A prehistory of MAGA: "Mainstream" conservatives never really purged the fascists

Author David Austin Walsh says "respectable" conservatives have tolerated racists and neo-Nazis all along

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published April 20, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
William Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

David Austin Walsh’s new book, “Taking America Back: The Conservative Movement and the Far Right,” had its origins in his experience as a college student editing a roundtable on Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism" for History News Network. In several senses, Walsh’s book is the polar opposite of Goldberg’s: It’s history, not polemics; it locates actual fascists on the right, where they actually were, and — most fundamentally — it meticulously includes the sort of messy, contradictory information that Goldberg’s polemic thoroughly excluded. 

For instance, legendary conservative William F. Buckley Jr. is a central presence in Walsh’s book, and it’s undeniable that Buckley tried to purge the American conservative movement of its most extreme elements. Indeed, he did so over and over again, because no clean break was ever really possible — there was simply too much common ground. Buckley overtly rejected what he called a “popular front” approach of accommodating the far right, even as he aimed for a “big tent” conservatism that implicitly welcomed it.

“Taking America Back” fits fairly comfortably within the framework of Edmund Fawcett’s “Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition” (author interview here), which traces the contested history of conservative politics across four countries and more than 200 years as “one overarching battle between hardcore resisters of liberal modernity — those Fawcett calls the ‘hard right’ — and those seeking accommodation, whom he calls ‘liberal conservatives.’" Walsh deals more specifically with a purely American 20th-century slice of that history, which still sprawls across generations, illuminating the pattern of internal conflicts that today’s “never Trump” conservatives would like to pretend never happened. In fact, there’s no way to fully understand the rise of the MAGA movement, or its conquest of the Republican Party, without reckoning with the history Walsh describes. 

My conversation with Walsh has been edited for clarity and length. 

You write that 20th-century conservatism evolved out of a popular front with fascist and quasi-fascist elements, and that while William F. Buckley explicitly tried to reject or expel the far right, his actions and associations reveal a more complicated reality. If that’s fair, how would you characterize that more complicated reality?

I would characterize the complicated reality as one of deep intertwinedness. Buckley does explicitly reject the so-called popular-front approach with the far right in the mid-1960s. He comes to this position over time, it’s not something he starts out with in the 1950s. He comes to it less, I would say, on principle and more because the far right is — at the time, at least — an electoral loser. Barry Goldwater goes down in 1964 in large part because of his association with the far right, because the John Birch Society is providing organizational muscle behind his campaign. 

But even after the so-called purge of the racists and the Nazis and antisemites in the mid-1960s, you still see these elements very close to the so-called mainstream of American conservatism. People like Pat Buchanan, of course, who emerges in the 1990s as a far-right presidential candidate, but also in the Nixon and Reagan administrations. You see it in National Review with Joe Sobran, who was Buckley's protégé there, and became a Holocaust denier and rabid antisemite.

So this idea that there's a firm wall of separation between the responsible conservatives and the far right is what I'm trying to press against. The reality has always been more messy, complicated and overlapping, and that's true both in the pre-war and postwar periods.

Merwin Hart is the central figure in Chapter One and pops up again repeatedly afterward. So who was he, what did he do and what can we learn from him?

Buckley is the conduit through which I found all the characters in my book. They’re all within one degree of separation from him. I found Merwin Hart because of his friendship with Buckley's father. Hart was from upstate New York, from the Mohawk Valley. He was a mid-level manufacturer, a big corporate guy. He was a Harvard College grad, he knew Franklin Roosevelt from his college days, and also while Roosevelt was governor of New York in the early 1930s. So he's a well-connected guy, but not from the aristocracy. 

In the 1930s, he creates an organization called the New York State Economic Council. The whole idea was basically to oppose Roosevelt's policies, both as governor of New York and later as president. It was an extremely anti-New Deal organization. The particular bête noire for Hart was labor organizing. Midsized manufacturers in particular were absolutely livid at the prospect of what became the Wagner Act, which legalized collective bargaining nationally.

"Even after the so-called purge of the racists and the Nazis and antisemites in the mid-1960s, you still see these elements very close to the so-called mainstream of American conservatism."

So that’s his initial focus, but Merwin Hart becomes increasingly convinced that the reason all of these changes are happening is because, essentially, the Jews and Communists secretly control the White House. They are manipulating Roosevelt, who's either a useful idiot or actively in on the conspiracy. So Hart becomes committed to this very conspiratorial, very antisemitic reading of American politics, and also applies this internationally. When the war breaks out in Spain in 1936, Hart becomes essentially an unofficial agent of the Franco regime. He goes to Spain in 1938 and writes glowing reports about the rise of Franco. In 1939 he writes a book called "America, Look at Spain," in which he says explicitly that the same fight against the communists that Franco is waging in Spain is the same work he’s doing against organized labor here in the United States. He's very invested in this grand conspiratorial vision, this filter through which he views American politics. 

So what else does he do after that?

He's involved tangentially in the America First movement. He wants to be part of the America First Committee and they don't want to touch him, because he's a notorious antisemite. He was too far right even for AFC. He then gets involved in their East Coast equivalent, the No Foreign Wars Committee. It finally goes nowhere given the politics of the East Coast, but he is still active in agitating against the war. 

In 1946, he gets together with a bunch of other former America Firsters to organize something called the American Action Committee, which was the first right-wing political action committee, one of the first attempts to form a meaningful organized conservative institution after World War II. It's not a long-term success, but they are able to throw money at a couple of key congressional races against who they see as New Deal radicals. One of their major donors from Wisconsin, a Milwaukee real estate developer named Walter Harnischfeger, was one of Joe McCathy's biggest supporters in the 1946 Senate race. So there was this cluster of right-wing activities where Merwin Hart was sort of central. 

He sort of fades after World War II, he's an older man at that point. But he's friends with William F. Buckley Sr., and he publishes a newsletter called the Economic Council Newsletter, which continues after his death. Shortly before he dies he becomes the chapter president of the Manhattan branch of the John Birch Society. So I use Hart in the early chapters of the book because if you follow his career, you see him just branch out into all these different elements of the American right. And what I'm interested in, more broadly, is to emphasize these continuities. 

Most people don’t think about the far right being particularly active during those years right around World War II, but they actually were. 

Absolutely. I think there's a basic narrative — it's changing because of, for example, Rachel Maddow's Ultra podcast — that after America entered the war, America First was spent as a political force, the far right was essentially nonexistent and forced back into the shadows because of their association with fascism. There are elements of truth to that. There was the sedition trial in 1944, which prosecuted a number of fascists and fascist sympathizers and people who may have been involved with Nazi espionage. But there continued to be a core cadre of extremely right-wing political activists with allies in Congress in the 1940s and into the ‘50s, from World War II to the McCarthy period. 

What's happening in this interesting moment in American politics were, on one hand, that the traditional popular front — the antifascists, communists, socialists and liberals — was already beginning to unravel by 1945. At the same time, there is still a tremendous concern about the potential for some form of domestic fascism to emerge in the United States, or to re-emerge in the defeated fascist countries in Europe or Asia. And that's how liberals perceive the revival of America First, through groups like American Action in the late 1940s. 

"A lot of people on the right identified the potential for Jewish immigration as opening the floodgates for Judeo-Bolshevism. It's a very different story than the traditional interpretation of the postwar period being a straight line to Jewish assimilation."

In addition, there is the question of antisemitism. I write about the controversies over the Displaced Persons Act, another thing that’s not necessarily well known. It is common knowledge that America had an extremely discriminatory policy against Jewish refugees in the 1930s and ‘40s. I think there's a sense this was relaxed somehow after World War II, because a lot of Holocaust survivors do end up in the United States.  But that was a long, arduous and contentious process that involves a lot of the key figures I write about in the book. 

What happens in 1948 is that Congress passes the Displaced Persons Act, essentially relaxing the 1924 immigration restrictions, allowing refugees into the United States. But at the behest of Congress members and senators who were affiliated with America First, in particular William Ernest Langer from North Dakota, they wrote the act to exclude Eastern European Jews. It actually privileged German displaced persons who had been expelled from what is now Poland, and Harry Truman vetoed it as essentially racist and antisemitic. 

But his veto was overruled, and it wasn't until 1952 that these restrictions were relaxed. That was because a lot of people on the right identified the potential for Jewish immigration in this country as opening the floodgates for Judeo-Bolshevism. So it's a very different story than the traditional interpretation of the postwar period being a straight line to Jewish assimilation in the country, as well as about the diminished power of the right, at least until Joe McCarthy. McCarthy doesn't emerge out of nowhere. That's sort of the point. You already have, immediately after World War II, the growing power of the farthest fringes of the right. 

In the chapter framed around McCarthy you talk about how antisemites and right-wing Jews like Roy Cohn were working together. How did they rationalize working together, and how did that sometimes break down? 

Roy Cohn is interesting. I'll tell you a brief story. Part of that chapter and the fourth chapter appeared in the Journal of American History as an article about four years ago. I'll never forget this, it was the best piece of peer review I ever got on my work. I wrote something along the lines of "It's a little unclear, maybe Roy Cohn was uncomfortable collaborating with people he knew to be antisemites." The note was, "I think you underestimate how horrible of a person Roy Cohn was." If I may be blunt, he was a real sack of s**t.

But Cohn is less interesting than people like Rabbi Benjamin Schultz or Hearst columnist George Sokolsky and other right-wing Jews in the early 1950s who were able to rationalize collaborating with open antisemites like Hart. I quote a letter in the book from Sokolsky to one of his conservative Jewish friends. His friend said, “You’re hosting this event at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and I see that people I know are antisemites are going to be there. How can you justify this?’ And Sokolsky writes back, essentially saying, "I don't want to talk to you again. Don't contact me again. Our friendship is over." 

It was a sensitive issue, because I think many of these people knew they were rubbing shoulders with the antisemitic extreme. But I think they were able to justify it under the aegis of anticommunism. They were able to look at these guys and say, "Well, Merwin Hart," just to use him as an example, "his heart's in the right place, he's primarily motivated by anticommunism." 

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And frankly, it cuts both ways. There were some people on the extreme right, like Gerald L.K. Smith, who was Huey Long's confidant in the 1930s and founded the America First Party in 1944, which was unconnected with the America First Committee. He wouldn't make exceptions for "good Jews" with good politics. But people like Merwin Hart, even if they were uncomfortable with it, would.

Chapter Five, "Magazine Wars," is framed in terms of Russell Maguire's ownership of the American Mercury from 1952 to 1960, versus Buckley's establishment of the National Review. You give a lot of attention to people associated with Buckley who caused him problems, most interestingly a man named Revilo Oliver. How should the relationship between those two magazines be understood, and how did Oliver complicate things?

I think the American Mercury, like the John Birch Society in general and the magazine American Opinion in particular, were real rivals for conservative influence to Buckley and National Review. Part of the hostility between the two stems from a particular sense of rivalry over ownership of the direction of the right. Buckley evolved, in a sense, out of American Mercury. He wrote for the magazine when it was still owned by William Bradford Huey. The American Mercury had been around since the 1920s. H.L. Mencken was its founder, and it went through various iterations. It had been a pretty broad mainstream magazine, then Huey  took it over in 1952 and turned it in a more explicitly conservative direction. Buckley wrote for the magazine briefly, but ended up splitting, not over politics but because Buckley's an egotist who can't work for anybody. 

To keep the magazine afloat, Huey sells it to Russell Maguire, who was the manufacturer of the Thompson machine gun during World War II and made a lot of money investing in oil after the war. He's the sugar daddy who allows the American Mercury to stay afloat, and he's a rabid antisemite. By 1955 he's taking the Mercury in an explicitly antisemitic direction and this creates problems for the conservative movement that Buckley is trying to organize, because it's bad publicity.  But the bigger problem speaks to how messy this is — there are no clean-cut lines here. Some of the people writing for the National Review also are writing for the American Mercury as it's going in this antisemitic direction. 

Finally, in 1959, after almost five years, Buckley said, “You can't write for our magazine and the American Mercury anymore.” But it takes him a while to get there. Now we get to Revilo Oliver, a fascinating character who is one of the architects of the modern neo-Nazi movement. His papers at the University of Illinois — he was a classicist there — have yet to be processed. It’s a little unclear how far into the present they go. So there’s a gap in the literature when it comes to assessing his specific role. 

"For somebody who renounced the 'popular front' approach to the American right, Buckley spent a lot of time trying to keep the racists and the Nazis inside the tent." 

But in the 1950s, he was very much part of the conservative mainstream. He's an analyst for the War Department in World War II, probably because of his language skills. He becomes politicized during McCarthyism and becomes friends with Buckley. It's very clear in their correspondence that they're friends because they're both pompous asses. The language in these letters is just remarkable, it's two men in love with their own sense of erudition. So they have a very close friendship in the 1950s and Oliver comes on as a book review editor for the National Review. 

There are two potential problems that eventually merge and manifest and cause a rupture. I guess there's actually three. One, Oliver is an atheist, and Buckley obviously is not, he’s very Catholic. Two, Oliver is an antisemite, which is connected to three, he is absolutely committed — even in the 1950s — to explicit biological racism as a cornerstone of his politics. Now, Buckley was a biological racist, too. I found a letter he wrote to J.J. Kilpatrick in 1964 — he was a National Review contributor who was one of the architects of “massive resistance” in the state of Virginia. He basically chastises Kilpatrick for making an explicitly white-supremacist defense of segregation. In it he says, "You're probably right that on average, black people have lower IQs than white people and there are biological reasons for it, etc. But that shouldn't really dictate policy because we’re all together in Christian brotherhood.” 

Oliver has no commitment to Christianity as any sort of universal ideology. So for him it's just, OK, biological racism is real. And who is trying to subvert the reality of what he thought he knew about biological racism? He blames the Jews. He writes a scathing review in the mid-’50s of a book by Ashley Montague, an anthropologist working for UNESCO, criticizing biological racism. Oliver is just savage about it in National Review, and at the time it's not a huge problem because National Review is committed to the explicit defense of segregation. But Oliver can't let go of the idea that it's the Jews who were subverting the truth of race science. 

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The eventual rupture happens because Oliver's materials keep appearing in ads for his talks, and his records (he's producing lectures that are sent out on LPs) keep appearing in the American Mercury and similar far-right publications that are explicitly antisemitic. This is what severs Oliver's formal relationship with National Review. However, Oliver and Buckley repeatedly attempt to repair their friendship as late as the early 1960s, before Buckley essentially gives up: “Well, he's just too far gone at this point.” The explicit thing that makes him realize that this is no longer a repairable relationship is Oliver's hostility to religion. 

This is a consistent pattern for Buckley throughout his life, and we can talk about Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell in a bit. For somebody who renounced the “popular front” approach to the American right, he spent a lot of time trying to keep the racists and the Nazis inside the tent. 

Since you brought it up, why don't you talk about Rockwell. That’s quite an illuminating history, and too often overlooked. 

When I started the research for this book, I always thought of George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the American Nazi Party in the 1960s, as a marginal and strange figure. In many ways he was. He had a small following of dedicated militant Nazis, who'd shadow Martin Luther King Jr. and attack him and do all these outrageous provocative acts, before Rockwell is eventually assassinated by one of his own followers in 1967.

But what I found really surprising is that, in the 1950s, Rockwell was very much in the center of mainstream conservatism. He wasn't a big leader or anything. But he wrote for American Mercury. He worked for National Review briefly, and had a friendly although not especially close relationship to Buckley. His job sounds marginal to us today, but it was really important for the strategy of the conservative movement at the time. His job is to sell subscriptions to National Review on college campuses. This was all part of their big youth outreach, part of things like Young Americans For Freedom, which Buckley helped to found in 1960. 

Rockwell breaks hard with mainstream conservatism in 1959, and comes out openly as a neo-Nazi. What's really interesting is that there's a whole stack of papers in Buckley's archives, of letters Rockwell wrote to Buckley. Buckley is horrified, he chastises him. But it's very clear, reading this correspondence, that Rockwell is desperately craving Buckley's affirmation and also sees himself — even though he's billing himself as a Nazi — as in a sense a more authentic conservative than Buckley. Because Rockwell sees just how far gone America is and is willing to do the things that the Ivy League intellectuals who craved respectability from their liberal counterparts were unwilling to do. 

"[Neo-Nazi leader] George Lincoln Rockwell sees himself as a more authentic conservative than Buckley. He sees how far gone America is, and is willing to do things that the Ivy League intellectuals who craved respectability from their liberal counterparts were unwilling to do."

There's this wonderful source, wonderful text that is very revealing of the mentality of this guy. In 1963, he writes this mock TV script that he publishes in one of his newsletters. It's him, Buckley and Robert Welch, who's the leader of the John Birch Society, in a TV debate. And in his little fantasy, Rockwell is so charismatic and convincing that he manages to convert both Buckley and Welch to neo-Nazism, and they all do “Heil Hitler!” together at the end of the text. 

The question I continue to get about this project is, "How do we actually describe the relationship between the neo-Nazi right and the rest of the far right and mainstream conservatives?” I think it is revealing, in a really profound way, that somebody like Rockwell — who was the most extreme you could be in the 1960s — saw himself explicitly as part of this broader right-wing, conservative political movement. He understood his objectives and Buckley's to be, in a sense, fundamentally compatible. Rockwell was willing to go further to achieve those goals than responsible conservatives. 

There’s so much in the book that we can’t cover, but the birth of the “white power” movement is relatively obscure and highly relevant to where we find ourselves today. So what happened there? 

The birth of the white power movement gets to essentially the same sort of split. One of the themes throughout the book is that the idea that there was a clean purge of the conservative movement is a myth. It’s an exaggeration of a process that is continually ongoing, right?  There's a purge, supposedly in 1962, and again in 1965, but you still have white supremacists and antisemites in the halls of National Review in the 1980s. So it's a process that continually has to happen, and that's essentially what happens with the birth of the white power movement. 

One of the important things to bear in mind here — and Oliver is a key example of this — is not just that these figures were pushed out of mainstream conservative circles. Some of that did happen, but just as important was the “pull” factor — they weren't getting what they wanted out of what conservatism was building toward, institutionally. By the end of the 1960s you have on the far right a real sense that the conservative movement had failed, which is to say it had failed to conserve pre-civil rights America. 

More than that, the radical communist Marxist revolution that they've been warning about for decades was finally here, or around the corner. From the perspective of someone who has been warning about Jewish communist revolution and conspiracy for 20 years, 1968 and 1969 must have been terrifying. SDS and the Weather Underground must have appeared really terrifying. In a sense, that's what sparks the creation of the modern white power movement, which evolves out of the 1968 George Wallace campaign. 

Wallace himself is not especially involved in this. There's an organization called Youth for Wallace, a tangential part of the campaign, it's organized more or less separately, and after Wallace's defeat it becomes an organization called the National Youth Alliance. There's a power struggle within the NYA between soft versus hardcore neo-Nazis, and the hardcore wins. The FBI interviewed one man who left the NYA then, and he told them, “Yeah, these are a bunch of neo-Nazis. They go to these conventions, they sing the Horst-Wessel-Lied.” This is the group where William Luther Pierce, who was one of George Lincoln Rockwell's deputies in the American Nazi Party, becomes a senior leader. 

Pierce publishes a newsletter under the NYA aegis called Attack, which is a combination of the kind of underground left literature you can see at the time — exhortations to revolution, instructions on how to make homemade weapons, that sort of thing — combined with explicit racism and neo-Nazi stuff. One of the things Pierce writes about is the need for young Nazis, essentially, to raise the racial consciousness of campus radicals. He thinks the real energy and revolutionary vitality is coming from the left, so he wants to co-opt that. He then goes on to write “The Turner Diaries.”

There’s so much more rich detail in the book that we didn’t get to. How would you sum things up in a final takeaway? 

I think there's a real danger in 2024 of nostalgizing the 20th-century conservative movement as "responsible," "respectable" and "about ideas." The same features of what became MAGAism were embedded in the movement from the very beginning, and were broadly tolerated by conservative elites even if they found them to be slightly distasteful. 

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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