The 1950s congressman whose career explains Texas GOP extremism


In June, the Republican Party of Texas made national headlines by taking several extreme positions at its convention. He called on students to learn more about ‘the humanity of the unborn’, called homosexuality an ‘abnormal lifestyle choice’ and reaffirmed the punishment of those who help with gender transition .

Delegates also pushed for the repeal of the 16th Amendment (the federal income tax), attacked clean energy plans, promoted an end to the legislature’s right to regulate guns, and endorsed the end of the Federal Reserve and guaranteed access to cryptocurrencies.

The platform highlighted the sentiments of the 5,100 delegates, some of whom backed far-right activists attacking conservative Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) as ‘McCain eye patch’ for opposing Russian aggression.

This platform should surprise no one. It has its roots in the Tea Party uprising that followed the election of President Barack Obama and flourished in Texas. However, the roots run much deeper – in the 1950s, when Texas began to transform from a state influenced by the populism of people like Lyndon B. Johnson and Ralph Yarborough to one dominated by reactionary right-wing politics steeped in baseless lies, evangelical religion and ferocious hatred for the left. One man embodies these roots: Bruce Alger.

Texas frequently elected conservative segregationist Democrats in the first half of the 20th century. But before the 1950s, the Republican Party was moribund, still seen by some Texans as the party of northern aggression in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Only two Republicans served on the Texas congressional delegation between 1913 and 1953.

But in 1952, Algiers rode a wave of right-wing energy to claim an upset victory in the district encompassing much of Dallas. The pugnacious, arch-conservative Missouri native hated the federal government. He proudly boasted that he was the only member of Congress to vote against a school milk program. Intransigent and partisan, Alger’s colleagues in both parties hated him – though many well-to-do Dallas socialites adored the Republican for his vitriolic rhetorical denunciation of socialists and communists and anyone they perceived to be un-American. – including civil rights activists.

During his four terms in Congress, Alger never sponsored a single memorable bill and voted with Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower only 9% of the time.

The Washington press ranked Alger the second least effective member of Congress, behind only Adam Clayton Powell (DN.Y.). This did not bother Alger: he sang: “My ignorance of politics could not be matched by anyone in politics. His alleged ignorance was a badge of honor reflecting his anti-government and anti-establishment credentials.

In many ways, Algiers reflected the local political culture, especially in the affluent neighborhoods of Dallas. Every day people received a steady diet of far-right propaganda rooted in Cold War rhetoric and baseless lies.

The Dallas Morning News run by reactionary EM “Ted” Daley has often led the charge. He attacked the “judicial Kremlin,” a slap in the face at Warren’s court, and even called President John F. Kennedy “fifty times a fool.” At one point, Daley personally told Kennedy, “We need a man on horseback to lead this nation, and a lot of people in Texas and the Southwest think you’re riding Caroline. [Kennedy’s young daughter] tricycle.” A constant barrage of incendiary articles flowed from the paper about liberals, socialists and communists – with little differentiation between them.

This rhetoric heightened fears among well-to-do Dallas residents who flocked to right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society and often provided them with strong financial support. The group’s virulent anti-communism, opposition to international organizations and the “one world government” and strong support for states’ rights and contempt for federal institutions – including the Federal Reserve and the Internal Revenue Service – have drawn many supporters of Dallas and its suburbs.

Race and religion were at the center of this policy. Even in the pews, Dallas socialites received a steady diet of inflammatory — and false — allegations about desegregation and Catholicism. In 1960, the senior pastor of the 18,500-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, W. A. ​​Criswell, delivered a sermon stressing that “the election of a Catholic for president would mean the end of religious freedom in America.” Later, he told reporters that Catholics should never hold high office in the country.

Often, Alger has sought to amplify and capitalize on the statements of those like Daley and Criswell – including an infamous episode from the 1960 campaign November 4, trying to distract from his own ugly divorce and then making the headlines, Alger set up an ambush for Johnson, then the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

Alger and his supporters set up outside the Baker Hotel, across from where the Texas senator had planned to deliver a speech. When Johnson approached the hotel, Alger whipped a crowd of mostly well-dressed women (who became known as the Mink Coat Mob) – whose husbands worked in nearby office buildings – into a frenzy with chants of “If Khrushchev could vote, he’d choose Kennedy-Johnson!” Standing taller than most of the women around him, Alger raised and lowered a huge sign, “LBJ SOLD TO YANKEE SOCIALISTS”.

Other signs from the Algiers crowd included: “TEXAS TRAITOR”, “JUDAS JOHNSON: TURNCOAT TEXAN”, and “LET’S BEAT JUDAS”.

Some of the women rushed into Johnson’s limo shouting “Traitor” and “Judas.” One grabbed Lady Bird Johnson’s white gloves and threw them forcefully into the gutter, prompting a loud cheer. Clutter forces Johnson’s entourage to huddle in the hotel.

Johnson decided to cross the street to deliver his speech, providing the perfect political theater. The Mink Coat Mob surrounded the Johnsons again as they exited the elevator, shouting profanity and insults. They pricked Johnson supporters with pins and pounded them with signs. They even broke the nose of a young Johnson supporter. The crowds turned a five-minute walk into 30.

At one point, Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.) fumed in Algiers: “It’s out of place for a US congressman to participate in this. Stop it,” he ordered. Alger happily replied, “We’re going to show Johnson he’s not wanted in Dallas,” prompting cheers from well-dressed women.

After his speech, Johnson focused on the case, telling reporters, “No man is afraid to face such people.” Pushing the point, he observed: “But it is outrageous that in a great civilized city a man’s wife should be subjected to such treatment. Republicans are attacking women, and children will probably be next.

Johnson masterfully manipulated political theater to his advantage. As he slowly walked through the crowd, he knew the cameras were capturing a disturbed crowd of better-dressed Republicans than those attacking the civil rights activists, but still the same. He chose his words carefully to appeal to Southern ideals of hospitality and decorum, winning a victory over Algiers.

The incident outraged “thousands of Texans and many more thousands of Southerners”, according to columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Even the normally conservative Dallas Morning News pointed out that “the damage was done.” He added that even Algiers supporters “deemed the incident reckless”.

A supporter of 1960 GOP presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon lamented that the whole affair had “set the Republican Party of Texas back twenty years.” After Nixon lost Texas by a narrow margin of 46,333, he himself complained, “We lost Texas in 1960 because of that…congressman in Dallas.”

Two years later, the antics of Algiers finally cost him his seat.

However, rather than being an anomaly, Algiers reflected – and capitalized on – local culture, earning him re-election four times despite his lack of legislative record and bipartisan animosity. He was at the forefront of reactionary politics, often racially aligned with Southern Democrats such as Strom Thurmond and Harry Byrd, fanning the flames of division over integration and red-baited liberals. While conservative social issues of school prayer, abortion, immigration, and pornography became prominent after his departure, Algiers’ reactionary style and ethos permeated these debates.

Since the 1960s, the political culture that created Bruce Alger and allowed him to hold power has simply spread from suburban Dallas to all of Texas. Cultural and racial issues ensured its spread as Texas largely rejected Democrats for Goldwater and Reagan-style republicanism. As in Dallas in the 1950s, conservative evangelical churches and right-wing media outlets helped spread this politics throughout the state.

The recent meeting of the GOP faithful has just reinforced this reality; Alger’s offspring dominate the Texas GOP. People like Representatives Louie Gohmert and Chip Roy, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and State Attorney General Ken Paxton boast of political positions and rhetoric reminiscent of Algiers. Conservatives of the George W. Bush years — who favored more inclusiveness and less inflammatory rhetoric — found themselves increasingly isolated.

It’s too early to tell whether that will end up costing Republicans the state, which is becoming increasingly diverse and urban, but the Texas GOP seems unlikely to change any time soon.


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