In the early 1960s, the conservative movement faced a crisis and its intellectual leader responded appropriately. William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review—the nation’s leading conservative journal of opinion and ideas—took a stand against the John Birch Society. The Birchers were a small extremist group that engaged in racism, anti-Semitism and the spreading of conspiracy theories. Rather than ignore their excesses, Buckley took on the task of purging them from mainstream conservative politics, and ultimately, they were forced to retreat to the fever swamps of American society.
Some 30 years later, Buckley would again be called upon to stand up to hate when he banned both Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran from the pages of NR because of their anti-Semitism.
Bill Buckley has been gone for more than a decade. But a new challenge has arisen to the intellectual integrity of conservatism and it remains to be seen whether today’s thought leaders are equal to the moment.
As far as many on the left are concerned, a latter-day Bircher is currently working in the White House.
Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump and the architect of his immigration policies is the bête noire of liberals. The 34-year-old descendent of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe is known for his hard-line stance for strict enforcement of the laws against illegal immigration. He’s also provoked outrage for his advocacy for a reduction in the number of legal immigrants and refugees allowed into the country, as well as changing the criteria under which they might be admitted.
The discovery of a trove of emails from Miller from his time working as a Senate staffer before Trump’s election in which he promoted articles from a website that has at times advocated ideas associated with white nationalists has provoked a storm of criticism.
The source of the emails was the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a liberal group that has a habit of smearing those who disagreed with its leftist ideology as racists or Islamophobes as well as scandals involving its own governance. But 100 House Democrats and some Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Union of Reform Judaism have joined the SPLC in demanding that Miller resign.
The demands for his head are primarily about his views on immigration. They only reference the guilt by association charge in which he is damned for sharing articles that were published by a site that published other articles that were offensive because it helps to discredit him. When calls for Miller’s resignation are joined by open anti-Semites like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are treated by their liberal colleagues as rock stars rather than hatemongers, it’s hard to take this as anything more than partisan gamesmanship.
As with criticisms of Trump’s statements about the August 2017 neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., the problem is the White House’s refusal to unequivocally and consistently condemn extremists rather than circling the wagons.
Whether or not you disagree with them, Miller’s arguments about immigration are not proof of white supremacism. But many of those who share those views base their stands on bogus racial and ethnic theories that are racist. Miller’s disinterest in drawing a bright line between himself and such people has given comfort both to his boss’ political enemies and to racists on the far-right.
Yet the debate about how conservatives should view alt-right trolls isn’t limited to the discussion about Miller. While attention has been focused on left-wing and anti-Israel groups, who seek to silence or “cancel” conservative speakers on campuses, right-wing extremists who call themselves “groypers” are also a growing problem.
One of their leading figures is a Nick Fuentes, a 21-year-old YouTube personality and white nationalist. He was a participant in the Charlottesville march and has spewed anti-Semitism, including Holocaust denial. He and his followers have targeted conservative writers like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk, as well as Donald Trump Jr.
Groups like the Zionist Organization of America have called for Fuentes to be banned by social-media companies. But Michelle Malkin, a nationally syndicated columnist and former Fox News analyst with a considerable following, has defended him and other groypers. As far as she is concerned, these repellent haters are allies in a crusade to halt all immigration in order to keep out non-Europeans (which is ironic since Malkin’s parents were immigrants from the Philippines), and so should be encouraged rather than shunned. Not surprisingly, Malkin also is an opponent of anti-BDS laws and remains untroubled by the groypers’ anti-Semitism.
To its credit, the Young America Foundation, a conservative campus group founded by Buckley has cut ties with Malkin after being one of their featured speakers for 17 years. This has set off a storm of hate from the groypers and their defenders who think YAF and others, including stalwart conservatives like Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), are sellouts in an existential war against Trump opponents because they oppose racism and anti-Semitism.
This is a moment that is similar to the times when Bill Buckley ostracized the Birchers and anti-Semites in order to maintain a firewall between conservatives and hatemongers. That’s a line that left-wingers, who are eager to demonize and delegitimize anyone who dissents from their doctrines, don’t recognize. That is the sort of thinking that has led to the sort of political civil war that is doing so much damage to our discourse.
What’s needed now is for more leading conservatives in politics, including those who work in the West Wing of the White House, and the media to join the YAF in pushing Malkin, Fuentes, the groypers and anyone else who supports white supremacism out of the public square and back into the fever swamps where they belong. The stakes involved in this struggle involve not just the future of American conservative thought, but the fate of a nation that is being torn apart by partisan hate.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.