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Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Before "Before the Storm"

by Tom Sullivan

Rick Perlstein ("Before the Storm," "Nixonland," "Invisible Bridge") is reevaluating history's (and his own) understanding of conservatism's roots in the wake of Donald Trump's election. His focus has been the rise of the modern conservative movement beginning with William F. Buckley Jr. founding National Review in 1955. That more respectable conservatism, Perlstein writes, is more attractive to liberal-minded historians "prone to liberalism’s traditions of politesse." Trump's conservatism is an animal of another color. Perlstein writes in the New York Times:

Our work might have been less obtuse had we shared the instincts of a New York University professor named Kim Phillips-Fein. “Historians who write about the right should find ways to do so with a sense of the dignity of their subjects,” she observed in a 2011 review, “but they should not hesitate to keep an eye out for the bizarre, the unusual, or the unsettling.”

Looking back from that perspective, we can now see a history that is indeed unsettling — but also unsettlingly familiar. Consider, for example, an essay published in 1926 by Hiram Evans, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in the exceedingly mainstream North American Review. His subject was the decline of “Americanism.” Evans claimed to speak for an abused white majority, “the so-called Nordic race,” which, “with all its faults, has given the world almost the whole of modern civilization.” Evans, a former dentist, proposed that his was “a movement of plain people,” and acknowledged that this “lays us open to the charge of being hicks and ‘rubes’ and ‘drivers of secondhand Fords.’ ” But over the course of the last generation, he wrote, these good people “have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed,” watching a “moral breakdown” that was destroying a once-great nation. First, there was “confusion in thought and opinion, a groping and hesitancy about national affairs and private life alike, in sharp contrast to the clear, straightforward purposes of our earlier years.” Next, they found “the control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us,” and ultimately these strangers “came to dominate our government.” The only thing that would make America great again, as it were, was “a return of power into the hands of everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized average citizens of old stock.”
Nordic, or at least Anglo-Saxon stock.

Perlstein surveys the history of this earlier strain of conservative thought and finds there the roots of Trump's “hard-hat populism," and specifically its anti-immigrant animus.
When Trump vowed on the campaign trail to Make America Great Again, he was generally unclear about when exactly it stopped being great. The Vanderbilt University historian Jefferson Cowie tells a story that points to a possible answer. In his book “The Great Exception,” he suggests that what historians considered the main event in 20th century American political development — the rise and consolidation of the “New Deal order” — was in fact an anomaly, made politically possible by a convergence of political factors. One of those was immigration. At the beginning of the 20th century, millions of impoverished immigrants, mostly Catholic and Jewish, entered an overwhelmingly Protestant country. It was only when that demographic transformation was suspended by the 1924 Immigration Act that majorities of Americans proved willing to vote for many liberal policies. In 1965, Congress once more allowed large-scale immigration to the United States — and it is no accident that this date coincides with the increasing conservative backlash against liberalism itself, now that its spoils would be more widely distributed among nonwhites.
Economic anxiety? Perhaps. But also the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts still being litigated half a century later. This brand of exceptionalism reveals a view of America that is not so exceptional after all, one where those who have already arrived on these shores and climbed the ladder kick it away to eliminate competition from Others just reaching for it. Especially if they don't look like close relatives.

But to understand the Trump voter's aversion for elites and acceptance of Trump larding his cabinet with bankers and billionaires requires further study "not of how conservative voters see their leaders, but of the neglected history of how conservative leaders see their voters." As easy marks, Perlstein suggests. Ronald Reagan's showmanship followed by Richard Viguerie's "hair-on-fire" fundraising mass mailings about "civilization on the verge of collapse" conditioned the faithful to embrace conspiracy theorists and multi-level marketing hucksters from Mike Huckabee to Ben Carson to Betsy DeVos. And of course, Donald Trump. What they get every time for their faith is emptier pockets and more tax cuts for the rich.

What has always struck me about “hard-hat populism” that Perlstein does not mention here is how its pageants mimic the ecstasy of the evangelical altar call. Rush Limbaugh and his imitators do indeed provide listeners with their daily "rush." There must be a daily infusion of anger at the Other to get the juices flowing or the shows, like “glyconutrients” and natural testosterone supplements, don't "work." It's not church if Brother Love's show does not build to a crescendo followed by release. Political mountebanks just employ something a little higher octane than love (and guilt). Anger is something politicians find easy to elicit but harder to control.