The Remaking of the American Right

When the Clock Broke offers a tour of the ’90s, from Klansmen strangled on talk shows to a drugged-up George H. W. Bush running for office. Author John Ganz also argues that the far right of the ’90s was a precursor to Donald Trump, a claim reliant on distortions of past and present.

Donald Trump during a campaign event at Historic Greenbrier Farms in Chesapeake, Virginia, on June 28, 2024. (Parker Michels-Boyce / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Do the 1990s hold the key to understanding contemporary authoritarian populism in America? That’s the contention of When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s by John Ganz, an intellectual historian who made his name writing his Unpopular Front newsletter on Substack.

In a post-2016 election daze, liberals often projected onto the past a frictionless world of open borders blown to smithereens by Donald Trump. But the last decade of the last century was no multicultural paradise, Ganz shows. That decade offered previews of today’s authoritarian politics, from Patrick Buchanan’s insurgency, an arrogant political center, to the ex-Klansman David Duke’s dash into mainstream politics. Hence the book’s title: When the Clock Broke.

The book is one of many that look to the history of conservatism — especially its less decorous aspects — to find harbingers for Trumpism. As a consequence, When the Clock Broke raises important questions about the uses and abuses of history. Where do you start looking to get a grip on Trump? Ganz’s broader — though curiously unexplored — answer to this question is that the 1990s were a singularly important preview of what came after it and witnessed a crisis of authority that allowed for the rise of fringe alternatives.

A Rogues’ Gallery

Ganz has distinguished himself through his ability to uncover the often-unnoticed origins of far-right politics. The book confirms his reputation as one of America’s most astute observers of the Right and allows readers to see the 1990s with new eyes. The 1990s, When the Clock Broke reveals, were “weird.” The end of the Cold War, recession, and disappointment with the Reagan Revolution “brought to the surface the growing sense of dissatisfaction” with the status quo. Channeling Antonio Gramsci to give an overarching interpretation of the period, Ganz sees a kind of organic crisis that facilitated the rise of “morbid symptoms.”

Maybe Ganz’s most interesting gloss on the era, however, is his meditation on the Godfather, which comes at the end of the book. The far right, like much of American popular culture, sees something deeply appealing in the mobster: he’s a violent but paternalistic form of uncontrolled power outside the state. The best hope for the Right’s Godfather politics in the 1990s was Buchanan, who has a starring role in When the Clock Broke. He ran in the Republican presidential primaries in 1992 and 1996 and was the Reform Party’s candidate in 2000.

Buchanan’s anti-immigrant rhetoric — he famously called for a “fence” around the border — and criticism of free trade gained him a considerable following in the 1992 and 1996 Republican primaries, though he was never able to unseat the mainstream. The presidential hopeful was a self-described paleoconservative, a group that also figures prominently in Ganz’s debut. These were self-conscious outsiders that thought that a white, Christian political identity was core to the American constitutional order.

Notable Paleoconservatives include Samuel Francis, one of the ur-intellectuals of Trumpism, who Ganz points out was a confidant to Buchanan. Francis wrote about a new constituency he called “Middle American Radicals,” and tried to theorize conservative revolution within a phase of capitalism made up of “managerial elites.” Alongside the paleoconservatives were the self-described paleolibertarians such as Murray Rothbard, one of the libertarian movement’s founders and leaders. Later in his career, he peddled a mix of anarcho-capitalism, racism, and right-wing populism.

The paleoconservatives unabashedly tried to make racism respectable. Buchanan tried to self-consciously replicate the strategy of Duke. A former Klansman who anonymously wrote a sex self-help book for women, Duke attempted to pivot from neo-Nazidom to the Republican mainstream. He eventually won a seat in Louisiana’s state legislature, though his other campaigns for governor, Congress, and the presidency were unsuccessful.

The story of the far right is woven into a broader narrative about the era’s uncanny politics, from Klansmen being strangled on talk shows to Ross Perot’s bogus advocacy of still-missing POWs in Vietnam. Ganz portrays the Republican establishment as directionless in the face of insurgency. In one scene, we follow George Bush Sr, feeling the aftermath of sleeping pills, at a rally in New Hampshire. Disoriented, he stands in front of a town hall in Exeter and reads aloud directly from his note card — “Message: I care,” he tells the crowd.

No surprise that Bill Clinton was able to torch Bush in the 1992 election. But that doesn’t mean his victory was preordained. Despite his reputation as a strategist, Clinton faced obstacles. As usual, past trysts haunted the Arkansan. Much like Trump, Clinton was also plagued by numerous allegations of sexual assault. “Did the governor wear a condom?” one reporter asked Gennifer Flowers, who allegedly had a twelve-year affair with Clinton.

Ganz also highlights the feud between Clinton and Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader and occasional challenger of the Democratic Party’s stalwarts. Clinton is sometimes remembered as a cosmopolitan, but he had little patience for Jackson’s attempts to conjure up a rainbow coalition. Clinton had his own repertoire of racist dog whistles, and his record in the 1990s is a telling reminder of the punitive and paternalistic attitude lurking within the mind of the Democratic radical center.

When Did the Clock Break?

Ganz does not limit himself to providing vividly drawn portraits of the Right and extreme center. His ambitions are broader and more politically pressing. When the Clock Broke is a diagnostic project as well as a descriptive one, seeking to explain the emergence and appeal of Trump. The former president, Ganz tells us, “represented the crystallization of elements that were still inchoate in the period of this book” and that “the politics of national despair described here have now taken hold of the Republican Party: it is dominated by figures and ideas that once would have been considered fringe.”

Ganz’s invocation of the politics of national despair is a reference to Fritz Stern’s The Politics of Cultural Despair, a book about German conservative intellectuals such as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck. These intellectuals made sweeping proclamations about the contemporary world’s decadence, and sought a conservative revolution, as one put it, not in favor of “freedom but communal bonds.” These authoritarian ideas were part of a broader culture that shaped Nazi ideology.

Weimar comparisons aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They were at the heart of the bitter “fascism debate” about whether the current right was a precursor to something more extreme, which took place in articles in this publication and others. Ganz was a notable participant. There are groups in When the Clock Broke that closely replicate Stern’s politics of cultural despair, especially the paleoconservatives. They themselves read Weimar’s conservative revolutionaries and sought cultural rejuvenation through popular revolt. In the case of Francis, he was self-consciously fascist.

How the 1990s politics of national despair connects to the present isn’t really explored, and When the Clock’s Broke’s overall historical interpretation is ambiguous. Ganz’s view seems to be that these far-right reactionaries in the 1990s might have been losers back then, but their descendants rose from the dead after the 2008 financial crisis. You might call this the “Trump is Pat Buchanan with Better Timing” interpretation. Ganz elsewhere wrote that the “central contention” of the book is that “Buchanan is the most consequential right-wing figure of the past century.”

These are sweeping claims, and there are modest senses in which they’re true. Buchanan, an architect of the Southern strategy and a media personality, was clearly an important conservative. You can point to groups — such as the Mises Caucus or the alt-right — directly inspired by the paleolibertarians or paleoconservatives. And there are people who still read the writings of Rothbard or Francis, which has given them a strange life beyond the grave. There are many ways in which the protagonists of Ganz’s book are consequential.

But if we turn our attention to specifically electoral politics, another interpretation of the far right during the 1990s and its relevance to today offers itself. Within the arena of electoral politics, treating Buchanan as Trumpism 1.0 is misleading, despite their similar rhetoric around trade and immigration. Buchanan and co. espoused a specific variety of segregationist white supremacy when it was becoming anachronistic. This model of brazen racial chauvinism failed in the 1990s, and similar efforts have struggled more recently.

The contemporary Trump coalition represents a more nimble and mainstream form of racial and class domination — one that’s adapted to the post–civil rights era.

Race and Class After Civil Rights

Ganz is right to emphasize that his book’s protagonists were “losers.” But it’s important also to emphasize why they lost. The paleoconservatives were part of a micro-history within Jim Crow’s afterlives: they were trying to create a renewed, if not radicalized, segregationist-era politics.

In the pre–civil rights era, the Democratic Party forged cross-class alliances based on white solidarity. At the heart of this system was what W. E. B. Du Bois called the “a sort of public and psychological wage”: there were real material benefits of whiteness, such as access to the labor market and civil rights, which upheld white supremacy during the Jim Crow era.

Buchanan and co. were angered at the Reagan Revolution’s inability to unseat the civil rights movement’s gains by the 1990s, and they tried to redeem segregationist white supremacy. The paleoconservatives saw an opening with neoliberalism and the economic crisis of the 1990s. Like other groups, neoliberalism had introduced economic precarity into sections of the white working class — precarity from which the wages of whiteness had protected them.

Buchanan and co. tried to organize white grievance into white solidarity, and they took segregation-style demagoguery to the hilt. Francis, part of Buchanan’s brain trust, looked to neo-Nazi groups as the vehicles for a new revolutionary nationalism. Buchanan himself once wrote that he was a proponent of “blood-and-soil” nationalism. They envisaged border restrictions, white racial purity, and tariffs to redeem the wages of whiteness.

Buchanan and Francis were fairly establishment figures, maybe even mainstream in a way, before the 1990s. But things changed. They were pushed to the fringes by the 2000s, and their views also seem to have radicalized. As a consequence, Buchanan’s campaigns never got much traction, and the paleoconservatives’ extreme racism led to bad publicity, which created serious donor deficits. As even Trump said about Buchanan in 1999, “He’s a Hitler lover, I guess he’s an antisemite. He doesn’t like the blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.”

As usual, Trump’s language is layered with contempt for groups (“the blacks,” “the gays”) he considers beneath him. But these comments suggest even he recognizes an egalitarian plateau to democratic politics: the post-1970s multiracial franchise altered the rules of the game. The attempt to view the white supremacist extreme in the ’90s as the hidden clue to Trumpism makes sense on some level (they are both very racist). But this perspective obscures an important feature of American politics: you have trouble getting votes when you sound like a Nazi, and Trumpism has been widely appealing in ways Buchananism was not.

In the post–civil rights era, successful Republicans, such as Ronald Reagan, did appeal to white grievances and a cross-class white electorate. And Republicans still gerrymander the electoral system to undermine multiracial democracy. But conservatives also understand that there’s no turning back to Jim Crow–style white supremacy. A “norm of equality” became generalized after the struggle for civil rights, and even barely disguised racist attacks on welfare queens had to be couched in the language of citizens claiming rights that weren’t rightfully theirs. Everywhere conservatives attempted blood-and-soil nationalism, from Duke to Blake Masters, they struggled, especially nationally.

There are direct successors to Buchanan and co., notably the alt-right. But they, like Buchanan in the 1990s, ping-pong between marginality and outsized influence. The alt-right got a lot of media attention, but it was sued into oblivion. It’s tempting to conflate Trumpism and the alt-right — as well as other extreme groups — but the alt-right never had any direct connection to the Trump administration.

Even the paleolibertarian-inspired Mises Caucus, a direct descendent of the characters in Ganz’s book, seems to be losing power within the Libertarian Party. The model of the ethno-state still exists, but it struggles to gain traction. This is why Buchanan is better viewed as the end of an era, not a harbinger of our own: he tried to remake George Wallace–style white supremacy in a multiracial democracy. The failure of that attempt is a testament to distinct parameters for action in politics.

This does not, however, provide justification for self-congratulation. Segregationist white supremacy is not the only form that either racism or far-right politics can take. We often remain yoked to the image of racists as being just blood-and-soil nationalists. But historically racial domination has manifested in diverse ideological forms, from slaveholder visions of black and white slavery to settler colonialism’s politics of immigration. As Malcom X put it, “Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.”

What’s gaining traction, at least for the time being, isn’t the ethno-state, but a different model: the multiracial right. As the political scientists Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph Lowndes have argued, Republicans have tried to present xenophobic politics with a selective toleration of racial diversity. Even Trump vilifies immigrants advisedly (“They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people,” as he once said). The Lost Cause seems to be falling out of favor among Republicans. The Trumpian project of reasserting domination needs to be tailored to a post–civil rights world.

This also reflects the shifting electorate behind the Republican party. Exit polls and polling data should always be met with caution. But in 2020 and the 2022 midterms, the data suggests Trump did better among black and Latino voters than during 2016, when he bested Mitt Romney’s 2012 track record amongst non-white voters. As one reporter sums it up, “Democrats have not only lost their hold on working-class white voters, but are now also losing traditional support from working-class voters of color.” Going into 2024, polling shows Trump winning historic highs amongst black voters. Hence new books from strategists with titles like Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP. It’s too early to tell if there’s a realignment here, and the takeaway isn’t that racism is vanishing. Ultimately, there is no contradiction in cultural pluralism embodying rabid racism.

The Uses and Abuses of History

How one should connect the dots between the 1990s and today isn’t discussed at length in Ganz’s book, and maybe he wouldn’t disagree with this rendition. But the deeper issue here is how to examine Trumpism’s history. History is full of precedents, harbingers, and omens. You can always invent a connection between a contemporary social movement, ideology, and so forth, and what seems to be a more crystal-clear version in the past. But ultimately this distracts from the banal fact of “path dependence”: history is made up of processes, and choices made in the past constrain those in the present.

The more modest interpretation of Buchanan-style populism’s significance is that it was one model of authoritarianism that failed in the 1990s, but probably can’t be resuscitated. As Ganz points out, we’re still trying to explain how “the loss of faith in the old order has registered as intensified anti-egalitarianism rather than a renewed egalitarianism.” But if we’re interested in that question — “Why was Trumpism electable, and why was it durable?” — from the get-go an uncontextualized focus on conservatism’s darkest corners can make it hard to understand why people find Trumpian politics appealing.