If you could jump into a Wayback Machine and travel to the United States, circa late 1960s, you would find the country torn between two political tribes.
One tribe consisted of anti-establishment radicals who preached sexual license and thought Washington was a nest of vipers that conspired with one another to thwart social and economic progress. They were not necessarily communist, but they did not hold with the orthodox view that the Soviet Union represented a threat to the United States. The more extreme elements, such as the Weather Underground, favored the use of violence to bring about the sort of society in which they believed.
These people were the New Left.
The other tribe consisted of pro-establishment Middle Americans who cherished traditional morality, believed in law and order, and venerated institutions such as the FBI. They abhorred Russia and the pinkos who were soft on communism, and they considered radical elements in American society—especially the ones prone to violence—a grave threat to the nation.
As G. Gordon Liddy, a former FBI agent and one of the Watergate plotters, put it in his autobiography: "Looking back now… many people think of that time as the era of the 'flower-child' and wonder how we could think of them as a war-like enemy." He then quotes Mark William Rudd, a leader of the Weathermen, extolling the virtues of blowing up banks and police stations. "That, to me, is war," Liddy wrote. "I was ready. And willing."
These people were called conservatives.
Boy, how times change.
Over the past few months—thanks to a Certain Someone whose name starts with T and rhymes with clump—these two groups have reappeared. Only this time, they have largely switched places.
The Tribe of the Left certainly has undergone some transformation. Its views on the virtues of a special counsel have shifted since Ken Starr has been replaced by Robert Mueller. Its thoughts on Russia have shifted since the days when Barack Obama lampooned Mitt Romney's warnings about Russia by telling him the 1980s were calling to ask for their foreign policy back, and The New York Times piled on, denouncing Romney's "craven politics" and "shocking lack of knowledge."
But the real metamorphosis has occurred on the right.
It is no new insight to note the extent to which Republicans, who once were horrified by Bill Clinton's sexual improprieties, now dismiss or even defend Donald Trump's. A few days ago, after news of Trump's dalliance with a porn star broke, the Rev. Franklin Graham argued that while Trump is not "President Perfect," he "does have concern for Christian values." High praise indeed.
Many conservatives also have decided that defending Trump is more important than defending the FBI against his attacks. In certain right-wing media, the Deep State controls the levers of power in D.C., and the FBI is now little more than a conspiracy of leftists dedicated to electing Hillary Clinton and bringing down Donald Trump. The evidence for this theory is laughably thin—a couple of text messages, former FBI director Jim Comey's recommendation against charging Clinton with a crime, and… um… hang on a sec while they find their notes. Gotta be around here somewhere.
The derangement has spread to the point that Rush Limbaugh recently suggested the Deep State had tried to bring down George W. Bush: "You remember what the intelligence agencies were telling us about the War in Iraq? …There is detail, there were photos, there was conclusive evidence Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and it wasn't just us. It was MI-5, it was MI-6, it was intelligence agencies all over the world. What if the intel on the War in Iraq was another disinformation campaign to damage another Republican president? And boy did that work! Just what if, the quote-unquote intelligence community misrepresented on purpose the degree to which the Hussein had WMDs. Because I tell you it was a very, very embarrassing moment for the Bush administration."
Now, Limbaugh claims, "the Deep State has been trying to undermine Donald Trump since he was a candidate." As for Russia, many conservatives are rethinking their old antipathy, and many Republicans now admire Vladimir Putin outright. Why? Well, Trump seems to like him, so….
All of this might be funny if not for the menace at the edges. Although mainstream conservatives abjure and even revile them, the elements of the alt-right have gained a dismaying foothold in contemporary politics (see: Breitbart and Steve Bannon). And as the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this past August shows, the alt-right is willing to resort to violence—for which it will be partly excused by the president.
Indifference to sexual libertinism. Pro-Moscow sympathies. Paranoid conspiracy theories. A violent, radical fringe. Hatred of the G-men at the FBI, along with the rest of The Corrupt Establishment. Four decades ago such markers defined the radical left—and everything about liberalism that conservatives loathed. Now, they increasingly define the American right—all thanks to Donald Trump.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.