I arrived in Washington in June 1980, just days after getting married.
I was hired to be a reporter/assistant editor for The Political Report, an obscure newsletter published by the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation, an organization I knew little about except that it was “conservative.” (Hey, give me a break. My focus in graduate school and my primary area of teaching was international politics.)
I knew even less about the man who ran it, Paul M. Weyrich, though I quickly discovered he was one of the leaders of the “New Right.”
My job was to write about congressional races, report on candidates and their campaigns, and separate serious contests and candidates from the unserious. Paul made it clear to me that the paucity of coverage of congressional races — yes, there was a time when House and even Senate races received little national attention — made it difficult for conservative contributors and activists to distinguish between serious candidates and oddballs.
So, I was a nonpartisan reporter (and in a matter of months, editor) in an organization where everyone else was ideological and promoting an agenda.
Paul left me alone, never telling me what to write. In fact, he defended me when conservatives assumed they would get positive coverage in the newsletter. (Iowa GOP Sen. Roger Jepsen once went ballistic when I wrote that he could lose to Democratic challenger Tom Harkin. Paul, who spent time in radio news, defended my analysis and told me to ignore him.)
My first few days working for Free Congress were not promising.
Jammed into a small workspace with “pro-family” activists and a couple of political editors/reporters, two of my new colleagues spent much of their time disparaging evolution and defending creationism.
I arrived home each evening to tell my wife that I needed to look for a new job immediately.
But I focused on learning how to be a reporter, handicapping candidates and races, and putting together a Rolodex of D.C. and national sources who followed races and knew something about elections.
Weyrich was influential on the right because he had a political action committee, the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, which recruited conservative candidates, conducted campaign schools and helped campaigns with grassroots organization. He hired savvy, young political operatives for his field team, and some of them became well-regarded campaign consultants or political operatives.
I always thought Paul was by far the most thoughtful of the New Right strategists. Howard Phillips, who ran something called The Conservative Caucus, struck me as a loon, while direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie seemed primarily interested in money-making. Phyllis Schlafly had some success derailing the Equal Rights Amendment but lacked Paul’s Capitol Hill experience and contacts.
In fact, many of the people in and around the New Right didn’t seem all that serious. They were extreme ideologues like Larry Pratt, the executive director of Gun Owners of America, and “journalist” John Lofton. Many were on the religious right — not surprising given Paul’s role in energizing the conservative evangelical community politically.
Though Paul helped establish institutions on the right that sought to copy what liberals and Democrats had done, I doubted that the New Right would have long-term influence in the GOP.
Obviously, I was wrong.
The New Right helped establish the modern conservative movement, and what I heard from the New Right activists eventually became the message of Donald Trump.
I should have memorized Alan Crawford’s 1980 book “Thunder on the Right: The ‘New Right’ and the Politics of Resentment,” which warned about the danger that a populist, reactionary movement would pose to the rule of law.
As Crawford wrote:
“… there appears an alarming impatience with the complex and cumbersome processes of government, an anti-institutionalism that often manifests itself in a frivolous disregard for established channels, a desire as (Pat) Buchanan and (Kevin) Phillips put it, to ‘end-run’ the bureaucracy, the courts, and even Congress and state legislatures. As such, the politics of the New Right may be more aptly described as radical, or reactionary, populism, seeking to incite a revolt (or many small revolts) of ‘the people’ against the institutions of representative government.” (pp. 317-318).
“Convinced that the political system is corrupt, the New Rightists distrust and resent those who work within it, since those who do must compromise; and cooperation means cooperation with the liberal enemy. Only the loners are pure. Consequently, any right-of-center politician to achieve a truly national stature is automatically suspect. ‘By the time they get into a position to help us, they are no longer one of us,’ M Stanton Evans has explained. Those who work with the liberals are ‘soft’ or ‘squishy.’” (p. 239).
The insurrectionists of Jan. 6, 2021 — as well as attorneys Sidney Powell, John Eastman and Jeffrey Clark, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, too many members of Congress, and Trump — had a lot in common with the populists of the New Right.
But in 1980, most Republican members of Congress had respect for their institution, for the rule of law and even for their partisan opponents.
Yes, Ronald Reagan won the White House and the GOP gained 12 Senate seats in 1980. Among the Senate winners were “New Right” conservatives such as Alabama’s Jeremiah Denton, Idaho’s Steve Symms, North Carolina’s John P. East, Oklahoma’s Don Nickles and Wisconsin’s Bob Kasten.
But even with those new members, the Senate was still run for years by GOP veterans such as Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, Bob Dole of Kansas, Bob Packwood of Oregon, John W. Warner of Virginia, Alan Simpson of Wyoming and John C. Danforth of Missouri, pragmatic conservatives and institutionalists who were joined in 1980 by newly elected and like-minded Republicans Warren B. Rudman of New Hampshire, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Andrews of North Dakota and Slade Gorton of Washington.
The House also had its share of uncompromising conservatives. But newly elected pragmatists like Lynn Martin of Illinois, Dan Coats of Indiana, Vin Weber of Minnesota, Marge Roukema of New Jersey, David Dreier of California and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin joined veterans like Bob Michel and Tom Railsback of Illinois, Margaret M. Heckler of Massachusetts, Bill Frenzel of Minnesota, Sid Morrison of Washington and a slew of GOP members from New York state to produce a minority that respected long-held norms and values.
Now, unfortunately, the GOP has capitulated to Trump and his allies. There are few, if any, Howard Bakers, Bob Doles or Bob Michels still around. What Alan Crawford warned about has happened. And the Republic is at risk.