New York Times Book Review Explores 'Right-Wing Dallas' as 'Nut Country'

December 21st, 2015 1:51 PM

While The New York Times Book Review ignores books by conservatives from David Limbaugh to Mark Levin, they analyze conservatism by going to Sam Tanenhaus, who edited the Book Review from 2004 to 2013. One small problem: He wrote a book issued in 2009 predicting The Death of Conservatism. Tanenhaus proclaimed today's conservative movement was like "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." So how wise does he look?     

On Sunday, Tanenhaus reviewed two obscure books from the Left purporting to explain the origins of today’s conservatism. First, there was the book Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy by Edward H. Miller.

The Times is still in love with the idea that “far right” elements in Dallas caused the murder of JFK, not the actual communist-influenced Lee Harvey Oswald. Miller’s publishers at the University of Chicago Press promote the book this way:

On the morning of November 22, 1963, President Kennedy told Jackie as they started for Dallas, “We’re heading into nut country today.” That day’s events ultimately obscured and revealed just how right he was: Oswald was a lone gunman, but the city that surrounded him was full of people who hated Kennedy and everything he stood for, led by a powerful group of ultraconservatives who would eventually remake the Republican party in their own image.

In Nut Country, Edward H. Miller tells the story of that transformation, showing how a group of influential far-right businessmen, religious leaders, and political operatives developed a potent mix of hardline anticommunism, biblical literalism, and racism to generate a violent populism—and widespread power.

Even if Miller was an accurate historian of Dallas in the 1950s, one should ask: How does that reflect on American conservatism in 2015? This is how Tanenhaus began, very loosely:

Whenever we’re in danger of forgetting that the modern Republican Party is captive to a movement, one new excitement or another will jolt us back to reality — whether it is a trio of high-flying presidential candidates who’ve collectively served not a single day in elective office or an uprising by congressional Jacobins giddily dethroning their own leader. Each new insurrection feels spontaneous even as it revives antique crusades to abolish the Internal Revenue Service, “get rid” of the Supreme Court or — most persistent of all — rejuvenate the Old South. Half a century before Rick Perry indicated secession might be an option for Texas, John Tower, the state’s first Republican senator since Reconstruction, accepted the warm greeting of his new colleague, Senator Richard Russell, the Georgia segregationist, who reportedly said, “I want to welcome Texas back into the Confederacy.”

Tanenhaus blurs crude segregationism and an intellectual conservatism of Austrian economists, Russell Kirk, and National Review. In this review, he can’t seem to find an actual intellectual thread between Dallas white supremacists and today’s elected Republicans any stronger than vague allusions:

Miller’s account of ultras and so-called moderates jostling at the same ideological trough prefigures our own Republican moment, with its competition between “insiders” and “outsiders,” all promising war on the feds, the differences coming down to shadings of stridency and flair. The only thing wrong with Nut Country is its title, which trivializes a timely, intelligent, penetrating book. Miller, an assistant teaching professor at Northeastern University Global, explains that the epithet was the one Kennedy used to describe Dallas on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963 — the date when “city of hate” assumed its darkest meaning. This isn’t really fair. Lee Harvey Oswald, a Communist misfit from New Orleans (by way of the Bronx and Moscow), was anomalous by any measure. Nevertheless, he too drifted into the go-getter’s sunstruck paradise, and his sick ambitions were fed by Texanism.

The second book Tanenhaus reviewed was Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism by Kathryn Olmsted. It’s apparently great that it praises Communist Party agitators as heroes: “Olmsted’s vivid, accomplished narrative really belongs to the historiography of the left. Its heroes include Wobblies and Communist Party organizers, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and honorable administrators like George Creel and Gen. Pelham Glassford, who intervened when they could, to varying effect.”

There is no "nut country" that the commies and the Wobblies inhabit. In the end, Tanenhaus snootily asserted that it was emotion rather than intellect that powered Nixon, Reagan, and today’s Republican majority in Congress:

It was emotional protest more than ideological precept that breathed new life into the Republican Party and built the longest-lasting majority since the New Deal. The tribunes of that majority came from California (Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) and Texas (the George Bushes). They also happen to be the only Republicans elected president since 1960. These two fine books help us understand why.