Can the Origins of Today’s Right Be Traced to the 1990s?

Can the Origins of Today’s Right Be Traced to the 1990s?

Myths of Doom

Can the origins of today’s right be traced to the 1990s?


In 1992, the mood in the United States should have been triumphal. The country appeared on the verge of reigning supreme: The Soviet Union had fallen, and the rusting tyrannies across the Eastern Bloc were turning to democracy. The US military had recently pummeled petty dictators in Panama and Iraq, exorcising the ghosts of Vietnam. And although China had avoided the fate of the USSR by brutally crushing dissent in Tiananmen Square, the country was embracing the American way—or at least its markets—and emerging as an eager trading partner. But going into the election year, the United States was surly, restless, preoccupied with grim fantasies of decline and collapse, and fearful of being overtaken by old foes and new rivals.

A brutal recession, the result of a bubble in real estate development caused by financial deregulation, only cast further doubt on the notion of a “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War. With the end of that conflict, declining arms production put thousands out of work, and scenes reminiscent of the Great Depression could be witnessed in many US cities, with crowds lining up for food or meager employment. Radio talk shows broadcast a constant stream of invective and complaint. Voters cast about for alternatives to the two parties. The previous decade had begun with Ronald Reagan’s superficial sunniness and optimism; now a new decade was beginning with gloom, doubt, and the reappearance of monsters with names like “populism,” “nationalism,” and even whispers of “fascism.”

At the vanguard of the cortege of national disappointment and disillusion was the conservative movement and the hard right of the Republican Party. One might expect the vanquishing of the Soviet Union to have provided some satisfaction to a party that had organized itself around a militant anticommunism for four decades, but the hard right experienced the so-called “Reagan Revolution” as anything but, just a series of modest reforms swamped by the continued dominance of the Democrats in Congress and the cultural hegemony of establishment liberalism. “Reagan gave conservatism a beachhead in Washington, but he didn’t follow through,” National Review senior editor Joe Sobran wrote. “The libs have sold the Administration on the myth which Reagan’s victories should have demolished: that Republicans thrive by adopting ‘moderation.'”

Even worse to many conservatives was the presidency of George H.W. Bush, whom the right had viewed as ideologically suspect and politically unreliable, a remnant of the well-to-do mainline Republicanism that had dominated the party prior to the conservative ascendancy. It did not matter how much Bush attempted to placate those to his right rhetorically or in practice, by elevating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court or by vetoing what he labeled the “quota bill,” the Civil Rights Act of 1990; he was not one of them and was increasingly seen as an enemy. In 1991, Bush would even sign a compromise version of the Civil Rights Act, enraging the right and triggering Pat Buchanan’s primary challenge.

The right-wing movement searched for political avatars for its next incarnation, such as the populist protest candidacies of former KKK wizard and neo-Nazi David Duke in Louisiana. After failing as a Democrat, Duke successfully whipped up an insurgency of disaffected lower-middle-class whites in the state against country club Republicans and the national GOP, toppling the mainstream Republican incumbent governor in the primary. Buchanan was intrigued by Duke’s success: “The way to deal with Mr. Duke is the way the GOP dealt with the far more formidable challenge of George Wallace. Take a hard look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles,” he wrote in his nationally syndicated column. “In the hard times in Louisiana, Mr. Duke’s message comes across as Middle Class, meritocratic, populist, and nationalist.” While Buchanan sought to retool Duke’s race politics for a presidential run, Newt Gingrich was developing his own confrontational and provocative parliamentary style to challenge the seemingly unshakable Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The conservative vanguard correctly read the mood of the country as “pissed off” and began to organize a politics to harness that energy.

The grassroots reactionary movements of the so-called New Right in the 1970s and the Tea Party in the 2000s are often the go-to moments used to explain Trumpism and the neo-McCarthyite hysterias over “CRT” and “gender ideology”; but the middle period of the 1990s, coming as the United States transitioned into the post–Cold War age, has begun to generate more interest and arguably represents the origin point of the present right wing far more than either of these periods. Nicole Hemmer’s Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s makes such an argument and marks the beginning of a serious, public-facing investigation of a time that is so far only half-recalled, relegated to a haze of nostalgia and just-so stories that are treated as political wisdom. The 1990s are often remembered by liberals as an era of good feelings, national prosperity, security, and comity before the trauma of 9/11, but Hemmer’s book reminds us that it was an important period of political upheaval that has also been strangely easy to miss or downplay.

Hemmer is both a historian and a journalist. She teaches at Vanderbilt University and is a columnist for CNN. Her 2016 book Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics made an essential contribution to the study of the American right beyond the topic of conservative media, helping to deflate myths such as William F. Buckley’s purge of the John Birch Society from the movement. In her telling, Buckley made a show of shunning the fringes of the conservative movement, but the denunciations actually hurt National Review more than the renegades: Many subscribers and donors canceled their support for the magazine in anger. She also provided some counterintuitive insights, such as identifying the weakness and near collapse of the conservative media at the moment of Reagan’s victory. By paying attention to grassroots publications and radio broadcasts, and not just the official organs like National Review, Hemmer offered in Messengers of the Right an important history of the organic intellectuals of the conservative movement, the mediating cadre between elite and mass constituencies. The conservative movement often likes to picture itself as the bearer of “ideas” that originated in the sanctum of the National Review offices, then spread across the country and eventually brought about Reagan’s victory, while at the same time claiming that the movement’s leadership had judiciously cast out the wing nuts. But Hemmer showed in her book that the movement’s origins traced back to fringe elements it would rather we forget: the isolationist America First Committee of the 1940s, an association that would become a political embarrassment after the war.

Like Messengers, Partisans is a history of the staff of the conservative movement, but as the title suggests, it centers more on the role of professional Republican politicians like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan than on movement media figures or intellectuals like Rush Limbaugh and Sam Francis, although some of its most insightful sections are about the media. Hemmer begins the book with a “puzzle”: how to account for what she calls the “evolutionary leap” of the right in the 1990s. If Reagan had won so decisively thanks to his upbeat tone, positivity, and optimism, his position on free trade and his invocations of American democracy, why did the conservative movement almost immediately begin to move away from his formula in both style and substance? Why, when the country seemed to prefer a Clintonian politics of comity and compromise, did the Republicans rush headlong into fierce partisanship? And, finally, how did the Republicans turn from the party of Reagan into the party of Trump?

Hemmer proposes multiple answers. First, there’s the fact that Reagan, despite being a conservative ideologue, was always a bit of an outlier in terms of affect: His dopey optimism, hope, and pragmatism put him at variance with the pessimistic, dour, and uncompromising tone of the movement generally. The New Right was very quickly disappointed in Reagan and never liked or trusted Bush at all. So, to a certain degree, the era of partisanship in the 1990s can be understood as a return to form: The paleoconservative revolt followed through on the aggressiveness of the New Right and returned to even older sources in its invocation of “America First” and the prewar old right. Second, there’s the end of the Cold War, which had created consensus and discipline within both the conservative movement and the country at large. Without the threat of the Soviet Union, the right was free to pursue factional struggle and focus on domestic enemies.

Hemmer also points to the more fragmented media environment created by the birth of cable TV and radio talk shows: Rather than having to appeal to the broadest possible public, right-wing messaging could remain subcultural and still find a mass audience. She notes a shift as well in political objectives, with the presidency put aside for the conquest of Congress, a move that required a mobilization of the base through confrontational tactics. (This mobilization would have lasting effects, we would later see, as the right took not just Congress but also statehouses and the courts.) Lastly, Hemmer suggests that the institutional infrastructure of the right-wing world created powerful career incentives that encouraged extreme partisanship among its ranks rather than consensus-building: “The partisans…seized the uncertainty of the rapidly evolving political landscape to accumulate political power, wealth, and fame. Though they made their political homes in a variety of institutions—think tanks, cable networks, Congress, political organizations—they all worked to develop a politics not just conservative but antiliberal, that leaned into the coarseness of American culture and brought it into politics, that valued scoring political points above hewing to ideological principles.” The new media environment further rewarded their outrageousness.

Hemmer makes a very compelling and persuasive case for the explosion of partisanship in the 1990s, but one wishes that the overall social context was more developed in her argument. While the right is certainly a subculture and succeeded largely by shoring up its own ranks rather than by persuading majorities, the “partisans” did not play only to internal audiences: Something about their bitter mood resonated with that of the country at large. It would be helpful to know in greater detail why and how the end of the Cold War led to such a sour and paranoid mood in the country that figures like Gingrich and Limbaugh were able to take advantage of. Even though the catastrophist sentiments percolating in the public were often vague discontents rather than explicit ideological positions, the right was able to successfully establish itself as the vehicle for anger in general. The figures in question were not solely fixated on partisan struggle: They had a national vision, albeit one that was dark and pessimistic. What made it persuasive to so many?

While Partisans provides valuable reconstructions of the careers of familiar figures like Gingrich and Limbaugh, some of the strongest parts of the book revolve around lesser-known characters and largely forgotten episodes and processes. For instance, a chapter on Helen Chenoweth, the Idaho representative who came to Congress in the Republican Revolution of 1994, is particularly illuminating. Chenoweth’s political life began when she was radicalized by the Wilderness Act of 1964: The law prevented her and her then-husband from cutting down trees in order to build an airport in rural Idaho. As Hemmer writes, Chenoweth’s political career was characterized by the “entanglement of personal profit and political ideology.” She worked as a lobbyist for the state’s extractive industries and had deep ties to the rural militia movement, then inflamed by the tragedy at Ruby Ridge. She brought fringe conspiratorialism into Congress, asking about the existence of “black helicopters” and inveighing against the United Nations and the “New World Order” in committee. She continued to offer moral support to the militias even after the Oklahoma City bombing. Chenoweth, a divorced single mom, combined this extremism with a spunky pseudo-feminism that, along with her outrageous antics, endeared her to the national press. Compared with figures like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, Chenoweth appears relatively lucid and staid, but she provides a paradigmatic example of how the Republican “mainstream” increasingly absorbed the fringe and how this was in some cases an extension of, rather than a threat to, its role as the party of business.

A chapter that centers on the comedian Bill Maher’s cable talk show Politically Incorrect and its conservative guests gives another angle on how the subculture became mass culture. Politically Incorrect, which began its run in 1993 on the still relatively obscure Comedy Central, combined satire and panel show commentary and strove to be outrageous and titillating, courting controversy above serious debate. And unlike the Christian right’s crusade against the modern world or right-wing radio’s drive-time diatribes, Maher participated gleefully in raunch culture, introducing a political style that shared right-wing cultural concerns about political correctness even as he professed a certain liberalism that mocked the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It was the perfect platform for rising young conservative pundits like Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, who represented a new, stylish, more chic and urbane brand of hard-right conservatism than, say, Phyllis Schlafly’s performance of devout Catholic motherhood. While Limbaugh brought conservatism to its natural constituency in the suburban petite bourgeoisie, Politically Incorrect and the cable shows that aped it also made it a palatable ideology for disaffected, city-dwelling Gen Xers eager to shake off the hypocrisies and banalities of liberalism as they knew it. Hemmer makes a convincing case that Politically Incorrect‘s massive success created a model for the introduction of glibber and more opinion-centric commentary on cable and network TV that foregrounded entertainment over news. This media environment favored the style of the partisans, who were willing to behave churlishly for the cameras. This attention economy dominated by contrarianism and sour clownishness has only intensified in the Internet age.

Partisans will become an essential book in the library of anyone trying to understand how we became dominated by the right’s combination of utter cynicism and ideological rigidity and how right-wing extremism came to be woven into the mainstream of American life. The paradox of the book and the period it deals with is that the right achieved and consolidated its political and cultural hegemony not by attempting to seek the middle ground but by doubling down on some of its most radical positions.

Perhaps, in a sense, what was accomplished in the 1990s was not so different from Reaganism after all, which packaged conservative ideology in the forward-looking optimism of the New Deal era and nostalgia for the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It successfully integrated itself wherever it could—even by playing the foil or heel—in America’s myth-making apparatus, the media and the entertainment industry. Why the right’s myths of doom and decline began to resonate so deeply is still an open question.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy