The Revenge of the Moderates?
This is an era in which calamity must be hyped but reality is quieter and more encouraging
On their way to Dallas in November 1963, President John F Kennedy turned to his wife, Jackie, and said: “We’re heading into nut country today”. Texas had voted for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 but only by 45,000 votes. In Dallas county, the Democratic nominee won just 37 percent of the votes cast. Like Houston, only even more so, Dallas voted for Richard Nixon.
Even by the standards of the time, Dallas was a haven for kook-minded conspiracy. At a lunch for Texas publishers held at the White House two years previously, Ted Dealey, proprietor of the Dallas Morning News (typical editorial line: ”Should we continue to spend tax money on illegitimate babies, when we need it for missiles?") had lambasted the still-new president. “We need a man on horseback to led this nation”, he growled, “and many people in Texas and the southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s [Kennedy’s daughter] tricycle”.
”The American people are aroused, and rightly so” Dealey suggested. “We should lead from strength, not from weakness. We can annihilate Russia and should make that clear to the Soviet government. This means undoubtedly that they can simultaneously destroy us. But it is better to die than submit to communism and slavery."
Not all of Dealey’s fellow publishers appreciated this. Some considered it an abuse of the president’s hospitality. “Ted, you're leading the worst fascist movement in the Southwest and you don't realise that nobody else is with you.”
But, actually, plenty of people were with Dealey. Every day HL Hunt, the oil-based billionaire, denounced Kennedy to the ten million people listening to his radio show. Kennedy’s Medicare plan for the elderly “would literally make the president of the United States a medical car with potential-life-or-death power over every man, woman and child in the country”. Meanwhile, W.A Criswell, leader of the largest Baptist congregation in America (and Hunt’s pastor), viewed Kennedy’s catholicism as proof the president was part of a conspiracy to undermine the United States’ true christian values.
In October 1963 Adlai Stevenson, ambassador to the United Nations, had visited Dallas for an event that, even at the time, seemed freighted with portents. Stevenson was heckled by, among others, Frank McGehee founder of the (impressively named!) National Indignation League who demanded to know why Stevenson was so determined to negotiate with communist dictators. One protester chants, “Kennedy will get his reward in hell. Stevenson is going to die. His heart will stop, stop, stop. And he will burn, burn, burn.” A banner screaming “UN RED FRONT” is unfurled. After the event, Stevenson is forced to leave under a police escort: protestors tussle with the cops and one whacks the ambassador in the head with a placard. Signs screaming “COMMUNIST!” and “TRAITOR!” are waved.
A Stevenson supporter turns to his neighbour and gasps, “This must be what it was like in Munich during the Beer Hall Putsch.” Hustled into his car by the cops, Stevenson takes a moment to compose himself. “Addressing no-one in particular” Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis write in their (splendid) book “Dallas 1963”, he asks: “Are these human beings or animals?”
One of the people orchestrating, or at least fomenting, the protests against Stevenson was Edwin Walker, a two-star general in the US Army. Walker considered Harry Truman “pink” and later, in 1962, helped lead an uprising against the forced integration of the all-white University of Mississippi during which he warned that integration was “a disgrace to the nation in ‘dire peril’, a disgrace beyond the capacity of anyone except its enemies. This is the conspiracy of the crucifixion by anti-Christ conspirators of the Supreme Court in their denial of prayer and their betrayal of a nation”.
Following his resignation from the army, Walker had moved to Texas where he unsuccessfully attempted to become the Democratic party’s gubernatorial candidate. He retained a healthy following, however, and on the morning Kennedy arrived in the city Walker’s supporters posted 5,000 handbills on the city’s streets depicting the president on a poster sporting the message: “WANTED FOR TREASON”.
This was the atmosphere in which Kennedy’s fateful visit took place. His assassination was one of those events which really did shock the world but in the city in which it happened it was, perhaps, something less of a surprise than was the case elsewhere. For there had been a creeping suspicion that something terrible - though not, obviously, that terrible - might happen.
Because history is an ironic business, Kennedy’s murderer was in fact a disaffected, Marxist misfit not a rock-ribbed conservative appalled by the president’s “socialism”. JFK was not Lee Harvey Oswald’s only target. In April 1963 he attempted, and only narrowly failed, to assassinate Major-General Edwin Walker.
Here, then, you may appreciate that the paranoid style - as Richard Hofstadter famously put it - has long been a bubbling current in American politics. The past was not often a nicer, kinder, gentler place.
Today’s American nutjobs are the descendants of yesterday’s American nutjobs, for the Republic has always been contested. But this obscures, I think, certain realities plenty of smart - and certainly plenty of very online - folk enjoy forgetting.
For, despite everything and all the lurid evidence to the contrary, the bigger picture in American politics right now is a retreat from extremism, not a further lurch towards it.
In the past the febrile folk were split between the Republican and Democratic parties; today they are largely (though not quite exclusively) concentrated within the former. The January 6th insurrection was both serious and absurd; ultimately it was as half-cocked as everything else in the Trump years. Nevertheless, while the safety of the 2024 presidential election cannot be assured - and must therefore be safeguarded with some vigilance - I suspect it is safer than people enjoy fearing.
Yes, enjoy. For there is a threat inflation apparent these days that insists every difficulty is a crisis and every crisis a copper-bottomed calamity. This is titillating and therefore entertaining. Wake-up, people! We are forever only half-a-step from fascism!
The “forever” bit is important, however. You can indeed find evidence to support a claim that everything is getting worse and that liberal civilisation - a recent invention, incidentally - is hanging by a thread. But Russia, say, has never been part of that civilisation and nor, in any lasting sense, has Hungary. Brazil was a military dictatorship as recently as 1984 and most of Latin America was similarly afflicted until very recently. Ditto in Europe where memories of juntas and dictators in Spain and Portugal and Greece - to say nothing of the countries beyond the Iron Curtain - are hardly recollections of ancient history.
A lot of the talk about “populism” and the creeping threat to the rule of law is hysterical over-reach. Nigel Farage might lament the lack of a balcony in his life but if Boris Johnson was (is) a crypto-fascist - ostensibly serious people sometimes claim this sort of thing - then the term has lost all meaning. Moreover, it might be noted that when Johnson fought the law he tended to lose and when he fought parliament - for this was his undoing - he was routed. The system, that is to say, held firm even if you take a lurid view of the manner and extent of Johnson’s challenge to it.
Something similar might just about be said of the United States. Trump was the (relatively) rare president turfed out after a single term. A disgrace he was ever elected, of course, but Biden’s triumph was a pretty comprehensive rebuttal of Trumpism. Since then, Trump’s potency has declined. He may, of course, still secure the GOP nomination next year but the odds of him doing so are lengthening. The story of the mid-term elections was the failure of so many candidates endorsed by Trump; the story of the election aftermath the Republican party’s slow, still partial, attempt to escape from Trump’s baleful shadow. The GOP is still sick but it is not quite as ill as it was.
In Britain, meanwhile, each of the major parties has shifted towards the electorate. Wild claims made while Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were at the helm lose much of their potency now the struggle is between Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer. Because, really, normalcy is in vogue this year.
There remain many for whom a state of perma-crisis is a kind of validation. Earlier this week, this clip of Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian of Europe’s 20th century killing fields, being interviewed by Channel 4 News received a fresh bump on social media. (It was enthusiastically endorsed by Gary Neville and other greats.)
Now the interview actually dates from 2019 and this is only part of a longer exchange. Even so, plenty of people still think it uncannily relevant to our moment. It is unfortunate then that, in this exchange, Snyder (whom I esteem greatly) is talking through the hat he is not wearing. For instance:
The reason why we know fascism is possible is because it already happened once, and it happened in places that are not so distant from us either in place or time. It’s patently clear that some of the people who’re involved in current politics are people who have learned from the 1920s and 1930s and are borrowing some of the tactics of the 1920s and 1930s.
The fundamental tactic which has been borrowed is a rhetorical one. So, there’s a notorious propaganda manual which was composed in a Munich prison at the beginning of 1924 which advises that what you should do in political propaganda is always find simple slogans and repeat them over and over again with the effect of dividing your listeners into us and them. That has clearly been revived as a tactic on both sides of the Atlantic.
More basically, the idea that politics is not about reasoned dispute towards constructive policy, but politics is in fact fundamentally about friends and enemies. That’s a basic fascist idea which was articulated maybe most famously by [the Nazi theorist] Carl Schmitt, that has clearly returned as a tactic.
Oh dear. Nazi comparisons are catnip and great for traffic but in this instance they are no more valuable than observing that because the Nazis built roads anyone building a motorway is probably a fascist or, at any rate, unwittingly inspired by fascism.
Simple slogans - liberté, egalité, fraternité! - have been around as long as politics. Messaging is an integral part of political activity and always has been and a message which cannot be recalled by anyone is a message that will be forgotten. You cannot have mass democracy without simple messages. Elections, too, are a matter of picking between “them” and “us”.
To deplore this is to deplore the fact homo sapiens is a tribal animal. You can do so, but it seems pointless. “Take Back Control” is not a promise of creeping fascism any more than “Make America Great Again” is meaningfully different from a hundred other campaign promises to restore the old republic’s glory.
Nor, obviously, is this confined to the right. Politics often is “fundamentally about friends and enemies” even if these terms are often swaddled in more polite terminology. But what is class interest if not, fundamentally, an argument between “them and us”? The workers’ struggle - quite reasonably! - has historically always been just that kind of battle. If this is a “fascist idea” then almost everyone is a fascist.
It would, I suppose, be lovely to inhabit some Socratic ideal but even the Greeks who lived through precisely that couldn’t actually cope with it. Humanity will intervene.
The problem, perhaps, is that social media doesn’t have an off-switch. It used to be that the news came around no more than two or three times a day: morning paper, lunchtime bulletin, evening paper, early and later television news. Most people only dipped into one or two of these. Now it is a constant flood - for those online, anyway, though we should not forget there are many sensible folk who are rarely, if ever, online - and it is overwhelming. There is too much damn news and what makes this worse is that much of it isn’t really even newsworthy. No wonder it becomes overwhelming.
But it distorts reality too. Once again, the big story is not the threats to liberal democracy but its resilience. Putin’s war and China’s appalling mismanagement of their own covid disaster has made good old, dull old, liberal democracy seem like the value bet once again. Imperfect and often annoying, certainly, but still superior and plainly, demonstrably, so.
Which, given the scale of the challenges evident in recent years, is no small thing. A generational financial crisis and a worldwide pandemic within 15 years were major shocks of a sort that, in either case, might once have triggered revolution. Yet this has not, in general, happened. The centre has held. Not by much, you might think, but held nonetheless. (Just look at the EU: apparently forever on the brink of disaster, but still surviving despite continuous prophecies to the contrary.)
Biden, Sunak, Macron, Sholz, Kishida: these are men whose presence in office is evidence of normality, not crisis. Or, perhaps, their normality is a rational response to crisis. Either way, this should reassure. None of which means there are not difficulties and challenges ahead. Of course there are for, of course, there always are.
There never was a golden age anyway. Dallas 1963 was hardly a one-off. Contrast, say, 2006-2023 with 1960-1977 and, in the west anyway, it’s the former which seems stable. Consider: Vietnam, political assassinations, race riots, and Watergate; France’s Algerian agonies; Britain is bust, falling apart psychologically, and the army is deployed within the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland); Germany remains war-scarred. The Red Brigades are operating in Italy and Baader-Meinhof is active in Germany. Not all of these were existential threats; each of them was sufficient to create an Age of Anxiety. (That is, for sure, a Eurocentric view but here we are concerned with the world’s wealthier countries.)
History is perspective if it’s to have any true value. The past was never as good as we are tempted to think it; the present rarely quite as bad as we are invited to believe. This is not everything, but it may still be something.
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Children Writhing on a Pike
And if you want invective and “Them and Us” rhetoric amidst a campaign of apocalyptic apprehension, well, let me offer you campaign ads (sic) from the American presidential election of… 1800
Department of Just Fancy That
“That conference believes general practice in England is unsafe due to a shortage of doctors and a lack of investment; that this problem must be owned by government…”
Resolution passed at the annual conference of Local Medical Committees (England) last November.
Delegates at the annual BMA conference voted by a narrow majority to restrict the number of places at medical schools to avoid “overproduction of doctors with limited career opportunities.” They also agreed on a complete ban on opening new medical schools.
Motion agreed (£) by the BMA at the union’s 2008 conference.
(Yes, yes, of course it’s more complicated than this - the government could lift the cap imposed on medical students itself - but, also: yes, at some point all unions become a kind of conspiracy against the public. This is often rational from their perspective but is also something to be remembered from time to time…)
Recommended: The English
Hugo Blick’s western seems to have been classified as a “revisionist” tale, presumably because these days smart folk will only watch westerns which notionally subvert the genre’s established principles. But since this is now so familiar as to be standard operating practice, it’s not at all obvious Blick’s caper is revisionist at all.
Nevertheless, it is splendid entertainment, at once honouring western traditions while also - quite often, in fact - revelling in them to the point of pastiche. The good news is that The English actually works on both levels. It pays loving homage to (among many others) John Ford and Sergio Leone (it was even shot in Spain) and part of the fun comes from spotting those nods. Happily, it is not so very pleased with itself that its success depends on noticing any of this. Watch it on the iPlayer here.
This man, children, was once leader of the Conservative and Unionist party. Yes, really. You can look it up.
Rod Liddle discovers that he is actually Scottish. This is very pleasing. [The Spectator]
Harry Lambert reveals the list of Britain’s best-selling historians: a lot of men and a lot of war. But also, note the sales figures - Lucy Worsley is a great success (13 on the list) but she has written three books (on Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, and Agatha Christie) in the past five years and these have sold a combined 100,000 copies. This is both a lot and, well, not a lot. [Substack]
Ed West on what he terms asymmetrical multiculturalism. [The Wrong Side of History]
Jonn Elledge offers a comprehensive - and very entertaining - “Field Guide to the NIMBYs of the British Isles”. A strong argument for the return of capital - and summary - judgement. [The Newsletter of (Not Quite) Everything]
“This is what ‘No debate’ looks like”, this time at McGill University. Eliza MondeGreen reports. [Gender: Hacked
Half an hour of Richard Burton with Michael Parkinson.
That’s all for this week, folks. This newsletter now goes out to several thousand people. I am grateful to you all for subscribing. And I am super-grateful to those of you who have upgraded to a paid subscription. Your generosity makes this more feasible than would otherwise be the case. I appreciate that budgets are tight for many folk at present and so am doubly impressed by those of you willing to support this newsletter in this way. An annual subscription costs less than one large Starbucks coffee a month; a monthly sub is no more than a pint of lager…
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The Debatable Land is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.