Republican Ideological Shift in Election 2016
Alex DiBranco and Chip Berlet
Adapted from a presentation made at a roundtable at the 2017 annual conference of the American Sociological Association
As 2015 turned to 2016, the Republican Presidential primary frontrunners continued to stake out hardline right-wing political positions and deploy inflammatory rhetoric. Journalistic explanations of what motivated the candidates ranged from the thoughtful to the absurd. Meanwhile, some Democratic Party pundits and Beltway observers denounced the Republicans as having been seized by extremists and lunatics. We believe the social movement theories we rely on offer a more useful and accurate explanation.
In this study we examine how ideologies, meta-frames, frames, and narratives exert a powerful pull on the collective behavior of large groups of people. This not only primes these populations for mobilization into specific social movements and social movement organizations (SMOs), but also makes them receptive, in this case, to political campaign rhetoric.
We do this by examining the role of four core ideological tendencies around which a number of right-wing movements are clustered: White Nationalism, Christian Nationalism, Heteropatriarchy, and Producerism/Neoliberalism. (We omit the ideology of Militarism, in part because in the context of the 2016 elections Militarism appears to cross party lines and involve Presidential hopefuls who are Democrats and Republicans. We also recognize the role of authoritarianism, but omit it as well because it exists across the political spectrum, especially in masculinist frames
By tracing the roots and branches of these ideological tendencies, we seek to clarify their power to mobilize often temporary political and electoral power blocks from within pre-existing social movements and in spite of cleavages and tensions. One reason this works is that the heart of the right-wing response to the Republican rhetoric is an emotional attachment to the promises of the “American Dream” (Manza and Brooks 2014, Hochschild 2016).
We build our analytical framework on the idea that race, gender, and class are inextricably linked in the construction of systems of oppression. Buechler (2000) has observed that race, gender, and class are “omnipresent in the background of all forms of collective action” and have “institutional embeddedness within the social fabric at all levels.” Buechler further argues that these distinct yet overlapping power structures need to be analyzed independently and jointly in order to “theorize the different, specific, underlying dynamics that distinguish one structure from another” (2000, 105-107).
Though the United States is a founded on various forms of White Nationalism, as a people, most of the White population is in denial regarding the historic record (Roediger 1991, Feagin and Vera 1995, Ignatiev 1995, Ferber 1998, Feagin 2001). Today, White Nationalism, a form of racist nativism combining xenophobia with ultra-patriotism, infuses our political ideology as a nation—from major political parties to the armed ultra-right (Higham  1992, Hofstadter 1965, Bennett  1995).
Nativists deny the suitability for citizenship (or even residency) of those suspected of being unable or unwilling to function as loyal and patriotic citizens. As “real citizens” with the only legitimate claim to the sovereign nation, nativists must protect the nation from “alien” intruders. The nativist litmus test can use race, country of origin, religion, language, loyalty to foreign regimes, or dissident political philosophy as grounds for rejection. In Europe, nativist movements were built around core ethnic, racial, and religious traits of peoples who formed early nation-states, which B.R.O Anderson (1983 ) refers to as “imagined communities.” In the U.S., three branches of Nativism grew from roots planted prior to the Civil War—anti–radicalism, Anglo–Saxon racialism, and anti–Catholicism (Higham 1972, 3-11).
For decades, some human rights groups have suggested—intentionally or not—that White Nationalism is practiced primarily by so-called “Extremist” groups, such as White Supremacist organizations including the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and neonazis who engage in “hate crimes.” We do not find this to be an accurate or useful construct (Whitlock and Bronski 2015, Beyerstein 2015). The nativist rhetoric directed toward immigrants today derives from the frame used by White Nationalists (including the KKK) against Black Americans, warning of the danger posed by uncivilized people of color, the guise of opposition to “illegal immigration” providing more socially acceptable cover. White nationalist xenophobia is central to Donald Trump’s message. Referring to Mexico, he said: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Consider another quote from 2015: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Those are words attributed to White Supremacist Dylann Roof, speaking to the African-American congregants of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 2017, Roof was convicted on multiple murder and bias crime charges, and was sentenced to death at the recommendation of the jury.
According to African-American history scholar Gerald Horne, the American White supremacist narrative of men of color raping and killing, echoed in Roof’s and Trump’s rhetoric, was inspired by stories from white refugees fleeing the bloody 1791-1804 slave rebellion in what is now Haiti (Horne quoted in Berlet 2015z). Soon American newspapers were full of stories salaciously describing “marauding blacks with sugar cane machetes hacking the white slave-owners to death.” Regardless of their veracity, these stories informed a historic narrative that “inspired both slave revolts and a dangerous cycle of slave owner brutality,” explains Horne. Inspired by this slave revolt, in 1822, Denmark Vesay of Charleston used the AME church as a base for organizing an unsuccessful insurrection against slavery (Flemming 2009, Fanning 2014). Roof probably was unaware of the specific details of the historically-Black “Mother Emmanuel” church, but he had immersed himself in a White racist narrative tied to Charleston’s most famous congregation.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the founders and early members of the KKK seized upon the frame of Black brutality and White supremacy. Though the formal group “was largely halted following federal legislation targeting Klan-perpetrated violence in the early 1870s,” according to David Cunningham (2014), the repression of Black people continued in a variety of guises, from everyday reinforcement of segregation and the “color line,” to vigilante violence such as lynching (Douglass 1881). Then in 1905, Thomas Dixon, Jr., wrote The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, later turned into the silent film The Birth of a Nation, inspiring a renewed wave of White supremacist violence.
By 1915, the White supremacist frame of Black men pillaging, raping, and murdering was returning to the mainstream, with KKK membership soon “numbering in the millions” (Cunningham 2014). When Klan activity declined again, White people continue to respond violently to Black attempts to change racist structures. In Confronting the Color Line: The Broken Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, authors Alan B. Anderson and George W. Pickering ( 2007) document how an angry white mob physically attacked the Rev. Martin Luther King upon his arrival in Chicago in 1966 to lead an open housing campaign, galvanizing a white backlash movement that continues today and echoes in the gunshots in Charleston.
Each time those with a White collective identity felt they were losing power, they embraced a formerly despised group and elevated them to the social status of White people, positioning Blackness as the stable antithesis for Whiteness with other races and ethnicities falling on a spectrum in between. From the late 1880s to 1900s, nativist ideology was spread by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (“WASPs”), who did not consider the wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to be White, including religion and “complexion” among their grounds for exclusion from the category (Fox 2012, Fox and Guglielmo 2012). There was thus little outcry over the Palmer Raids in late 1919 and 1920, which deported thousands of Italian and Russian immigrants speciously accused of being anarchists or Bolsheviks (Post 1923). Only when White Nationalists found themselves losing numerical power under the existing definition would Eastern and Southern European immigrants become recognized as “White.” “The processes of inclusion and exclusion shaped the formation of white racial identity unevenly but enabled impressive progress toward inclusion among whites of those groups” (Zorbaugh 1929).
Religion and nativism remained intertwined with the rise of Protestant Fundamentalism, excluding Catholics who were seen as under the control of the Pope and not loyal to America. However, with the shift in concern to “atheist” Communists later in the 20th century, Protestant Fundamentalists would begin the alliances with American Roman Catholics that would undergird the present-day Christian Right umbrella—eventually accepting Mormons as well, who nonetheless continue to hold a precarious outsider role in the coalition. The problem in this election cycle is that White nationalism appears to have run out of those it is willing to re-categorize as “White.” Sometime near 2050 our nation will be home to a majority of “non-White” people, including Black, Latino, and Muslim populations. This reality stokes the racist, nativist, and xenophobic fears fanned by Trump and the Republicans.
While abortion and homosexuality were selected by strategists for the emerging Christian Right in the 1970s and 1980s as effective mobilizing issues, according to Randall Balmer, leaders including the late Paul Weyrich (co-founder of the Heritage Foundation) admitted that maintaining the tax status of segregated all-White Christian academies was “the primary issue that provided the glue to bind together the troops in the Religious Right.” White evangelicals’ support for Trump despite his weaker stance on abortion and homosexuality, and despite mainstream evangelical leaders’ concerns about his family values, draws from the historical intertwining of White Nationalism and Christian conservatism (Viser 2015, Moore 2012).
The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, who has compared gay rights to the Nazi Holocaust, explains Trump’s appeal: “Here’s a guy who is out there unfettered by the political correctness. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks. That’s attractive.” Much like the adoption of the phrase “religious liberty” in the 1970s to defend Bob Jones University’s segregationist policies, conservative discussions of “political correctness” and “free speech” operate as coded language to mobilize the racist and xenophobic base while blocking critiques from the Left. Present-day covert White Nationalism also speaks through denunciations of affirmative action as “reverse discrimination” and the insistence on their version of “colorblindness”:
===King’s vision of a colorblind America was about a future utopia. However, conservatives now think King’s civil rights movement was an unmitigated success, that the nation is truly colorblind. That the president (whom they hate) is black is proof of such progress. Conservative colorblindness, then, ignores the ways in which race continues to handicap a person’s chances of success (Hartman 2013).
Christian nationalists seek to return to an idealized past America founded on devout Christian values. They believe in a revisionist history most prominently promoted by discredited historian David Barton, whose narrative of the Founding Fathers’ intentions run contrary to the entirety of historical evidence. A narrative of victimization, in which Christian nationalists see themselves as under attack by secular forces, strengthens the movement by keeping the grassroots mobilized in a constant state of crisis. Trump does not talk about explicitly “Christian” America, yet Christian nationalists hear that implicitly in his constant pledges to “Make America Great Again.” At the Values Voter Summit, a major Christian Right gathering, Trump spoke to a common victimization narrative in pledging to return “merry Christmas” to stores using “happy holidays.” This seemingly innocuous language change has been portrayed since 2004 as a “war on Christmas” (echoing an earlier campaign by the conspiracist John Birch Society in 1959), which can only make sense to those who believe that America is a Christian nation and this a direct attack stripping away its identity (M. Goldberg 2007, 162).
The Puritan’s Calvinist concept of God’s “elect” informed the glorification of America as a “city upon a hill,” a beacon of Christian virtue to the rest of the world. Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that Calvinism developed in symbiotic relationship with the rise of capitalist economies ( 1999). Calvin had asserted under the concept of predestination that only a few were already selected by God as the “elect” and thus headed to heaven, with most people—even most Christians—doomed to Hell. In the U.S., most Calvinists believed that material signs of wealth were proof of that God had chosen you. Early “Calvinists justified their accumulation of wealth, even at the expense of others, on the grounds that they were somehow destined to prosper. It is no surprise that such notions still find resonance within the Christian Right,” writes Sara Diamond (1995). Though for most the doctrine of predestination has fallen away, the equation of money with moral status remains, making a virtue of Trump’s constant glorification of his own wealth.
Up until the late 1800s, most U.S. Protestants tied the vision of an elect Christian American to their “postmillennial” belief in the apocalyptic End Times prophesied in the Bible (especially the book of Revelation). They believed that Jesus Christ would return only after Christians had converted enough people to establish a Godly Christian society purified and prepared for his triumphant arrival. Michael Northcott explains, “American postmillennial apocalypticism involves the claim that the American Republic, and in particular the free market combined with a form of marketised democracy, is the first appearance in history of a redeemed human society, a truly godly Kingdom” (2002). This is why the Protestants who sought the abolition of slavery in the mid-1800s would sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, proclaiming, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” (Howe 1862). This meant that they saw the approaching End Times.
Since Postmillennialists believe that they must seize control of secular political intuitions before Jesus will return, this makes them committed to political action, but their numbers today are very small due to a revolution in the late 1800s within Protestant theology called “premillennial dispensationalism,” the belief that Jesus Christ will return at the beginning of a millennium of godly rule (Marsden 1982, 1991; Ammerman 1998; Armstrong 2002). When the socially conservative fundamentalist movement emerged after World War I—a backlash against mainline Protestant denominations for their truce with the Enlightenment, science, and evolution—it began to adopt premillennial dispensationalism.
Premillennialists, who make up the majority of U.S. fundamentalists and evangelicals, scan the Bible for signs that they believe will appear to indicate the approach of the End Times. Forty-one percent of Americans believe that by the year 2050, Jesus will have returned to take saved Christians to Heaven in the “Rapture” following a period of chaos and destruction that signals the coming End Times (Caldwell 2015). The faithless and wicked left behind on earth will undergo a period of great “tribulations,” which include God exterminating those who refuse to convert to Christianity, an interpretation of the End Times popularized by right-wing Christian leader and best-selling co-author of the Left Behind series Tim LaHaye. This increases the urge to convert people to a “born again” form of Christianity and thus save souls before time literally runs out (Martin 1996).
Scorched by the ridicule for their opposition to evolution highlighted in the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” many fundamentalists retreated from political and electoral participation until the 1950s, when the Reverend Billy Graham rallied them to resist the communist menace. During the same period, however, there were institution-building initiatives (Worthen 2013). Premillennialists often saw the burgeoning U.S. government apparatus, the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism, and the United Nations as part of the prophesied Antichrist system (Oldfield 2004). This helped bring them into Catholic William F. Buckley’s emerging “Fusionist” conservative political coalition.
Premillennialists still remained largely withdrawn from politics until the late 1970s. In 1979, theologian Francis A. Schaeffer began showing his new film, comparing abortion to slavery and the Nazi Holocaust, to Protestant congregations and youth groups to urge them into the anti-abortion movement. While the “prolife” movement was previously overwhelmingly Catholic, evangelicals’ embrace of anti-abortion ideology and Buckley’s ideas shows how the nativist acceptance of Catholics laid the foundation for future collaboration. The same year, LaHaye joined a group of emerging New Right leaders to plan a way to mobilize evangelicals into becoming Republican voters, leading to Jerry Falwell’s founding of the Moral Majority.
On January 1, 1980, LaHaye built on Schaeffer’s theories in The Battle for the Mind, a story of a vast secular humanist conspiracy that had seized control of the U.S. government. LaHaye told Premillennialists that they needed to become politically active because there were pre-tribulation tribulations—in other words, true Christians had an obligation to confront sinful society during a crisis of moral values that would come as a test before the Rapture. If Christians did not want to be “Left Behind” they had to “regain” control of the political sphere in the United States—which like Postmillennialists they believe was founded a “Christian Nation.” The mobilization and recruitment efforts of the New Right and New Christian Right coalitions LaHaye was involved with helped elect Ronald Reagan President.
Americans continue to be enthralled by the prospect of apocalypse, even those who do not subscribe to conservative evangelicalism. This influence can be seen in popular culture, from the massively popular Left Behind series co-authored by LaHaye, to secular science fiction and zombie shows such as The Walking Dead. Sociologist Philip S. Gorski refers to this as a “a secular form of religious nationalism,” which he argues also explains why the evangelicals supporting Trump in the primaries were those who tended to attend church less frequently (2016).
Events such as the rise of ISIS and its path of terror are chronicled in a “Rapture Index.” In 2012, Americans bought up survival shelters in anticipation of the predicted Mayan apocalypse (Allen et al 2012). Trump’s apocalyptic language regarding ISIS, Mexican and Muslim immigrants, and America’s imminent doom trades on the lengthy preoccupation with the end times.
The result of LaHaye’s writing was theological and eschatological turmoil in evangelical and fundamentalist communities. This resulted in the tendency called “dominionism” based on the concept that Christians—no matter what their views on the End Times millennialist schedule—need to take dominion over the earth. There is some confusion and controversy over the difference between the religious movements of “Dominion Theology” and the broader Dominionist tendency within the U.S. Christian Right to pursue control of the secular and political institutions as a mandate from God.
Rushdooney, the “father” of Reconstructionism, also promoted Christian homeschooling movement to remove children from the ungodly secular state and train them for the Christian nation. This ideology underlies another growing conservative Christian movement, Biblical or Christian patriarchy. Christian Patriarchy supports a hierarchal family structure and strict gender roles, which the man at the head of a subservient wife, who is expected to remain at home and bear children. Part of the emphasis on childbearing involves the desire to shift the demographics of America in their favor and bring about a Christian nation through electoral power (Joyce 2010).
Heteropatriarchy, Male supremacism, and Misogyny
In the initial drafting of this article we used the term Heteropatriachy as the heading for this section. Now we see the need to shift to using the terms “male supremacism” and “misogyny” to “highlight the conceptual congruity with White supremacism and racism and a distinction from traditional patriarchalism (DiBranco 2017b) This alteration also recognizes a complex relationship between gender and sexuality, as right-wing gay men (such as alt-right personality Milo Yiannopolous) have used anti-woman sentiment to gain acceptance in typically homophobic White and male supremacist movements (Ibid.)
Other fundamentalist Christian movements, such as the Promise Keepers, promote similar ideologies about appropriate gender roles and male authority, but heteropatriarchy is not the exclusive province of religious ideology (Hardisty 1999).
Familiar comments from Christian Right spokespeople about abortion as baby-killing or homosexuality as equivalent to pedophilia and bestiality have readied conservatives to accept extreme and hateful rhetoric. However, Trump’s landslide of sexist, misogynistic, and just plain disturbing rhetoric about women—a mix of sexualization and insults—stands out as unique amongst the Republican presidential candidates. At a debate in August 2015, moderator Megyn Kelley, a prominent Fox News anchor, took the unusual step of asking Trump how he would respond to charges of being part of the “war on women” as he calls women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump responded, to audience cheers, that “the big problem this country has is being politically correct,” a demonstration that this phrase operates as coded language for misogyny alongside racism and xenophobia. Trump followed up with degrading criticism of Kelly as a “bimbo,” menstruating, and not “pure” (Zimmerman 2015, Richter 2015).
These insults seemed poised to hurt his showing among women, but a poll the following month showed him leading the Republican pack among female voters (Henderson 2015). Historian Catherine Rymph (2006) explains that the exodus of feminism and women’s rights advocacy from the GOP means that, among those who are left in the party, “voters, including women, who don’t like Democratic feminism or so-called ‘political correctness’ in general may very well find refreshing Trump’s delight in using language about women that many find offensive.” Fox News hastened to make peace in light of breaking ratings records.
The Independent Women’s Forum, which promotes a form of libertarian or equity “feminism” that subverts the meaning of the term by denying the existence of structural inequality against women in the U.S., understands Trump’s appeal among “the people who are most likely to be disgusted with political correctness and a culture of victimhood.” However, IWF, along with Concerned Women for America (CWA), the largest conservative women’s organization and one of the biggest Christian Right players, nonetheless voice significant concerns with Trump and their preference for Carly Fiorina, the only female Republican candidate. To their dismay, Trump’s popularity demonstrates that the ideology seeded by such conservative women’s groups no longer remains fully under their control. Equity feminists, informed by a libertarian and in many cases secular ideology, view inequality between men and women as due to women’s own choices and differences, also denying the prevalence of sexual and domestic violence against women, while CWA adheres to conservative Christian doctrines on gender and patriarchy.
Conservative women leaders are used as mouthpieces to defend controversial misogynistic policies, resulting in harsh rhetoric that refers to sexual and domestic assault survivors as liars, supporters of rape exemptions for abortion bans as traitors, and disparagement of feminists as seeking unfair advantages in their false claims of victimhood (DiBranco 2017b). These organizations should not be surprised when women from the Christian and Libertarian Right ignore the female candidate, in favor of a successful man whose spouts familiarly misogynistic rhetoric. And, of course, many women are willing to ignore this vitriol to give their support based on White and Christian nationalist ideologies, or the neoliberal and producerist sentiments the next section will discuss. The late Phyllis Schlafly, a traditional antifeminist infamous for blocking the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, favors Trump’s immigration and foreign policy stances, seeing him as America’s “last hope” (Hayward 2015).
Though heteropatriarchy often stems from Christian Right ideology, many of the movement’s spokespeople have over the years turned to “kinder, gentler”-sounding gendered rhetoric, for instance presenting women as victims and reserving their worst slurs for abortion doctors, as a pragmatic choice for winning over a wider section of the American population. That the rank and file may not follow or recognize this change, as when screaming at women outside a Planned Parenthood, may benefit Trump’s language choices. Direct mail, intended only for supporters, continues to use extreme, emotional, and fearmongering rhetoric that motivates donations and actions (Shields, 2009; Godwin and Mitchell, 1984). Yet given that Trump’s misogynist rhetoric is largely divorced from traditional moral “family values” issues of abortion and homosexuality, targeting women because he doesn’t like their appearance or attitude, or objectifying them, we should look at the growth of the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) and associated ideologies.
The MRM has been a largely online movement of misogynistic blogs and messaging boards joined by a shared and explicit hatred of feminism and demonstrably of women. The mostly White “manosphere” has Christian members, but seems to be particularly comprised of atheist and secular men (who may be former conservative Christian), and influenced by atheist Ayn Rand and the fantasy of “going Galt” (described in the next section on Producerism and Neoliberalism) (D.E. Anderson 2012, Zvan 2014). Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) share a striking resemblance with equity feminist ideology in claiming that not women but men are victims, and some equity feminist women explicitly support the MRA ideology. However, the MRM has been distinguished by the virulence of its rhetoric. Paul Elam, founder of the most popular MRM site, A Voice for Men, accuses women who go clubbing of “begging” to be raped. MRAs condemn women’s sexual choices and view themselves as entitled to sex, a key tenet of the associated pick-up artist community, which share tips on how to manipulate women into sex.
Trump’s belief that all women desire him, and simultaneously are gold diggers who want his money, fits right in. Pick-up artists and MRAs have touted Trump as an example of an “alpha” given how “he insults and dominates women, preys on their insecurities and refuses to ever apologize for it” (Clark-Fiory and Cuen 2015). The Red Pill, a prominent MRM community, promoted a video of Trump disparaging a female reporter that opens with their definition of “misogynist”: “a person who tells a woman the truth.” Like many Trump supporters, MRAs deify the idea of speaking your mind and countering political correctness.
Trump’s online supporters have also popularized the term “cuckservative” in insulting his opponents, a term for “a Republican and/or conservative who is too cowardly to do anything about his country being taken away from him, akin to a man being cuckolded by his wife” (Rozsa 2015). Wielded against conservatives who take “politically correct” stances by criticizing other conservatives for particularly sexist, racist, or otherwise prejudiced remarks, this term demonstrates how men also use sexism against one another. Trump’s bullying appeals to the American heteropatriarchal ideal of masculinity, regularly reinforced by a variety of movements and institutions including anticommunism, warmongering, and antifeminism (Storrs 2015; Critchlow 2005).
Producerism and Neoliberalism
The New Right not only recruited evangelicals and fundamentalists, but also sought to strengthen the bridge built in the 1950s between traditional moral values Calvinists and the neoliberal laissez-faire “Free Market” advocates in the Republican Party, which included both anti-tax economic conservatives and anti-government libertarians (Himmelstein 1990).
Typical Old Right economic theories can be found in the sermons and other writings of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The massive railway strike of 1877 prompted the well-known preacher to warn of alien ideas from Europe being imported into the U.S. by labor unions. Beecher “thought ‘un-American’ the idea that government should provide for the welfare of its citizens, described collectivist theories as destructive of that ‘individuality of the person’ that alone preserved liberty, and unabashedly insisted that ‘God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little’” (Heale 1990, 28). A network of Old Right industrial and business interests built a national network of cooperating institutions between the late 1800s and Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. In 1934, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), one of the major collaborative organizations, responded to the New Deal by launching a 13-year, $15 million public relations campaign “for the dissemination of sound American doctrines to the public.” Reaching millions of Americans, this propaganda included denouncing labor unions while calling for reductions in the size of government and the number of government regulations (NAM).
Three economists restored the tarnished reputation of Old Right elitist economic theories in a way that could be peddled to the middle class and working class masses: Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman. Along with old-timer libertarian ideologues including former presidents Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft, and a few “iconoclastic individualists and objectivists like Albert Jay Nock and Ayn Rand,” they would lay the foundation for contemporary neoliberal concepts of political economy (Himmelstein 1990, 46). This provided one of the three major pillars of the 1950s Fusionist coalition. According to Himmelstein, “The core assumption that binds these three elements is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order––harmonious, beneficent, and self–regulating––disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities” (Himmelstein 1990, 43-60).
While Rand was an atheist and strongly anti-religion, putting her personally at odds with Buckley and on the fringes of the right-wing political coalition of the time, her ideology as transmitted by the novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) has achieved massive popularity including with the contemporary Christian Right. Rand’s ideology of money as virtue meshes with the emergence of a capitalist Jesus in the suburbs, and her glorification of America and “the highest type of human being—the self-made man—the American industrialist” fits into the Christian and White Nationalist images of America (Rand 1957). Rand buys deeply into the American Dream; her heroes are successful entrepreneurs, inventors, and businessmen who create value and reject altruism, glorifying money as the foundation of morality and virtue. Objectivism tells the privileged that they deserve all they have, and moreover, they are the true victims of a society that tries to leech off their success.
Objectivist philosophy of the “producers” versus the “looters” and “moochers” looks similar to populist producerism. Populism plays different chords in each sector of the right—conservative, dissident, and fascist—but the recurring melody is producerism. The producerist frame portrays a noble middle class of hard-working producers being squeezed by a conspiracy involving secret elites above and lazy, sinful, subversive parasites below (Kazin 1995, 35-36, 52-54, 143-44; Berlet and Lyons 2000: 4-6; Canovan 1981, 54). Stock (1996, ix) writes that the two key themes in historic U.S. populist movements are “the politics of rural producer radicalism and the culture of vigilante violence.” This idea of “producers” battling “parasites” for the soul of the nation is at the root of fascist ideology (Sternhell, Sznajder, and Asheri  1995). Producerism is the conspiracist melody that masks the malady of class exploitation. Producerist anti-Semitism was central to the success of German Nazi ideology in attracting an alienated audience from which to build a mass base. Postone (1986) argues that Nazi scapegoating of Jews centered on the idea that Jews represented parasitic financial capitalism in a battle with productive (and concrete) labor, industry, and technology.
Producerism in other countries and historic periods often links a conspiracy theory of history with xenophobia, racism, and religious bigotry. People can develop different narratives and pick different scapegoats, but the basic paradigm leads to an attack on the “parasites” by the “producers.” The dynamic starts with conspiratorial allegations about parasitic elites (seen as manipulating society) and this leads to anger being directed upwards. The list of scapegoats among the alleged elite parasites can include international bankers, Jews, globalists, socialists, liberal secular humanists, and government bureaucrats. These elite parasites are described as working in a subversive conspiracy with parasites below. These “underclass” parasites are often stereotyped as lazy (and thus draining the economic resources of the productive middle), or poisoning the culture with their lack of moral standards or their sinful sexuality (Herman 1997; Berlet and Lyons 2000). Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney referred to the “Makers” versus the “Takers,” estimating that the “Takers” comprised 47% of the U.S. population—a contention that when it leaked helped submerge his candidacy.
Politico’s Michael Lind argued that Trump’s Tea Party popularity demonstrates that the movement has been mischaracterized as libertarian when it is right-wing—reflecting William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long of populist fame, but not Rand—given Trump’s support for government services like Medicare. This misses the actual intertwining of these ideologies by expecting followers to demonstrate too much pure consistency. Remember the logically inconsistent Tea Party signs to “Keep Government Out of Medicare”? Even Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare when it came to her personal use, and Tea Partiers have also favored paraphernalia referring Atlas Shrugged hero John Galt (Heller 2009, Weiss 2012).
Trump’s lack of empathy for undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable populations, and his pride in his exorbitant wealth, resonates with Americans who buy about half-a-million copies of Rand’s books each year. Almost three decades ago, New York Magazine began a profile in its list of the top 20 New Yorkers, “If he smoked, Donald Trump would have cigarettes monogrammed with a dollar sign—the symbol of Ayn Rand’s hero in Atlas Shrugged. Trump is the quintessential late-eighties realization of the conservative novelist’s forties and fifties capitalist supermen” (Smith 1988, 113). Rand herself liked to wear a broach in the shape of a dollar sign (Burns 2009, 259), while until recently the Trump collection at Macy’s offered dollar sign cufflinks, which complement that dollar sign charm on his book, “A Pocket Guide to Trump: How to Get Rich.”
It sounds like the story of a Randian hero when the senior editor of the Independent Women’s Forum (an “equity feminist” organization supported by the libertarian Koch brothers), writes, “Trump’s supporters aren’t urban sophisticates ready to weep over the latest tale of victimhood. Like their hero, a real estate guy from Queens, they adhere to the ethos of an older, less sensitive moral culture, and they long for somebody who is focused on winning rather than placating the offended (and may, even more thrillingly, make politically incorrect jabs at his opponents)” (Hays 2015). Trump benefits also from White Tea Partiers who interpret her novels through a racist lens in seeing a learned “attitude of victimization” among people of color (Weiss 2012).
The economic ideas of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the other Republican Presidential hopefuls in 2016 are based on the theories and policies that emerged from this right-wing “fusionist” plan to reconstitute traditional Republican conservatism in a new and aggressive form. However, Glenn Beck, Fox News, and a myriad of other news sources on the Right have taken the theories of von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman and spun them into orbit around a fearmongering conspiracy theory analysis of imminent government tyranny. The line of thought goes like this: Big government not only steals our tax dollars to squander on the undeserving poor, but also leads to socialism, which leads to Nazism which is similar to Stalinism because both are forms of totalitarianism; therefore, Obama is both Hitler and Stalin; and thus Obamacare and other social welfare programs will lead to tyranny and government repression. The book by Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton (2007) is an example of this distorted analysis.
By the time the first Bush Administration was in office, a strange coalition between the Christian Right, the New Right fusionist alliance, and the Neoconservative movement was firmly cemented. Some authors have described this as the merger of “apocalyptic religion and American empire” (Northcott 2004) or simply “messianic militarism” (Rothschild 2003). Weaving strands of conservative religion, nationalism, racial exclusionism, economic producerism, and hyper-masculine patriarchy, we can see the resultant primed constituency that responds to wealth, xenophobia, coded racial appeals, and misogyny, and an “America (and God) first” attitude. Code phrases such as “political correctness,” developed by the institutionalist Right in the late 1980s, must be understood as part of a legacy of White, Christian, and male nationalism and congruous with populist producerism and attendant libertarian philosophies.
Please note that this study is copyright 2017, Alex DiBranco and Chip Berlet.
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