In his review of David Frisk's new biography of the right wing organizer, If Not Us, Who? William Rusher, National Review, and the Conservative Movement, Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice issues a warning to all those Republicans now gathering in Tampa who might be poised to repeat the disaster of their national convention in 1964 when "extremism in defense of liberty" produced one of the worst defeats in American political history.
Rusher was one of the co-founders of National Review along with William F. Buckley, Jr.. He was also a founding father of the modern conservative movement whose delegate hunting operation he helped organize, called "the Syndicate," allowed Barry Goldwater to seize the GOP presidential nomination in 1964, writes Kabaservice.
What is not fully appreciated, though, says Kabaservice is the extent to which Rushser's operation "provided much of the conservative movement's ideological content and personnel, as well as its tactics and tone."
Many of the tactics employed by the anti-communist Syndicate, said Kabaservice, were borrowed directly from the Communist Party itself, including manipulation of elections, the creation of front groups, intimidation, slander, agit-prop techniques, and an ends-justify-the-means approach.
"Rusher was rather proud of his mastery of what he called 'the black art of winning conventions' and other political contests," says Kabaservice, "but the darker side of the Syndicate's influence is still felt today: it provided a template for a movement that knows very much about how to incite resentments and oppose establishments, but very little about how to govern."
This is very much the Republican Party that Mitt Romney will be inheriting this week as it grudgingly makes him its standard-bearer.
Recent evidence of the GOP's paucity of interest in or acumen for real governing was the transformation of a sure thing in Maine into an open Senate seat in 2012 when long-time Republican Senator Olympia Snowe shocked the political establishment by announcing she would not be seeking reelection this year.
Conventional wisdom declared Snowe's retirement proof that "moderation is dead" in Washington and Snowe's own statements about today's toxic political polarization also had a sort of plague-on-both-your-houses quality to them.
But Snowe also let it be known through relatives and other proxies (particularly her cousin, Georgia Chomas) that the real cause of her early retirement were the social conservatives and Tea Party activists who'd been hounding Snowe at home while party leaders in Washington had been ignoring the issues she cared most about.
"There was a constant, constant struggle to accommodate everyone, and a lot of pressure on her from the extreme right," said Chomas, "And she just can't go there."
Olympia Snowe isn't quitting her Senate seat because "partisanship" in Congress had become too much for her. She's quitting because the Republican Party has.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery then liberals and sensible conservatives alike should be afraid - very, very afraid -- that the Tea Party and other radicalized conservatives are exhibiting all the classic symptoms of what historian Crane Brinton calls the "fever" of revolution.
When angry, placard-carrying hooligans (solemnized as "common sense, constitutional Americans" by Palin-style conservatives) descended on congressional town hall forums in the Summer of 2009, the protesters were reading from strategy manuals supplied by their corporate-backed handlers to exploit their smallish numbers for maximum effect.
In a leaked memo called "Rocking the Town Halls - Best Practices" that Politico got from a FeedomWorks volunteer, those protesting health care reform were advised to:
• "Artificially Inflate Your Numbers: Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half."
• "Be Disruptive Early And Often: You need to rock-the-boat early in the Rep's presentation, Watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early."
• "Try To 'Rattle Him,' Not Have An Intelligent Debate: The goal is to get him off his prepared script and agenda. If he says something outrageous, stand up and shout out and sit right back down. Look for these opportunities before he even takes questions."
In these town hall disruptions where congressmen were burned in effigy or hurried from community meetings under police escort, experienced political observers recognized the disturbing replay from 1964 when a small but dedicated cadre of right wing militants took over the Republican Party and then nominated for president someone who went on to lose in one of the biggest landslides in US political history.
Tom Hayden, who as co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society was no stranger to radical politics, would have immediately identified these town hall disruptions as being inspired by the same kind of right wing tactics he observed at the Peace Corps national conference in 1961, when conservative Young Americans for Freedom arrived "unannounced" and then, just like the town hall disruptions in 2009, "spread out in a diamond formation -- an old communist trick -- in order to extend their influence."
All throughout the early 1960s, a disbelieving GOP establishment looked on helpless as their party was overrun by militants whose tactics seemed borrowed from left-leaning totalitarians in their self-appointed role as vanguards of some proletarian "silent majority."
Barry Goldwater's chief political strategist, F. Clifton White, had seen firsthand what communists were able to do when he lost a local race to these "Reds" and came away impressed by how they got their way through "secrecy, rigid unity, manipulation of parliamentary procedure and sheer ruthlessness," writes Kabaservice in his own Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.
White saw in the communists' example "the methods by which a small, disciplined minority, uninhibited by bourgeois scruples over fair play, or tradition, or truth could defeat a majority and bend an organization to its will," writes Kabaservice.
By 1963, conservatives were able to put these borrowed leftist tactics to work to take over the Young Republican organization in what one observer called a "rightist putsch."
At the YR's national convention, Kabaservice says conservative "bully-boys reduced the proceedings to chaos with constant noise and clamor, fistfights, thrown chairs, and a flying-wedge effort" to physically force the presiding officer off the podium.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak covered the proceedings and was revolted by "these hard-faced, implacable young men with crew cuts and buttoned down collars shrieking into floor microphones and chanting and stamping their feet in unison in a systemic effort to disrupt the convention."
Moderates objected to this "anti-democratic, take-no-prisoners, ends-justify-the means approach to grassroots politics" as well as to the conservative's "utter contempt for their fellow delegates and for the parliamentary institutions which under-gird the practice of freedom."
But moderate complaints proved futile as the tactics used by these reactionary factions were merely a warm-up to the main event, which was the right wing takeover of the GOP itself when the party assembled for its National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
When Nelson Rockefeller rose to speak to the Republican convention about the Know-Nothings who'd infiltrated their party and his own firsthand experience with the John Birch Society's hate literature, goon tactics and bombings, the reaction he got anticipated by more than 50 years the alarming reaction from Republican audiences during this season's presidential debates on everything from executions, gays in the military, women's health, even the fate of comatose patients. As Rockefeller addressed the convention he was met with what Kabaservice calls "a storm of boos, chants, jeers and catcalls" that made it impossible for Rockefeller to be heard no matter how hard the chair tried to gavel the hall to order.
"It is still a free country," Governor Rockefeller roared back. "Some of you don't like to hear it, ladies and gentlemen, but it's the truth."
An ABC News research director who was there said the experience was "horrible. I felt like I was in Nazi Germany."
Earl Warren blasted the "odious techniques of subversion and intrigue" being used by a "well disciplined few to capture and control our party."
Casper Weinberger decried the efforts of "a small, narrowly-based and heavily-financed group whose real aim is the destruction of the Republican Party."
And President Eisenhower called the convention "unpardonable - a complete negation of the spirit of democracy. I was bitterly ashamed."
Re-reading the history of that earlier time when a Republican Establishment once more faced off against extremist elements in their midst, it's hard not to feel both sympathy and contempt for those high-minded, do-gooder Republican "moderates" who were caught so totally off guard by disciplined right wing cadres whose hatred of communism -- as well as their admiration and imitation of it -- gave them a much better understanding of the ruthlessness it takes to win, and hold, power.
If Crane Brinton were alive today and still writing history, the author of the classic Anatomy of Revolution might tell us to cut these moderate Republicans some slack. After all, he'd no doubt say, like moderates everywhere who found themselves caught in the currents of revolutionary times these "establishment" Republicans were paddling up-steam.
In contrast to moderates who must maintain a functioning society, radicals are favored by their "fanatical devotion to their cause," their discipline, their unquestioning obedience to their leadership, and their utter unconcern at the contradictions between what they say and what they do. Even their small numbers are no impediment to their success since it gives them the ability "to move swiftly, to make clear and final decisions, to push through to a goal without regard for injured human dispositions."
Every revolutionary period has its own rhythms and life-cycle, says Brinton. And one of those enduring constants is that, in the short run, radicals almost always prevail. That is due to the fact that radicals are customarily "better organized, better staffed, better obeyed." Further, while radicals have "relatively few responsibilities" their opponents have "to shoulder some of the unpopularity of the government of the old regime" with its "worn-out machinery."
Think President Obama struggling to dig out the country from the crisis these unhelpful Republicans bequeathed us.