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Opinion: Why My Pillow Guy is a central figure in the rise of right-wing extremism

Editor’s note: CNN political analyst Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinion on CNN.


My Pillow Founder and CEO Mike Lindell is known for more than just selling bedding. The defiant entrepreneur has become a familiar face in national politics for backing former President Donald Trump and funding election denial – while selling his wares to Trump supporters.

According to the New York Times, Lindell is the biggest announcer on Fox News’ primetime programming. And he has, by his own estimates, spent up to $40 million on conferences, a digital media platform, legal battles and more — all to champion bogus conspiracy theories about how 2020 elections were stolen. These conspiracy theories have played a pivotal role in promoting candidates who, if won in the upcoming midterm elections, may be able to overturn the results in 2024.

Former Trump White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who was recently sentenced to four months in prison for defying a House committee subpoena on January 6, called Lindell “the most important financier of all the conservative media”.

Lindell is an important figure, especially as our core democratic institutions and norms have come under sustained attack, and his impact is a vital reminder that election denial is not an idea that simply took off from herself. Lindell is part of a much larger story – a story that reveals how an intricate web of donors, party leaders, conservative organizations and the media have been key to empowering extremism and helping it spread from margins to the general public.

This is not the first time we see this phenomenon; the rise of McCarthyism, a wrecking ball in the 1950s, also depended on support from politicians, wealthy donors, conservative organizations and the media. Named after Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism weaponized fear of communist infiltration into the US government. The McCarthyites have leveraged baseless innuendo, allegations and lies against public figures as well as members of the political establishment, particularly those in the Democratic Party.

Communism lurked everywhere, according to members of the radical right, and the McCarthyists did not wait for evidence to plead their case. Although there were communist spies in the United States, there were not as many as McCarthy insinuated. Most of the people he targeted were also not guilty of the charge. While Senator McCarthy wielded great influence between 1950 and 1954, the political tactics he deployed largely outlived his time in the Upper House. McCarthyism – the epitome of the “paranoid style in American politics”, which historian Richard Hofstadter has described as a combination of “passionate exaggeration, distrust and conspiratorial fantasy” – fueled bitter divisions and sparked fear for the Cold War.

It is important to note that McCarthyism depended on a formidable infrastructure of support from members of the right. Otherwise, he probably would have failed much sooner.

In his classic book, “The Politics of Fear,” historian Robert Griffith documented how top Republican leaders in the House and Senate, many of whom personally disliked McCarthy or his tactics, viewed the senator as a tool useful for attacking Democrats. His extreme version of anti-communism was a potent weapon against the popularity of the New Deal and the electoral blocs and interest groups that supported FDR’s agendas. Although the party leadership eventually clamped down on McCarthy when he was no longer seen as useful, they would continue to adopt his rhetoric in the decades to come, warning of the Democrats’ weakness on defense and how prominent figures liberals had dangerous associations with communist organizations.

Right-wing anticommunism also depended on big donors. There was a whole generation of financiers in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Texas oil magnates HL Hunt and Clint Murchison, and businessmen Russell Maguire and J. Howard Pew, who provided money to right-wing organisations, publications and causes.

Organizations such as Fred Schwartz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and the John Birch Society grew in popularity. They sponsored large rallies and small rallies to promote right-wing causes. These groups played a pivotal role in the rise of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 despite being considered far right of the mainstream at the time. Members of these groups continued to sound the alarm about communism and alleged that it was hiding in the United States, even within presidential administrations.

The anti-communist crusade also relied on the media. McCarthy relied on some friendly newspaper reporters to amplify his talking points while blocking hostiles from his press conferences. The Tories also had a strong media ecosystem with radio hosts such as Clarence Manion attracting massive audiences spreading conspiratorial claims. Publishing houses like Regnery published conservative books which enjoyed strong sales while magazines like “The Freeman and The American Mercury” propagated the hard line.

Sociologist Daniel Bell brought together leading social scientists in the 1963 book, “The Radical Right,” to better understand how these forces had gained such a hold on the nation. Looking at these developments, he warned, “given the grave strains in American life, the radical right presents a threat to American freedoms, in a very different and less immediate sense. [than an electoral takeover]. Democracy, as the history of European history has shown, is a fragile system, and if there is a lesson to be learned from the fall of democratic governments in Italy, Spain, Austria and in Germany…is that the crucial turning point comes…when political parties or social movements can successfully establish “private armies” whose use of violence…cannot be controlled by elected authorities, and whose use of violence is justified or legitimized by respectable elements of society. »

These concerns have reached the highest levels of power. When President John F. Kennedy commissioned an adviser, Myer Feldman, to conduct a study of the radical right, he detailed how extensive the movement was, with its own sources of funding, organizational support, and proximity to the dominant policy. Feldman informed the president that the radical right, which he believed to be different though related to the “conservative right”, was spending millions a year just on radio broadcasts. Feldman warned that the difference between extremists and mainstream Republicans was in “degree and intensity, but not in kind.” The right has been “more successful, politically, than is generally thought”.

Today, the situation is not so different. Conservative businessmen like Lindell played a pivotal role in funding election denial. Republican leaders such as Senator Mitch McConnell and Congressman Kevin McCarthy learned to live with extremists within their party, allowing them into positions of power because it was in their perceived partisan interest. Conservative organizations such as the Stop the Steal Movement and the Proud Boys are the ground troops for these theories. Conservative media — from Fox News to social media apps like Parler provide massive platforms where election lies and other conspiracy theories are allowed to spread. Mainstream journalists have also been guilty of “bilateralism,” trying so hard to equate the polarization of left and right that they hesitate to expose the anti-democratic extremism that has shaped only one side of the spectrum. Politics.

Unless those who want to defend democracy tackle the sources that underlie election denialism in 2022 by boycotting companies that sponsor such candidates and funding alternatives to Holocaust denier candidates, they won’t make much headway. . Election denial is gaining strength, not losing strength.