You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

How the GOP Became the Party of Resentment

Have historians of the conservative movement focused too much on its intellectuals?

In 1979, Barry Goldwater turned to his diary to register a change in the nation’s politics. “Today as I sit in the Senate,” he wrote, “it is interesting to me to watch liberals, moderates, and conservatives fighting each other to see who can come out on top the quickest against those matters that I talked so fervently and so much about in 1964.” That year, Goldwater had been thoroughly crushed in his presidential contest with Lyndon Johnson, earning only 52 electoral votes against LBJ’s 486 and less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Richard Rovere wrote in The New Yorker that the election had “finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” But 15 years later, Goldwater looked out on a different landscape. “Now that almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964,” he concluded, had “become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics, there really isn’t a heck of a lot left.”

by Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster, 1,120 pp., $40

The transformation that Goldwater observed is one of the most important stories in the political history of the United States in the twentieth century. How and why did it happen? For almost two decades, over the more than 3,000 pages of a monumental tetralogy, Rick Perlstein has sought to answer exactly those questions. Four volumes—Before the Storm, Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge, and the new Reaganland—take the reader from Goldwater’s campaign, through the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, to the eventual triumph of Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980. Perlstein largely moves through this history chronologically (augmented with some biographical flashbacks), taking the reader on the same journey in politics and culture that a person living through the time would have experienced. Garnering popular acclaim as well as respect from academic historians, the books have helped redefine the 1960s—often popularly a metonym for the left-wing counterculture—as a time also marked by the growing power of conservative political organizing.

But even with this historical perspective, Perlstein was shaken by Trump’s election. In a piece that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in April 2017, Perlstein asked if historians (like him) who had failed to see Trump’s victory had made some fundamental mistake. Historians are a more ideologically diverse lot than they are sometimes made out to be, but many fall somewhere on the spectrum from liberal to left. Had they, perhaps, focused too much on intellectual figures of conservatism that they could understand, underplaying the power of the paranoid fringe? Have historians, in effect, looked too hard for a conservatism that they could respect (even if most disagreed with it)? If Trump demands an explanation rooted in American history, where do we look?

Reaganland, the fourth and final book in Perlstein’s series, is his first opportunity to answer his own challenge. The book concludes the series, providing continuity with the previous entries, but it will also be met by an audience that is living daily in Trumpland, an experience bound to shape their sense of conservatism’s impulses and effects. And though Perlstein resists making any explicit argument about either the present or the past, there is perhaps one to be found: that it would be a mistake to draw too fine a distinction between conservative intellectuals and the Republican Party’s base, for they were often animated by similar grievances and resentments.

Perlstein was born in 1969. The events and forces he has chronicled are the ones that have shaped his life but that, as a child, he was too young to understand or experience. His fascination with the 1960s began in the basement of a Milwaukee-area bookstore, where as a young man in the 1980s he combed through piles of ’60s ephemera that struck him as thrilling in an apparently more settled era. In the 1990s, when he began writing cultural and historical criticism in the energetically downbeat pages of The Baffler and elsewhere, the academic study of American conservatism was surprisingly underdeveloped. Certainly the study of the 1960s was dominated by analysis of the New Left, and whether it had been ephemeral or transformative. But Perlstein focused instead on the rise of a different “grassroots, antiestablishment movement”: the New Right. This was the overlooked story of the ’60s.

Few have done more than Perlstein to help cement that interpretation of the decade. His first book, Before the Storm, began the story with a thickly descriptive examination of Goldwater’s consequential loss in the presidential contest of 1964. Goldwater, the scion of a prominent Arizona family, had inherited a department-store fortune. He hated Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and saw his family’s success as a triumph of individual entrepreneurship, erasing the role that the federal government had played in supporting his family business in particular and regional development in the Southwest more broadly. But while anti–New Deal politics necessarily sought a home in the Republican Party—given that it was not the party of Roosevelt—it was not yet the default party for conservatives. Like the Democratic Party, the GOP was a coalition of regional interests, containing both liberals and conservatives.

Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon with Senate Republicans in 1960, four years before Goldwater’s transformative presidential run.
Associated Press

Goldwater’s presidential run gave voice to those who yearned for a real conservative, rejecting Dwight Eisenhower as a pusillanimous moderate. The John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by retired candy-manufacturer Robert Welch, was the vehicle for hyperbolic anti-Communism: It held that Eisenhower himself was secretly an agent of the massive international Communist conspiracy. (Perlstein cogently points out that if Birchers were paranoid about Communism, one reason might have been that their government had spent years encouraging them to be so.) Goldwater would not always publicly ally himself with the Birchers—polls suggested only 5 percent of Americans held similar views—but he too had argued that Eisenhower was too moderate. Parts of Bircher language would gradually work their way into Republican common sense: Their slogan was “less government and more responsibility.” Goldwater developed other themes that would eventually take over the party. He called for the Republican Party to become the party of the “silent Americans” (the phrase famously picked up by Nixon) who “quietly go about the business of paying and praying, working and saving.” He yoked together libertarian economics with militant anti-Communism, speculating about the use of low-yield atomic weapons in Vietnam. He appealed to racist voters by opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that it would entail “the loss of our God-given liberties.” He won six states: his home state of Arizona and the Deep South.

Much of the press greeted him as an extremist, his supporters as mentally disturbed. (It was the Goldwater campaign that prompted the historian Richard Hofstadter to compose his best-known essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”) Journalists were roundly booed at Goldwater events, and a mob once threw stones at the press bus following the campaign. “Goldwater in 1964” bumper stickers were soon met with mocking counter-stickers: “Goldwater in 1864.” The Goldwater slogan “In your heart you know he’s right” would be parodied by the Johnson campaign as “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” The only international support he got came from apartheid South Africa, Spanish monarchists, and German neofascists. He resented being portrayed as an extremist, and his famous line spoken while accepting the party’s nomination—“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”—was greeted with 41 seconds of sustained applause.

Goldwater was soundly defeated by LBJ, but Perlstein shows that the defeat was widely misinterpreted. It overlooked the conservative publishers with surprise hits, the Orange County activists building networks to support conservative causes, the churches entering political activism in new ways. Perhaps the book’s most consistent theme is that liberal analysts and the media have often failed to understand conservative sentiment. Midterm elections in 1966 delivered conservatives in large numbers to Congress and state houses. Mainstream pundits “did not detect the ground shifting beneath their feet,” Perlstein wrote in 2001.

Over the long run, perhaps no one was more instrumental to the growing power of the conservative movement than Ronald Reagan, who had thrilled audiences a week before Election Day in 1964 with his televised endorsement of Goldwater. Whereas Goldwater was abstract, Reagan used personal and anecdotal language, connecting with audiences in ways that Goldwater never could. Reagan called it “a time for choosing,” and, in typically emotive and Manichean language, articulated a choice between “the maximum of individual freedom consistent with law and order” and “the ant heap of totalitarianism.” The speech was a sensation: Local committees formed around the country to keep it on the air. Sixteen years later, Ronald Reagan would be elected president.

Perlstein’s next three books, Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge, and now Reaganland—though their titles suggest a series of nightmarish theme parks—chronicle that 16-year process, leading to Reagan’s election in 1980. Nixonland covers the years from 1964 to 1972, in which Perl­stein contends that the “battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire.” The book combines a biography of Nixon with a portrait of the nation. Perlstein sees the key to Nixon—both psychologically and politically—in the club he founded at Whittier College: the Orthogonian Society, a home for the strivers, rather than manor-born Franklins who ran the place. A man who collected hatred and resentments became a good match for an electorate, for a time. “The inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping,” a pollster observed, and Nixon knew how to thrive in the backlash to the civil rights movement and the cultural changes of the 1960s. “What one side saw as liberation the other saw as apocalypse,” writes Perlstein, “and what the other saw as apocalypse, the first saw as liberation.”

The Invisible Bridge and Reaganland are essentially two volumes of a single work covering the next eight years. The Invisible Bridge makes Reagan the central character, filling in his biography and showing how he came close to taking the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan is a slipperier biographical subject than Nixon, a skilled but shallow performer. Athletics and the boosterizing mythology of his era’s sports broadcasting seem to have been central to his approach to life. According to his son Ron Jr., when his father was suffering from the memory loss of Alzheimer’s disease, he would wake and feel himself not in the Oval Office or a on a movie set but in a locker room, muttering: “There’s a game. They’re waiting for me.” His high school yearbook contains a remarkable comment on his character and work as a lifeguard, when people suspected him of making up rescue stories. A drowning young man says, “Don’t rescue me. I want to die,” and Reagan is made to say, “Well, you’ll have to postpone that: I want a medal.”

As Perlstein notes, “Presidents are always also storytellers, purveyors of useful national mythologies.” And Reagan was without question a skilled storyteller. His stories were unbound by the facts: Throughout his career he stretched, invented, and imagined things that he wished were true. He divided the world into heroes and villains and could not be budged by evidence. He defended Nixon to the end, calling the break-in at the Watergate illegal but insisting that the men who carried it out were not “criminals at heart.” He knew whom to praise, telling repatriated prisoners of war from Vietnam: “You gave America back its soul. God bless a country that can produce men like you.” But he also knew who to attack, saying of the left-wing student activists at Berkeley that he would “like to harness their youthful energy with a strap.” His charm and wit covered over the cruelty of his views. But he seemed nice.

To reduce Perlstein’s works to political biographies, however, would not be accurate. What he is writing is more of an excavation of the sediment produced by the media of the time: Especially in recent works, he uses archival documents sparingly, but reads deeply in the public record. The books are primarily political history, but they also take up cultural changes. What does it mean that Superman, a comic-book character from the 1930s, became a blockbuster hit in 1978, and what did it have to do with the broader mood? “Clark Kent had not been around during the 1960s,” Perlstein notes. “He thus returned to 1978 not just with superpowers, but his Norman Rockwell values intact. They were intertwined: nostalgia was a superpower.” Perlstein’s works are less X-rays of the internal structures of the nation at a given time than an MRI of its nervous system, showing when different regions of the brain lit up: here, activated by fear, here by sex, here by joy, here by anger. This is what has made his books grow in size—Reaganland runs to over 1,000 pages—they resemble reading several years of news, with the benefit of hindsight. They succeed when they can make sense of the structure of people’s feelings in a time of significant social division.

Reaganland is the culmination of this project, covering the years of the Carter administration and Reagan’s election as president. The basic story is that in both the elections of 1976 and 1980, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan offered the country a kind of absolution. Carter’s sincere, almost over-the-top religiosity promised a contrast with the suspicious previous years, in which the news was dominated by Watergate, its fallout, and endless investigations into abuses by intelligence agencies. “He is going to save our country,” enthused one believer. “He is going to make us all better people.” But Carter was elected by an unstable coalition of Southern and Northeastern states, and mistrusted by conservative evangelicals and liberals whose support he needed. He grinned beatifically from the high rung of a political ladder, with more room to fall than to climb.

The coalition that elected Carter would be undone by both cultural divisions and economic ones. The economic fundamentals were oil shocks beginning in 1973, leading to a persistent energy crisis throughout the decade. High inflation eroded real wages. With earnings seeming to fall behind needs, more women took on jobs outside the home, which some perceived as a threat to traditional family structures. With wage increases falling behind productivity gains, people sought tax relief. In California, tax revolts that did not begin as exclusively conservative were seized on as a way to try to force the government to shrink; conservatives worked to portray the problem as the liberal state redistributing money away from workers and toward undeserving minorities. It was all mixed up in a stew of resentments, bundling crime, race, and liberalism together. A columnist for The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, observed that many fighting the Equal Rights Amendment were the same people who had been in White Citizens’ Councils in 1950s and 1960s. “Their enemy now is not the black man but ‘liberalism,’ in any form, as they see it.”

Other issues were not as obviously economic, but still painted liberalism as the enemy. Culture wars raged over gay rights, the content of school textbooks, feminism, abortion. Religious conservatives fumed over what they saw as liberal institutions—the media, schools and universities, the federal government—forcing their values on them. In Dade County, Florida, singer and orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant led a campaign to overturn an ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “I don’t hate the homosexual,” said a mailer intended to take her anti-gay campaigns national. “But as a mother, I must protect my children from their evil influence.” Phyllis Schlafly led the successful charge against the Equal Rights Amendment, beginning most of her speeches with the line: “First of all, I want to thank my husband, Fred, for letting me come—I always like to say that, because it makes the libs so mad!”

Religious conservatives were joined by other groups in the making of movement conservatism’s success. (Movement conservatism generally refers to active participants in the “New Right.”) There were the intellectual neoconservatives, in both senses: those who had worked up a perversity argument against the welfare state, charging that good liberal intentions were deepening social problems rather than solving them by supposedly trapping beneficiaries in welfare dependency. And there were the national defense neoconservatives, convinced that the United States was falling hopelessly behind the Soviet Union in military preparedness, and urging it to redouble its commitment to empire. Now-forgotten issues like the negotiations of the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama were enormously hot. The American Conservative Union made a tidy profit by airing a program called There is no Panama Canal…. There is an American Canal in Panama. Reagan’s handlers, worried that he seemed old and sometimes confused, courted intellectuals. His staff flattered writers by sending them memos making it seem as if Reagan had read their pieces and praised them for their cogency. But it was artifice: In the letters he actually dictated, Reagan mused about things like the relationship between politics in the Middle East and “the Old Testament prophesies that would foretell Armaggeddon [sic].”

The third leg of the movement conservative stool was the capitalists, the anti-regulation crusaders that Perlstein describes as “boardroom Jacobins.” There were the crank millionaires behind ultraconservative causes, like Robert Welch and the John Birch Society. But beyond them, there were dozens of CEOs who were outraged over attempts at regulation, by critiques of corporate power, by environmentalism, by anti-consumerism, and by the power of the labor movement. They demonized Ralph Nader and his group of volunteers, interns, and staffers known as “Nader’s Raiders,” supercharging lobbying efforts and supporting think tanks that presented consumer activists as anti-choice. Reagan, speaking in radio commentaries in 1975, described “the professional consumerists in Washington” as “really elitists who think they know better than you what’s good for you.” From the fringes of the economics profession, Reagan picked up supply-side economics and a discourse that held government regulations responsible for economic problems.

As with many presidents, the image of Reagan that survives has been burnished in his absence into something that, in his own time, he was not. Many want to cling to an idea of Reagan as a unifying president, to contrast with the divisiveness of our own time. But he frequently made statements and took positions that were designed to offend liberals and delight his base. Yes, he was “optimistic,” but his professed belief in American greatness excluded the possibility of wrongdoing, and did not grapple with its critics. He insisted that the “Vietnam Syndrome”—a hesitancy to commit to overseas military involvements—resulted from a Communist plan to “win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the battlefield in Vietnam.” Though he spoke favorably of immigrants—who were choosing the country he cherished—his story of the nation was fundamentally based in the experience of white Christianity. When the miniseries Roots aired on ABC over eight consecutive nights in 1977, proving a sensation in its telling of slavery’s history, Reagan commented, “I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.”

What Reagan could offer is what Perlstein describes as a “liturgy of absolution.” The United States of the 1970s, as described throughout the book, seemed to be falling apart. Carter had called for limits and restraint; he worried about American narcissism and immorality. To Reagan, the United States could only be a solution to the world’s problems. Americans were a generous people with nothing to feel guilty about. Announcing his candidacy for the election of 1980, he insisted that “the crisis we face is not the result of any failure of the American spirit.” In 1976, Carter made people feel that the United States could get better. In 1980, Reagan did the same. But each held very different groups responsible for the country’s problems.

Over the course of four books, Perlstein had chronicled the transformation of the Republican Party into a conservative party, and the transformation of the country that it required. In some ways, this history shows how short a step it was from all this to Trump. How could the United States elect a paranoid and vulgar man who trafficked in racial division, and who made criminal behavior standard operating procedure in the White House? Well, it elected Nixon. How could it elect an intellectually shallow entertainer, who was seemingly incapable of speaking truthfully on a consistent basis? Well, it elected Reagan. And as powerful as the right grew, its entrepreneurs in media and politics stoked culture war divisions to cultivate a powerful sense of grievance.

Why then did Trump’s election strike Perlstein as a mystery in 2017? Trump lacks Goldwater’s consistency, Nixon’s cunning, and Reagan’s ability to craft a story of progress rather than decline. One of the shocks of his victory was that the intellectual architecture that had been seen as important to conservatism’s rise—the generously funded think tanks and the support of supposedly respectable publications like National Review—had proved inessential. Perhaps the closest that the book comes to a thesis that addresses both past and present is about three-quarters of the way through. “William F. Buckley had supposedly affected a purge of [conspiratorial] lunacy from the conservative movement following Goldwater’s loss,” writes Perlstein, “on the theory that conservatism could never prosper unless it was considered respectable. The purge didn’t take; conservatism was prospering nonetheless.”

To this it might be added that the high- and lowbrow versions of the conservative movement were driven by impulses more similar than is usually acknowledged. The painters of graffiti in Charleston, South Carolina, who expressed their feelings about school textbooks containing a picture of a white girl giving flowers to a black boy with “get the n***** books out” were not intellectuals. But after New York City’s blackout of 1977, it was Midge Decter in the pages of Commentary who described looters as “urban insect life.” National Review published pieces defending segregation and apartheid, and one of its writers speculated at a conference on the “innate inferiority in the Negro race.” There were more and less erudite-sounding ways of deciding who deserved to be seen as fully human, but both the vigilantes and the intellectuals tended to reach the same conclusions. If what we want from our histories of conservatism is an explanation for Trump, we have the evidence that we need.

One of the values of Perlstein’s heavily narrative and loosely argued approach is that it restores a sense of randomness to outcomes. In retrospect, Reagan looks like the inevitable product of capital’s alliance with social and religious conservatism. But even in the 1980 primary, the “boardroom Jacobins” favored John Connally. They had to accept Reagan, and they certainly made their peace. But none of this was fated. Conservative activists remade the country with intensity, opportunism, and persistence through defeat. Those hoping to push back against their influence today might take some strange comfort in the story of their success. Studying the past does not tell you what will be possible in the future, nor promise that hard work will be rewarded. But it seems fair to conclude that the work is necessary, if not sufficient, and that many will not feel the tremors as the ground shifts under their feet.