To Understand the Modern GOP, Look at the Reactionary ’90s

From Rush Limbaugh to Pat Robertson, the most vitriolic and morally panicked conservative figures of the 1990s contributed just as much to modern American conservatism as Ronald Reagan did.

Newt Gingrich at a political conference in Orlando, Florida, on September 23, 2011. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Just before the 1994 midterm elections — in which Republicans secured their first House majority in four decades — the prominent US political historian Alan Brinkley lamented, “[I]t would be hard to argue that the American Right has received anything like the amount of attention from historians that its role in twentieth-century politics and culture suggests it should.” Brinkley urged historians to take the Right more seriously — to tackle what he termed the “problem” of American conservatism, which was “in the end, a problem of historical imagination.”

To say that historians answered Brinkley’s call would be a profound understatement. The next two decades saw the publication of dozens of scholarly books exploring the origins and evolution of modern American conservatism. These studies focused not only on prominent conservatives like Alabama governor George Wallace, “Dixiecrat” presidential candidate and longtime South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, and anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly but also on the grassroots activists who built the conservative movement in places like Orange County, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Atlanta, Georgia. This profusion of scholarship prompted historian Kim Phillips-Fein to write in 2011 that “historians might be forgiven for asking whether there is anything left to study in the history of the Right.”

The rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism in 2015–16 breathed new life into the study of conservatism and the GOP. While some political historians over the past decade or so have implored their peers to look “beyond the red–blue divide” for continuities between conservatism and liberalism and Republicans and Democrats, the Trump era stimulated interest in the recent history of the American Right specifically. Accordingly, some of the most recognizable public-facing historians of the Trump (and post-Trump?) years have been scholars of conservatism and the Republican Party, such as Kevin Kruse and Heather Cox Richardson — whose wildly popular newsletter has earned her a New York Times profile, a sit-down interview with President Joe Biden, and over $1 million a year in subscription revenue.

For all of this scholarly interest in Trump’s precursors, however, relatively little has been written about conservatism in the 1990s. With her compelling, eminently readable new book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, historian Nicole Hemmer seeks to correct this oversight. Partisans argues that the counterrevolutionaries of the 1990s wholly transformed the conservative movement, setting it on a course that would lead to the election of Trump in 2016. Whereas Ronald Reagan’s sunny, pragmatic “Cold War conservatism” had defined the movement in the 1980s, Hemmer claims, hard-liners like Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and lesser-known figures like Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth helped build the “more pessimistic, angrier, and even more revolutionary conservatism” that remains with us today.

For Hemmer, whose earlier work traced the emergence of conservative media institutions in the mid-twentieth century, three developments explain the presumed shift from Reaganism to the vitriolic right-wing politics of the 1990s. First, the end of the Cold War changed the landscape of US conservatism. While anti-communism had long served as a lodestar for conservatives, informing their positions on a range of foreign and domestic policy issues, the fall of the Soviet Union forced conservatives to recalibrate. For instance, Reagan’s “preference for more-open borders and higher immigration levels,” positions structured by Cold War imperatives, ultimately gave way to Buchanan’s intense nativism and Trump’s demand to “Build the Wall.”

Second, the 1994 congressional revolution “reoriented the [conservative] movement away from the presidency and toward Congress,” writes Hemmer, a shift with “profound consequences.” “With a Democrat in the White House, congressional Republicans adopted a politics of destruction, concerned less with legislation than with investigation and obstruction.” There were in fact major continuities between congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House. House speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton had developed a mutual respect for one another, and their policy priorities — especially on matters related to race, social assistance, and the carceral state — often aligned. (Take, for example, the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.) Still, the intense anti-Clinton sentiment at the heart of the conservative movement drove the GOP’s efforts to delegitimize and obstruct the president, even as he was pursuing and enacting policies that they liked. (This campaign to undermine President Clinton would come to a head with his impeachment, though it would live on in the resistance to Hillary Clinton’s 2015–16 White House bid.)

Third and finally, Hemmer argues that “a rapidly evolving media environment” fundamentally reshaped the conservative movement by providing “new avenues” through which activists and leaders could transmit their “ideas, strategies, and conspiracies.” Government officials became increasingly beholden to a growing right-wing media machine, which amplified radical voices while marginalizing others. Further, although the “line between entertainment and politics had been blurring for decades,” by the 1990s that line had all but disappeared. Programs such as Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect (which ran on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1997 and on ABC from 1997 to 2002) — not to mention entire networks like MSNBC — centered around the spectacle of political debate, with the loudest, most extreme voices often dominating the conversation. Crucially, by platforming brash right-wing radicals in an effort to appear “fair and balanced,” liberal media programs and institutions also helped facilitate the rise of radical conservatism.

These and other factors, Hemmer claims, led to the collapse of Reaganism and the triumph of a more sinister, less conciliatory conservative politics in the decades bracketing the turn of the twenty-first century. Despite conservatives’ continued reverence for the nation’s fortieth president, Hemmer contends, the Republican Party is no longer the party of Reagan.

The Right Beyond Reagan

But just how stark were the differences between Reaganites and the right-wing populists who seized control of the conservative movement in the 1990s and 2000s? And where does liberalism fit into this story, especially given the profound transformations underway within the Democratic Party at the time?

Hemmer’s retelling of US political history since the so-called Reagan Revolution is masterful. Her attention to detail, invigorating storytelling, and forceful argumentation make this essential reading for anybody interested in recent American history. Yet Hemmer’s conclusions, particularly the proposed ideological and stylistic shift at the core of her study, might have been complicated with a deeper focus on several vitally important processes and individuals.

For one, the book’s depiction of Reagan and Reaganism as “sunny” and “optimistic” only works because it largely overlooks the “war on drugs” and the overlapping moral and sex panics of the 1980s. Reagan, along with his acolytes like US attorney general Edwin Meese, regularly spotlighted the moral and sexual dangers supposedly confronting American children and their families. From the satanic panic to the “stranger danger” scare, from Meese’s anti-porn crusade to concerns about black and brown drug “pushers” targeting “innocent” white kids, such panics not only alarmed and mobilized white suburban parents but also empowered the state to police, surveil, and punish vulnerable populations, especially black, brown, and queer people. These Reagan-era developments hardly reflected a sunny or optimistic worldview, and it’s not difficult to draw a direct line between these panics and the right-wing base’s increasing obsession with “grooming” and “child sex trafficking” today.

In a similar vein, Partisans barely touches on HIV/AIDS, one of the defining issues of the era under consideration. While Hemmer rightly castigates figures like Ingraham, Robertson, and Limbaugh for their callous responses to the epidemic, her book largely ignores the Reagan administration’s role in demonizing sexual minorities and perpetuating the crisis. The “partisans” at the center of Hemmer’s book certainly deserve scorn and scrutiny for their vicious homophobia, but the gulf between these conservative radicals and the ostensibly less ideologically rigid Reaganites on HIV/AIDS may not be as wide as Hemmer implies. Consideration of Reagan’s (and George H. W. Bush’s) record on AIDS complicates the book’s proposed shift between “sunny” conservatism and right-wing “grievance politics.”

As the book’s title suggests, Partisans concentrates almost exclusively on developments within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. This approach yields some invaluable insights about conservative ideology and strategy, but it also means that key pieces of the puzzle get left out. Most notably, Hemmer portrays Clintonism mainly as a response to the rightward drift of the GOP. For Hemmer, an increasingly militant conservative movement and media machine “pulled the Democratic Party sharply to the right” in the 1990s. But this assessment overlooks crucial tensions and contradictions within liberalism and between Democrats stretching back to at least the 1960s.

Lily Geismer, Brent Cebul, and other historians have shown how the triumph of “neoliberalism” (that fiercely contested term) had less to do with the Right’s rising political fortunes and more to do with the shifting power base within the Democratic Party. “Since the 1960s,” Geismer explains, “suburban knowledge professionals and high-tech corporations have supplanted urban ethnics and labor unions as the party’s core constituency.” Over the past five decades or so, the political sensibility that Geismer dubs “suburban liberalism” has consistently pushed Democrats to embrace high-tech, market-oriented, and punitive solutions to economic inequality, housing insecurity, and myriad other social problems. In other words, the troubling developments analyzed in Partisans cannot be blamed entirely on an increasingly radical conservative movement. Rather, they are products of a fundamentally antidemocratic political and economic system that privileges the wealthy and well-connected over the majority. A deeper, more sustained treatment of liberalism and neoliberalism would’ve enabled Hemmer to more fully address these broader structural concerns.

These quibbles aside, Partisans is a tour de force — a sharp, innovative, and accessible political history that is bound to reshape how academic historians and political observers think about US conservatism and the recent American past, more broadly. To understand how and why we arrived at this moment — as Trump prepares to launch his 2024 presidential bid; as far-right Senate candidates Blake Masters and J. D. Vance help mold the new “New Right”; and as the mainstream conservative movement becomes increasingly indistinguishable from violent far-right groups like the Proud Boys — Hemmer’s new book is essential reading.