Leo Ribuffo, RIP

The man who coined the phrase "Brown Scare"


Temple University Press

"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

Young Americans for Freedom

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.

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  1. More to the point of your saying these types of characters were influential in the mainstream, I came across this quote from way back when:

    “Feinstein, Milk, Moscone, and future mayor Willie Brown all supported Jones even after he and his followers fled to the jungles of Guyana.”

    —-Tim Cavanaugh


    “When we talk about the kind of cultish behavior we see from the progressives, we should keep in mind where people like Dianne Feinstein, Willie Brown (who became Speaker in the California state Assembly for 15 years), and Jerry Brown came from . . . these people had a lot of experience dealing with a real cult.”

    —-Ken Shultz


    For those of you who aren’t aware, Jim Jones and his People’s Temple were largely responsible for the on the ground organizing, etc. that got all of those California progressives elected. This is the essence of California progressivism that ultimately stormed our government and our country.

    1. Once you get people to think of themselves as a member of a group, rather than individuals, it’s much easier to get them to drink the Koolaid make individual sacrifices for the group, be it of their own individual property or their own individual rights. Fanning hostility to those within the group who exhibit individual thinking is Cult Formation 101.

      The intolerance we see from progressives today for those who are “intolerant”, “selfish”, etc. is rooted in precisely that sort of cult mentality. We saw it described in the lyrics to “California Uber Alles” by the Dead Kennedys, and we see it in the college kids screaming down freedom of speech today. You are only important insofar as you are of service to the in-group, and you’re either with the in-group or you’re the evil enemy.

      Jim Jones was an atheist and a communist whose tactics were rooted in his admiration for Mao. It’s no wonder that the same cult mentality can be found in the progressives that Jim Jones elevated (Jerry Brown, Feinstein, Milk, Moscone, Willie Brown) as well as those who were influenced by them (looking at you Pelosi). Wouldn’t you have to be okay with that cultish mentality in order to accept the People’s Temple’s help?

      Anyway, intolerance for individual thinking isn’t a byproduct of progressive thought. It’s a required prerequisite.

      1. Now do Team Red and their Cult of Nationalism.

        1. Indeed. It baffles me when people think the right-wing is somehow more individualist.

          1. Indeed. It baffles me when [empty signalling for the sake of feeling superior]. Doesn’t matter what he said, old chum! I’m just piping in alongside my comrades Jeff and Baccers to police the partisan equality here in the Reason comments! We can’t have these simpletons and rubes bashing the Blue Team without enforcing the mandatory Red Team criticism. For the sake of equality! Anyone caught criticising the Blue team without also admonishing the Red Team in the same paragraph is a stupid mouth-breathing redneck! If you aren’t found to be criticizing the Red Team enough you are obviously a Red Team cultist nazi Trumptard who loves the Red Team. SIGNAL YOUR DISGUST FOR THEM OR BE PRESUMED STUPID!

            1. If you aren’t found to be criticizing the Red Team enough

              I would be satisfied with once in a while. With Ken, though, it’s outrage at Team Blue and defense of Team Red 24/7.

            2. “We can’t have these simpletons and rubes bashing the Blue Team without enforcing the mandatory Red Team criticism. For the sake of equality!”

              We might also point out that these two threats (legitimate nationalism and progressives hostility to individualism) are not necessarily equal.

              Legitimate nationalists are among the most marginalized people in our society. I don’t see them having an influence on much of anything.

              If Trump were somehow able to build a wall, I suppose someone might argue that’s an example of nationalism. Like I said before, though, you can land on a “nationalist” issue and not be a nationalist. Cesar Chavez not only had it as a standard policy to turn in illegal immigrants but also had UFW members patrolling the border looking for them. Has anyone ever thought of Chavez as a nationalist? Unions have been notoriously anti-illegal immigration until recently.


              I suppose you might say that Trump is an economic nationalist, but he’s not doing much that the Democrats who oppose haven’t been promising to do ever since NAFTA was ratified and China joined the WTO. It seems absurd to require some equal time criticism for nationalists like Trump if the extent of their influence is that they do exactly what the Democrats have been promising to do for 20 years.

              1. Meanwhile, identity politics has so thoroughly permeated the progressives and our culture that people can hardly speak their minds in public anymore for fear of saying something that will require them to suffer some struggle session (if they’re famous) or just permanently lose them a promotion to management if it gets on social media. Because nationalism and progressive identitarians are different sides of the same coin certainly doesn’t mean they’re equally a threat to individual rights and liberty. One of them has permeated society from the ground up. The other one is among the most marginalized ideas in our society.

                1. Shitbag status quo collectivist defines a “nationalist” as anyone who loves his country and doesn’t support the idea of a completely open border.

                  1. a “nationalist” as anyone who loves his country

                    Actually, no. See below. A nationalist is a person who exalts his/her own nation as superior compared to others, and especially superior compared to international institutions.

                    That is the type of trick that nationalists like to play, though, deliberately conflating patriotism and nationalism.

                    In my mind anyway, nationalism is patriotism plus ideology. Patriotism is just a general feeling of devotion to a country, but nationalism is that, along with belief in a specific ideology about what that country should or shouldn’t be.

                2. I am having a hard time understanding where you get the idea that nationalism is some utterly marginal idea when *Trump himself* is a nationalist. Do you think he doesn’t have that many followers? Do you think his ideas are fringe?

                  Because nationalism and progressive identitarians are different sides of the same coin certainly doesn’t mean they’re equally a threat to individual rights and liberty.

                  No, they’re not! I am not arguing that they are “equal threats to liberty”. Instead I would just ask for once that you and the other Republicans around here masquerading as libertarians find it within yourselves to at least hold the nationalist Team Red tribalists to the same standards as you hold the progressive Team Blue tribalists.

        2. It’s always amusing when idiots conflate nationalism in multi-ethnic/multi-racial countries like the US, India and Canada, with nationalism in a predominantly uni-ethnic state like Spain, Germany or Iran.
          One is a unifying force and the other is exclusionary and racist. They couldn’t be more different, but Chemjeff and Chipper don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to understand the distinction.

          1. Just different levels of Us vs Them.

            Different means to the same end of an overpowering State suppressing individualism.

            Your obvious bias towards one excuse for Statism just means ….

            …. fuck off, slaver.

            1. Yup, exactly.

              “But, MY cult is a force for good! Not like that cult over there, which is wicked!”

              It’s still a cult.

            2. “Just different levels of Us vs Them.”

              I suspect that what you’re talking about when you use the word nationalism is not what average progressives are talking about when they talk about “nationalism”.

              When average progressives are talking about “nationalism”, they’re talking about things like people who object to the Paris accords, etc.–if you’re lucky. For most of them, it’s simply a substitute for calling people “racists”.

              That isn’t nationalism. This is nationalism:

              “[Nationalism] further aims to build and maintain a single national identity?based on shared social characteristics such as culture, language, religion, politics, and belief in a shared singular history[4][5]?and to promote national unity or solidarity.[1]”


              It’s perfectly possible to oppose the Paris accords, think that congress should set the rules of naturalization, and think that the United States shouldn’t invade foreign countries unless there’s a national interest at stake–all without wanting a single national identity, wanting that identity enforced through the promotion of any language, religion, etc.

              Again, progressives cultishly slam anyone who isn’t in-group as if they’re the evil enemy–“nationalist” being one example. That doesn’t mean everyone they call a nationalist is actually one of them.

              1. Nationalists are probably few and far between.

                Certainly, an enthusiastic patriotic person isn’t being a nationalist if he loves America because every individual gets to pick his own religious beliefs.

                1. Nationalists are probably few and far between.

                  Yeah, just Trump himself and a few million of his most devoted cult-like followers. Other than that, basically nobody!

              2. This. The problem with Reason progressives is, like most progressives, they have no idea what they’re actually talking about. They have to redefine the concept to suit their needs.
                Chemjeff and his new sock don’t understand how organic unifying identities arise, and how it can be a good thing? Better make it about cults and statism then.
                Meanwhile pushing the culture of the global overclass on the hoi polloi is okay and totally different.

                1. A “good” cult is still a cult.
                  A “good” collective is still a collective.
                  A “good” state is still a state.

              3. Congratulations, Ken, you sure destroyed that strawman! Yes, some people use the term ‘nationalism’ as a lazy slur. But it’s rather presumptuous of you to assume that every instance of the term is used incorrectly. I do mean the term according to the dictionary definition, particularly:

                Definition of nationalism
                1 : loyalty and devotion to a nation
                especially : a sense of national consciousness (see CONSCIOUSNESS sense 1c) exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups

                So yes it is perfectly plausible to object to the Paris Accords on non-nationalist grounds, if for example one believes that it is a bad deal on the merits. But it is also perfectly plausible to object to the Paris Accords on nationalist grounds, that is, because it’s those dirty furriners trying to dictate to this nation what to do. Similarly for the other issues that you raise.

                So Ken, what do you think about those genuine nationalists?

            3. What the hell does multi-ethnic, melting-pot nationalism have to do with the state? Take your fucking corporatist shilling and stuff it up your ass, globalist.

              1. Globalism is not the same as corporatism.
                Furthermore it is telling that you think ‘globalist’ is some type of slur. Wouldn’t that be a rather nationalist response?

                1. Jesus, you’re a fucking dogmatic idiot, jeff

                  1. ChemJeff is just a progressives troll. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about most of the time, and he doesn’t care whether he’s wrong or right on the facts, on logic, on anything else either.

                    Most of the time he’s just emoting. We don’t understand why he’s right because you need to be in his cult to feel like he does. He tries and tries to “reason” with people, but it’s like listening to a Scientologist or a Moonie.

                    They all think they have reasons for what they believe, but all they really believe is that they’re in the in-group, and we’re on the outside. You can’t reason with somebody in that state, and there’s no point in trying.

                    This is what Jesus was talking about when he cautioned people not to throw pearls before swine. We actually hurt our own position by reasoning with such people–it makes it look like their cause is legitimate. It isn’t. They’ve got an in-group, an aesthetic, and a feeling. That’s not to be reasoned with.

                    1. You really are a triggered snowflake, Ken.

                      Be sure to change the sheets after wetting your bed.

                    2. Go fuck yourself, Peter.

                    3. So, Ken:
                      1. calls out progressives for living in a cult
                      2. denies that nationalism is anything to be concerned about (despite the fact that the Republican leader right now is a self-proclaimed nationalist)
                      3. won’t answer the questions addressed to him
                      4. calls me a troll for daring to disagree with him

                      In short, Ken is nothing more than a Republican apologist.

                      If you’re going to run interference for Republicans all the time, the least you can do is get some personal benefit out of it.

                    4. He tries and tries to “reason” with people, but it’s like listening to a Scientologist or a Moonie.

                      I present logical, reasonable arguments on what I believe every single fucking day, Ken.

                      YOU are the one who cannot expand your frame of thinking to encompass viewpoints other than the narrow Republican view that you have adopted.

                      Some of us have a much broader view of liberty than whatever Ron or Rand Paul happen to say at any given moment. Some of us have adopted a view of liberty that isn’t trapped within a Republican framework.

                      YOU are the one projecting here. YOU are the one with whom it’s like trying to argue with a Moonie. YOU are the one who will adopt every hair-on-fire negative caricature of progressives, but will bend over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt to Republicans. YOU are the one who think we should take Republicans at their word, and believe what they say, when they say “hey, trust us we really want to cut spending this time”, but would never adopt that same standard for anyone to the left of Ted Cruz.

                      YOU are the one who needs to get your head out of whatever Republican ass it is currently embedded in.

                  2. And you have no standard for your viewpoint other than just hatred of progressives. That in and of itself is not a principled position.

                    1. Sorry that last comment was supposed to be directed at Nardz.

        3. Team Red doesn’t HAVE a ‘cult of nationalism’.

          They have a ‘cult’ of patriotism.

          Big difference.

          Nationalism is ersatz patriotism–the sham of love of country enforced at the end of a gun.

          Patriotism is a love of country that is beholden to the ideals of that nation, and not to any person or party within it. Patriotism is why Civil War 2.0 hasn’t happened yet.

  2. “that paved the way for the better-known postwar Red Scare”. I thought what paved the way for the “Red Scare” was
    millions of people murdered by their own governments?

    1. Don’t say stuff like that! You’ll have Comrade Jeff down here to smirk at us and tell us what we think and why we think it.

      1. Oh heavens to Betsy! 80% of the comments here are from actual Republicans, Republican apologists like Ken, or actual alt-right bigots. Heaven forfend that anyone should dare to remind people here that this place really isn’t a Republican website!

  3. I am taking care of my own personal brown scare right now.

  4. Sort of OT: Based on some link, I found myself reading the James Damore complaint for Google this morning. As I went through the complaint, and compared to statements from friends there, and my own experiences with the tech industry, it became clear to me just how dysfunctional diversity and politics in general has become. Here is basically what I observed:

    Employee 1: Hey Leader, we have a diversity problem. 10/10 leaders are white male.
    Leader: You are right, diversity is a big problem at this company and we need to do something about it. I am instituting some diversity training, and have a 5 point plan for increasing diversity.
    Employee 2: I don’t really agree with point 5 as it seems bigoted against men.
    Employee 3: I am triggered!
    Leader: Employee 2 is way out of line. This company is dedicated to diversity. His opinions have no place here.
    Employee 3: Yeah, exactly! I am going to post a bunch of SJW and Huffpost stuff now.
    Employee 2: I’m triggered now!
    Leader: Employee 2 is no longer at the company. We are working hard to fix this culture and we cannot do it with people being so ridiculous.

    **2 months later**
    Leader: I feel like our company has come a long ways in being a more inclusive environment.
    Employee 1: I couldn’t help but notice that 10/10 leaders are white males. How do we fix that.
    Leader: You are right. Diversity training will continue.

    1. In so many ways, the leaders at Google and other tech companies are not too different from Weinstein. I don’t think they are sexual harassers, but they use 1) saying the right thing, 2) supporting BS from SJWs and 3) Tolerating or engaging in the harassment of conservatives to distract from the fact that they are actively running a sexist shop.

      The interesting thing is that I don’t think this is conscious at all. I think most of these leaders think they are doing the right thing, but this whole “Outrage Culture” has taught them the wrong behaviors. They still run a sexist shop (and yes, these shops are sexist) but they also have a company to run, and this culture encourages them to never look at their own behavior for changes- because they can always blame the sexist culture on Others- the people who disagree.

      Google has been trying this “diversity” game for years, and their metrics continue to suck- they have been at about 30% female for four years. And from the people over there I talk to, I hear a bunch of leaders who constantly say the right things about bias and diversity, but then make stupid sexist comments and hire men because for them it is different. And like Weinstein, they get a pass because they are fighting the good fight.

      1. “In so many ways, the leaders at Google and other tech companies are not too different from Weinstein”

        Yes, and I think these diversionary tactics apply to how the global overclass as a whole operates:

        – “We not the polluters with our private jets to Davos, giant yachts and factories; it’s the little people driving their Ford Explorers and Kia Rios, let’s carbon tax the fuck out of them”

        – “We not racist and homogeneous even though our editorial board is 90% white, leftist and Jewish. Look, we publish Ta-Nehisi Coates and he hates whitey”

        1. it’s the little people driving their Ford Explorers and Kia Rios, let’s carbon tax the fuck out of them”

          “The law, in its majestic equality, compels the poor as well as the rich to pay carbon tax”

          1. The original of that quote has always fascinated me. It sums up quite nicely what is wrong with governments. Yet Anatole France was apparently of the opposite persuasion:

            Politically, [Anatole] France was a socialist and an outspoken supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In 1920, he gave his support to the newly founded French Communist Party.

            I can understand people who are fed up with government-enforced inequality. I do not understand how those people can decide that the only viable solution if a far more authoritarian government.

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