After two years of desperate pretense that the Bush administration is but the long afternoon of the Reagan era, many of Mr. Bush’s conservative supporters now begin to suspect that morning in America is fast lurching toward chaos and old night. The President’s apparent willingness to consider tax increases, despite his best-known campaign promise, and the return of Secretary of State James Baker from Moscow last spring wearing little more than his underpants have disabused many on the right of any illusions they may have harbored. They are late, but they are not alone, and far from the Beltway comes the unsettling murmur of rebellion, this time not from the tenured revolutionaries of the left or the tax-exempt populists of the right, but out of the swamps and hills of the American heartland.

When David Duke announced in 1988 that he would run for the Louisiana state legislature, few paid much attention. Mr. Duke first gained national headlines in the early 1970’s, when he won fame for being a member of the Ku Klux Klan as well as a college graduate, and he has run for office several times before—most recently for President in 1988. Any almanac will give you a complete list of such also-rans, from anti-Masons and Know- Nothings down to the candidacies of Angela Davis, Dr. Spock, and Lyndon LaRouche. But then Mr. Duke won the legislative race, the almanacs had to be rewritten, and ears, even inside the Beltway, began to prick.

Mr. Duke not only won his election—against the brother of a former governor and despite the fulminations of President Bush and Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater and the avuncular counsel of Ronald Reagan—but also now seems to be on the verge of trouncing Republican State Senator Ben Bagert in Louisiana’s senatorial primary next month. If, as seems likely, Mr. Duke beats Mr. Bagert and keeps Democratic incumbent Bennett Johnston from winning more than 50 percent of the vote, he will face Senator Johnston in November. Should he win against him, the rebellion will begin to sprint.

Mr. Duke, however, has come a long way since he posed for pictures in Klan robes and Nazi uniform. While he refuses to denounce the Klan, he does not spend time or energy arguing that God has cursed the children of Ham or that the Elders of Zion are fluoridating the drinking water from their headquarters in the Federal Reserve System. Nor does he dote on the conclusions of researches conducted by the late William Shockley, Arthur Jensen, and others who believe that human intelligence is largely inherited and that white people generally got a larger slice of the intellectual pie than black people. Just because he doesn’t talk about such matters does not mean that Mr. Duke doesn’t believe them, though he is quite cagey about whether he does or doesn’t. But regardless of what he thinks about these and other subjects, Mr. Duke’s success in the polls has little to do with such beliefs or with the kind of clothes he used to wear. Louisiana and most other states are full of characters who strut around in funny uniforms and would like to have political power, but few citizens there or anywhere else are dumb enough to vote for them.

Mr. Duke has gained and kept a political following because he understands something many contemporary conservatives have forgotten or in some cases never knew: what attracts voters to a candidacy of the right is not what the candidate thinks or says about the gold standard, creating democracy in Afghanistan, expanding economic opportunities, or being kinder and gentler, but what he will do to preserve and protect what used to be called the American Way of Life, the normative patterns and institutions that define and distinguish what Americans believe and do from what other peoples believe and do—in short, the American culture.

Voters—not all of them, but many—are attracted to candidates who express clear positions supportive of traditional American culture because they have to live every day with the erosion spawned by politically engineered assaults from individuals and groups that despise American norms and want to get rid of them. For example, the ACLU and kindred lobbies that manipulate judicial power to uproot folkways and the distribution of social and political power that folkways support; the “multiculturalism” lobby, which uses the government education system to crush Euro-American culture; and the civil rights establishment and its allies in the immigration lobbies, which seek to dig a bottomless pit of welfare rights, political privilege, affirmative action programs, and set-asides to dispossess white Americans economically and culturally and gain the loyalty of their nonwhite following in the underclass and the government-created middle class. Such forces also enjoy the support of the bureaucratic elites in the managerial state, corporations, unions, and mass media, which use them to expand their own power.

The practical results of the success of this alliance are commonly seen in the violent crime that crippled police and prosecutors are unable to suppress, in entire systems of local government overturned by courts for the purpose of ensuring “minority” power, in competent white students denied admission to college because of the lower standards of enrollment universities allow for nonwhites, and in qualified white job applicants unable to work because of affirmative action and set-aside plans. Yet such material consequences of the racial and cultural revolution merely frame its substance. In high school and college, television and film, the traditional culture of Europe and America is vilified, belittled, debunked, and deconstructed, while white. Christian, male heterosexuals are consistently portrayed as criminals, tyrants, incompetents, and madmen. Probably more than the direct material effect of dispossession, this less tangible but far more pervasive dismantling and discrediting of an entire civilization has produced the smoldering psychic embers from which rebellion bursts into revolutionary flame.

The core of the revolution consists of what sociologist Donald I. Warren some sixteen years ago called “Middle American Radicals,” or “MARs,” a social and political force largely identical to what is usually called—depending on one’s inclination to affect dispassion, enthusiasm, or contempt—”lower middle-class white ethnics,” the “Reagan Democrats,” or the “Bubba vote.” Professor Warren, however, defined MARs in terms of a common attitude they shared. “MARs are a distinct group,” he wrote, “partly because of their view of government as favoring both the rich and the poor simultaneously. . . . MARs are distinct in the depth of their feeling that the middle class has been seriously neglected. If there is one single summation of the MARs perspective, it is reflected in a statement which was read to respondents: The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.

The white voters who elected Mr. Duke to the state legislature last year from District 81 are virtual MARs archetypes. According to a survey conducted for the New Orleans Times Picayune after the election.

Duke’s constituents live in a microcosm of white, suburban America. District 81 is characterized by middle incomes, fear of crime and a distaste for taxes. Moreover, the voters . . . express a smoldering [there’s that word again] sense that, at worst, government confiscates the work of its best citizens and lavishes it, to no apparent effect, on people who are ungrateful or openly hostile. Affirmative-action programs, minority set-asides, racial quotas and other efforts on behalf of blacks have tilted the system against them, the voters said. When it comes to job and educational opportunities, they feel whites increasingly are ending up on the short end of the stick. In Duke, voters said they saw an opportunity to fight back.

Voters won’t get that opportunity from Mr. Bush, however, nor from Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, and the other luminaries of the Republican firmament, nor even from their ideological mentors who shine under the labels of “neoconservatism,” “big government conservatism,” “cultural conservatism,” and, most recently, “the New Paradigm.” Last summer the Heritage Foundation published a report on the Kennedy-Hawkins Civil Rights Bill of 1990, and while Heritage properly opposed the bill and affirmative action, it pronounced what is nothing less than an abandonment of traditional conservative principle regarding civil rights legislation.

The “conservative view of progress” on civil rights. Heritage informed us, demands that “government must prosecute cases of discrimination against individuals to the full extent of the law. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act . . . should be strengthened to include remedy of damages against those who willfully discriminate. Building on this enforcement strategy, the conservative civil rights strategy would call for aggressive court and legislative action to challenge modern-day Jim Crow laws that stifle minority business development.” Examples of such latter-day “Jim Crow laws” include “the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which freezes out minority firms from government construction contracts, and onerous licensing laws for professions ranging from cosmetology to child care.”

Yet these laws, as the Heritage paper acknowledges, are “seemingly neutral in their impact on the races,” and, unlike Jim Crow laws, which explicitly discriminated on the basis of race, merely have the effect of placing blackowned firms under disadvantages. There are good reasons to repeal Davis-Bacon and many occupational licensing laws, but to do so because they have the effect—rather than the intent—of racial discrimination is to embrace conventional liberal ideas that legitimize affirmative action and special privileges for members of certain races over others. Through exactly the same logic, universities require lower SAT scores for black applicants than for whites because holding all applicants to the same standards, while “seemingly neutral,” would in effect exclude many blacks from admission. Thus the new “conservative civil rights strategy” winds up in the same place conventional leftism started out.

Nor does Heritage explain why ending and punishing “racial discrimination” should be legitimate goals and activities of the federal government at all, or why the state should undertake special efforts to ensure “business development”—or home-owning, or an end to poverty, or psychic contentment—for any particular group. Whatever the flaws of Jim Crow codes before the 1960’s, federal involvement in chasing racial discrimination through the Civil Rights Act resulted in a massive expansion of centralized power on behalf of the therapeutic management of social, political, economic, and cultural relationships that no real conservative can countenance.

Heritage is not alone in demanding further acceleration of the civil rights revolution through the use of federal power. Last winter, conservatives gathered secretly in New York to discuss what they were going to do with their little empires in the coming decade. For “cultural conservative” Paul Weyrich, the agenda seems to be focused mainly on helping the black underclass. An eight-page memorandum circulated by Mr. Weyrich at the meeting centered almost entirely on measures designed to help minorities in inner cities while largely ignoring traditional white middle-class conservative constituencies that continue to face social, economic, and cultural demolition.

Yet it is precisely such constituencies that supported conservative activism—indeed, made it possible through their donations—and voted the current crop of Republican politicos into office. They did so because the propaganda and rhetoric these activists and politicians uttered made them believe that the continuing assault on their beliefs, lifestyles, institutions, and aspirations would be resisted. But except for campaign applesauce about Willie Horton, the Pledge of Allegiance, the American flag, capital punishment, and religion, today’s “conservatives” have no serious intention whatsoever of doing so.

There is a good deal of talk these days about the “conservative crackup,” and much of it is justified. But what has cracked up is not the popular radicalism of the right but rather the phony “populism” of the conservative establishment, which has signed up with the other establishments that run the country. Even from their watchtowers on the Washington Beltway, the barons of this establishment can smell the smoke of rebellion drifting in from the prairie, and they know they didn’t start the fire, can’t control it, and can’t put it out. It won’t take any more secret meetings in New York to learn that whoever does control that fire will determine the real political agenda for the next decade.