Given its rather stunning durability, it’s probably time to acknowledge that this proto-fascist strain is a permanent feature of the American body politics. Like ugly feet or ears that stick out, it’s an unchanging piece of who we are. We are going to have to learn to live with it.
But it’s also true that this faction’s influence on the larger American culture ebbs and flows broadly over time. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with them much at all, because the far-right fringe was pushed back hard during the peak years of the New Deal. It broke out for just a few short years in the McCarthy era — long enough to see the rise of the Birchers — and then was firmly pushed back down into irrelevance again.
But the country’s overall conservative drift since the Reagan years and the rise of the Internet (which enabled the right’s network of regional and single-issue groups to crystallize into a single, unified, national right-wing culture over the course of the ’90s and ’00s) reenergized the extreme right as a political force. As a result, history may look back on George W. Bush’s eight years as the “Peak Wingnut” era — a high-water mark in radical right-wing influence and power in America.
Now, things are changing again. Every year or so for the past five years, I’ve written about the future prospects for America’s would-be fascists on the far right. And it’s time to take another look, because the political and cultural landscape they’re working in now isn’t at all the same one they were working in even three years ago.