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Conservatives and Race

Michael J. Lee

Donald Trump often talks like a flagrant racist (Sheffield, 2016). Racists include the telltale definite article in generalizations, such as “the blacks,” “the Hispan- ics,” “the Muslims,” and they blurt defensive declarations—“Look at my African American over here” or “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”—when denying their racism (Diamond, 2016). Racists assume that “Mexican heritage” biases a federal judge born and raised a Hoosier in Indiana (Rappeport, 2016). Racists launch presidential campaigns declaring Mexicans to be “rapists,” sustain such campaigns by calling for both a ban on Muslim immigration and a domestic Muslim registry, and entreat racist followers with suggestive remarks at violent rallies and tweets styled in Nazi iconography (Gass, 2016; Osnos, 2015). Racists call neo-Nazis “very fine people” (Leonhardt & Philbrick, 2018). When a racist wins the presidency, other racists exalt (Jacobs, 2018; Thiessen, 2018).

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and his presidency raise questions about how Americans talk about “one of the most sensitive issues in American life” (Jaffe, 2018). To be sure, there is much about Trump that is politically unprecedented, but when it comes to racism in American politics, the question whether Trump and Trumpism are new is an open one (Flaherty, 2017). There are many analyses of if and how Trumpism extends, perverts, or deviates from past racist practices, even those of his father Fred Trump (Kaufman, 2016). I am, however, interested in one historical question, one essential to what it means to be a conservative American and what American conservatism means: Is Trump a logical outgrowth of conservative doctrine and rhetoric about race?

This question has divided historians and conservatives of all kinds, both before and after Trump. It is so vexing that some scholars have reexamined their own work for blind spots as to if American conservatism is doctrinally, performatively, or both, racist (Perlstein, 2017). Part of the reason this historical question is so tough to answer is that the range of possible answers is so polarized. Several writers have drawn straight lines between slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, “massive resistance,” “states’ rights,” the Southern strategy, and the postwar transformation of the South into a Republican stronghold (Gertz, 2017). Although many conservatives would prefer it to be otherwise, Trump may have been produced by conservatives’ long-standing racism (Lowndes, 2017). He was “the natural evolutionary product of Republican platforms and strategies that stretch back to the very origins of modern conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s” (Heer, 2016; Hogeland, 2017). Some scholars theorize conservatism, at its core, as a deeply repressive intellectual enterprise (Robin, 2017). Lichtman’s (2009, p. 3) White Protestant Nation typifies this line of thought: “The right has held together as a political movement since world War I though its core commitment to conserving white Protestant values and private enterprise, not free enterprise.”

Others hold fast to the opposite view. Conservatism, they argue, emerged as a movement committed to certain consequential ideas, not certain skin colors. Several insider histories of the conservative movement barely mention race at all (Rusher, 1984; Regnery, 2008). Those that do mention race say that conservatism became a vibrant political force precisely because its intelligentsia removed the riffraff: the paranoid cranks and the reactionary racists. Nash (1998, p. 260) put it definitively: “The conservative leadership strenuously abjured any notions of innate black inferiority.” “Ranting, vulgar racism” was not permitted in National Review or other respectable conservative magazines or books. William F. Buckley and conservative thinkers of the 1950s at National Review knew this well; they removed “the crazies” and “the racists” and molded the many remaining types of conservatives into an intellectual “coalition” (Keene, 2012). This “kick the bums out” narrative of conservatism’s post-World War II origins is widespread among both conservatives and historians of conservatism (Alexander, 2004; Brooks, 2016). In their mid-century quest for intellectual respectability, conservatives triaged racists.

Still other analysts of the Right offer more nuanced explorations of race and the Right. It is not that conservatives have always been racist or they never have. Instead, conservatives evolved on race questions. According to this measured view, conservatism began, in part, as a white reaction to black gains, but self- identified conservatives cleaned up and mainstreamed—whitewashed is the best descriptor, perhaps—their racist language in the mid-1960s (MacLean, 2006, p. 226; Phillips-Fein, 2011, p. 731). Trump, it can be inferred from this position, is a throwback to an older, avowedly racist, pre-National Review Right, perhaps a Right that was never snuffed out and existed parallel to the conservative intelligentsia in William F. Buckley’s orbit.

This chapter tests these theories of conservatism’s origins. I read and parsed ever)' article about race in National Review between November 19, 1955, its first issue, and December 31, 1968, just after the tumult of the election of Richard Nixon and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

I am not the first to go back through National Review looking for Trumpism, racism, or anything else (Nwanevu, 2017). After Trump’s election in 2016, the pursuit became rather proforma. No writer, however, has done so rigorously or systematically over an extended, defined period of time. I examined how dozens of National Review writers portrayed white people, black people, slavery, the South, school desegregation, the civil rights movement, sit-ins, church bombings, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and more.

I adopted a broad method to select and analyze texts; if a National Review article in that timeframe mentioned white or black people specifically or civil rights, the South, or code words like “urban poverty” generally, it made the cut. Once I assembled scores of National Review articles about or around race, I coded the ways in which the dozens of authors talked about race. One could certainly go further and analyze ever)' issue of the magazine past 1968 or include other magazines, such as Human Events or the Manion Forum (Hemmer, 2016). There is, however, no better time period to start examining American conservatism’s founding ideas, and there is no better venue to answer questions about race and the origins of the American Right. National Review remains one of American conservatism’s founding documents (Jurdem, 2015); it was its north star for decades (Nash, 2016). If any racist bums were getting kicked out of conservatism, the bouncing would have happened in its pages.

All racial appeals are not created, designed, delivered, disseminated, or interpreted the same. As such, I employed an expansive spectrum of racial rhetoric.

I placed arguments characterizing racism as a violation of the basic humanity and natural equality of people, that race was a social construct with no determinative effect on human behavior, at one pole. At the other pole were race-conscious, racially explicit, tribal claims about the biological essences and intellectual and physical capabilities of different races. Various kinds of coded, camouflaged, and otherwise indirect claims about race fill out the middle of this scale; the infamous 1998 Willie Horton television advertisement lives here alongside the 1980s mendacious myth of the “welfare queen” as well as less overtly hostile pretensions of color-blindness. All of these middling points are claims about race that mention race barely, suggestively, or not at all. Dog whistle rhetoric enthymematically suggests racist conclusions without adopting an overtly racist position. Lopez (2014, p. 3) explains that “racial pandering” via dog whistles are both “inaudible and easily denied” yet also powerful producers of “strong reactions.” Such dog whistles not only encourage and sustain racial hierarchy on ostensibly race-neutral premises, they also suggest a stealth masking in which racists, who might savor a racist joke told among like-minded friends, conceal their true identity when they speak in “polite,” “politically correct” society'.

This scale is admittedly imperfect especially if discourses about race, including identity politics, from across the political spectrum are included. Dog whistles, moreover, are tough to differentiate and evaluate without considering the dog.

Weaknesses aside, the scale is a helpful way to parse different discourses about race on the Right that do not lend themselves to simple categorization. Arguments about race in the middle of the scale exhibit serious differences in sincerity, incitement, provocativeness, and form of innuendo. Some galling race-baiting, racial divisiveness that profits from backward impulses gets as close as possible to overt racism while maintaining the thin pretense of neutrality (Coates, 2012). Other appeals may be styled as less incensing subliminal racial grievances, and some glib appeals to color-blindness might be restrained or wrongheaded without being racist.

Extending the sound metaphor in dog whistles and air horns can help make sense of these differences. As we get closer to the overt racist pole, a class of arguments I am calling air horn appeals, statements about race lose subtlety, nuance, and cloaking while gaining volume and force. There is a unity of content and form at this air horn pole; strident arguments about biological inferiority are rendered clear and loud. Arguments on this end advance the central idea that race matters as a foundational force in human life because one group of similarly colored people need to be wary of nefarious peoples of different hues.

As race discourse moves away from the air horn end of the scale, it gradually loses brazenness and explicitness and addresses race more ambiguously, circuitously, or evasively. The far end of the spectrum, what I call the euphonious end, advances claims with a similar premise, race matters, but with entirely different warrants and conclusions. Arguments on the euphonious end hold that race is a social construction, but race still matters because of racists and racism. The dog whistles in the middle can vary tremendously in their incendiary style, suggestiveness, and, although it is harder to measure, sincerity. These dog whistles include all manner of coded ways to invite racist conclusions without making racist statements. Those arguments closest to the euphonious end concede that racism is shameful and deny and deflect the relevance of race to the topic at hand. Those closest to the air horn end use scarcely concealed racial appeals to suggest a dark menace without any straightforward contention about any race as a whole. Former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ (R-NC) infamous “White Hands” ad that helped him win a 1990 Senate race against Harvey Gantt, the first African- American major party nominee for statewide office in North Carolina history, is instructive (Link, 2008). The ad showed a faceless pair of white hands angrily balling up a job rejection letter while a narrator lamented that racial quotas made skin color more important than job qualifications. “White hands” was a racist ad masquerading as an egalitarian ad. Helms, of course, aggressively disavowed racism claiming that he quit using bigoted terms after being spanked as a child (in Link, 2008, p. 409).

Was Trump anticipated, created, or propelled by decades of the Right’s racial appeals from across this sound spectrum? I chronicle several historic air horn instances where explicitly racist claims became conservative rally points, and three themes emerge. First, National Review, per Buckley’s penchant for intellectual combat, developed conservatism by debating what was conservative; the magazine pit rival conservatives against one another on all manner of questions, including race (Nash, 1998). Although National Review writers routinely agonized about Alabama Governor George Wallace’s segregationist presidential candidacy, they also covered him and gave him a platform, for example, to tell James Jackson Kilpatrick in 1967, “The first thing I want to say is—and you tell this to Buckley— Buckley thinks I’m a racist, you know—is that I’m no racist. . . You’d be amazed at how many friends Lurleen and I can count among the Negro voters” (Kilpatrick, 1967, p. 400).

Second, there is a meaningful difference between overt and covert racism, a difference in kind between air horns and dog whistles. There is not a single straight line between the panoply of race stories in early National Review, its air horns, its dog whistles, or its many claims to color-blindness, to Trump, and to the so-called alt-right. Third, the Republican Party, conservative mass media, and conservative intelligentsia writing books and creating content for magazines like National Review are often aligned, even overlapping, but they are not identical. Intellectual and electoral conservatism are not concentric circles. Getting elected as a Republican, a conservative, or a conservative Republican is a different rhetorical enterprise than writing articles and selling books about what conservatism can or should mean. Over the past 50 years or so, conservatives seeking popularity and power through elected office or huge talk radio audiences have popularized racist messaging and profited from its cynical use, while many in the conservative intelligentsia have tried to steer conservatism from color-consciousness to colorblindness. Put differently, National Review routinely fretted about how racial electioneering might consume intellectual conservatism but conservative electioneers never worried about the reverse, that conservative theorizing about race would harm electoral efforts (Buckley, 1956a, p. 6; Meyer, 1967, p. 527).

Although National Review was guilty of several instances of explicit, flagrant, air horn racism, the bulk of early National Review’s race coverage and commentary fits into one of three different kinds of dog whistle narratives, spin, equivalence, and redefinition. Conservatism and racism, therefore: are not synonyms, but some conservative skywriters found racism intermittently useful, and since Trump’s rise through Republican ranks began with his birther charges against President Barack Obama in 2011, racists have found conservatism and the GOP useful. Electoral and pecuniary expediency, far more than ideological necessity, drove conservatives to flirt with racists.

Air Horns and Dog Whistles

George Wallace reportedly learned a useful political lesson the first time he ran for governor of Alabama. John Patterson, his opponent in that 1958 election, was the sitting attorney general of Alabama. Patterson was a virulent opponent of Brown v. Board of Education, and he used his office to mitigate attempts to desegregate Alabama’s public schools. He sued the NAACP. He earned the Klan’s endorsement; he told voters that he was the keeper of the sacred Southern flame. Patterson, as Coates concluded, saw “right and wrong” with some clarity but saw electoral “upside in being wrong.” He helped his opponent learn the same lesson; Wallace later noted that white crowds did not care about “good roads and good schools” but “stomped the floor” when he began talking about race (Coates, 2012). Wallace, of course, was not a Republican, and neither were the Strom Thurmond-led Dixiecrats who walked out of the Democratic National Convention in 1948 over civil rights for African Americans. But Wallace was quite popular among conservatives; the Alabama governor espoused ideas that were seconded for years on the Right, and whatever gap existed between Wallace-ites and conservatives closed quickly (Carter, 2000).

There are just a few other moments in American history after World War II when race-baiters dropped their masks, dispensed with sanitized, post-racial rhetoric, and candidly admitted stoking racial fears for political or monetary gain (Devega, 2016). John Erlichman told a journalist that much of Nixons antidrug policy was, in fact, racial targeting. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs,” he asked himself. “Of course we did.” (Baum, 2016). Another maskdropping moment came from Republican strategist Lee Atwater. After working on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, then in the Reagan administration, Atwater did a turn at Paul Manafort and Roger Stone’s consulting firm after the 1984 election, ran George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1988, and finally helmed the Republican National Committee (Perlstein, 2012). In 1981, Atwater agreed to an interview with a sociologist about contemporary Southern politics. Atwater’s frankness astonishes still, as does the similarity between his and Wallace’s philosophy of racial profiteering:

You say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.

(Perlstein, 2012)

Atwater drew a distinction between overt and covert racial appeals, racism by commission and racism by omission. The messaging may have been different, but Wallace and Atwater’s theories of the white electorate were identical: White people were drawn to dreams of racial superiority and driven by nightmares of black advancement (Brady, 1996).

Later in the interview, Atwater claimed that Southern politics had finally moved beyond race. It was a self-serving claim for a member of the Reagan administration to make because, just one year prior, Reagan could have chosen any venue, some homespun venue in Tampico, Illinois, for his first general election speech, but he and his team chose a site with loud echoes of Wallace: the

Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi (Greenberg, 2007). Speaking seven miles from the earthen dam where the bodies of three Freedom Summer workers were hidden in 1964, Reagan developed a strident case for “states’rights” (Lopez, 2014, p. 4). Atwater’s most infamous contribution to racial profiteering in American politics, the Willie Horton television advertisement in 1988, showed definitively that politics had not eclipsed race. For all his earlier strategizing about abstract racial appeals, this ad was vivid, concrete, and emotionally powerful. It showed Americans a black monster with a name. The ad makers, moreover, doctored the details of the case to exaggerate racial fears (Schwartzapfel & Keller, 2015).

Preferring to focus on Communism and the Cold War, National Review focused on race only intermittently its first few years. Those few 1950s forays into race—Ponce de Leon (1956, p. 16) wrote, “In Black Africa itself slavery still flourishes whenever the authority of the white man is not present”—have aged miserably. The frequency of articles on race, highlighted by a special 1964 race issue, increased in the 1960s. One infrequent but noteworthy air horn offender was the sociologist Ernest Van den Haag, a true believer in biological and cultural racial hierarchies. One scholar posited that Van den Haag’s thinking was typical for National Review (Bogus, 2011, p. 164). Van den Haag (1964, p. 1061) suspected that racial aptitude was genetic but, to resolve any doubt, more research was needed. He then depicted African-American homes as “culturally deprived” and urged for segregated schooling so as not to keep the white kids back. Van den Haag (1968, p. 287) later wondered why “Negro ghettoes” were the scenes of so many riots when the “original Jewish,” “present-day Chinese,” and “many parts of the world” lived peacefully in worse conditions. National Review itself answered Van den Haag’s query as far back as October 1956 when Sam M. Jones cited “data on juvenile delinquency” in integrated Arkansas schools showing substantial increases “in truancy,” “theft,” “vandalism,” and “inter-racial fights” by “Negro boys or girls” (p. 10).

National Review writers did not always lean on scientific authority to back claims of black inferiority. Sometimes, as in Robert J. Dwyer’s (1963, p. 517) essay “I Know about the Negroes and the Poor,” they hocked lay anecdotes. Dwyer, who asserted special knowledge because he grew up in a poor, predominantly black Milwaukee neighborhood, reported that his neighbors were addicts and delinquents:

Many of my neighbors are living on welfare checks. God knows they are not rich. But they all smoke, though no provision in made in the budget for cigarettes, and they all drink beer or whiskey, although, again, no provision is made therefore in the budget.

Dwyer’s neighborhood was populated by stereotypes.

The baldest, basest lines in National Review were not about black behavior, and they were not Van den Haag’s or that of some other obscure mid-century. They were Buckley’s, and he posited a racial caste. Buckley opined about racial issues like Brown v. Board or the Montgomery bus boycott consistently in National Review's early years, but two columns stand out as definitive accounts of his views on racial hierarchy. The first, published in August 1957, is worth quoting at length:

The central questions that emerges ... is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically between civilization and barbarism.

(Buckley, 1957, p. 149)

This paragraph features a collage of racism, colonialism, and conservative populism. Buckleys argument moved in two stages. First, white civilization was distinct, global, and superior. Second, cultural superiority should be codified in law all over the world, even in black-majority areas.

Alongside a series of canonical books published between 1945 and 1964, National Review essentially invented American conservatism (Lee, 2014). Early conservatives agreed what was wrong with modern political culture, but they largely disagreed about why these enemies were wrong and what political ideals should replace them. That’s where National Review, with Buckley as the editor, became foundational. National Review was the flagship magazine of a fledgling political movement, and, as such, defined what counted as conservative and how conservatives should react to issues of the day. Buckley opted to publish a heterodox conservatism, and the result was “baroque” (Phillips-Fein, 2009). Fie gave visibility to libertarians, Catholic theocrats, fusionists, John Birchers, Burkeans, pro- and anti-Eisenhower essays, pro- and anti-Ayn Rand essays, and even a monarchist. But he did, as the Birchers found out, draw some hard lines (Buck- ley, 2008). Buckley could have endorsed, clearly, forcefully, and consistently in National Review, a conservative coalition shorn of racists generally or segregationists specifically. He did not, and he even lent his own pen to white nationalism.


Better evidence than Buckley’s early editorials is not likely be found if we are attempting to show a baton passing from National Review's Manhattan office across Midtown to Trump Tower. The race-motivated voters that helped Trump win in 2016 were encouraged, not excoriated, by National Review since the midcentury (Lopez, 2017). As indefensible as Buckley’s editorials were, however, they existed in a broader context of intra-conservative contentiousness about race that complicates this connection (Allitt, 2017, p. 618). First, although early conservatives universally opposed federally mandated desegregation, they persistently grounded their opposition in something other than race. They claimed to oppose the federal mandate, not the prospect of integration. The 10 or so post-Wo rid War II canonical books that have galvanized conservatives for generations, such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative or Whittaker Chambers’ Witness or Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, replicate this nonracial reasoning; they say almost nothing about race (Phillips-Fein, 2011, p. 731; Critch- low, 2007, p. 73).

That is, core conservative writings are guilty of omitting race, of indirectly licensing racism, but they are not guilty of explicit racism (Goldberg, 1995, p. 140). Many conservative books of the era, such as, for example, James Jackson Kilpatrick’s The Sovereign States, might have indulged in far more theorizing about racial biology if not for shrewd editors. Kilpatrick, like Atwater a generation later, was candid in private letters about the role race played in his promotion of massive resistance, a deliberate divide between public reasons and private motivations that even some conservatives of the era noticed in interviews with cagey Southern officials (de Toledano, 1960, p. 178). But those are not the books, thinkers, or officials that conservatives have elevated into timeless statements of conservative ideals or ideal conservatism (Lee, 2014).

Second, conservatives were not univocal on race and racism (Bogus, 2011, pp. 160-161). Buckley faced responses to his editorials both immediately and over the long term. His brother-in-law, Brent Bozell (1958, p. 209), responded scathingly in National Review to Buckley’s pro-white editorials calling Buckley’s views on race both “dead wrong” and harmful “to the promotion of conservative causes.” Bozell’s editorial indicated a prime place for anti-racism in the embryonic conservative coalition and so did Buckley’s editorial decision to publish Bozell’s response in the first place. Although many conservatives omitted race in their narrative of conservatism’s post-World War II origins, some have not. Some singled Buckley’s early racist editorials out as “insulting” and “laughable.” Even National Review’s resident racial sociologist, Van den Haag, was not immune to in-house criticism. The magazine published several rebukes of his essay on genetic intelligence including one proclaiming that it was “unthinkable that the magazine supposedly avowed to expressing the philosophy of national conservatism” should print such bigotry (Van den Haag, 1964, p. 1061).

Buckley’s writings on race, moreover, changed considerably after those two early infamous efforts. Some argue that his views shifted sharply after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 (Allitt, 2017, p. 618). Others say he was completely “lost” during this period (Barndt, 2017). Either way, Buckley (1963, p. 397) addressed Southern racism directly after the tragedy:

We need to say now to the South: Whatever you believe the Constitution says about integration, you never fancied, or had any right to, that the Bill of Rights was not an unambiguous part of it. You have an obligation then to protect the right to peaceable demonstrations.

In another 1963 (p. 498) essay, “The Call to Color Blindness,” Buckley cited James Baldwin’s vivid descriptions of racism and asked whether “such meanness” could be “cured by legislation.” After the murder of Medgar Evers, Buckley sympathized with those activists who felt that “justice” was impossible in Mississippi (1964a, p. 1136). He called white attacks on black churches “barbarism” (Buck- ley, 1964b, p. 263). He called a white, anti-integration riot at the University of Alabama “a disgrace” (Buckley, 1956b, p. 5). Buckley wrote that he hoped and prayed for African and Americans to be “truly free” from both racial suppression and the “domestic menace” of “overweening government” (1963, pp. 47-48). His essays after the Birmingham bombing sounded less like apologias for segregation and more like lectures to Southern conservatives to obey laws and court orders; Buckley wanted to distance himself, his magazine, and his cause from racism badly enough that he sued Artie Shaw in the mid-1960s for saying that National Review “sells hate” (1965a, p. 446).

Many other National Review pieces of the era heeded and practiced Buckley’s call to color-blindness. In his voluminous takedown of the proposed Civil Rights Bill in 1963, James Jackson Kilpatrick found the law an unconstitutional, net harmful, despotic “very bad bill,” but not because African Americans did not deserve protections from discrimination (1963, p. 231). Roughly five years later, conservative luminaries like Barry Goldwater and John Ashbrook aggressively dissociated George Wallace and segregation from conservatism. One writer urged conservatives to listen to African-American protests in the late 1960s. There was much “in the black community,” he concluded, that conservatives would support (Mitchell, 1968, p. 742). Some writers reinterpreted typical race-mongering about “gangs” and “Black Power” as tacitly conservative endorsements of local control and individual responsibility (Buckley, 1967a, p. 887).

The Spectrum of Racial Rhetoric

The vast majority of National Review essays from 1955 to 1968 fell somewhere in the middle between color-consciousness and color-blindness. This space is vast and tough to map. In an effort to clarify and categorize the variety of conservative discourses on race, I have grouped conservative racial commentary into three arguments. First, many National Review essays conducted public relations on behalf of whatever regions or institutions were criticized elsewhere as racist.

This largely meant publishing voluminously on the secret, pleasant South ignored by civil rights leaders and the national press corps, but it also meant defending police officers and even Rhodesia. Second, National Review essays routinely accepted, with some conditions, that African Americans were oppressed, but they engaged in a false equivalence by suggesting that any attempted remedies were as bad or worse. Third, National Review engaged in a systematic redefinition campaign. Few, they insisted, on the Right were actually racists defending segregated schooling; they were advocates for principles like local control. These three arguments were flexible; some writers used all three in the course of a few essays.


National Review was intellectual conservatism’s developer, explicator, and debate coach. But when it came to areas (the South, even America as a whole) or institutions (the Republican Party, police) that gave conservatism a black eye, the magazine was the Right’s self-appointed spin doctor. When national media broadcast fire hoses and attack dogs down South, National Review depicted a, placid, and improving region. When Southern mayors and sheriffs exhibited racism, the magazine humanized Southerners as a whole. When Left activists suggested that the nation was racist, National Review printed paeans to the American dream. When civil rights leaders suggested that black people’s lives had not materially improved in years, National Review led the cheer with statistics and anecdotes about a nation on the mend. In total, National Review countered bad stories about the nation, the South, white people, and white-majority institutions with good ones. The magazine contested the reality of racism in America, and not just by denying its existence. Instead, the magazine’s many writers contested the context of racism arguing that individuals like Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett and Alabama politician Bull Connor were racist exceptions to fair rules.

The best way to demonstrate the features of National Review’s racial spin is to spend time where the magazine did: among white Southerners. Kilpatrick was the magazine’s de facto Southern correspondent and expert, but he was far from the sole contributor on the subject. Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk were schooled in the Southern Agrarian tradition. The portraits of the South painted by these and less prominent contributors of the age were celebratory to the point of being worshipful. These writers profiled supposedly content Southern African Americans with “no issues, crises or causes” to keep them up at night (Whalen, 1958, p. 229). Southern white people gathered in churches “with the family,” caught fish “in the surf,” drank “whiskey on the piazza,” and talked “to the Negroes who drive the tractors across the big fields” (Harrigan, 1958, p. 225). These were appealing, nonthreatening images of a homespun, friendly people protective of a way of life that outsiders could not understand. Americans had gotten whipped into a frenzy about an “unreasonable” and “uncharitable” stereotype of Southerners as “brute racists indulging an anarchic passion to smash an underprivileged race” (Buckley, 1956c, p. 5).

Depending on the writer, white Southerners were either everyday people with everyday problems or a chosen, exceptional people to be honored (Kilpatrick, 1965, p. 319). White Southerners were regular people, not monsters. “A few tumors” grew in the lower South, Kilpatrick continued, but the prognosis was good and “the condition” was “operable” (1965, p. 319). Kilpatricks other essays indicated that he thought whatever medical treatment was needed could be self-administered; these ordinary Southerners were changing for the better. They had, in his words, gotten “new glasses.” They now saw the harm of segregated restaurants, schools, and libraries; they saw employment and housing discrimination; they saw black people as fellow citizens; they did “not know exactly what to do about it,” but they, at long last, saw “the Negro point of view” (1961a, p. 141).

Other writers, by contrast, would not admit to any malady in any portion of the South. Southerners were peerlessly noble, deserving of extravagant plaudits. Calling for some Southern Agrarian schooling, Kirk (1967, p. 38) sang that “Southern Dogma made war upon a heresy: the worship of those impostor gods called Speed and Mass.” Another writer lauded Southerners similarly: “The Southerner is the classicist who enjoys the way, leaving the end to God” (Lytle, 1958, p. 236). For Richard Russell, Southern slavery actually proved Southern exceptionalism globally. Southern “progress” on race “is without parallel in history.” “The Negro,” he insisted, was better off in the South than in any “other place in the world” (Russell. 1957, p. 105).

National Review writers used the same casts for Americans that they did for Southerners. Americans were either normal or notable, everyday sinners or pioneers in their earnest effort to cope with a complex problem (Ponce de Leon, 1956, p. 16). As the civil rights movement and America’s racial reckoning moved out of the South, so did National Review. The magazine’s writers spun the South as undeserving of criticism in the 1950s, and they spun the nation similarly in the mid-to-late 1960s. America, Buckley (1967a, p. 887) announced, was “not exceptional” and its struggles with “genuine racial integration” were decidedly typical.

National Review’s, America was also an exceptional nation; Americans were an exceptional people; whatever racial problems that existed were being cured exceptionally. “There has been,” Van den Haag (1968, p. 284) declared, “more improvement in the last twenty years than in the previous two hundred.” African Americans looked particularly well off in a global framework to one writer. They did not live in “ghettoes” but “suburban clusters.” Sure, they might have felt “constricted,” but white people felt similarly in their clusters. Ultimately, however, no racial group in America lived with “the squalor, the overcrowding, the legal restrictions” of the “walled slums” of “Central Europe” (Mount, 1967, p. 905). Whether in the South specifically or America generally, there were no bad actors with evil intentions, only good or even great people. Whatever problems existed paled by global or historical comparison and were being fixed or fixing themselves.


Liberal attempts to create heaven on the earth actually created hell on the earth. This argument has a long history on the Right, and the sentiment that naive, perhaps well-meaning, liberal proposals backfired when confronted with hard reality was memorably called “the immanentization of the eschaton” by Voegelin (1985, p. 179). Hirschman (1991, p. 12) named this blowback argument “the perversity thesis.” He explained, “Attempts to reach for liberty will make society sink into slavery, the quest for democracy will produce oligarchy and tyranny, and social welfare programs will create more, rather than less, poverty.” To be sure, not every National Review writer parroted replicas of this perversity thesis; they all did not make causal arguments. Some just stacked up the harms of identifi- ably liberal programs against racial violence in the nation in a false equivalence of liberal and conservative programs gone awry. “If the South has its quota of racial troubles, the North has more than its quota of labor troubles,” one writer juxtaposed (Harrigan, 1958, p. 225). Kilpatrick (1961b), similarly, reasoned that refusing to employ nonunion labor was of the same moral status as racially segregated workplaces (p. 235). That is, National Review frequently published claims of “But, they are doing it too” or “But, they are just as bad.” Mostly, however, National Review writers were comparing like items, the negative consequences of civil rights activism with racial hierarchy. Again and again, National Review essays of this period posit at least two wrongs created by liberals or civil rights advocates. First, the losses, especially among white people, were tremendous, morally repugnant, and equal to or greater than any historical suffering by African Americans. Second, these attempts to create racial justice unleashed chaos.

Integration was harmful, these writers concluded, but not necessarily because of some primordial need to separate people who did not look alike. Instead, communities held emotional attachments to their traditions, and heavy-handed and haphazard intervention both robbed and enraged white communities. Weaver (1959) took to National Review not to defend segregation per se but to defend some sense or social order, what he called a regime. He was referring to codes of interaction among people beyond legal ordinances, their “beliefs, traditions, customs, habits, and observances.” Integration struck a blow against the Southern regime, its very way of life. Without a regime, the region would be defenseless against “the sense of lostness, the restlessness, and the aimless competition which plague the modern masses and provoke the fantastic social eruptions of our era” (p. 587). Mid-century National Review writers agreed with Weaver’s causal logic even while they did not replicate his ethereal arguments. For them, integration would not just fail; it would worsen the problem or create new ones of equal or greater magnitude. The result of forced integration could even be resegregation as white communities sent their children to private schools (Bozell, 1958, p. 202). The allegedly integrated South could become “far more deeply segregated” than the segregated South (Kilpatrick, 1961a, p. 141).

One wrong, forced integration, should not replace a previous wrong, segregation. Frank Meyer (1963, p. 496) adopted such a libertarian line; legal segregation was a “monstrosity” but “forcing private citizens to regulate their behavior in an opposite manner” is “an equal monstrosity.” The consequences could also be far more violent. In response to National Guard troops stationed in Little Rock, Kilpatrick (1958, p. 275) wrote

Conceding, for the sake of discussion, that the Negro pupil has these new rights, what of the white community? Has it none? Demonstrably, the enrollment of Negro pupils in hitherto white schools leads to far more than what the Court once termed mere “disagreement” with legal principles. Manifestly, race mixing of certain schools now leads to knifings, dynamit- ings, and other forms of violence. ... By far the worst is yet to come.

Knifings and dynamitings were preferable to the image that Revilo Oliver (1956, p. 10) conjured up of National Guard troops in Clinton, Tennessee. These troops “strangely resembled the scenes in Czechoslovakia when battalions of storm troopers, supported by the inevitable tanks, arrived to exterminate the population of a luckless village.” White Southerners as depicted in National Review were beleaguered, bedeviled people “being attacked, pushed around, scorned, ridiculed” (Harrigan, 1958, p. 225). Buckley, too, contributed to these harrowing scenes of an occupied South calling any federal police presence intended to enforce national law the “paratroopers” (1958, p. 149).

Buckley and many other writers employed these and other rhetorics of extravagant consequences well after the initial crises over desegregation in the 1950s. Integration, which was intended as a “salvation for all,” another claimed, was “a flop,” “an excruciating failure” (Mitchell, 1968, p. 646). This line of backfire argument was, of course, not unique to integration either. Federal civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s was a primary target for National Review’s backfire critique. Buckley wrote that the Civil Rights Act was a foolish attempt to “appease the unloosed multitude” (1964a, p. 1136). The massive urban disturbances in cities like Detroit in the 1960s were touted by National Review writers as tragic proof of their position (Buckley, 1967b, p. 885). One of National Review’s core rejoinders to virtually any attempt at racial remedy was to predict a worsening. Racists would be more violently racist; integration caused greater segregation; welfare increased poverty; civil rights increased legal wrongs; quick changes caused quick disasters.

National Review’s backfire stance was often made in tandem with a related argument. This one contended that civil rights invited extraneous consequences, specifically Communism. These writers made this case on a few levels. First, they equated the ideology of civil rights with a social and political flattening of traditional hierarchies. They saw civil rights as a prelude to forced, unnatural equality among races, genders, individuals, and beyond (Mattson, 2008, pp. 52-55). Weaver (1957, p. 67) made the case most directly in an essay called “Integration is Communization.” This claim that civil rights was Communism’s American gateway, that Soviets had direct organizational ties to African-American leaders, or that civil rights were indirectly inspired by Communist revolutionaries around the globe spanned the timeframe I covered. Weaver’s causal argument from the mid- 1950s was more or less replicated in a barrage of essays during the unrest of the mid-to-late 1960s. In this later period, National Review writers cited FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as evidence of a Soviet connection to civil rights, speculated that civil rights groups like SNCC were “infiltrated” by Communists, that civil rights as a limited goal had been replaced by “revolutionary” and “confiscatory socialism,” and, ultimately, that Communism had “come to roost on the rifle barrels of negro militants in our cities” (Morton, 1964, p. 578; Buckley, 1965b, p. 358; Meyer, 1966, p. 996; Bethel, 1968, p. 496). The violent, Communist consequence of civil rights did not have to negate the backfire argument to be true. These arguments reinforced each other; civil rights could worsen race relations and lead to greater racial violence while simultaneously advancing Communism in America.


The final dog whistle theme evident in National Review essays in this period was redefinition. This was the least race-conscious of the dog whistle themes; redefinition was premised on an insistent denial that civil rights opposition had anything to do with race. Put differently, National Review writers routinely refrained collisions between white and black communities as issues that had nothing to do with race whatsoever. In this way, race was flatly irrelevant to responsible conservatives, and people who kept insisting on the importance of race were the ideological extremists, racial radicals, kin to Black Panthers or the Ku Klux Klan.

Redefinition provided an alternative to the other two dog whistle themes: spin and equivalence. In each of those themes, National Review writers addressed race directly. They told stories of tame white people and dwelled on the visceral consequences of an upended racial status quo. Those employing the redefinition theme did the opposite. They largely refused the language of black and white; they refused to acknowledge race. As Bjerre-Poulsen (2002, p. 131) notes,

the defenders of white supremacy in the South had for years attempted to give their struggle a more palatable image under the banners of “States’ Rights” and “Constitutionalism”—both words which also had a pleasant ring to conservative ears. In the guise of “Constitutionalism” the issue was not the political and social repression of black Americans in the South, but the encroachment of the federal state.

In this theme, National Review's writers protested directly against any allegation that their politics were motivated by race. Some of its first issues featured this distinction between color blind conservatism and racism. The libertarian firebrand Isabel Paterson (1955, p. 10) wrote that any society should be suspicious of enfranchising “ignorant, irresponsible, unpropertied populace” regardless of skin color. “It was not,” she concluded, “and is not a race problem.” Buckley (1956d, p. 7) offered another such a dissociation early in the magazine’s existence when he leaned on William Faulkner to separate “political” opposition to desegregation from “racial” opposition. Buckley, nearly 10 years later, said that American racial injustice was “the blackest of our sins” but clarified that pursuing “the American dream” had nothing to do with subordinating “the Negro” (Buckley, 1965c, p. 273). Another writer specified that coercion, not race, motivated Southern resistance, contending, “the question is not so much whether children of African and children of European stock shall study in the same classrooms. It is rather whether they shall be compelled to do so by an arm of the federal government” (Davis, 1956, p. 11).

What liberals and civil rights activists hastily labeled race issues were, in fact, more aptly called federalist matters, issues of local versus national control. Southern massive resistance to desegregation was a protest movement about the locus of sovereignty. As Buckley (1956e, p. 5) argued, “Indeed, support for the Southern position rests not at all on the question whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side, but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.” Additionally, “central government” was too removed from local ways of life, “local subdivisions,” and “the hearts of men” (Buckley, 1956f, p. 5). Dismissing the influence and number of naked racists, Buckley (1962, p. 304) said that Southern resistance was the product of a “devoted belief” in segregation as suiting the “social needs” of the South as southerners were, by and large, presumably prudent thinkers; their political motivation was “home rule,” “the essence of the American system.” A more local, “libertarian” conception of self- government would benefit both the black and white communities (Buckley, 1966, pp. 759-760).

This redefined position was color blind both to racial strife and to racial remedy. Conservatives held that racial strife was due to an overemphasis of race among both white and black people, and they held that racial remedies like forced integration were flawed because they were overly concerned with achieving a preordained ideal of a race-mixed society. In this narrative of redefinition, then, conservatives cast themselves as caught between racist extremes, white liberal radicals and black power on one side and white supremacists on the other. Conservatives were the only ones charting a proper, color blind course. “Integration,”

Buckley (1967a, p. 887) compared, was the perfect “opposite” of South African apartheid in that both were “total and coercive.”

The Left was easily tarred, but National Review writers found the racist Right a useful foil as well as they charted this sensible-sounding middle course. “Black power,” another wrote, “is an infantile disorder,” but so was “white power” (Brud- noy, 1968, p. 1004). Buckley had found these castigations of both sides handy in the magazine’s early issues as well. “We have been hit over the head, good and hard, by perfervid partisans of both camps,” he mused (Buckley, 1956g, p. 5). Surrounded by extremist, single-minded, race-enamored thinkers, conservatives engaged in the more complicated intellectual task of balancing competing ideals. Conservatives sought ballast by emphasizing equality and fairness on the one hand and self-determination and tradition on the other. Per this line of thought, conservatives were the only non-racists in the whole country, the only thought- fill, nonideological tribe capable of following the facts to the best policy option.

There are at least two conclusions about redefinition. Redefinition was either National Review’s color-blind rejoinder to Buckley’s early “advanced race” editorials or other explicitly racist politicizing. Every time conservatives took umbrage at a racism charge, they also insisted that racism was harmful, should not exist, and conservatives should oppose it. On the other end, it is possible to conclude less charitably that the magazine “thrived by wrapping racism with ostensibly highbrow arguments about constitutional law and political theory, thereby appealing not only to self-confessed racists but to those who disliked the civil rights movement but believed themselves to be untainted by racist impulses” (Bogus, 2011, p. 169).


In this chapter, I have attended to a variety of discourses about race on the Right by exploring how National Review discussed race between its founding in 1955 and 1968. As a modern reader encountering 50-plus-year-old words on a longstanding controversy over race in America, I have tried to manage two competing interpretive risks. First, I have tried to check any impulse to cherry pick, to find evidence of racism in National Review, point straight to race-motivated conservative voters before and during Trump, and then close the case and call it a day. Considering the baldly racist lines in this magazine, there is also the risk of grading on a curve, of treating even the most tepid endorsement of black humanity, the most back-handed compliment of, say, Martin Luther King Jr. as an utterly magnanimous and profoundly brave. I have tried not to be quick to convict, and I have also tried to avoid transforming the least racist sentiment into “I Have a Dream.”

Second, I examined three dog whistle narratives evident in early National Review: spin doctoring, equivalency, and redefinition. To some extent, all of the middling, dog whistle narratives on a scale between air-horn-overt racism and euphonious discussions of race are matters of spin, framing, narratives, and counternarratives. Each of these three National Review narratives, to varying degrees and in varying rhetorical forms, puts a positive face on political opponents of civil rights organizing and advocacy and a devilish face on the Left. Each narrative answered bad news about the South with good news about the South, bad news about white people with bad news about black people, or bad news about conservatives with bad news about liberals. This consistent strategy ensured that, at their highest potential impact, liberal claims about institutional and individual racism would be rebutted. Even at their lowest potential, the counter-narrative strategy muddied the waters and reaffirmed many readers’ predispositions to believe that civil rights activism was based on hallucinated fictions about race relations.

When it comes to race, conservatives have blown air horns, used dog whistles, remained silent, and voiced anti-racism. More specifically, some National Review conservatives have posited race as an essential, biological set of aptitudes. Others went the other direction and saw race as an immaterial factor in human behavior but saw racism as powerful, nefarious, and, ultimately, eradicable. Much conservative writing about race fits somewhere well between these two poles where differences in inflammatory style, clarity of insinuation, and sincerity distinguish dog whistles from less discordant discourses. This variety complicates any easy conclusions about racism on the National Review Right.

National Review’s racial commentary is varied enough that the present-day researcher can find whatever evidence they want; it is easy to make lots of charges stick. With so many different conservatisms present, evidence to support virtually any indictment, except accusing National Review of Communism or atheism, is somewhere in the magazine’s many pages. As we look to the past to understand conservatism’s present, however, this ecumenical conservatism is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it appears that there were so many different conservatisms that it is incredibly difficult to say that National Review consistently and dogmatically promoted a racist conservatism. On the other hand, nearly all of these different conservatisms showcased in National Review held a line, maybe not exactly the same line, against federally enforced civil rights for African Americans. National Review often but not always rebuked racism, and National Review’s conservatism gave racists everything they might want even as it decried racist beliefs: local control, no federal intervention, a focus on white status, humanizing stories about white people, a suspicion about black claims of suppression, hostility to federal redress programs, antipathy toward the civil rights movement, and beyond.

National Review, to be sure, also published numerous, direct, and explicit takedowns of racism, and both the equivalency and redefinition arguments were premised on rejecting racism. These latter features clearly distinguish much of early National Review from, to offer comparisons, some of the emerging stars of conservative talk radio in the 1990s, some telegenic talking heads on Fox News, many pugnacious provocateurs in conservative book publishing, and some mainstream Republican politicians (Chait, 2016; Lopez, 2014). Rush Limbaugh, for instance, persistently described Barack Obama as “uppity” (Walsh, 2013); one commentator argued that Limbaugh used such provocations to “cynically” stoke “the racial anxieties of others in order to boost his ratings” (Friedersdorf, 2011). Black activists and black leaders, to put it bluntly, were also treated harshly in National Review. King, for example, was hypocritical, irreligious, and a source of violence (Herberg, 1964, p. 579; Meyer, 1965, p. 327; Buckley, 1965d, p. 179). After King’s death, Buckley eulogized him in the magazine; he got in some postmortem shots at King before concluding that he was “an apostle for peace” who “died to make men free” (1968, p. 379). In what was an unmistakable opportunity to incite racial divisions by dancing on King’s grave, Buckley chose otherwise.

The distinctions between air horns and dog whistles, and then further distinctions between the sounds different dog whistles make, are not trivial; they matter a great deal. Making racist arguments in public should be a shameful act; racism should be stigmatized, ostracized, shunned out of existence or, at least, out of public life into whatever private corners where stalwarts retire to whisper retrograde racist remarks to one another. Once noxious ideas or modes of speech are forced underground, their public power fades; they have no champions in schools, politics, or media (Allitt, 2017, p. 621). National Review did not tell anyone to support civil rights reforms, which is hardly a shock; however, it told conservatives to find reasons other than racism to justify their opposition. As low as that bar is, many, some intentionally, manage not to clear it.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Where do National Review's various positions on race fit in with the wider post-World War II conservative movement’s positions on race?
  • 2. Is National Review’s race coverage reflective of or consistent with the way conservative politicians campaigned on racial issues?
  • 3. Is the distinction between air horn and dog whistle racism useful? How?


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