The Architect of the Radical Right - 2017-06-20
Talmadge's movement is a footnote now, but it boasted delegates from 18 states and offered an early mix of the populist grievance and anti-tax fervor that presaged Tea Party protests, though the original brew had a pungent tang of racism. At a rabble-rousing "grassroots convention" held in Macon, Georgia, delegates received a news sheet that showed a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt in the company of two Howard University ROTC students. Her husband, the caption warned, was permitting "negroes to come to the White House banquets and sleep in the White House beds." What looked like a redneck eruption was in fact financed by northern capitalists nursing their own hatred of the New Deal. Talmadge's promise to slash property taxes brought in big checks from the du Ponts, among others.
Why does all this matter today? Well, we might begin with the first New Yorker elected president since FDR, a man who has given new meaning to the term copperhead (originally applied to Northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War). Lost amid the many 2016 postmortems, and the careful parsing of returns in Ohio swing counties, was Donald Trump's prodigious conquest of the South: 60 percent or more of the vote in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia, with similar margins in Louisiana and Mississippi. And the message is still being missed. We've heard much about the "older white men" in the administration, but rather less about where they come from. No fewer than 10 Cabinet appointees are from the South, in key positions like attorney general (Alabama) and secretary of state (Texas), not to mention Trump's top political adviser, Steve Bannon, who grew up in Virginia.
All of this, so plainly in view but so strangely ignored, makes MacLean's vibrant intellectual history of the radical right especially relevant. Her book includes familiar villains—principally the Koch brothers—and devotes many pages to think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, whose ideological programs are hardly a secret. But what sets Democracy in Chains apart is that it begins in the South, and emphasizes a genuinely original and very influential political thinker, the economist James M. Buchanan. He is not so well remembered today as his fellow Nobel laureates Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet as MacLean convincingly shows, his effect on our politics is at least as great, in part because of the evangelical fervor he brought to spreading his ideas.