A Vast Right-Wing Cry of Treason
In her new book, Ann Coulter gets McCarthy right—and makes conservatives mad.
Ann Coulter, the right wing's dial-900 girl—a rail-thin, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, big-eyed leggy blonde who winkingly serves up X-rated ideological smut on liberals—is at it again. "Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy," Coulter writes—or sneers—in Treason, her follow-up effort to the best-selling Slander. Like its predecessor, Treason sits atop the best-seller charts, riding higher than one of Coulter's signature miniskirts.
But this time around, it isn't the liberals who are up in arms; it's the conservatives. Coulter's slurring of Democrats—from Harry Truman (soft on communism) to Tom Daschle (soft on Iraq) —has set off a howling chorus on the right. David Horowitz, Andrew Sullivan, and Dorothy Rabinowitz, among others, have been sternly giving Coulter history lessons, dredging up (once more) the anti-Communist credentials of Cold War liberals like Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey.
Horowitz et al. are right, of course. But why are they so worked up? And why reach back so far to single out a few "good" liberals? This just reinforces Coulter's argument that today's breed can be dismissed as a single lumpen mass. In other words, they agree with her. So, why the outrage? Here's a guess: Coulter's conservative critics fear that her legions of fans—and lots of others, too—see no appreciable difference between her ill-informed comic diatribes and their high-brow ultraserious ones, particularly since Coulter's previous performances were praised by some now on the attack.
But this is yet another case where the dumb public is right. Coulter's shocking book is not shocking at all. Nor is it novel. It is merely the latest in a long line of name-calling, right-wing conspiracist tracts, a successor to Elizabeth Dilling's Red Network, Fred C. Schwarz's You Can Trust the Communists (To Be Communists), and—a personal favorite—John A. Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason. This last, which sold 2 million copies in 1964, "explained" how the U.S. military had consciously served "the long-range political advantage of the communist conspiracy" in World War II. You can laugh, but by the time the 25th-anniversary updated edition was published, it had sold 7 million copies and Stormer was holding weekly Bible meetings for Missouri state legislators.
Coulter's cheerleading on behalf of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and "his brief fiery ride across the landscape," as she puts it, is what has her critics most exercised. Doesn't she understand, they ask, that McCarthy wasn't an anti-Communist at all but a dangerous outrider who harmed a noble cause by defaming and giving ammunition to the left? Again they're right—but only on rather drearily familiar grounds. Coulter is closer to the truth on the big question, McCarthy's actual place in the conservative pantheon. For many years he was precisely the GOP folk hero she says—a pivotal figure who invented the inside-the-Beltway insurgency that has been the party's staple for half a century now, currently embodied by flame-throwers like Tom DeLay.
During McCarthy's peak years, he was a GOP heavyweight egged on by the likes of Senate leaders Robert Taft and William Knowland. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, the GOP presidential nominee, shared a platform with McCarthy even though McCarthy had smeared Ike's mentor, George Marshall, by calling him a Communist dupe. And as Coulter says, the people—a lot of them, anyway—loved him, too. More than 1 million signed a petition supporting him during the censure debate of 1954, and half the Republican senators (22 out of 44) voted against the measure. A year after McCarthy's death in 1957 Robert Welch, another conspiracy-monger, founded the John Birch Society to pick up the cudgel and continue the "fight for America." Today, Birchers are remembered as kooks (and were often dismissed as such at the time). But these "little old ladies in sneakers" got a big hug from the conservative movement. Ronald Reagan for one—though mistily depicted of late as the ideological heir of the Democratic "traitors" Truman and JFK—made his political debut stumping for Congressman John Rousselot, a top California Bircher, in 1962.
And the McCarthy legacy lives on. Remember the attack ad used in the last election against Georgia Democrat Max Cleland—the one that spliced in videotape of Osama and Saddam? The McCarthyites used the same ruse to destroy Maryland Democrat Millard Tydings in 1950, only then it was a composite picture juxtaposing photos of Tydings and Earl Browder, the onetime leader of the American Communist Party.
Of course, using dirty tricks isn't news in politics—and their use is not limited to the right. Nor, for that matter, is the cry of treason. Woodrow Wilson dusted off the Sedition Act in order to jail critics of World War I. Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the indictments of more than two dozen isolationists in 1942 on the sham charge that they were Nazi agents. A judge threw the case out, but conservatives didn't forget.
All Coulter has done is import this approach—the flat-out accusatory style of hardball politics—into the realm of serious political discourse, ignoring the preferred arts of indirection and innuendo. And that's why her critics are agitated. It all comes down to tact—or tactics. It's OK to denounce a semi-fictional construct: a "Fifth Column" that opposes the Iraq War or "the axis of appeasement" or liberals who "hate" America and wish it ill. Or to imply, as William Safire did this week, that unnamed journalists pressing the WMD case are, "by their investigative and oppositionist nature," unwitting handmaidens of Saddam.
But the indelicate Coulter has crossed the line, stating openly the message others push subliminally. Consider her notorious comment, following 9/11, that the solution to radical Islamists was for the United States to "invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." This met with an outcry that was, again, loudest from the right. Within days, National Review online dropped her column. (And Horowitz, to his credit, picked it up for FrontPage.) But no one, to my knowledge, has bothered to point out that her formulation was prescient—right up to the eerie moment in April when Ari Fleischer was dodging questions about the evangelicals camped on the Iraqi border, poised to Christianize the Muslim infidels.
Ann Coulter may have committed "treason" against conservative good taste. But she's done the rest of us a favor. She has exposed the often empty semantic difference between the "responsible" right and its supposed "fringe."
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism.