David Sirota begins his tour of American populism by telling how he hung around with leftists, got drunk, daydreamed for a while, and then threw up. Sirota’s The Uprising has ambitious aims”a no holds barred, behind the scenes look at the anti-Establishment movements of Left and Right grouped under the catchall term “populist.” Such movements and organizations include antiwar groups, Democratic politicians, progressive third parties, Lou Dobbs, the Minutemen, shareholder activists, and union organizers. Sirota deserves credit for capturing the vague Zeitgeist of these disparate actors and uniting them into a more or less coherent narrative. But unfortunately for Sirota, the real story behind contemporary American populism is not the one he wants to tell.
Between the warring camps vying for ownership of the true “American conservatism,” a remarkable consensus has emerged around the status of Abraham Lincoln and his legacy. In the conservative house divided, almost everyone agrees that the president was the prophet of democratic imperialism and that his war with the South was a mere dress rehearsal for global crusades for democracy which began half a century after his assassination. Naturally, the so-called paleoconservatives and neoconservatives disagree on the merits of Lincoln’s putative policy, but they don”t disagree that he led the advance guard of this project to create the world in America’s image and likeness. This dispute is no mere academic matter, since those who control the Lincoln legacy also manufacture the grist for any number of ideological mills.
Christians on the right are used to witnessing attacks on their faith from atheistic leftists. Ever since the highly influential “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School, it has become de rigeur for the chattering classes in the media and academe to tear down the historic faith of Western civilization. What often goes unnoticed among conservative Christians is that large elements of the Right often despises Christianity as well. This right-wing attack on Christianity has become a cultural phenomenon on its own, and one not yet properly understood.
There was a time, roughly between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, when the paleoconservatives looked like an insurgent force. In 1992, they found in Pat Buchanan a powerful presidential contender, and one who listened to their advice. The paleoconservatives and the paleolibertarians had patched up old disputes and come together in the John Randolph Club, a group whose meetings in Washington drew journalistic dignitaries, including but by no means limited to Buchanan. At one such gathering on Jan. 18, 1992, Murray Rothbard gave legendary speech in which he famously envisioned the “repealing the twentieth century.” The paleos were insurgent. But eventually the weaknesses of the paleo side eventually came to show: excruciatingly limited funding, exclusion from the national media, vilification as “racists” and “anti-Semites,” and finally, strife within their own ranks. In retrospect, this was all predictable, although for me it was hard to grasp how totally the fall came when it did.
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