Religion has become a major force driving the current wave of right-wing extremism.
The Republican Party is becoming a cult. Its leaders are in thrall to Donald Trump, a defeated former president who refuses to acknowledge defeat. Its ideology is MAGA, Trump’s deeply divisive take on what Republicans assume to be unifying American values.
The party is now in the process of carrying out purges of heretics who do not worship Trump or accept all the tenets of MAGA. Conformity is enforced by social media, a relatively new institution with the power to marshal populist energy against critics and opponents.
What’s happening on the right in American politics is not exactly new. To understand it, you need to read a book published 50 years ago by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, “The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970.” Right-wing extremism, now embodied in Trump’s MAGA movement, dates back to the earliest days of the country.
The title of Lipset and Raab’s book was chosen carefully. Right-wing extremism is not about the rational calculation of interests. It’s about irrational impulses, which the authors identify as “status frustrations.” They write that “the political movements which have successfully appealed to status resentments have been irrational in character. [The movements] focus on attacking a scapegoat, which conveniently symbolizes the threat perceived by their supporters.”
The most common scapegoats have been minority ethnic or religious groups. In the 19th century, that meant Catholics, immigrants and even Freemasons. The Anti-Masonic Party, the Know Nothing Party and later the American Protective Association were major political forces. In the 20th century, the U.S. experienced waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. After World War II, anti-communism became the driving force behind McCarthyism in the 1950s and the Goldwater movement in the early 1960s (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”).
The roots of the current right-wing extremism lie in the late 1960s and 1970s, when Americans began to be polarized over values (race, ethnicity, sex, military intervention). Conflicts of interest (such as business versus labor) can be negotiated and compromised. Conflicts of values cannot.