Right Twisted

The question of when the Lone Star State will “turn blue” has become as predictable a feature of the Texas campaign season as flags, bunting, Ted Nugent cameos, and generalized public indifference. It’s treated as a math problem. Political analysts come to us with calculations and charts, quantifying the growth of the Hispanic population and tossing around percentages—of eligible Hispanic voters, actual Hispanic voters, and actual Hispanic voters who will vote for Democrats—to predict just when the state might once again claim a Democratic majority. In Texas as elsewhere, we’ve become preoccupied with the numbers game: Everyone’s a strategist.

And so I was glad to be reminded, by Edward H. Miller’s Nut Country, that when Texas shifted from being a heavily Democratic state to a heavily Republican one, during the second half of the twentieth century, there was more to it than simply waiting for the tide to come in. Although in retrospect the South’s Republican turn can seem like an inevitability—a conservative-leaning white population largely rejected the national Democratic Party’s support for civil rights, while much of the black population either migrated north or was prevented from voting—a weakened Democratic Party didn’t automatically generate a stronger Republican one. In Dallas, media organs like the Dallas Morning News and oil billionaire H. L. Hunt’s radio programs circulated conservative ideas, and these were embraced with equal fervor by Republican candidates and ordinary people who became politically active.

The book’s title alludes to a remark that John F. Kennedy made to the First Lady on the morning before he was assassinated—“We’re heading into nut country today”—and pretty well sums up the northeastern liberal’s view of Dallas (and of Texas) as a breeding ground for extremism. Archconservatives from Texas—the people whom Midland native Larry L. King once referred to as “Neanderthal Republicans with low, sloping foreheads and angry John Birchers (in full tremble over fluoridation of drinking water and impeaching Earl Warren)”—have been treated by some historians as a sideshow, as exemplars of the “paranoid style,” and as a result, Miller tells us, they haven’t been given their due. His lively monograph examines the conservative movement in midcentury Dallas and identifies a complicated and dynamic relationship between the Far Right and moderate—moderate for Dallas, at least—Republicans.

Both camps were well represented. During the nineteenth century, when Dallas was a railroad hub and an agricultural trading outpost, most residents were evangelical southerners. Then, as it became a banking center for the oil boom in East Texas and a manufacturing capital during World War II, the city began to attract enterprising migrants from the Midwest—Methodists and other moderate denominations rather than Baptists, more concerned with earthly riches than the end times. (Some Baptists got rich, too, of course, and indulged both obsessions.) In the ’50s, a flourishing economy and a full-throated religious revival boosted the businessmen and the evangelicals concurrently, and they were brought together in a new sense of shared mission. The political fulcrum of this alliance was an intense anti-Communism—though the definition of “Communism” proved quite flexible, with movement hard-liners prone to conflate it with liberalism or, indeed, any sort of federal-government program.

One reason Dallas gained its reputation as a Far Right redoubt was that the wing nuts have always made for better copy. Take the oil tycoon Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, a man who nursed until the age of seven, honed his poker skills playing with Mississippi River gamblers, and lived in a replica of Mount Vernon five times larger than the original. He practiced a form of exercise he called “creeping” that consisted of crawling around the mansion on his hands and knees, wrote a utopian novel in which rich people are rewarded with extra votes, and spawned fifteen children among his official family and a couple of secret ones. Hunt also published books and pamphlets fulminating against the Communist menace and the income tax and produced his own television and radio shows, the latter carried by more than 350 stations. Hunt’s fellow soldiers on the far right, many of them steeped in the premillennialism of evangelical churches, tended toward apocalyptic thinking, identifying President Kennedy as the Beast of Revelation and the Soviet Union as the biblical land of Gog. The more moderate Dallas conservatives took their political cues from the work of Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises instead of the New Testament, and they were eager to curtail state power and defend their so-called property rights. The moderates and the archconservatives were distinct groups but not fixed categories, and Miller writes about several people who migrated from one wing to the other. His chief specimen is Bruce Alger, a real-estate developer turned politician who served in Congress from 1955 to 1965. Originally a self-identified Eisenhower Republican, and the only southern Republican in Congress who declined to sign the Southern Manifesto—a denunciation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision—Alger scrambled to the right during his 1956 campaign against conservative Democrat Henry Wade. (Wade, Dallas’s district attorney, would later become famous as the prosecutor of Jack Ruby and as the named defendant in Roe v. Wade.)


The city was firmly in the grip of Jim Crow: A treatise titled God, the Original Segregationist, written by a Dallas pastor, sold a million copies, and excerpts were published in the Dallas Morning News. Starting in the mid-’50s, conservative politicians invoked the specter of state-enforced de-segregation. Congressman Alger, partly in response to race-baiting from Wade, tried to have it both ways, criticizing his opponent as a demagogue but meanwhile sending signals that he would oppose “the radical NAACP” and “forced integration.” After his reelection, he became more radical, and a few years later his was the lone vote in the House of Representatives against a federal program to supply milk to school cafeterias, which the press dubbed “socialized milk.”

In other words, not just fringe characters but middle-of-the-road types started adopting extreme positions on race and other issues. After the Brown ruling, an innocuous-sounding women-led group called the Public Affairs Luncheon Club shifted its focus from opposing Communism to promoting white supremacy. The president of the University of Dallas became convinced that Kennedy was planning a “merger” with the Soviet Union. The John Birch Society established an estimated thirty-five chapters in the city, and army general Edwin Walker, a paranoid, marble-mouthed hero of ultraconservatives whom Attorney General Robert Kennedy had once sent to a mental hospital, established himself there.

Miller, an assistant professor at Northeastern University, asserts that Alger’s 1956 campaign represents the earliest, and most explicitly race-based, incarnation of what became known as the Southern Strategy—the Republicans’ efforts to win southern votes through coded appeals to racially prejudiced whites. Miller maintains that these tactics were pioneered by Alger’s campaign manager, Peter O’Donnell, who would move to Washington to work for the Draft Goldwater Committee, as well as then–Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Maurice Carlson, who advised Vice President Nixon during a 1959 visit: “If the Whites think the Negroes are against you, it will help under the old rule of birds of a feather.”

Pinning down the exact origins of the Southern Strategy may not be a pressing concern for the general reader, and for the nonspecialist this part of the book offers a mere snippet of a much longer conversation. Miller’s case seems plausible but thin; he won’t convince everyone that an obscure congressman and a couple of Dallas political operatives created the Southern Strategy. Nut Country tells a more compelling story, though, in highlighting how oil and other business interests ultimately distinguished Texas politics from those of poorer states in the Deep South. For within a few years of the ’50s risorgimento on the right, many Dallas conservatives began to feel that the pendulum had swung too far. Congressman Alger seemed to have lost his bearings, tacking back toward the center, then rightward again, and in 1964, while Goldwater galvanized the Republican Party elsewhere in the South, Alger and other Dallas Republican candidates were defeated. A significant portion of the business community stuck with conservative Democrats and would go on to help turn wacky-scary ’60s Dallas into beloved ’80s Dallas, of the TV show and football team. (Meanwhile, the Texas Democratic Party’s rural-conservative core was withering away, and a new generation of evangelicals and a popular president invigorated the Republican Party, which has since come to dominate state politics.)

At 152 pages of narrative, Miller’s is the rare book that one might wish a little longer. His cursory epilogue dips a toe into the rise of the ’80s evangelical Right and then criticizes the absolutism of today’s Tea Party radicals, in a kind of tacked-on op-ed. But before that, the book offers a finely written survey of a time and a place when extremism took hold, one that resonates in contemporary Texas. The state now elects more Far-Right conservatives to major statewide posts than it did even ten or fifteen years ago, partly because redistricting and the primary system have favored those candidates, and partly because of the ongoing failure of the much-studied Hispanic vote to actually manifest. More fundamentally, though, Texas politics has a yawning vacuum at its center. Many of the political beliefs and slogans of midcentury conservatism, motivated by fears of Communism and racial mixing, no longer refer to threats real for any but the most die-hard of reactionaries, yet they remain in circulation. That same old tape keeps playing, over and over, and most Texans do their best to tune it out.

Karen Olsson’s novel All the Houses will be published in November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.