A cancer is eating away at a once Grand Old Party, and if the party doesn't wake up and take precautions, it may wind up only a shadow of its better self -- a hollowed-out refuge for haters and paranoids and the kind of ideological parasites that can reduce a major party to a minor one.
The historian Richard Hofstadter spoke of a "paranoid style in American politics," and noted its "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy." He called it "an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life," one that it isn't confined to left or right. It's an equal-opportunity form of craziness and, sure enough, it's back. If it ever went away.
Somewhere there must still be a remnant of the John Birch Society buried in the woodwork of American politics and still burrowing away. Such types swarm in the fever swamps of any society's culture, but in hard times, or just uncertain ones, they tend to overflow and threaten the health and stability of even long established and respected institutions, societies and whole civilizations.
Think of Germany in the 1930s and the Nazi sickness, or the conditions that led to the rise of bolshevism in Russia as the West destroyed itself in a first world war that would prove but a harbinger of an even greater and more calamitous second one.
Or take the long view and see what has befallen Islamic civilization since it was once renowned for its arts and sciences, its tolerance and hospitality, its architecture -- and its poetry! The civilization that gave us Ibn Khaldun and Harun al-Rashid now languishes, and in its decline produces al-Qaida types whose idea of progress is death and destruction. Their murderous rhetoric, once lightly dismissed by a West grown fat and careless, proved all too serious.
There's a lesson in all this if we in the West will ever learn it -- and act. Whether it's Mein Kampf or the Communist Manifesto or today's fatwas coming out of the Arab world, words can lead to acts. Horrible acts. And shouldn't be lightly dismissed.
Consider a couple of recent rhetorical performances here in bucolic Arkansas of all places:
Right in the middle of the citywide shutdown in Boston that followed the bombings at the finish line of its famed Marathon, a state representative and gun enthusiast named Nate Bell twittered a nasty little message about Bostonians "cowering in their homes" without firearms -- just when the rest of America was thinking of their calm courage and vigilance. (Which once again paid off.)
Happily, that state legislator was rewarded by a flood of responses -- not just from Arkansas but many another state -- that let him know just how far over the line he'd wandered. America seems awake to the danger that words as thoughtless as his represent. Even he soon thought better of them -- though he apologized only for their "timing," not their substance. Sad.
About the same time, a Republican couple in the hills of picturesque Benton County up in the Ozarks spewed out the same sort of vitriol -- not in private conversation or emails to their fellow fanatics but in the newsletter of the county's Republican organization. Words like "traitors" and "turncoats" were used to describe their party's state legislators. Or at least those who finally, patiently worked out a compromise on the contentious and convoluted issue of Obamacare and its impact on Medicaid in this state.
At one point the article in the newsletter referred to legislators who don't agree with its views as "bullet backstops." The article asserted that the Second Amendment "means nothing unless those in power believe you would have no problem simply walking up and shooting them...." No reservations or context can justify that kind of trash talk. Which has a way of leading to trashy actions. Or worse.
The head of that country's Republican organization wasted no time demanding these people's resignations from the party's county committee, which may be the best news about this whole mess. Because if Republicans aren't vigilant, loudmouths like these will become the voice of their party -- and decent Americans of all political persuasions will be repelled. Rightly so. And react. Which is what happened to the Birchers in their less than glorious heyday.
Lest we forget, the John Birch Society didn't fade away on its own, any more than malignant cancers clear up on their own. All good men -- and women -- came to the aid of their party and cleaned it out. Thinkers and leaders of courage and conviction, and of unquestionably conservative credentials, rose up to expose and oppose the danger the John Birch Society represented. Thinkers and leaders like the late great William F. Buckley Jr., who would not be silent in the face of what he recognized as a fatal threat to his party and its principles -- and to the conscience of conservatives regardless of party.
For what is conservatism except an attachment to the tried and true, to the wisdom of hard-earned experience over the zealotry of empty theory, to custom and tradition, to the civilities and grace notes of life, to tolerance and manners rather than the crudities of the moment? For conservatism is more a civilized inclination than a point-by-point program to be outlined in some party newsletter or elaborated to death in one of Rand Paul's 12-hour filibusters. It is a belief in the kind of positive change that, because it is based on the past, will endure in the future.
These neo-Birchers aren't conservatives. They're the opposite: radicals who believe they've got the true faith and all the rest of us are infidels.
Unless the Republican Party’s leaders -- and its grass roots, too -- get a grip on this slithering danger and proceed to rise up and root it out, someday Americans may wonder what ever happened to the party of Lincoln, who spoke of charity for all and malice toward none. That forgotten party will have gone like the Whigs, torn apart.
At that point, Republicans will have become like the old man in a dark shop that Whittaker Chambers warned his party about as the original Birchers proliferated. The old man in his dark shop wasn't really interested in selling anything, just sitting there and stroking his merchandise.
Both the Birchers and now these neo-Birchers represent the greatest obstacle to a Republican comeback in American politics, which is Republicans themselves. Or at least the kind who fall for this load of ideology, or who think they can safely ignore these fanatics out to hijack their party. Remember: Silence gives consent.
Republicans out to save their country might consider saving their party first.