Reflections on Rick Perlstein's Essay on Conservatism

Historian Rick Perlstein authored an essay in this week's New York Times Magazine on the deeper historical roots of Trumpism. He pondered whether he and other historians of conservatism (like me) missed the gathering storm, because we've focused too much on "respectable conservatism" or new "modern conservatism" and ignored the old right lurking beneath our eyes. 

I both agree and disagree with elements of Perlstein's argument. When I teach conservatism, I focus on the fusionist new right launched into being in the 1950s and early 1960s, propelled forward by National Review, its founder William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. This movement fused together anti-Communists, cultural traditionalists, and libertarians. Anti-Communism served as a glue holding the movement together through the late 1970s, when low taxes emerged to bond together the disparate strands of the movement. 

Isolationists lost their crusade to keep America out of the world no later than the early 1950s, and a muscular foreign policy emerged with the rise of hawks like Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater. Strands of opposition to internationalism reemerged in the 1990s during the brief window between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. But these voices never dominated the conservative coalition. 

The movement largely pushed the most extreme voices on racial issues out of the conservative mainstream, preferring coded language, and at least nominally color blind policies. Mainstream conservatism also rejected conspiracy theorists. Leading conservatives embraced extreme religious conservatives like the tele-evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, but they attempted to distance the movement from the preachers' worst rhetorical excesses. 

But in teaching about conservatism, I also devote a week to teaching about the populist conservatism of the racist Alabama firebrand George Wallace, perhaps the best historical antecedent of President Trump. Wallace wasn't opposed to using government as a force in society—his ideology wasn't libertarian like Goldwater's, or even conservative like Reagan's. Rather Wallace wanted to steer the fruits of government to certain Americans, restore traditional values, and take it the folks trying to change American culture. 

 I also teach about the "Paleo-conservatism" of Pat Buchanan which captured the support of many on the right in the 1990s. Protectionist and anti-immigrant, the paleo-con rhetoric also offers a nice antecedent for President Trump's rhetoric. 

I include Buchanan and Wallace because no historian of conservatism should ignore the existence of a populist right. But to act as though it was anything more than a small element of the conservative coalition over the last forty to fifty years distorts the history.

Buchanan never captured the Republican nomination, or anything close to it (He received 22.96% of the primary vote against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and 20.76% of the primary vote in 1996). If anything, his movement's ideas translated into more success for third party candidate Ross Perot than for anyone in the GOP.

Modern conservatism, with its anti-statist bent on everything but cultural issues, dominated Republican politics. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush trumpeted the values of free trade, low taxes, reduced government spending, etc. 

Trying to go back, as Perlstein does, and paint Trump's movement as part of some continuous lineage ignores the fact that this movement wasn't a dominant force on the right for most of the post-war period about which most scholars of modern conservatism write. If anything, these voters were more swing voters, or "Reagan Democrats," who embraced the GOP's position on cultural issues and the welfare state, but also found much to like in some Democrats (I'd be fascinated to see how many voters who supported Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 voted for President Trump last November). 

It would also distort the history to view the "New Right" as cloaked Trumpism, or the old right with new packaging. New Right conservatives, best embodied on today's political stage by House Speaker Paul Ryan, have fundamental beliefs inherently in tension with the beliefs of the Trump movement. They champion free trade, visas for high skilled workers, and driving government spending ever lower.

On foreign policy, especially after the mid-1970s, the dominant voices within conservatism were neoconservatives, who favored deep engagement with the world and had few moral qualms about employing American military might. Voices more wary about foreign entanglements emerged during Bill Clinton's presidency, but 9/11 quickly dashed whatever momentum they had gained. 

Nonetheless, this debate reminds me of an earlier historiographical schism about whether the GOP employed a Southern strategy in the late 1960s and beyond, deployed to woo blue collar voters angered by the Great Society and Civil Rights legislation, or whether it embraced a more moderate suburban strategy, designed to win over the voters of the burgeoning Sunbelt suburbs with promises of business friendly policies, good schools, a burgeoning economy, etc. 

I've never seen these two strategies as mutually exclusive. Instead, I argue that the GOP tried to do both. Republicans utilized different tropes, frames, and arguments to target these two distinct voting blocs. To some extent, the rise of modern conservative media (about which I write) made the quest of simultaneously appealing to all stripes of conservatives easier.

Rush Limbaugh could dub the graduated income tax an assault on achievement, and portray tax cuts as allowing voters to decide what to do with their money instead of faceless bureaucrats and nefarious big spending politicians. Simultaneously, however, he could treat blue collar conservatives with respect, and leave them feeling like someone was voicing their sentiments and championing their values. He fought back against what they considered to be the lords of political correctness who ridiculed them and their values.

Talk radio and cable news paved the way for Donald Trump by providing a tactical and stylistic playbook into which he tapped, and revealing that a portion of Americans felt alienated and dispossessed by both parties and were yearning for a champion. 

President Trump took advantage of a uniquely divided Republican primary to capture the party's presidential nomination with the brand of populist conservatism voiced by Wallace and Buchanan, and generally eschewed by Reagan, the Bushes, and leading congressional Republicans. Yet, it's a mistake to over read the meaning of that result. It could be that Trump's true movement is a far smaller portion of the electorate than the percentage of the electorate that voted for him. Many conservatives held their nose and voted for Trump out of a belief that he was the lesser of two evils, not because they endorsed his nativist "America First" vision. Many might have supported a Democrat had the Democratic nominee not been the loathed Hillary Clinton. 

To somehow see Trumpism as what lurked within conservatism all along misreads the many disparate strands of conservatives. It also ignores how many genuine conservatives abhor President Trump. While Perlstein claims that the Never Trump movement has embraced President Trump since the election, a read of the work of conservative intellectuals and commentators like Jennifer Rubin, George Will, Bill Kristol, Charlie Sykes, John Podhoretz, and Michael Medved dispels this notion. 

Finally, Perlstein posits that only restrictive immigration policies provided a historical moment in which liberalism could triumph. He muses about the tie between Congress loosening immigration laws in the mid-1960s, and conservatism returning to the fore of American politics. This interpretation, while creative and provocative, ignores the countless other reasons that conservatism gained traction in the 1970s. 

Riots and the counterculture during the 1960s, the utter failure of liberalism and government to address the stagflation of the 1970s, burgeoning conservative political infrastructure, the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, with their major ramifications for politics, the credibility gap that emerged in the late 1960s...the list of reasons for the "rise" of conservatism is long, and at most, less restrictive immigration laws are 1 of many factors.