Someone unfamiliar with American political history might be forgiven for thinking that American social conservatives have historically been in favor of individualism and small government and have only recently embraced big government restrictions on civil liberties, in response to the radical left. This narrative has not been questioned enough. Over at the conservative Catholic site First Things, right-winger Sohrab Ahmari recently urged the right to abandon its fixation with “protecting individual liberty,” in response to the supposed phenomenon of “Christians coercively squeezed out of the public square.” According to Ahmari, up until now, conservative Christians have mostly been interested in being left alone to practice their faith, only to be continuously harangued by the authoritarian left. The fact that a key example Ahmari uses to support this point is drag queens reading to children in public libraries might suggest that he is suffering from a victim complex. But even non-conservative critics of Ahmari often let one of his central premises go unchallenged. Over at the libertarian site Reason.com, Stephanie Slade writes, “you’re probably old enough to remember a time when conservatives opposed the idea that it was the federal government’s job to solve most problems. A time when they thought that individuals, families, and community groups, not politicians, were responsible for building a good life and a good society.”
Even further to the right, far left social justice warrior excesses are blamed for the rise of white supremacist movements. In an anonymous YouTube comment that went viral after it was signal-boosted via social media, a self-described “straight white man” writes,
I have never been interested in white ethnonationalism until I started being told I was somehow unworthy of being a part of society by the media/the left. I do not feel superior to anyone based off of my race, but I also will not be told I am inferior. I don’t want to be involved in hateful subcultures, but when the message I’m overwhelmingly receiving from the common culture in general is ‘fuck you for being a straight white man,’ white nationalism starts looking much more appealing. If the rest of society has formed race-based gangs as in a prison, I’m going to start sitting with the other whites for group protection.
Just as Ahmari and company claim that conservative Christians did not start supporting big government until secular leftists provoked them, some white supremacists and their sympathizers claim that they would rather not promote segregation, but are driven to do so by anti-white, anti-male, anti-heterosexual bigotry.
These claims cannot be taken seriously without ignoring basic facts about American history and politics. The American right generally—and the American Christian right even more so—have never been in favor of limited government or opposed to identity politics. In various eras of American history, they backed slavery; Jim Crow; the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans; censorship of everything from anti-slavery literature to Communist propaganda, flag desecration and pornography; massive legal restrictions on the rights of women and LGBT people; the surveillance state; and a host of other uses of government power, designed to promote an authoritarian state that privileges white, heterosexual, cisgender men above everyone else. It was against the backdrop of these examples of socially conservative identity politics and big government that the so-called Social Justice left emerged. That does not mean that social justice warriors, however we define the term, are always right in how they go about promoting their causes. But they cannot be blamed for creating something that they are, in fact, reacting to. If the modern white supremacist movement is a reaction to the left, then what were slavery and Jim Crow a reaction to? If the modern men’s rights movement is a response to feminism gone wrong, then what was the denial of women’s suffrage in the 1800s a reaction to? If the excoriation of the Covington Catholic students on social media justifies an authoritarian right, what does the abuse of Native American children by missionary schoolteachers justify? If Black Lives Matter is how we got Trump, how did we get Andrew Jackson in the 1820s? If the modern anti-LGBT movement is a response to excesses by modern LGBT radicals, then what was the legal persecution of LGBT people throughout American history a reaction to? Are we expected to believe that historical practices such as sodomy laws, confining trans people to insane asylums, and bans on crossdressing and mixed sex dancing were some sort of pre-emptive reaction to future persecution of conservative Christians?
Consider the case of Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell was one of the most prominent conservative American Christians in the latter half of the twentieth century. He was pivotal in forging an alliance between evangelical Christians and the Republican party. He preached in favor of government-imposed racial segregation during the 1950s, denouncing interracial marriage and Brown v. Board of Education. As open support for segregation became less socially acceptable, Falwell focused his attention on other groups, such as gay people—opposing virtually every gay rights reform from the 1970s to the early 2000s. He not only opposed gay marriage and adoption but was also against allowing gay people to teach schoolchildren. He even warned that legalizing homosexuality could lead to bestiality. He denounced a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights to women and complained that “many women have never accepted their God-given roles.” Free speech was a negotiable principle for the good reverend. He backed obscenity laws and sued Hustler magazine for a satirical article about him, a lawsuit so anti-free speech that even the Rehnquist Court could not sustain it. The writings of Ahmari feel as if they could have easily come from Falwell, minus Ahmari’s Catholicism.
If one is tempted to dismiss Falwell as an anomaly, consider the right-wing magazine National Review. David French, one of the conservatives who attracts the most ire from Ahmari, for his supposed libertarianism (despite French’s opposition to gay marriage, LGBT in the military and trans bathroom rights) writes for the magazine. Other writers for the magazine have defended French against Ahmari’s critiques. The magazine’s original kingpin was William F. Buckley, a conservative Catholic like Ahmari. In the 1950s and 60s, Buckley offered qualified defenses of legally enforced Jim Crow. As late as 1964, he opined that, “segregation is morally wrong if it expresses or implies any invidious view of a race, not so if it intends or implies no such thing.” Later, he would similarly try to rationalize South African apartheid. He was a lifelong foe of gay marriage. While he took a libertarian position on the war on drugs, he favored censorship of pornography. In more recent years, National Review has run articles defending racial profiling and Bob Jones University’s now defunct interracial dating ban and opposing gay marriage and the Supreme Court’s repeal of sodomy laws, as well as taken an official editorial position in favor of banning flag burning.
What, then, of the Republican party establishment? Since its shift to the right in the 1960s, the GOP has been no stranger to big government authoritarianism and identity politics. In his first foray into California politics, Ronald Reagan combined denunciations of anti-discrimination legislation with calls for stricter obscenity laws. We have recently discovered from old recordings that he called black Africans monkeys. When California finally repealed its sodomy law in 1975, Reagan defended the old law because, “You can make immorality legal, but you cannot make it moral.” As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush called his state’s sodomy law a “symbol of traditional values” and opposed attempts to repeal it. As president, he called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage in all fifty states. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush were key advocates of Florida’s anti-gay adoption laws, some of the nation’s harshest. On virtually every occasion that Congress considered an anti-flag desecration amendment, Republicans voted for it overwhelmingly. In 1995, House Republicans voted for the amendment 219–12, Senate Republicans 49–4. Had only conservative Republicans voted, support would have likely been even more lopsided: many of the nay votes came from Rockefeller Republicans, such as Jim Jeffords, Chris Shays, John Chafee and Robert Packwood. It should be obvious to any unbiased observer that the idea of a pro-small government, pro-free speech, anti-identity politics version of conservatism, dominant until recently, is cockamamie.
In 1820, Thomas Jefferson tried to rationalize his intellectual misgivings about slavery with his support for it in practice: “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson feared a massive slave uprising in the US, of the kind that he and George Washington had unsuccessfully tried to suppress in Haiti. Thus, Jefferson tried to use the fear of what blacks might do in retaliation for slavery to retroactively justify enslaving them, even though continued enslavement obviously made violent revolts more likely. Similarly, the authoritarian and identitarian right use the actions of leftists to retroactively justify continuing to do what they have always done.