Democrats & Unions: Socialists or Satanic Agents?

The headline is typical of the ultraconservative panic: "GOP condemns ‘socialist’ Obama, Democrats." This from the May 21 2009 edition of the Washington Times, a major daily newspaper in DC owned by an international conglomerate controlled by quasi-fascist religious cult leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon—long an ally of the anti-Enlightenment wing of the Republican Party. The resolution passed by the Republican National Committee actually was a watered-down compromise text.

Since the election of Barak Obama various ultraconservative groups and celebrities have been showing their true colors as patriotic defenders of America against socialist policies, collectivist coercion, and government tyranny. Filtering their rhetoric reveals that what these ultraconservatives really mean is that they are against government redistribution of wealth through taxes to benefit the common good; the right of labor to organize collectively through unions for better wages, benefits, and working conditions; and those laws and regulations aimed at protecting public safety and health as well as civil rights and civil liberties. A special target of this crusade is the current attempt to reform federal labor laws.

Since it is hard to mobilize mass support for the benefit of a greedy few, the airwaves and cyberspace are dispensing a clarion call to defend the American Way of Life from the dangerous liberals and their subversive allies. From Glenn Beck to Phyllis Schlafly, time-honored right-wing conspiracy theories are being spread to an increasingly agitated and potentially dangerous constituency. There is open talk of forming a new collection of armed citizen militias.

The fear that our country is under attack from within by subversives has created what scholars call movements of "countersubversion." People who become active in countersubversive activities start with a political or moral grievance about public policy or societal trends; but they take it outside the boundaries of democratic civil society and launch witch hunts for suspected subversives who they tend to detect just about everywhere they look.

All of this has happened before. Leaders of what historian Leo Ribuffo calls the "Old Christian Right" mobilized large groups of people into searching for subversives during the 1930s and 1940s. The fear of the Red Menace in some ultraconservative protestant circles was fueled by apocalyptic biblical prophecy—that is, an approaching confrontation of epic proportions involving a struggle between good and evil, after which the world will be changed forever and hidden truths will be revealed.

A number of protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have historically connected apocalyptic prophecies in the Bible’s book of "Revelation" to current political and social events. Historian Robert C. Fuller notes that trying to match real life political figures with the evil Antichrist (prophesied as the sidekick of Satan) became something of an "American obsession" in certain circles. Some fundamentalists fear that collectivism will lead to a one world government or new world order—part of the apocalyptic End Times agenda of Satan.

According to historian Frank Donner: "The root anti-subversive impulse was fed by the Menace. Its power strengthened with the passage of time, by the late twenties its influence had become more pervasive and folkish. Bolshevism came to be identified over wide areas of the country by God-fearing Americans as the Antichrist come to do eschatological battle with the children of light. A slightly secularized version, widely-shared in rural and small-town America, postulated a doomsday conflict between decent upright folk and radicalism—alien, satanic, immorality incarnate."

Ribuffo demonstrates the influence of apocalyptic Biblical prophecy on right-wing protestant movements in the interwar period, especially on the major figures Ribuffo profiles: William Dudley Pelley, Gerald B. Winrod, and Gerald L.K. Smith. This was a major source of countersubversive campaigns in the 1930s and 1940s.

Persons in this sector of the Protestant right wing saw President Roosevelt and other "modernists" not only as moving inexorably toward collectivism, but also sliding down "a slippery slope from liberalism to atheism, nudism, and Communism," as Ribuffo quipped. Today, these same apocalyptic and conspiracist themes are peddled by Christian Right activists such as Tim LaHaye and Pat Robertson and believed by Republican politicians such as Governor Sarah Palin.

Labor unions are a frequent target of countersubversives because they are seen as collectivist. According to historian Thomas Dixon, Jr.: "The anti-labor mobilization carried out across states in the late 1930s and early 1940s was led by reactionary organizations like Christian American, as well as state and regionally-based employer associations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Southern States Industrial Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and state affiliates of the NAM. The anti-union message these groups promoted was not a particularly sophisticated one. Indeed, most claims made against unions centered on communism, corruption, and un-Americanism…."

After World War II, most national Protestant Christian Right groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals avoided overt anti-semitic conspiracy theories popular before the war. Yet they continued their countersubversive campaigns claiming massive communist infiltration of unions and the government, reports historian M.J. Heale. According to sociologist Sara Diamond, the "internal subversion thesis and the view of liberalism as merely a soft form of communism provided the logic for Christian Rightists’ attacks on reputable Church bodies." For Catholics, anti-Red fearmongering took the form of warnings from church leaders such as Francis Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

In 1945, the CIO union identified the Christian American Association as pressing to get passage of "labor regulating laws in Southern States" and said the group had pledged to pass similar legislation in every state. Both the CIO and AFL were organizing in the South during this period, and this in turn mobilized a major backlash campaign against unions by industrialists and their allies.

The attack on labor unions as subversive had its supporters inside the U.S. Congress. Historian David H. Bennett explains that the House Committee on Un-American Activities under chair Martin Dies in the early 1940s became a vehicle for an "anticommunist, anti-union, and anti-New Deal" campaign.

A number of private groups were set up to monitor communist influences in the media, with special attention to theater, film, radio, and television. Some fraternal organizations and veterans organizations issued educational materials on subversion. There were also "patriotic" women’s groups that sought to warn of subversion, notes sociologist Abby Scher, whose dissertation was on the ultraconservative 1950’s group Minute Women of the USA.

The right-wing Church League of America attacked mainline protestant denominations, but also kept a huge collection of files on so-called subversives. For a fee, employers could have the files searched to see if a prospective employee had "subversive" sympathies or would be a "troublemaker" or "radical" in the workplace. The more secular American Security Council originally offered a similar blacklisting service. That these searches were meant to ferret out union sympathizers seems obvious.

Today the same coalition of economic libertarians, business nationalists, anti-collectivists, and the Christian Right that mobilized against the "subversion" of the FDR administration is assailing the Obama administration. Their major point of internal disagreement is if the Democratic Party, the Obama administration, and labor unions are controlled by socialists or Satanic agents…or both.


Chip Berlet is senior analyst at Political Research Associates, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, and a vice president of the Defending Dissent Foundation. His views here are his own.