Ahead of this weekend’s “Liberty, Community, and Place in the American Tradition” conference, I’m reading Thunder on the Right by Alan Crawford, who’ll be the lunchtime speaker. Thunder on the Right, published in 1980, is an anti-New Right book written by young conservative whose own sympathies lay somewhere between Bill Buckley and Peter Viereck. Crawford was critical of both the populist tilt of the New Right and the direct-mail methods by which Richard Viguerie raised money for the cause. As the back flap of the dust jacket puts it (in terms more overblown than anything in the book itself):
Discontent, anger, and insecurity fuel these efforts. The New Right has no positive program but flourishes on backlash politics, seeking to veto whatever threatens its way of life–busing, textbooks, women’s liberation, abolition of capital punishment, gay rights, gun control, loss of the Panama Canal. Not conservative, it feeds on social protest and encourages class hostility. Its heroes are rugged frontiersmen of the new Old West; its enemies are moderate, liberals, and true conservatives of whatever party.
That could just as well be ad copy for a book by Andrew Sullivan, but Thunder on the Right is better than all that makes it sound. The book has a point: often by their own admission, the New Rightists were “radicals” and “populists,” not traditional conservatives, and they did have a much tougher agenda (for good and ill) than Republican Party or the institutionalized conservative mainstream. The threat that Crawford envisioned from the New Right never materialized, though — partly because Ronald Reagan’s victory stole their thunder (and then sold them out to establishment Republicans and neoconservatives), partly because “white flight” from the cities dampened the outrage against busing, and partly because the New Right’s rhetoric and tactics were soon co-opted by the establishment. One could see in Bush’s myrmidon supporters in 2004 much of the spirit of the New Right — but in the service of a Bonesman. What little radicalism Middle Americans were capable of turned into so much fuel for the Bush machine.
I’m also reading Peter Viereck’s Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, those roots being, in Viereck’s telling, Prussian militarism (“anti-democratic but not romantic nor racist”) and romantic nationalism. Richard Wagner, of course, emerges as a great villain. I’ll have more to say about Viereck, as I’ve long promised, in a month or so — I’m at work on a long-ish Viereck piece for a print outlet, about which I’ll say more when the time is ripe.