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Charlottesville Violence Highlights Republican Party's History Of Far-Right Factions

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For more on the relationship of the far-right to the conservative movement, we called up historian and journalist Sam Tanenhaus. He's written extensively on modern American conservatism. And I asked him if Republicans, as the party of the right, have a special problem with potentially attracting people who are too far right.

SAM TANENHAUS: Well, I'll tell you. Long ago, (laughter) more than 60 years ago when William F. Buckley Jr., one of the founders of modern conservatism, was discussing this very problem, he said there are more crackpots on our side than on the other side. And that doesn't mean that they don't exist on the other side, but it's been a problem for the American right for a really long time.

SIEGEL: You've been working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. And the issue was whether the John Birch Society, the very far-right, anti-communist, right-wing group, was to be considered OK and conservative. He said no, they're out of bounds.

TANENHAUS: It took him a while to get there, Robert. Initially he thought, well, there's no real enemies on the right. And he tried initially to distinguish between the leader of the organization, Robert Welch, who was kind of a paranoid nut, with the rank-and-file grassroots members of the organization who much of the time we're just kind of ordinary folk.

This is the problem we face now because we can point our fingers at the real extremists, the ones with the swastikas and who raise the arms in the sieg heil salute. But does that mean that everyone who votes for a candidate we don't like is buying that entire argument? That was the issue that Buckley and his colleagues at National Review, his magazine, worked through in the late '50s and early '60s and finally decided the entire organization had to be written out of the movement. This may be the crisis that the Republican Party is facing now...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

TANENHAUS: ...With the problem that they have a president who seems more indulgent of them.

SIEGEL: Well, I mean did the Republican Party of the Reagan era and of the 1990s and the Newt Gingrich era in taking over Congress - did they maintain the attitude that Buckley had had that there is a far-right, they're crackpots and they don't belong in the Republican Party?

TANENHAUS: Yes, generally they did. But you'll remember events like Waco, even the Oklahoma City bombing where we would sometimes hear from conservatives or libertarians that, well, there was a case to be made that, yes, it's extreme, but they're reacting to problems that originate in our government.

It's interesting to me to hear the attorney general and other Republicans very directly say, this is domestic terrorism. That's not a phrase we heard so much in the '90s and 2000s, even when violent episodes occurred.

SIEGEL: Is this - do you think this is a major moment here? Is this a watershed moment in at least the Republican administration's handling of issues of radicalism and bigotry and race?

TANENHAUS: It will depend on how they follow up. It's the policies that are going to make a difference. Is Attorney General Sessions still going to try to appear to be what (laughter) seems purging African-American voters from the rolls? That could end up having more consequence than whether he says the right thing at a certain moment.

You know, we've become so much a politics of - a political nation of rhetoric and epithets and speeches that we sometimes forget it's really the policies that matter in the end. This will be the test for him. Is he going to supervise a truly civil-rights-conscious Justice Department? That's a question for him.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, journalist, historian and author of "The Death Of Conservatism," thanks for talking with us.

TANENHAUS: My pleasure as always, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.