President Trump should learn from Washington state’s repudiation of the far-right John Birch Society in the 1960s.
RIGHT-wing extremism reared its ugly head last week in Charlottesville, home to Declaration of Independence drafter Thomas Jefferson. While that document is the moral standard to which our country strives, we can get from another generation of leaders — including former Washington Gov. Dan Evans — a blueprint on how to drive such extremism from our body politic.
Responding to pressure from members of his own Republican party, President Donald Trump, on Monday, finally condemned the right-wing groups by name in a formal statement, saying, “Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.”
The next day, in unscripted comments, Trump said the “blame is on both sides,” leading white nationalist leader David Duke to thank him for blaming the violence on the “alt-left.” It is wrong to suggest bigotry and racism are justified by the actions of others. Throughout history, Nazis and other racist groups have sought to justify their violent acts as a response to grievances against those they persecute.
Gov. Evans and other leaders of his generation faced similar right-wing extremism, but dealt with it much more directly. Living through the Great Depression and fighting in World War II, they saw firsthand how extreme ideologies of the left and right played on tribalism and racism to tear down civil society and undermine democracy. My dad also had a front seat to the carnage, as his village in Russia was burned to the ground by the Nazis in World War II.
But they also knew that extremism is a noxious weed that spreads if allowed to seed our political discourse. President Ronald Reagan responded to the Ku Klux Klan endorsement of his campaign by saying the “politics of racial hatred and religious bigotry practiced by the Klan and others have no place in this country, and are destructive of the values for which America has always stood.’’
In the mid-1960s, Gov. Evans confronted and expelled the John Birch Society that sought to ride Barry Goldwater’s conservatism into the Republican Party. Evans purged Birchers from the party even though Barry Goldwater was unwilling to publicly condemn the group.
Evans told the state convention in 1965 that “the Republican Party did not achieve greatness nor will it regain greatness by being the party of radicalism or of the lunatic fringe. Extremists of neither the right nor the left contribute to the strength of America or her political institutions. Both feed on fear, frustration, hate and hopelessness. Both have lost faith in themselves and in the American dream. …”
Gov. Evans helped found the Mainstream Republicans movement in Washington state. His speech ignited a national movement to remove the Birchers from the Republican Party. Nevada’s Paul Laxalt refused to accept the party’s nomination for governor unless the group was expelled. Governors and members of congress from California to Michigan, including Everett Dirksen and Gerald Ford, took similar stands.
It was Dad who showed me that even ordinary citizens can play a role in combating racism. He ordered a subscription to Ebony Magazine during a time of race riots and racial tension, saying it was important for us to see through the lifestyle magazine that black families had more in common with ours than they were different.
America is great because of our racial, religious, social and political diversity. But even as a diverse people, we have far more in common than what separates us.
In seeking to weed out extremists, Gov. Evans offered a six-part test for whether any group should be embraced by the Republican Party:
• Does it operate publicly or secretly?
• Is it motivated by faith and hope or by fear?
• Does it use the tools of truth or lies?
• Does it teach trust in our established political institutions or does it teach distrust?
• Within its own organization, does it follow democratic procedures or militant authoritarianism?
• Do its people understand the art of political compromise, or do they deal only in unrelenting absolutism?
These are the better angels of our political system: transparency, faith, truth, trust, democracy and compromise. They will guide us from the dangers of the extremist ideologies, if we have the resolve to follow.
Finally, members of the Greatest Generation concluded that extremism at home and abroad was best avoided by a well-functioning democracy. Journalist Tom Brokaw observed that “to work across party lines” is “more than anything else the Greatest Generation’s legacy.”
In battling extremism, bigotry and hatred, we gain strength by suspending our political differences, working together to fulfill the moral calling of the Declaration of Independence to build a society that fulfills the self-evident truth “that all men are created equal.”