"My hates have always occupied my mind much more actively and have given greater spiritual satisfactions than my friendships."- Westbrook Pegler
This post is intended to be the first in a short series covering the careers of several twentieth century Conservative opinion leaders. I am writing this because of the dangerous notion that the miserable state of the Republican party today is the product of the cleverness of Donald Trump, or of the current generation of Republican leaders, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or even of recent Republican demagogues like Newt Gingrich or Ronald Reagan. In fact the miserable excuse for an ideology that defines modern Conservatism has been building for at least a century in this country, and at this point cannot be rooted out without destroying the Republican party and its leaders.
My choice for the first article is one Westbrook Pegler, who was the first columnist in the country to win the Pulitzer prize, and was a massively influential character from the 1930's until his mental dissolution and degeneration into pure anti-Semitic hatred in the 1960's.
Pegler was born in 1894. His father was a semi-successful reporter. He was the youngest American war correspondent during World War I. After the war, he was initially employed as a sports writer but within a few years had transformed into a political reporter and then a columnist. Initially a fan of FDR, he quickly morphed during the New deal, like such other figures as Father Charles Coughlin, into an anti-Democrat hate spewer. As described by Diane McWhorter in a 2004 Slate article:
"At his peak in the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler was a leading popularizer of one of the most concerted antidemocratic crusades in this country's history: the vicious backlash against the New Deal and the labor movement to which it gave legal protection. This anti-Roosevelt front included the country's major industrialists, anti-Semitic, red-baiting pamphleteers, Congressman Martin Dies' Committee on Un-American Activities, and an assortment of Depression-era demagogues (and men...who conspired with Hitler's agents in this country)...he quickly became a shrill cheerleader for the right's campaign to paint the New Deal's democratic advances as an internationalist Communist plot."
Of course, this is nothing but an early version of exactly the line pushed by Republicans today.
As his Wikipedia page says:
"In the 1950s and 1960s, as Pegler's conservative views became more extreme and his writing increasingly shrill, he earned the tag of "the stuck whistle of journalism." He denounced the civil rights movement and in the early 1960s wrote for the John Birch Society, until he was invited to leave because of his extreme views. (note: mainly extreme anti-Semitism.)"
A cartoon showing Pegler rooting out union corruption. It was catching a crooked union leader that initially led to his widespread popularity, but this rapidly morphed into a virulent hatred of unions which has typified Republican thought ever since.
By the fifties, this had reached the point that Pegler openly stated:
"clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry"; his embrace of the label racist, "a common but false synonym for Nazi, used by the bigots of New York"; or his habit of calling Jews "geese," because they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them, and foul everything in their wake."
This sort of talk was not enough, however, to prevent the leading Conservative "intellectual" of the era, the still revered William F. Buckley, from championing Pegler and his views.
To quote one more article, by J. C. Sharlet, in the Baffler, from 1999
"Pegler didn’t seem to have any politics; all he had was rage. From the Depression through the Cold War, he tilted at suspects familiar to Rush Limbaugh’s fans: foreign subversives, swindling politicians, the First Lady, corrupt union bosses, the elite, the effete, and, of course, homosexuals.
Pegler carried on his campaigns in the name of one particular “little guy” known as George Spelvin, American. Pegler’s Spelvin...was an early Archie Bunker. Union men, uppity women, swells, bubbleheads, and eventually foreigners, blacks, and Jews all gave Spelvin a stomachache."
A brief bit of film of Pegler