"Insofar as my books and articles are known," Leo Ribuffo once wrote, "they are known for the empathic examination of historical oddities: for example, Americans who anticipated the imminent arrival of the Antichrist; the minority among them who expected the Antichrist to lead an international Zionist conspiracy; and a president, Jimmy Carter, whom many citizens viewed in terms of what even his own campaign manager called the 'weirdo factor.'"
Ribuffo, an historian of politics and religion who died last week at age 73, is best known for The Old Christian Right: The Protestant Far Right from the Great Depression to the Cold War. That book covered some very weird characters indeed, from William Dudley Pelley, who mixed spiritualism with Nazism, to Gerald B. Winrod, who thought the Illuminati were behind the New Deal. Ribuffo was well aware of how strange these figures were, but he didn't treat them as a mere sideshow attraction. He showed that such people played notable roles in the political ecosystem of the mid-twentieth century, not least when they helped inspire an anti-right crackdown—Ribuffo called it a "Brown Scare"—that paved the way for the better-known postwar Red Scare.
When The Old Christian Right first appeared in 1983, it was part of a wave of studies that overthrew a bunch of postwar clichés. Before Ribuffo's cohort came along, the academy's dominant view of the American right was set by Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and others like them, who argued that conservatives (or "pseudo-conservatives") were "mass men" whose "status anxiety" led them to embrace "the paranoid style in American politics." For Ribuffo and other revisionists, this was reductionist and condescending. Ribuffo wasn't personally sympathetic to the right-wing views he wrote about, except perhaps to the small extent that they overlapped with his antiwar inclinations. He was basically a McGovern Democrat; a couple decades ago, he described himself as a man who "would like to vote for a left rooted in American realities (but most recently has had to settle for Ralph Nader)." But he wanted to understand his subjects rather than merely treat them as target practice.
That outlook went back to his boyhood, long before he was a professional historian. In the same autobiographical essay that I quoted in the opening to this obituary, Ribuffo describes his younger self as
a young "cold war liberal" who excitedly asked Norman Thomas for his autograph and excitedly distributed campaign literature for John Kennedy in 1960. Still, I felt less fervor than eclectic curiosity. I also collected Nixon campaign paraphernalia and then developed an anthropological interest in the so-called radical right. In 1962 the Young Americans for Freedom held their first major rally, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. While my fervent friends picketed the event, I wandered around collecting a glorious array of weird pamphlets. Moreover, with the possible exception of the gifted agitator Mark Lane, no one at the liberal counter rally sounded as interesting as the far right weirdos they were picketing.
Mark Lane would later become one of the country's foremost JFK assassination theorists, and then one of the world's leading Jim Jones apologists, and eventually an attorney for the Liberty Lobby, which was both further to the right and far, far stranger than anyone in YAF. When it came to identifying interesting weirdos, Ribuffo's instincts did not fail him.
That autobiographical essay, by the way, is called "Confessions of an Accidental (Or Perhaps Overdetermined) Historian," and Ribuffo published it in 1999. Sentence for sentence, it's one of the most entertaining mini-memoirs I've ever read; I'm sorry to keep quoting from the same article, but it's filled with quotable moments. "Although standard histories of the era suggest otherwise, everyday life continued during the sixties." "Yale had its virtues, not the least of which was that it was not Khe Sanh." And this description of the author's first encounter with the Gramscian concept of hegemony:
According to an Italian Marxist named Antonio Gramsci, [Eugene] Genovese explained, ruling classes retained power not only by monopolizing force but also, or even primarily, by convincing others that their values were the best values. This notion seemed sensible enough but hardly extraordinary because that was how jocks and cheerleaders dominated suburban high schools. Little did I suspect that I was present at the birth of a buzz word or that I was participating in the intellectual equivalent of buying Xerox stock when it was sold door-to-door.
Ribuffo wrote several witty essays like that, and more than a few sharp scholarly papers. But he produced only two books in his lifetime, and the other one was an essay collection. That wasn't because he gave up on long-form writing. It's because he dove deep into it, spending the last two decades of his life working on a book about Jimmy Carter. Andrew Hartman reports that the incomplete manuscript is reputed to be upwards of 200,000 words long. "For our sake, I hope the book is published posthumously, even if Leo never finally got it right by the lofty standards he set for himself," Hartman writes. I agree.
Some of the phrases in Ribuffo's description of his life's work—"historical oddities," "weirdo factor"—may make it sound like he was fixated on peculiar byways. But the great open secret of American history is that it's all weird: not just the religious oddballs and political extremists, but those supposedly sober folks who run things. Ribuffo understood that, and with his writing he helped the rest of us understand it too.