00:04 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:11 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Paul Matzko, the technology and innovation editor at libertarianism.org and author of the new book The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Paul. You’ve been a host, but now you’re a guest.
00:28 Paul Matzko: Thank you. It’s real privilege to be with you guys.
00:30 Trevor Burrus: The American conservative movement, a lot of people think about Rush Limbaugh, for example, as the pillar of right-wing radio and of course, he was very important to the 1980s and I think important to a lot of things that have happened now. But your book is about how there was a similar movement, even before Rush Limbaugh, but not a lot of people talk about.
00:52 Paul Matzko: Yeah. For sake of comparison, some of these broadcasters in the 1960s were listened to by 20 million people a week, which is as many as Rush Limbaugh, despite the US population being significantly smaller. So in relative terms, they had an even larger audience and yet they’ve almost completely disappeared from our histories of the ’60s and from our modern consciousness.
01:17 Trevor Burrus: Who were these… I mean, are there names? I, of course, there are names. But I did find it amazing, ‘cause I know something about this era and I had never heard of any of these people.
01:28 Paul Matzko: Yeah. We’re not… I think it’s because you, Aaron and I, we make fun of… In l.org we make fun of Aaron for being the old man of the group. But none of us are old enough. There are peaks in the ’60s and so unless you were born in… At the outside like mid to late ’50s, you’re not gonna have heard of them probably, ‘cause the government shut them down by the ’70s. It’s people like Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, Clarence Manion, Fulton Lewis. There’s a dozen that are airing on more than a hundred radio stations nationwide. So, it’s this whole kind of loose network. Kind of similar to the way in which we say Talk Radio today. You might think of a handful of the big guys, like kinda the once-upon-a-time, Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. But you kind of thought of them as something of a unit… A loose kind of conglomeration of right wing radio broadcasters. The same thing in the ’60s.
02:24 Paul Matzko: If you’re of a certain age… Every time I talk about this book at some public presentation, I’ll have someone come up to me afterwards and say, “I remember. I was six. I would go over to my grandparents’ house and they’d turn on the radio and I would hear Carl McIntire. They couldn’t stand him, but we listened to him anyways. We like hate-listened to him.” And people do that with Rush Limbaugh today. So, it’s kind of not surprising folks were doing that in the ’60s.
02:49 Aaron Ross Powell: So, at the time that conservative radio was rising… So just, let’s say, right before its pretty meteoric rise, what did the American conservative movement look like? What was the kind of audience that these guys were coming in to talk to?
03:06 Paul Matzko: That’s a great question. I think to get a sense of the political landscape, we have to go back to a time when something we take for granted, the presence of conservatism as a major political force, was all but extinguished. And then when I say conservatism, I mean a particular kind of conservatism. Political scholars will call it fusionist conservatism, ‘cause it fused together anti-communism with suspicion of the state with a kind of a libertarian laissez-faire approach to the economy, with some social conservatism, kind of Catholic traditional and social conservatism and new Christian right stances on issues. That fusion was invented really in the late ’50s and ’60s.
03:52 Paul Matzko: Prior to that, in the early ’50s, an older-style conservatism that shared some of those impulses, but not all of them, it was kind of formulated a little bit differently but there is some overlap, had all but been extinguished from both major parties, from both Democrats and Republicans. Robert Taft made a challenge. He tried to become the Republican nominee in 1952. He loses to Eisenhower. That’s kind of the death knell of the old-style conservatism. It’s not until ‘64, with Goldwater and then 1980 really, ‘cause Goldwater loses badly, ‘til 1980 when you have the Republican party. Once again, it’s kind of the party of something approaching modern conservatism.
04:37 Paul Matzko: So, for those intervening almost 30 years… And really it starts even before 1952, so it’s like 30, 40 years, conservatism is a declining force in American national party politics. That left a lot of people feeling… Ordinary folks feeling unrepresented by both major parties. They didn’t feel like they had a home in either the Democratic or Republican party. There’s a long history to that. But. The old style of anti-New Deal, conservative skepticism of the state had lost a lot of influence by the early to mid-’50s. So, there’s an opportunity there, though, that you have people who feel a lack of representation. They don’t hear themselves in the media. They don’t see themselves reflected in what the political parties are pushing for, and that’s fertile ground for someone to build a movement out of. And so right wing radio, plays a key role in building a movement out of that disenchanted, disenfranchised people.
05:47 Trevor Burrus: Now, you mentioned a movie a couple of times, one of my all-time favorites, Dr. Strangelove. Some of these… Some of the conservative thinkers that we’re talking about, they were pretty… Well, General Ripper in that movie, with the precious bodily fluids. And we’ve heard about things like fluoridation, that’s part of the fluoridation of water issue and all this stuff. So. But some of these people seem like that wasn’t a really off-the-wall parody for some of these people that you talk about. I mean, definitely, a parody, but not like beyond the pale and also this idea of the possibility of a military coup.
06:22 Paul Matzko: Yeah. So there’s a few things here. First of all, there was a habit at the time among political scientists and political commentators to write off conservatism as an intellectual system, as a world view, to write it off as kind of a mere irritable impulse, as a paranoid style, to use Hofstadter’s infamous phrase. And so conservatism didn’t need to be taken seriously, it was status anxiety, it was just based on hate and paranoia. So that’s not true, and not accurate. Historians have re-evaluated how we understand the rise of the new right. It’s not just status anxiety, it’s not just paranoia. But that was the kind of dominant perspective on conservatism at the time. And so that’s reflected in there. So General Ripper is this irrational, just crazy paranoid, conspiratorially minded idiot, and he tries to destroy the world basically, right? At the same time, conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie, and there’s right-wing versions and left-wing versions. And opposition to fluoridation, suspicion that it was part of a communist plot, very much was popular in the nascent new right in the late ’50s and ’60s.
07:43 Paul Matzko: My father, he used to pass out pamphlets on the Philadelphia streets. He’d get paid, I think, like a dime for however many, like 100 he passed out, warning of the dangers of fluoridation as a communist plot. So this is very much a thing that… So it’s, there’s a seed of truth there, even in Dr. Strangelove. But Dr. Strangelove and Seven Days in May and Fail-Safe and some of these other popular movies of the early ’60s, they also reflect another set of conspiracy theories, which was a popular left-wing paranoia, was that the end of America would come at the hands of a right-wing military coup. And whether that was going to be because of General Douglas MacArthur, people used to worry that this popular Korean war hero would launch a military coup, or Barry Goldwater himself who was an Air Force Reserve General, or Edwin Walker, who I talk about in my book, who was worrisome enough that Oswald before shooting JFK tried to assassinate General Edwin Walker. And when his wife said, “Why did you do that? What gives you the right?” And he said, “Well, if you had a chance to kill Hitler, before he became Hitler, wouldn’t you?”
08:57 Paul Matzko: That shows his fear, his fear of Edwin Walker launching a military insurrection or later on Curtis LeMay who was the running mate for George Wallace in ‘68. So left-wing people were paranoid and had conspiracy theories about a right-wing conspiracy to overthrow American democracy. So conspiracy theories were just in the air on both right and left at the time, and that’s reflected in the popular culture of the time.
09:28 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting that you, the book, the introduction in particular, you’re discussing the way, there’s obviously a bias, I think, in the way that the more left-leaning historians have looked at this. And you pointed out Richard Hofstadter, which I think is less in currency that it was, that conservatism is not actually a belief system. But it’s also interesting because you get this idea of the supply side versus the demand side of conservative thinkings which you write about. You write, “The problems of the other half of the equation, the supply of conservative ideas has been neglected because of the fixation on demand,” and that demand often would be characterized by something like racism is what caused them or unease about American status or anti… That explains the demand side. And it’s kind of interesting because you get that perennial theme in American politics that drives me crazy, which is sort of summed up in the idea of astroturfing.
10:20 Trevor Burrus: That there are some political movements that do not arise from the bottom, but they come down from the top and they’re sort of fake, for some reason, I’ve never been able to wrap my brain around why people think that it’s fake because they heard the ideas from somewhere else. But as you said, this kind of idea, there’s maybe one reason why it’s been neglected, that maybe there were actually thinkers, that they were listening to, that were influencing them, and they weren’t being sort of brain-washed.
10:46 Paul Matzko: Yeah, well, there’s that… I think the reason for it, both for historians and for contemporary observers and scholars of other kinds, it’s pretty straightforward, it’s that it’s very ideologically and politically and historiographically convenient. So if you can just write off a mass social movement, a popular movement as just this thing that a few, a cabal of elites astro-turfed or created, then you don’t have to take it seriously. In the case of my book, the person who I juxtapose my argument against, my argument for why this should be taking seriously, whether you like it or approve of it or not, and there’s a lot about it that I don’t, but even if that’s true, you should take it seriously, as a mass popular public movement is Nancy MacLean who’s persona non grata in libertarian circles for her later works, where she does her best to take down the public choice economics.
11:49 Trevor Burrus: That’s one way of putting it. Persona non grata, that’s the nicest thing we’ll say.
11:52 Paul Matzko: That’s the nicest possible way to put that. But in here, she basically… She says that. All conservatism at this time is just elite politicians, Republican politicians, your George Wallace types, your Barry Goldwaters, maybe some elite intellectuals foisting their views on… Saying that they represent a silent majority, if you will, when they really don’t. They are imposing their vision and their will on a bunch of rubes. And I think that just doesn’t show… If you spend any time in the right-wing archives in the ’50s and ’60s, whatever you think of the politics they’re pursuing, it is very clear that this is a mass popular movement and not just some astro-turfed campaign.
12:38 Aaron Ross Powell: What’s the relationship then between this conservative movement, as you’ve been describing it, and religion specifically? Because so Carl McIntire, who we had already mentioned, was a preacher and it seems like a lot of the main characters in this came from preaching. Is there a necessary connection there or is it… I mean, I can also just imagine like the skills that you develop as a preacher carry over to radio pretty well.
13:03 Paul Matzko: Yeah, it’s very true. That’s a big contrast between this first wave of mass right-wing radio and the second, I mean, and the Rush Limbaughs, is that it was much more overtly tied to religion. So yeah, Carl McIntire or Billy James Hargis, literally all the people I mentioned as the big guys, all had… Were either clergy themselves or were very actively… Clarence Manion was the Dean of Notre Dame Law School and very active in Catholic layman’s organizations. So whereas the modern generation, the post-end of the Fairness Doctrine era there were… I can’t think of any. Are there any clergy who are major talk radio broadcasters today? I can’t think of any off-hand. I mean, is that a big contrast that we’ve kind of de-sacralized or secularized right-wing radio between these two generations.
13:56 Paul Matzko: As far as why, I actually think it has something to do with, as you mentioned, Aaron, their, if you’re trained to give sermons, you’re a trained rhetorician, you’re trained in speaking to large audiences, I think that bled over into radio. It gave them a certain kind of leg up over folks who weren’t so trained. So I think there’s something to that. And also they… This was a community of folks who felt… They felt written off. The denominations they were part of, in McIntire’s case it’s this really small fundamentalist Presbyterian denomination, Billy James Hargis a smaller conservative Christian church… Christian churches denomination.
14:50 Paul Matzko: They didn’t feel represented by mainstream institutions. I mean, in general, all these guys, they didn’t trust the media, the broader mainstream media, they didn’t trust the major political parties. But they also didn’t trust the big religious institutions of the time, the National Council of Churches, who they all thought… They thought were too liberal, both politically and theologically. So it’s another way in which I think conservative… We live in a time today where to be a conservative Christian of some kind, whether Catholic or Protestant, Evangelical, whatever, you feel or you have felt for quite some time much more a part of mainstream culture, maybe not a perfect sense of belonging. But much more… In the mid-20th century you were weirder. The relative cultural distance was much greater at the time than it is since the rise of new Christian right. So I think that contributes to it as well.
15:48 Trevor Burrus: I’ve said before and probably on other episodes of Free Thoughts that you can’t understand modern conservatism without understanding it is a persecution movement to this day. I think that Fox News anchors talk like they’re distributing samizdat in some sort of oppressive regime, and they’re the only ones who are telling… Even though they have more listeners than anyone. But there’s some reason to… We sympathize with this, possibly, especially because they were persecuted to some extent, especially by Kennedy and the FCC and other things, we can get into that. But I wanted first before you get into actually what happened with Kennedy, what was the Polish ham boycotts?
16:35 Paul Matzko: Okay. This is fun. I love… This is my favorite…
16:38 Trevor Burrus: It’s a great story, yeah. [chuckle]
16:39 Paul Matzko: It’s personal a little bit. The point of this story is to illustrate just how much influence radio broadcasters had over getting ordinary people out in the streets doing stuff, right? Doing political activism. And so what happened with the Polish ham boycott, which I had never heard of before researching this book. But what it happened was it’s 1962 and JFK has a plan to… He wants to accomplish a couple of things here. His immediate goal is to peel the Eastern European eastern bloc nations, the ones behind the Iron Curtain, peel them out of the Soviet zone of influence. So we’re talking about Poland and Hungary and Yugoslavia. Some of them are puppet governments of the Soviet Union, some are independent communist regimes, but in either case, he wants to pull them out of the Soviet zone of influence. And he figures the best way to do that is through encouraging trade; rather than having trade sanctions on these countries allowing them the trade and giving them favorable low tariffs, having free trade. I mean, we actually should be sympathetic in this story as libertarians who like free trade with the Kennedy approach.
18:00 Paul Matzko: I mean, most libertarians thought we should have freer trade with Cuba as a way of undermining communism from within as they become embedded in kind of global consumer culture. Same thing here. So if anything here, Kennedy is on the side of the laissez-faire angels. So he uses powers that Congress gives to him to unilaterally, by executive authority alone, to lower trade tariffs on Eastern European countries. Ironically, those were the same powers that Donald Trump has been using the last couple of years to unilaterally raise tariffs on imports from places like Canada, lumber from Canada and steel from other countries. So there’s kind of a deep parallel… Ironic parallelism going on there.
18:41 Paul Matzko: But Kennedy is lowering tariffs, encouraging trade, and so stuff like Yugoslavian wicker baskets and, yes, Polish hams are coming from Poland and being sold for the first time since the pre-World War II period in American department stores and grocery stores. And of course, anti-communism is still at, maybe not the fever pitch of the McCarthy period in the earlier ’50s, but among conservatives it’s still quite high in the early 1960s. And so, they’re opposed to this, because they think, “Well, look, trade helps both parties.” That’s a unobjectionable statement. Trade is about mutual benefit. So, anything that helps the communists must be bad.
19:29 Paul Matzko: And the idea was, they popularized the idea that every time you buy… Every penny you spend on a Polish ham is a penny going towards a bullet in a Viet Cong gun. Now of course, that’s not how all this works. It’s not as if the communists in Poland are then sending the money to Russia, which then sends it to China, which then sends it to Vietnam. It’s a silly view of global communist hegemony. But that worked well. So, right-wing radio broadcasters were blasting that idea over the air waves and that stimulated the growth, the expansion of this boycott movement propelled by suburban housewives. And if you look at the letters that poured in from listeners like, “Hi, I’m Mrs. So and So, a Mrs. Estralida Coppo of St. Augustine, Florida, heard about this boycott on the radio. I’m outraged. I wanna look out for the national home, like I look out from my own home. I went to my local store and they would… And told them I don’t want you to sell these goods in our stores. It’s corrupting America and helping the Commies.”
20:40 Paul Matzko: And they would hold these things called card parties and the cards… They would have like a little… Like a business-card sized and on it would say things like “Always buy your communist goods at Super Giant.” And you would… These groups of housewives would form boycott chapters. They would all pile in… A couple dozen of them, that would descend on the offending store, Super Giant, and they would just litter thousands of these cards everywhere in the store. Every suit coat pocket would have one of these cards in it. Every packaging, they’d slip… I have accounts of them slipping them into toothpaste boxes, these cards. Well, this is hugely embarrassing for the department stores. They can’t call the cops on them, ‘cause who wants to address a chiropractor’s wife? Some respectable, suburban housewife.
21:31 Paul Matzko: This was this mass movement. And ultimately all of the big major retailers in the US stopped selling the goods under this consumer pressure. Congress reprimanded the Kennedy administration for lowering its tariffs and giving most favored trade status to these countries. The Kennedy administration, itself, they… It worried them. In fact, there’s… I found secret internal memoranda where they said, “This is gonna be a problem for any future legislation we try the pass and our re-election hopes in ‘64, if we don’t do something about these card-partying, radio broadcasting-fueled protest movements.” This is a real threat. Not just something we can shove aside as being a bunch of silly housewives.
22:18 Paul Matzko: So, the idea… One of these housewives… Let’s read one quote from one of them. She got the store manager from A&P, which is the biggest retailer in the country at the time, had 4500 stores, it’s like the Walmart of their day, and the local manager was forced to come apologize to her by the national office, because of her complaint letter. She wrote a letter to her broadcaster, the one who told her about all of this and kind of baked her into the movement. She said, “I can’t tell you how happy it made me feel.” If you want to build a successful social movement, you give someone that taste of power and success, that’s a great place to start. So, that’s how you build a movement. This kind of action builds movements and it’s the radio right that makes that possible.
23:09 Aaron Ross Powell: When I was reading this section, the first thing that struck me as you were describing these card parties and the way that these suburban housewives would go in and kind of harass the staff and the managers, was that Karens have always been with us.
23:24 Paul Matzko: Yes, they are all Karens.
23:26 Aaron Ross Powell: But also, you mention this a couple of times in there, I thought it would be interesting to speak to briefly is, is the race and gender politics of this, that these were white, middle-class women engaging in this kind of… In some cases, it was illegal behavior, right? Like they could have been prosecuted for this. But they weren’t. And it had a lot to do with them being middle-class whites, who weren’t going to get arrested, in the same way that if Blacks or others had been doing similar things. So, they were kind of… Like just to speak to that, like the way that the gender politics and the way that the race politics of the time kind of buffered them from and enabled this movement.
24:08 Paul Matzko: Yeah. It’s absolutely true. I mean, so, at the same time as this stuff is happening, the same time that… 1962 there are a wave of civil rights protest actions happening in many of the same towns, that you have these boycott, Polish ham boycott actions happening and yet, there’s a very different response. None of these suburban housewives involved in the Polish ham boycott had fire hoses sprayed on them or police dogs turned on them. In fact, sometimes they’d be protesting at some of the same chains, like civil rights activists sitting at the counter at Woolworths at the lunch counter wanting to be served, Woolworths also was protested for… By the Polish ham boycott for carrying Eastern European goods. And yet, one leads to arrests and one doesn’t.
24:55 Paul Matzko: So, that shows you something of the power of race as a marker of respectability in mid-20th century American politics, that being white insulated these women from the kind of civil and criminal consequences of their protest actions. And they use that power of respectability to the hilt. And yeah, the other thing that’s… I’ll mention in regard to this. A big chunk of the book does have to do with how the right-wing radio anticipated or foreshadowed what political historians call the Southern strategy, and this refers to the way in which the Republican Party went from being basically a non-entity in Southern politics from…
25:48 Trevor Burrus: Which was still a legacy from the war.
25:50 Paul Matzko: Right. A legacy from the Civil War. And then suddenly by the 1980s the transformation is complete. So basically, from 1948 to 1980, the South changes from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican, overwhelmingly Republican. And oftentimes political historians will point to Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips, one of his campaign advisors, in ‘68 and ‘72, maybe even Barry Goldwater in ‘64, as the architects of that strategy. But right-wing radio, I make the argument in the book, that all the, that they actually are the ones who helped listeners in the South, white racist, white anti-desegregation listeners to imagine themselves as being a part of a different political party. They had been Democrats for their whole lives, for their fathers’ and mothers’ lives, for their grandparents’ lives.
26:47 Paul Matzko: And we know, as people who are not completely wedded to the two-party system, that party identity and tribalism is a powerful force, one of the most powerful identities that there are. It’s hard to get people, it’s harder to get people to leave a political party than it is to get them to change religions. And so that’s a powerful force and you have to overcome it. It takes time, it requires imagination. And so let’s say you’re a Southern Democrat, white Democrat who’s opposed to desegregation and, but the national party has become the party of civil rights by the early 1960s. So you feel like you’re lacking a home, but still, you’ve been a Democrat your whole life. And now, along comes Carl McIntire, he opens up a radio station in your area and he’s from New Jersey, and he’s a Republican, but he’s saying all the things you agree with about the importance of the importance of segregation and so on.
27:44 Paul Matzko: That helps you to imagine, like, “Oh, maybe I should consider voting for a Republican for the first time.” So all these broadcasters, there are things you’ll find sympathetic about them, they’re the victims of a massive government censorship campaign, but there are things that readers today will find deeply unsympathetic. They’re in support of segregation, they helped transform the South on the back of defending segregation, transformed the South into a Republican bastion. So there’s also stuff about them that’s deeply disturbing.
28:16 Trevor Burrus: So let’s talk a little bit about that censorship campaign, because it’s pretty astounding, and it’s something that I’ve said to a lot of people where you take people who are for many people, a real idol, like John F. Kennedy, and you say John F Kennedy used the government to shut down radio that he disagreed with. And everyone is very astounded that he would ever do that. But of course FDR even did stuff like that and maybe Obama did, we can talk a little bit about that, but so what did Kennedy… He had a certain memo that was written to call attention to this radio had come from labor unions.
28:56 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Oh, yeah, great. So the Reuther memorandum. So what’s going… Let’s put ourselves in Kennedy’s shoes for just a moment. The first objective of every first term president is to become a second-term president. Kennedy doesn’t know he’s gonna get his head blown off in Dallas. So he’s thinking about the 1964 re-election, the moment he’s inaugurated, probably before. And so right after his inauguration he calls in his allies in the labor unions. Two of his allies were Walter and Victor Reuther, who were the heads of the United Auto Workers, very powerful. The biography of them by Lichtenstein is The Most Dangerous Men in Detroit, The Most Dangerous Men… Anyways, so they’re very powerful, very influential in Democratic politics. And he calls them in, he has a meeting, they have a meeting with actually Robert Kennedy, Kennedy’s brother, who is the attorney general, and he says, “Look, whatever you can do to help in the re-election effort in ‘64 we would love to hear your thoughts.”
30:05 Paul Matzko: And in that conversation, they clearly talked about right-wing radio, conservative broadcasting, because the Reuthers drafted together, “Here’s how you deal with the radio right. Here’s how you deal with the threat of conservative broadcasting.” And gave it to the Kennedy administration, by the end of 1961. And then the Kennedy administration acted on that. But we call that the Reuther memorandum and what’s in there, the most significant planks of the Reuther plan was to go after them through two executive agencies. One was to use the Internal Revenue Service to audit the living heck out of right-wing radio broadcasters.
30:50 Paul Matzko: So they’re all tax-exempt organizations, they say they have an educational purpose, educating Americans about US politics and what not. Not unlike, say, the NAACP or any other politically involved educational institution at the time, so they’re tax-exempt organizations. And so donations to them can be made tax tax-free, and… But if you audit them, during the course of the audit, at least the way the IRS rules worked in this instance, at the time, tax donations were not tax-exempt during this active audit, there was kind of a presumptive denial of their tax-exempt status while they’re under investigation. So if you are audit them, you can discourage people from donating as much money to these right-wing radio programs and ultimately, if their tax-exempt status is completely repealed, that’s the death knell. They’re all very heavily reliant. Most of the major programs are reliant on listener donations. Their financial model looks like an NPR fund drive, but even more so, because they don’t get the Ford Foundation money, or whatever that most NPR stations get.
32:07 Paul Matzko: So, it’s listener-financed radio. And if you can discourage them from donating, bam. So you go after them with the IRS, targeted audits, and then on the other hand, the second barrel of the shotgun, is you go after them with the Federal Communications Commission. All stations, television, radio in the US at the time are licensed by the federal government. Radio station owners have no property rights in the airwaves. That’s a [32:33] ____. It shouldn’t have been. I know in Free Thoughts, you’ve interviewed Thomas Haslett before about why that was a bad idea. But that’s the way we did things, that’s the way we divvied up the spectrum at the time.
32:47 Paul Matzko: And so you have to get a license from the federal government for your radio station. Every couple of years you had to renew it. And the Federal Communications Commissions had this set of regulations on the books at the time called the Fairness Doctrine. And what the Fairness Doctrine said was, as a radio station, you had an obligation to air… You were supposed to elevate the public, elevate the conversation, so you should air commentary on what was called controversial issues of public importance, current events, politics, that kind of thing. The Vietnam War, civil rights, and so on. But when you aired people’s commentary on those current events, it should be balanced. You should have representatives from technically all sides, but in reality, it meant both major sides, represent both mainstream Democratic and mainstream Republican points of view.
33:45 Paul Matzko: If you didn’t, you were doing unbalanced editorialising and that was a no-no according to the Fairness Doctrine, and your license could be revoked, potentially. The other part of this, what was it called? The personal attacks rule, if you criticize someone, so if I said, LBJ, he knew that nothing happened at the Gulf of Tonkin and so he just wanted the pretext to send more troops into Vietnam at the beginning of the Vietnam War, which he did, and which a conservative broadcaster pointed out, and had a Fairness Doctrine complaint filed against him, because there was no one from the other side, no one from the Johnson administration saying, “Nuh-uh, no, we didn’t.”
34:28 Paul Matzko: And so, again, there’s the personal attack role and the Fairness Doctrine rule. Those two things, if you targeted them at conservative radio and not at anyone else, if you just said, “Hey, look, conservative radio is being presented in an unbalanced way,” you could discourage radio stations from broadcasting as much conservative radio, because if you broadcast a right-wing attack on the Kennedy administration or the Johnson administration, they had the right, they had a right of reply, which meant they could, for free, so they didn’t have to pay for air time, they could reply with, they had received an air time slot to give their response to that personal attack, or to air a response to the attack.
35:15 Paul Matzko: And, so radio stations, confronted by this kind of blast from both barrels of the regulatory shotgun, they start dropping right-wing radio hosts en masse by 1965, ‘66 ‘67. It starts earlier than that, but it’s really when it picks up steam. By ‘67, the number of stations airing right-wing radio is down to less than half of what it had been just three years before. And so it is the most successful government censorship campaign of the last half century, and that’s a conservative estimate. It should be… When you list successful government censorship campaigns, like the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Comstock laws, this should be right up there in the pantheon of the most egregious acts of government censorship in American history.
36:04 Trevor Burrus: Yeah. It is astoundingly brazen, and interesting for the… We have people, occasionally I’ve heard people, pundits on the left, say Fox News should have its license stripped by the FCC. There’s not being a news organization, they should be classified as a political organization or something, they said. Usually people come out of the woodworks, even from their own party and say, “Okay, that’s really crazy.” That’s what the First Amendment was designed to do, was to prevent this kind of thing. That’s what they do in China or like Duterte’s Philippines or something. Not here, but the fact that it was actually done, is really, and brazenly done is really quite shocking.
36:45 Paul Matzko: And they all said… The funny thing is they said, whoopsies, a lot of the actual actors, the political operatives responsible for getting this done for the Kennedy administration, they in a sense recanted and talked to some journalists later on, so some of my sources are from folks who interviewed these people later on during the Nixon administration, they realized, “Oh, it’s nice when we get to do it to the other side. But eventually, in a relatively free democracy, the other side will get a chance to do it to us,” ‘cause Nixon threatened Fairness Doctrine enforcement too against his opponents, administration legislation and allies, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s right, the shoe ends up on the other foot at some point.”
37:33 Paul Matzko: And the same thing now. There is no… Fox News doesn’t actually have a license. There are individual stations that have licenses. But let’s say you could pull licenses that punished Fox News during the Obama administration, because you don’t like their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Well, would that seem like quite so good of an idea during the Trump administration where he has publicly wished that he could strip licenses from NBC News and CNN for criticizing his administration. Doesn’t seem like quite so good of an idea when the shoe’s on the other foot.
38:09 Aaron Ross Powell: How did they get away with it? Or I guess another way of asking this question is, why wasn’t there a second Polish ham boycott to stop this? If the first one had shown mobilizing the listeners of these stations, and there were quite a lot of them, could be so politically effective?
38:24 Paul Matzko: It’s great question. Well, part of it’s that they didn’t have access to the, they didn’t know, if I could put it this way, I avoided ever using the C-word, the conspiracy word, in the manuscript, in the book, but it’s because this is a case of an actual conspiracy crossing multiple institutions, multiple government agencies, multiple administrations, and no one who is targeted by it knew what was really going on. So Carl McIntire, he knew that stations were dropping him en masse, but he thought it was the National Council of Churches. That’s who he blamed. And the National Council of Churches did play a role, but they were, it’s more of a secondary role. They’re not the ones who are responsible for the FCC bulking up its Fairness Doctrine enforcement, they’re not the ones, I have on tape Oval Office recordings of JFK talking about shutting them down using the tax people, right? He doesn’t know that. I know that because, well, there’s these archives that exist. So they got away with it in part because this was a sprawling conspiracy against the radio right and none of the victims of this conspiracy could see more than one small piece of it.
39:36 Paul Matzko: One, maybe one or two institutional actors and they just didn’t have a sense of the full scope. And some of this is also the benefit of hindsight. We as… And one thing I’m thankful for, after Nixon, presidents become a lot more sensitive to the kind of documents and recordings they leave behind. Understandably, ‘cause it brings down the Nixon administration. But Kennedy didn’t know. Obviously, Kennedy doesn’t know that Nixon’s going to lose his job, because of his intemperate remarks caught on audio. So these guys would generate documentation proving that this thing happened. I have access to that as a historian. It’s in their presidential libraries files today. They didn’t at the time. So they got away with because it was a bigger conspiracy than right-wing broadcasters could have even imagined and because they just didn’t have access to the stuff that would have proved that it was going on.
40:35 Trevor Burrus: Was there some moment in your research… I assume by looking at the footnotes to the… You have box 46 of the Kennedy archives, that kind of stuff. But is there some point where your jaw dropped about something that was said or something that was done that you were just… You were shocked?
40:53 Paul Matzko: Yeah. So… And the way I first approached this project, I was in Carl McIntire’s papers, I was originally approaching this primarily as a religious historian, and it turned into a political history of people, of broadcasters who happened to be religious, primarily. And it was… So at first I was investigating McIntire’s… His perspective on what he thought was happening. Again, and he blamed the National Council of Churches. So I then went to the National Council of Churches papers, and I found some evidence they’re involved, they’re actually cooperating in all kinds of sketchy ways with the FCC. There’s former FCC members on the National Council of Churches Broadcasting and Film Board. There’s all kinds of illicit information sharing. So there’s all kinds of sketchiness there. They play a role.
41:44 Paul Matzko: But I realize, “Look, this isn’t enough, this isn’t here.” So I went to the JFK files and I think the biggest moment was when I was listening to… They digitized Kennedy’s recordings, and when I listened to that bit, there’s a, and I describe it in the book, this moment where he’s talking, he openly talks about suppressing a particular conservative broadcaster using the FCC and the tax people. It’s a bit cloaked, but I knew enough by that point in time to realize what was going on. And then finding these internal memoranda about, “What should we do about these guys?” So there was this series of like, “Whoa, this is a much bigger story than I even thought. This actually was an instance of government censorship, not just… Not mere… “
42:36 Paul Matzko: And I don’t mean to say this to minimize the significance of regulatory capture and rent-seeking, but we’re used to stories of government corruption where an industry lobbies and captures a government agency, because they wanna, I don’t know, relax oil drilling standards, they can… We’re used to regulatory capture, but this was even worse in a sense because it was not one ancillary industry capturing a government agency, it was the executive branch ordering multiple government agencies to target its political opposition. This is the kind of stuff that goes on in authoritarian regimes. Kind of the worst kind of abuse of executive power that we have in American history. And so those were the moments where I realized, “Wow, this is a part of something much bigger.”
43:29 Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting too because the… I was working on the issue during the Obama administration involving 501c4s. And what, it seemed to come, we had the lowest learner like issue, but it seemed to come in that suddenly conservative 501c4s were getting investigated very, very strongly by the IRS in a way that they never had before. And that… And again, and I pointed out multiple times, I was like, “Presidents have done this for a very long time, and I would not be surprised if this came from Obama.” We might have to wait for his archive, but that kind of goes to this question about the lessons for today. Because your book, you see so many parallels to today in the book, it’s kind of shocking in terms of the democratization of media, the use of radio and what we see with the internet and then the complaining about it from the other side that, “How horrible it is that we let these people openly communicate about BS basically?” That’s a huge concern for political parties. And it just parallels it almost exactly.
44:35 Paul Matzko: Yeah. And it’s… A lot of these are problems that they couldn’t solve at the time, and we can’t solve today, and have only gotten worse. It’s not as if the administrative state… Part of this story is possible because we expanded the power of the executive branch. The imperial presidency had never been more powerful than it was in the 1960s. And so the President had the power there to abuse. Now, thankfully, with the Fairness Doctrine, we got rid of that, effectively by the 1980s, and so that power doesn’t exist for Trump to abuse. Though, I don’t think anyone who is familiar whatsoever with the Trump administration, if he had that power, I would expect him to abuse it, but he doesn’t.
45:22 Paul Matzko: But that’s only one regard. The ability of the executive branch to use anti-trust investigations, to use merger power over allowing mergers, corporate mergers to go forward, postal rates, you can manipulate postal rates to punish political enemies. Just across all these different avenues, we have a government that has more potential power to be abused by internal partisan interests than even in the 1960s. There’s all these tools lying around ready to be wielded against political dissent and opposition. It’s actually kind of remarkable it hasn’t gotten as bad as it could, yet. But it’s… So part of it it’s a story about the rise of the imperial presidency, part of it’s a story… Yeah, I think some of it’s about political polarization.
46:18 Paul Matzko: So folks in the 1960s felt like neither political party represented their interests at heart. The conservatives felt disenchanted, disenfranchised. Well, you have a lot of communities of people today, both on the left and the right, who feel like the major parties don’t represent their views, and are willing to engage in much more radical and conspiratorial and even potentially violent politics as a result. So we’re seeing another… People like to think that whatever happens in 2020, that if Trump loses in November, that all of this will suddenly start to calm down again. That he is the source of our current moment of polarization, anger and distrust in institutions, and abuse of power and so on.
47:03 Paul Matzko: And the depressing thing, I think, that you’ll realize, coming away from this book, is that, that might not be so. That these are institutional and structural problems that are coming to the surface, and any individual personality is just that. It’s just an individual. The structural problems are still there. And so, regardless of what happens in 2020, we could be entering into another kind of moment of political and cultural disarray like the ’60s and ’70s and still be on the front edge of that.
47:34 Trevor Burrus: Oh, yeah, I think you’re entirely correct. And one reason I liked your book so much is because there’s a… This whole big issue about regulating the opponent’s political speech for the public good, which includes campaign finance, which I work on, and now, we’re talking about things like Section 230 for communications… The internet communications platforms versus publishers. And it’s interesting, because for me, the polarization… When the polarization gets really bad, and people are in their bubbles, one of the things that most concerns me, and I think this is relevant to your book, is you start believing that other… Because you’ve never maybe met someone on the other side, or you’ve never listened to the other side, you start believing that their beliefs cannot be authentic.
48:13 Trevor Burrus: Like, they… That they cannot be derived from some sort of authentic thinking through the issues. They have to have come from some sort of duping element, right? So they have to have come from like the corporations or the mainstream media or right-wing radio, you name it, and then… Then it becomes… You start thinking… Well, since their beliefs are… They’re being lied to, and it’s creating a problem, it’s really a public service to shut down the people who are lying to them, to shut down the dupers. This is not a… It’s not a big deal, actually. It’s like shutting down anti-vaxxers, or shutting down Alex Jones, or something like this. It’s a public service. And that’s when I think things get scary, and the censorious impulse will be… Is and will be manifested on both sides.
49:00 Paul Matzko: Yeah, you see that in the ’60s, where on… In both regards. So if you’re a conservative in ‘61, and the Bay of Pigs happens, well, it’s not because… In the conservative imagination at the time, it’s not because Kennedy took a gamble, and that failed, to try to topple the Castro regime, right? It’s that, “Well, it must be, because Kennedy wanted it to fail. He must be a communist plant.” Kennedy’s an active communist sympathizer, a Manchurian candidate, if you will. And on the flip side, if you’re a liberal, “Well, it can’t be that Edwin Walker, this former general, or Billy James Hargis, or any of these right-wing people, it can’t be that they actually have sincere disagreements with our policies, let alone be potentially correct about them. No. It must be because they’re paranoid. It’s a paranoid style. This isn’t a good faith intellectual movement, or… There’s no there, there… It’s just dangerous paranoid people.”
50:00 Paul Matzko: So both sides… That should remind you of how conservatives and liberals, or right and left today, think about each other, right? And Barack Obama wasn’t just wrong about ACA… “He must be a socialist.” And conservatives, they can’t be right, etcetera, they must be hateful racists. And so there’s this inability to recognize the kind of fundamental sincerity of the other side, or even the shared humanity. And so when I talk about party polarization, it’s actually worse than that, it’s a habit that’s become baked into our political discourse, where we de-humanize and other the other side.
50:37 Aaron Ross Powell: A question that I ask guests on Free Thoughts somewhat regularly is, if you’re so convinced that you’re right about whatever it is we’re talking about, why do so many people disagree with you? And I wanna ask you, I guess, a variant of that, which is the story that you tell, the double story that you tell in this book, the one of the importance of radio, and then the other one of the Kennedys, is not well-known or not, I guess, a major part of the narrative. So when we talk about the history of the conservative movement and where the movement came from, what grew it, we talk about things like the National Review. But as you point out in the book, the National Review circulation was vanishingly small compared to the number of people who tuned in every week to these conservative radio hosts, both in the aggregate and even just like individual radio hosts.
51:33 Aaron Ross Powell: But this doesn’t get the significance of conservative radio. It doesn’t seem to play much into the history of the conservative movement, at least up until kind of the rise, of as we said, like Rush Limbaugh and then the Tea Party movement and so on. And then similarly like the Kennedy story is shocking as you tell it. But it’s shocking in part because so few of us have ever heard about it, and even people who probably have heard about it, it doesn’t factor in. It’s not like a big part of the history of the Kennedy campaign or the Kennedy administration. So why is that? Why are these two stories so either unknown or under-played?
52:10 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Two, that’s a great question. There’s two interlocking reasons here, and it depends on the direction you’re looking at the story. From the direction of, say, the Kennedy administration or let’s say broadly speaking the left, why isn’t this more heard of in kind of the left-wing narrative of the 1960s? The Kennedy administration obviously doesn’t want this to be known because it’s embarrassing. I mean, people, censorship… You’re the bad guys if you’re a censor. And so they obviously have an interest in not publicizing their efforts and none of this was public. It’s only… It’s in their papers which then are made public several decades after Kennedy’s death and after the administration. In that direction, it’s because this is a kind of an embarrassing thing that happened.
53:01 Paul Matzko: The other thing I’ll point to is that… Oh, and on that point, they’re in a certain kind of narrative about American history. And calling it a left-wing narrative is problematic. Let’s say a kind of broadly centrist liberal or left-wing narrative of American history. When censorship comes up, the people doing the censoring are right-wing people. It’s like industrialists and corporate overlords, and churches and pastors and fundamentalists. They’re the ones who use their power to censor the people. Vox populi, right? That’s the narrative you’re used to. This cuts against that.
53:43 Paul Matzko: Here we have the censored being people they don’t like. I mean, there’s kind of a natural left-wing sympathy, an understandable sympathy, for the under-privileged and the marginalized, for the people in the kind of a generic sense. And this cuts against that. It doesn’t work that way and so I think it’s also… That’s why it tends to get overlooked. As far as why on the right this moment is forgotten it’s because it’s deeply embarrassing. Again, there are folks who we’d be embarrassed… Right-wing people today would be embarrassed to think of them as part of their lineage, their kind of intellectual or movement lineage. Part of that is because they’re racist. I mean, they’re segregationists. They’re also heavily conspiracy-minded. So again, they were anti-communist, but anti-communist in the way that was… There’s communists hiding in every bush, that… So there’s, John Birch society kind of.
54:38 Paul Matzko: And so part of the success of the new right over the next couple of decades, and Bill Buckley and the National Review play a role in this, is to marginalize this conspiratorial-minded faction of the right and present a more respectable mainstream-facing… Intellectual respectable version of the right. And that’s good if you want to build a successful mainstream political movement, but it leads to temptation to do bad history, which is to retroactively write them out of your movement even though they played a role in the movement. Just as if you wanted to take a photo of a family get-together and maybe your drunk uncle who shouts random racist embarrassing things, maybe he even has like a swastika tattooed on his forehead. You might wanna Photoshop him out of the family image, right? It’s embarrassing.
55:33 Paul Matzko: And so retroactively changing the history or how you remember the history to make yourself seem more respectable by comparison is a way to do that. This is in part because our history of the origins of the new right, of fusionist conservatism, rely very heavily on George Nash, who wrote a book called The Conservative Intellectual Movement Since 1945, which is good at what it does, but what it does is tell a story of a handful of intellectual elites like Buckley and tell… It does not at all tell the story of right-wing radio. Not a single one of these broadcasters shows up in his history of where the new right comes from.
56:14 Paul Matzko: And doing so allows the right to look more respectable, more reasonable, less paranoid, less conspiratorial, more palatable, less racist. And Nash does this, of course, in part because he is himself conservative. He’s a right-wing movement builder. He’s part of the kind of the movement, if you will. And he writes the book… At one point in time the book was published by ISI, I think, you know, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. So he’s writing it for… Representing his movement that he’s part of, for an audience composed of a movement, that movement, and for publishing with institutions that are a part of that movement. So I think that’s had an outsized effect on how the right remembers its own past, its own history. And I think it’s a mistake. We know it’s a mistake, why, because these people never went away. They’re back. I mean, this point of view represented by the kind of spiritual-minded, quasi like racist even the antisemitic populist right, it’s back in full force, right?
57:18 Paul Matzko: That ethno-nationalist populism is now arguably the largest faction within the Republican Party today and it’s because they never fully left. We shoved them in the closet, the right shoved them in the closet, but they were always there and they’re back in the driver’s seat today. And part of the reason why that took everyone by surprise was because they didn’t know their own history.
57:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.