was only a few years from retirement, yet he was supporting a candidate whose tax cuts would be so large as to endanger all federal programs, and who in any case ran on a platform of hatred for the government and resentment towards its workforce.
It became more explicable when he said, “of course, it’s also because of my religion,” meaning Eastern Orthodox Christian, and that he hoped to see Trump’s indulgent attitude towards Russia become U.S. foreign policy. Evidently that trumped, as it were, all the other considerations, which was a remarkably self-sacrificing stand in defense of a principle. It was not surprising, however, as I had seen this attitude from a couple of his co-religionists, U.S. citizens and died-in the-wool family-values conservatives both.
Observers of ideological exotica sorely need to recalibrate their equipment in the age of Trump. San Francisco Democrats now routinely denounce Julian Assange and the Russian FSB, while the far Right, hitherto the domain of those who wanted to nuke Moscow till it glowed, can’t find evidence of Kremlin mischief even with the aid of a microscope and a seeing-eye dog. As Friedrich Nietzsche would have said, we are witnessing a transvaluation of values.
The strange new respect that certain segments of the Right have for Vladimir Putin has elicited a good deal of surprise and derision, but it makes perfect sense in the new ideological landscape. The Putin government has set itself up as an explicitly Christian regime, and as a “Third Rome” bulwark against Islam; this appeals to the clash-of-civilizations wing of American conservatism. Putin styles his regime as a defender of family values and has championed legislation against homosexuality. Given that stance, and the dynamic of Pussy Riot versus the FSB, it makes you wonder, which side is an authoritarian and misogynistic Family Research Council-type American conservative going to favor?
As I have argued elsewhere, Putin’s support and sponsorship of far-right parties throughout Europe is logical from his own geopolitical perspective in the same way the Tsar’s Okhrana endeavored to foster ultra-conservative reaction in nineteenth century Europe. And the feeling is reciprocated by elements of the Right, both in Europe and America.
The phenomenon of Leftist ideological tourism, the desire to seek utopias in foreign regimes, has been exhaustively studied, and memoirs such as Whittaker Chambers’ Witness have entered the canon of ideological studies. The first loyalty of the American Communist Party was of course always to Moscow. When the grisly details of Stalin’s purges became too embarrassing, much of the New Left packed its political bags and transferred its loyalty to Cuba, or North Vietnam, or Maoist China, the latter being very convenient since the place was closed to most foreigners and hence they would have known very little about it. One by one, the Left utopias eventually collapsed or went ultra-capitalist; the American far-Left has metaphorically returned home, let its passport expire, and has been reduced to grousing about Mumia Abu-Jamal’s imprisonment.
The phenomenon of far-Right ideological tourism has been far less studied. Partly this is because the Right kicks up so much dust about its one-thousand-percent patriotism that its real sympathies may be obscured. But it may also be the result of an ideological paradox: the Right raises such a fuss about “the homeland,” how far superior its customs, way of life, and ineffable essence are to those of foreigners, that it makes no sense for them to transfer their loyalty abroad.
But political commentators have underestimated the contemporary American Right’s cultural pessimism. This pessimism has been an intermittent feature of conservatism worldwide since the French Revolution. I remember how Paul Weyrich, an engineer of the religious Right’s takeover of the Republican Party, greeted the election of Bill Clinton. Clinton, of course, presided over the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of derivatives trading, but Weyrich thought the Bolshevik Revolution was at hand and that true conservatives would have to enter a kind of internal exile.
Things are always going to hell in a hand basket for certain conservatives. This, along with their cultural panic about gays, minorities, and foreigners, makes them think a tipping point is at hand, or maybe has already occurred, and that the country is no longer worth saving. This kind of thinking leads to nostalgia for the way things allegedly used to be, which in turn sets up a craving for a utopia displaced backward in time.
Most liberals think conservatives want to take America back to the 1950s. We should be so lucky. The New Deal was freshly baked and being consolidated by Eisenhower. Here’s what Ike had to say to his brother Edgar about conservatives’ griping over social security: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again…There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” One doubts he would have gotten along with Paul Ryan.
There is always some wormy apple in the Garden of Eden that causes conservatives to displace their utopias further and further into the past. One libertarian Rightist told me recently, in all apparent seriousness, that we would be better off—as we presumably were in the nineteenth century—without child labor laws or public schools.
Many of these ideological time travelers seem to have settled on the antebellum South as the paradise of their imagination. Since the little slavery thing is a bit of an embarrassment, much as Stalin’s butchery was for the Old Left, these conservatives require a fair amount of conscious dishonesty to explain their Southern partisanship. Oppressive tariffs, states’ rights, Lincoln’s odious tyranny, sunspots –anything and everything could be a fundamental cause of the Civil War for these people, just not slavery.
It is also curious how the greatest case of mass treason in our history, which killed more Americans than all our other wars combined, is celebrated by the same people who simultaneously regard themselves as super-patriots. This sort of schizophrenia has become settled tradition in parts of the South, as periodic dustups over the confederate flag demonstrate.
There is also displacement in location. William F. Buckley, the founder of modern conservatism, was a strong supporter of Francisco Franco. Franco’s fanatical Catholicism apparently sealed the deal for the ultramontane Buckley clan. Bill’s brother Reid lived in Francoite Spain for fourteen years; when he moved back to America, Reid settled in Camden, South Carolina to be away from “Yankee barbarity,” and wrote for the Confederate-friendly Southern Partisan. Buckley’s long-time sidekick, L. Brent Bozell, moved his family to Spain in 1965, supposedly because “you breathed the Catholic thing there.”
Buckley also palled around with borderline Austro-fascist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. The latter’s friendliness towards democracy may be inferred from the title of one of his books, The Menace of the Herd. (A handful of American conservatives of my acquaintance have been quite explicit in their distaste for democracy; some of these are über-Hayekean libertarians who think equality is incompatible with their precious rights, while others are throne-and-altar reactionaries of the nineteenth century European type).
A conservative historian whom Buckley’s National Review esteemed as the modern Thucydides was John Lukacs. In his book The Last European War: September 1939-December 1941, Lukacs endeavored with some skill to separate contemporary European conservatives from the charge of collaboration with the Nazis and pin the blame on the Left. While there were a number of patriotic, old-school conservatives and nationalists like de Gaulle who resisted the Germans, and some unimportant Leftists who collaborated during period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Lukacs’ thesis is a calculated attempt at whitewashing the massive and exhaustively documented collaboration of the European Right with Hitler.
From Pétain, Laval and Darlan in France, to Quisling in Norway, Degrelle in Belgium, and Mussert in Holland, the Right collaborated not just warily but enthusiastically. Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, grandfather of the current king, even became a member of the SS. The French cry “better Hitler than Bloom,” meaning the German dictator was to be preferred to the moderate socialist prime minister of France Léon Blum, arose not from the proletarian banlieus around Paris, but from the people who dressed in morning coats and top hats and caught the horse racing at Longchamps. Chic fashion designer Coco Chanel lived with a German intelligence officer, lending to the term “serving under the Germans” the quality of double entendre.
Although parliamentary government survived in Britain, it still had to endure Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (in 1972 Buckley saw fit to give Mosley a generally respectful interview on Firing Line). After his abdication as Britain’s Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor curdled into a reactionary, and his soft spot for Hitler is well known.
America was not immune. Even though they consciously imitated the Nazis with uniforms and the stiff-armed salute, something very alien to the American tradition, the German-American Bund managed to pack Madison Square Garden. Charles Lindbergh, the leader of the America First movement, is best known as an isolationist, but his political views were right-wing through and through. His admiration for contemporary German political developments and his chumminess with Hermann Göring represented a sincere expression of his views.
It is only in this historical context that current examples of ideological tourism can be completely understood. The right-wing movements on both sides of the Atlantic have been intermittently susceptible to it, and their predilection for authoritarian strongmen sometimes overcomes the “America first” pretenses of our current crop of right-wingers.
At some subconscious level, they may be aware of it, and this might account for their ongoing efforts to paint fascism in general, and Nazism in particular, as a phenomenon of the Left rather than the Right. Efforts range from pseudo-intellectual tracts like those of Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Lukacs to sub-literate pastiches like Jonah Goldberg’s execrable Liberal Fascism.
Occasionally, though, paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan give the whole game away. Beginning in the 1990s, much of his writing has consisted of thinly-disguised apologias of Hitler and lamentations that the white powers waged war on each other in World War II, which regrettably paved the way for the imminent Third World conquest of the globe. It is no surprise that as Ronald Reagan’s communications director, he was the most insistent proponent of the president’s visiting the cemetery at Bitburg, Germany, where Waffen SS soldiers were among the buried.
Ideological fondness for right-wing systems abroad will not only influence the Trump administration’s relations with Russia. U.S.-Israel relations have always been complex and entangled, given the high level of emotions in play. As Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu has lurched further right, movement conservatives in America, as well as establishment Republicans, have become fervent supporters of what they take to be Israel’s interests, even when they might conflict with those of the United States. This may seem odd in light of the views on Israel and the Jews of Buchanan, Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor, and other alt-right enthusiasts, but as Buchanan’s old boss liked to put it, the Republican Party is a big tent. Although, under Trump, a more suitable metaphor might be the bar scene in Star Wars.
A key component of the right-wing lunatic fringe on this front is Christian Zionism. Its leader is John Hagee, a fundamentalist mega-church preacher from Texas who claims three million followers* of his lobbying group, Christians United for Israel. Hagee is an ideological tourist with loads of frequent flier miles; he routinely proposes that the United States should subordinate all its interests to those of Israel and adopt the most militaristic and confrontational policies against the Islamic world, including a pre-emptive military strike* against Iran. He has made as the center-piece of his ministry a belief in the rapture (a word found nowhere in the Bible) which will be triggered by an apocalyptic battle at the end of the world occurring in the Middle East.
It might be thought that the Israeli government would be delighted by Hagee and his antics, and so they are, but, as with the fine print in a Trump University prospectus, there’s always a catch. According to Christian-Zionist cosmology, Jews must accept conversion to Christianity to obtain five-star accommodations in heaven; if they refuse, they will be annihilated in Hagee’s Apocalypse. Thus has Christian Zionism achieved the difficult feat of being simultaneously pro-Zionist and anti-Semitic.
Senator Lindsey Graham has gone so far as to say he would follow whatever policies the Israeli prime minister might propose, an arresting statement in light of the senator’s oath to the Constitution and the voters he represents. The Trump administration’s pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem may be cause for delight in Netanyahu’s cabinet as well as among Hagee’s followers, but whether it serves America’s interest to toss a brick at the Middle East hornet’s nest is open to doubt.
Ideological tourism on the part of some on the Left was a serious matter during the 1930s. Its counterpart on the current-day far Right is becoming more visible, although it has thus far escaped most people’s notice. The inability of some ideologues to accept this country – with its history as it really was, its present with all its flaws, and its future as it evolves from its past and its present – impels them to seek utopias either in an imaginary past or in whitewashed paradises on foreign shores.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated the number of members in the group Christians United for Israel, and misattributed a quote to John Hagee, the group’s founder. The Monthly regrets the errors.