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The mainstreaming of right-wing extremism

E.J. Dionne Jr. on

WASHINGTON -- "Some people say I'm extreme," an Indiana tea party leader told The New York Times at the height of the movement's rebellion in 2010, "but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too."

Uh-huh. The society, which still exists, enjoyed its heyday in the early 1960s and saw Communists everywhere. Robert Welch, its founder, even cast President Dwight Eisenhower as a "dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." The group was so far-out that the founder of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., published a 5,000-word excoriation in the National Review that excommunicated the Birchers from the responsible right.

And on Ike, Buckley's friend and ally Russell Kirk offered a priceless riposte: "Eisenhower is not a Communist. He's a golfer!"

The tea party loyalist's observation might bring a chuckle from those who still remember the old Birchers, but it was also telling. Why have our politics gone haywire, why have our political arguments turned so bitter, and why was Donald Trump able to win the Republican nomination and, eventually, the presidency?

A central reason has been the mainstreaming of a style of extremist conservative politics that for decades was regarded as unacceptable by most in the GOP.

The extremist approach is built on a belief in dreadful conspiracies and hidden motives. It indulges the wildest charges aimed at associating political foes with evil and subversive forces. What's striking about our current moment is that such groundless and reckless accusations have become a routine part of politics -- all the way to the top.

On Thursday night, President Trump sent out a typically outlandish tweet peddling deceit by way of promoting Republican Ed Gillespie against Democrat Ralph Northam in next month's election for governor of Virginia.

Trump wrote: "Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!"

If that tweet sounds like desperation, that's because it is. Northam, Virginia's lieutenant governor, has been leading Gillespie by 4 to 6 points in most polls. The Democrat was ahead by a whopping 13 points in a Washington Post-Schar School poll released the morning of Trump's tweet.

On one theory, Trump is trying to rally his enthusiasts to Gillespie to help him cut his polling gap. But the Trump ploy could also backfire: Roughly six in 10 Virginia voters disapprove of Trump's presidential performance, and nearly twice as many likely voters (30 percent) say opposition to Trump rather than support for him (17 percent) motivates their choice in the governor's contest. Trump's intervention could just as easily energize the larger group of Virginians who dislike him.

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