I'm not an expert in these matters, but here's my guess. Historians of the future will date the demise of conservatism in America to the summer of 1996, when it was revealed that the Clinton White House had obtained the secret FBI files of several hundred Republican politicos.
In the era of the New Democrat we're used to seeing liberals act like conservatives, but that summer was the moment at which conservatives decided to act like liberals. The injured Republicans organized and spoke of "empowering themselves." They claimed victim status in outraged letters to the editor. They complained loudly about their constitutional rights. There were petitions, and proclamations, and press conferences where nostrils flared and eyes flashed fire. They gathered for a protest rally in front of the White House -- with bullhorns! And to seal their conversion they engaged a "public interest" law firm to file a class action lawsuit on their beleaguered behalf. Overnight they had become Ralph Nader.
The only thing missing was the last desperate signal of sentimental victimhood: little pastel ribbons, folded and pinned to the lapel, to show solidarity for . . . oh, I don't know what they would have shown solidarity for. But the important thing, from a historian's perspective, is that now, in late 1998, this oversight has been corrected. At long last conservatives are wearing lapel ribbons. The color is peach, to signify the wearer's support for President Clinton's impeachment, and I saw hundreds of them last Saturday at a "March for Justice" on the national Mall, where a crowd of citizens gathered, as the press release put it, "to demand Clinton's removal from office."
Loudly "demanding" and ostentatiously "marching" for ineffable "justice" used to be the unique vocation of the Left -- people on the right being otherwise engaged in things like going to work and earning a living. The sponsor of the March for Justice, however, boasts an impeccably right-wing pedigree. The rally was organized by an Internet Web site called Free Republic, which over the last couple of years has become the cybersalon of any enthusiast interested in the mysterious deaths of Vincent Foster, Jim McDougal, and Ron Brown, the mysterious conflagration at Waco, the mysterious murder of Mrs. Randy Weaver, the abrupt ending of the American way of life with Y2K, the mysterious crash of TWA 800, the unexplained castration of Buddy the presidential pup, and now -- as a logical culmination of all these interrelated matters -- the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Who were the marchers exactly? Well, as the rally opened they were led in singing the national anthem by a person called "Muffaletta Man," if that gives you some idea. Fanned out before a stage set up at the base of the Washington Monument, there was a large contingent of bikers and more than one dead ringer for the late nine-fingered guitarist Jerry Garcia; many cheerful oldsters in lawn chairs; two couples in fright wigs and many more in Clinton masks; countless yuppies in Lands' End and Polo; a black guy; a man dressed up like a cigar (with Monica Nudo printed on the cigar band around his waist) and another in a chicken outfit; several veterans in fatigues and one in full George S. Patton regalia. Jim Robinson, the founder of Free Republic, summed it up in a speech from the stage: "We are the American people," he said. In all, there were a couple thousand of the American people in attendance -- fewer than the 4,000 the organizers claimed, but many more than the hundred or so who had gathered on the mall a week before in a rival rally to show support for President Clinton.
And this should come as no surprise. With the executive branch under enemy occupation, conservatives have mastered the arts of liberal protest and made them their own. At the March for Justice they submerged themselves in group chanting -- "Impeach Indict Convict! Impeach Indict Convict!" -- and carried signs fashioned with great care and imagination. "FIRE THE LIAR." "CLINTON'S LIES ARE AS SLIPPERY AS A WHITE HOUSE CIGAR." "MY PRESIDENT SLEPT WITH YOUR HONOR STUDENT." "GO BACK TO CHINA YOU COMMUNIST BASTARD." Back at the edge of the crowd I came across a pair of sign-waving old ladies, neither of whom could have been a day under 75. "HILLARY -- BILL SAYS YOU ARE A LESBIAN," read one placard; the other, more simply: "CLINTON SUCKS." (My, what big signs you have, Grandma!)
More important, the reformed conservatives have their own leaders -- their celebrities and stars. For incandescence and self-validation left-wing protesters can usually count on movie actors like Glenn Close and Martin Sheen and some combination of Baldwin siblings. But right-wingers must bask in the glow of rather lesser luminaries. Behind the stage was a VIP tent, safely roped off from the admiring hordes, who clustered together and craned their necks and clutched pen and paper in hopes of getting a glimpse of, or maybe an autograph from -- well, let's see -- there was Gary Aldrich, a retired FBI agent, and Lucianne Goldberg, who was Maurice Stans's literary representative, and Alan Keyes, the former vice president (so his resume claims) of the Ronald Reagan Alumni Association, at least four self-identified radio talk-show hosts, and a woman named Ann Coulter, who has made multiple appearances on CNBC and who spent much of the afternoon wearing sunglasses and ignoring the solicitations of a handful of gangly young men with acne. She wore tight pants.
All the celebrities spoke, of course, and the remarks of each were greeted with the same thunderous enthusiasm, notwithstanding that they were often mutually contradictory. On this matter of the American people, for example: Many celeb-speakers agreed with Jim Robinson that the "liberal media is a liar. There's no way 70 percent of the American people want this man to remain in office," which is how he knew that "we are the American people." Others took a darker view. L. D. Brown, an ex-Arkansas state trooper who no longer likes his former boss, said he was thinking of moving to England: "I'm so disgusted with the American people." Keyes pointedly questioned the "moral character of the American people." And Larry Klayman, the hyperlitigious "public interest" lawyer who launched the lawsuit in the FBI-files case, was even gloomier.
"The polls are correct," Mr. Wet Blanket told the crowd. "We are only 30 percent. Seventy percent of the American people fail to appreciate" the country's founding principles. "The rest of the American people are lost," Klayman went on, "worshipping the Golden Calf." But there's hope! Like Moses, he said, he would volunteer to "bring down the Ten Commandments and teach them right from wrong." He stood on the stage tight-lipped and immobile, as the waves of applause and adulation washed over him.
There are other, less pressing matters of dispute -- Brown, for example, announced that Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster had had an affair, which must be problematic for the Hillary-is-a-lesbian theorists. But these are easily ironed out in deference to a shared, consuming conviction. And here too our contemporary right-wingers have learned from their left-wing precursors: They are united, motivated, and gassed up generally by a delicious, delirious contempt. For all that, though, our conservative and liberal activists are not yet completely interchangeable. "Remember," one woman shouted from the stage as the rally ended, "be sure to pick up your trash. We're conservatives and we clean up after ourselves." And sure enough, an hour later the place was spotless, as though they had never been there.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.