Historian Rick Perlstein has made a career of translating the American right for the liberal left. His book-length works have identified one Republican after another — first Barry Goldwater, then Richard Nixon, now Ronald Reagan — as prisms through which we can understand the modern GOP. While his books lack the rigor of principally archive-based scholarly work, all three are breezy, fun reads that capture the mood of their respective eras, especially when it comes to the oft-forgotten zaniness of conservatism in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.
But according to Perlstein’s new piece in the New York Times Magazine, the election of Donald Trump has caused him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the American right and the appeal of its ideas to average voters. Perlstein thinks other historians need to do the same.
“We advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump,” Perlstein claims. To understand Trump, Perlstein continues, one needs to reach back beyond Reagan or Nixon or Goldwater to the “reactionary traditions” of the 1920s and ‘30s, including the Ku Klux Klan, businessman Henry Ford, and radio priest Charles Coughlin.
Trump’s election, in Perlstein’s view, proves that the history of the American right was even darker, even more motivated by irrational hatreds than his own already critical work (and most scholarly history) has assumed.
“Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in the grim essays of William F. Buckley, the scrupulous constitutionalist principles of Barry Goldwater, or the bright-eyed optimism of Ronald Reagan,” Perlstein concludes. “They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage. It will not be a pleasant story.”
But historians don’t need “new arguments to make sense of Trump.” We have plenty of places to look in the historiography if we seek to understand the dynamics that opened the door for Trump.
Perlstein’s call for new historiographical directions to explain the rise of Trump makes no mention of economics, the Democratic Party, or (most importantly) the interaction of the two in setting the stage for Trump. This framing fits with Perlstein’s model of political change as the cultural-cum-psychohistory of how the mental idiosyncrasies of particular leaders interact with the public’s irrationality and innate conservatism.
For example, his study of the Nixon era, Nixonland, scarcely discusses Nixon’s relatively progressive economic and social policies. In an eight-hundred-page work, Nixon’s guaranteed income proposal gets five mentions. His creation of the Environmental Protection Agency gets one. His decision to blow up the decades-old Bretton Woods international monetary system — perhaps the most consequential economic decision of any post-WWII president — gets only a few pages.
Nixon’s resentment of his more well-off peers at Whittier College, in contrast, assumes a significant place in the book, as does average Americans’ television-driven resentment of a liberal elite of hippies and professors, which readers of Nixonland would come away believing explained Nixon’s landslide reelection victory over George McGovern. (In fact, Nixon strategically stoked the economy on both the fiscal and monetary sides, all while holding down inflation with wage-and-price controls, making Nixon’s reelection a shoo-in, regardless of his opponent.)
Likewise, it’s impossible to understand Trump and his shocking defeat of Hillary Clinton without considering how the economic conditions enabled his particular brand of conservative populism to thrive — conditions that Clinton’s wing of the Democratic Party helped to create.
Since the 1970s, large swaths of the public have experienced stagnant or falling incomes. Few groups have been hit harder than workers without a college degree, particularly those in the manufacturing sector.
While the Obama recovery brought workers with some college education back to pre-Great Recession employment parity and created millions of new jobs for those with a bachelor’s degree or more, workers with a high school degree or less have seen 5.6 million jobs evaporate since the Great Recession. For good reason, many of these blue-collar workers blame the “free trade” policies embraced by Bill Clinton and other neoliberal Democrats for these job losses. These New Democrats, as historian Lily Geismer has shown, were less concerned with the economic fates of non-college workers than with the successes (and the votes) of well-educated, well-off workers in fields like tech and finance.
In staking out a rhetorically pro-worker position on NAFTA and other trade deals, Trump broke with decades of bipartisan pro-“free trade” ideology, the rise of which has been charted by historians such as Judith Stein, Jefferson Cowie, and Erik Loomis, among others. This “Washington Consensus” downplayed the negative effects of trade deals on blue-collar workers in the United States and emphasized that “on average,” American consumers benefitted from “free trade.”
Trump was the only major party presidential candidate in recent history to reject this consensus. By pointing his finger at rapacious Wall Street traders and corporations sending jobs overseas, and declaring his “love” for the “poorly educated,” Trump staked out a position to the left of both his primary competitors and Hillary Clinton — one that resonated with many Americans, particularly those without a college degree and in the Rust Belt. This willingness to attack big business in addition to typical GOP targets allowed Trump to transcend the downward-facing conservative populism that historian Michael Kazin has charted.
While Trump’s racism meant that blue-collar workers of color who might’ve agreed with Trump on trade were likely to either vote Democrat anyhow or stay home, non-college whites — including many who voted for Obama in ’08 and ’12 — turned to Trump in droves.
The intertwined effects of “free trade” and the New Democrats’ lack of concern for non-college workers in Trump’s appeal cannot be overstated. In many counties that flipped from Obama to Trump, a “high-profile plant closure or impending move had been on the front page of the local newspaper [during the campaign]: embittering reminders that the ‘Obama boom’ was passing them by,” as historian Mike Davis wrote in Jacobin in February.
The virulent racism of the KKK and the conspiratorial anti-Semitism of Ford and Coughlin, in other words, might tell us much about the modern “alt-right,” but it doesn’t tell us a lot about the marginal Trump voters who once voted for Obama and disagreed with much of Trump’s rhetoric, but voted for him anyhow. The latter decided the election, not the former.
Alongside the elision of economics in Perlstein’s analysis of Trump’s triumph, the most perplexing element of his essay is his (perhaps unintentional) acceptance of “Never Trump” conservatives’ version of history. The conservatives who opposed Trump were quick to argue that Trump shared nothing in common with conservative heroes like Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan.
Like these conservatives, Perlstein’s essay places the likes of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan on the respectable side of the ledger and calls upon historians to look for the roots of Trump in “conservative history’s surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage.” But as historian Kevin Mattson, political scientist Corey Robin, and legal scholar Ian Haney López, among many others, have shown, the history of figures like Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan and the history of conservatism’s “surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage” is one and the same.
Trump’s incipient fascism, polarizing racism, and loose connection to the facts don’t represent a break from the main currents of modern American conservatism; they embody it. Buckley’s National Review long served as a cheerleader for fascists, while Reagan and many other Republicans have been eager to back right-wing dictatorships throughout the post-WWII era.
Likewise, Reagan’s “bright-eyed optimism” was balanced by racist pandering in the form of denouncing “strapping young bucks” and “welfare queens,” praising “states rights” in the town associated with the murder of civil rights workers, and calling the Voting Rights Act “embarrassing to the South.”
Reagan routinely invented quotes he attributed to the likes of Winston Churchill and Oliver Wendell Holmes; Trump posted a fake Abraham Lincoln quote on Instagram. Reagan claimed that two million jobs were lost during the last six months of 1980, when in fact the economy gained jobs during that period; Trump said that unemployment was higher under Obama than the official rate showed. Reagan cited misleading data making it seem like undocumented workers receive welfare benefits when he was governor of California; Trump often does the same. In 1980, Reagan said that he’d be the youngest head of state besides Margaret Thatcher, when in fact the leaders of France, Canada, Germany, and Mexico, among others, were younger; Trump and his doctor claimed he’d be the “healthiest” president ever.
Simply put: We know where Trump came from. Aside from the few topics on which he staked out more left-leaning positions than his Republican counterparts, Trump’s political identity is little more than a pastiche of features and positions borrowed from mainstream figures in recent American conservatism.
Indeed, while Perlstein’s presentist orientation has its weaknesses, the great strength of his books was showing that many of the supposedly new, radical positions that “respectable” conservatives wish to distance themselves from are deeply rooted in the conservative movement’s past.
As Perlstein put it in a 2013 essay on the Tea Party, “There is indeed little new under the wingnut sun; if studying the right full time for sixteen years has taught me anything, it is that.” In that same essay, Perlstein notes that “reactionary percentage of the electorate in these United States has been relatively constant since McCarthy’s days” and represents a distinct minority. But the same can be said about Trump’s die-hard “alt-right” backers.
Sometimes elections prompt scholars to rethink established narratives. But it’s usually a mistake to read too much into one election’s outcome.
Perlstein claims that the 2016 election means that historians need to “construct new arguments to make sense of Trump.” But maybe what the election actually means is that many journalists need to reconsider their characterization of Trump and pay closer attention to the scholars whose work explains the economic and political conditions that made his rise possible.
Insofar as historians should respond to Trump, they should do so by looking at the shifts in the economy and within the political parties that created an opening for him to thrive, rather than by burrowing further into the marginalia of the radical right.