Paul Greenberg

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.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.