If decades have distinct personalities, they also have shadow selves: covert and latent tendencies that are only barely visible at the time but serve as harbingers of change to come.
The stereotypical view of the 1950s is of suburban placidity presided over by the grinning golfer Dwight Eisenhower. There’s some truth to this image, but even at its most bland, the decade saw the sprouting of many seeds that would flourish in the years to come: the Beat writers forging a counterculture that rejected middle-class conformism, the organizers of the Montgomery bus boycott raising the curtain on a new era of civil rights activism. Not to mention the Senate vote to censure Joseph McCarthy and the wave of campus enthusiasm that greeted the Cuban Revolution.
In popular memory, the 1990s were another supposedly nonpolitical decade. The Cold War wrapped up in 1989, which allowed Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the “End of History” in a much-discussed article that became a 1992 best-selling book. The age of ideological competition, Fukuyama and other sages assured us, was over. Liberal democracy had triumphed, and there was no alternative. The Washington consensus of neoliberalism was now the only path for humanity. Henceforth, politics would be a technocratic contest between the center-left (Bill Clinton) and the center-right (George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole). Clinton, the master triangulator who repeatedly outwitted Republicans by selectively adopting their policies, was the king of this centrist utopia, presiding over a stock market boom, a new push for the globalization of trade, and a renewal of American hegemony under the banner of liberal humanitarianism and the “responsibility to protect.”
The very fact that the major domestic political crisis of Clinton’s presidency was an impeachment over extramarital fellatio speaks to the fundamentally trivial politics of the decade. (There’s no need to credit the transparent GOP talking point that Clinton was impeached over a violation of the rule of law.) If Seinfeld, the quintessential 1990s TV program, was “about nothing,” then the Clinton era offered a politics about nothing much.
In his book The Nineties, the culture critic Chuck Klosterman neatly articulates this view of the era. “It was perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional,” he argues. “Many of the polarizing issues that dominate contemporary discourse were already in play, but ensconced as thought experiments in academic circles.”
Klosterman’s proviso is an effective rebuke to his own argument. The centrist consensus might have been dominant, but it met with major challenges from the left, the center, and the right well beyond the precincts of academia (where, to be sure, figures like Judith Butler were preparing the ground for a major shift in thinking on gender). On the left, ACT UP used direct action to confront the bipartisan complacency on AIDS, while the environmental and labor protesters who disrupted the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle proved that many people were ready to take to the streets to oppose globalization. In the political center, Ross Perot’s presidential runs in 1992 and 1996 opened space for a new politics of discontent that blended conservative concerns about deficit spending with opposition to NAFTA and a free-floating anger at the bipartisan political elite.
But it was on the right that perhaps the most lasting political legacy of the 1990s would be felt. As the Vanderbilt University historian Nicole Hemmer demonstrates in her incisive and convention-challenging Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics, the decade of Bill Clinton was also the era of Patrick Buchanan. Buchanan ran for president three times in that period, twice competing for the Republican nomination (1992 and 1996) and once as the Reform Party candidate (2000). Although he never came close to winning, Buchanan belongs to the great American tradition of political losers who cast a longer shadow than many winners because they popularized ideas that were taken up later by more successful candidates—a pantheon that includes William Jennings Bryan, Barry Goldwater, and Jesse Jackson.
Even among those candidates who went on to lose big at the ballot box, Buchanan stands out as an odd figure. More a pundit than a politician, Buchanan had been a speechwriter and adviser to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, in both capacities serving as a conduit between the administration and the hard right.
Buchananism was the bridge between Reaganism and Trumpism. More than anyone else, Buchanan signaled a change from the optimistic rhetoric of Reagan—whose racism was always carefully pitched in the form of deniable dog whistles—to a nativist and pessimistic message that openly embraced white Christian dominance. Reagan was supposed to be the Moses who led the American right out of the wilderness and into the promised land of political power. But a funny thing happened on the way to the milk and honey: Many on the right found Reagan less pleasing in practice than in theory.
It’s true that Reagan brought the right many gifts, including tax cuts for the rich, a massive military buildup for the hawks, and conservative judges to please the religious right. But despite these policy victories, the most passionate voices on the right felt they were losing the larger battle. A political pragmatist, Reagan never hesitated to trim his sails and compromise when necessary. He opened up negotiations with the Soviet Union after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Though past victories in civil rights, feminism, and LGBTQ rights were being whittled away under his administration, it was nowhere near fast enough to please his base. On a fundamental level, the dream of the right was a cultural counterrevolution in which the legacy of the 1960s would be wiped out and America would return to the supposed tranquility of the Eisenhower era. But that was never a realistic dream: No matter how many Electoral College votes Reagan won, America kept becoming less white, women kept joining the workforce, African Americans continued to assert their rights as citizens, and more and more gays stepped out of the closet. Now that Reagan has been canonized as a conservative saint, popular memory has forgotten how angry much of the right was at him in the 1990s.
In 1982, Buchanan published a column decrying “the transformation of Ronald Reagan from a pivotal and revolutionary figure in American politics into a traditional, middle-of-the-road pragmatic Republican.” Buchanan would of course mute this criticism when he became White House communications director in 1985. But the sentiment never went away, even when it was left unspoken. Nor was Buchanan alone in voicing it. In 1985, Newt Gingrich, then a young congressman, insisted that Reagan’s planned meeting with Gorbachev was “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.” As the Gipper tiptoed closer to an arms-control agreement, Howard Phillips, the founder of the Conservative Caucus, denounced him as “a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.” Meanwhile, Hemmer notes, religious-right leaders like the televangelist Pat Robertson expressed “frustration” with Reagan because “on everything from school prayer to abortion, [he] said all the right things but achieved no real change.”
In 1987, Buchanan declared that “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan.”
With the dawn of the 1990s—and Reagan’s disappearance from the political scene and descent into dementia—the moment had arrived for the far right to launch a new push. Buchanan aimed to fill the vacuum he had identified—a project that also energized figures like Robertson, Gingrich, and a bevy of new right-wing members of Congress such as Helen Chenoweth, who became infamous for palling around with extremist militias. Robertson had already made a name for himself during his 1988 bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He lost to George H.W. Bush but did well enough to scare the GOP elite, which gained a new awareness of how strong the religious right was becoming. Gingrich, elected House minority whip in 1989, was the head of a new cohort of congressional Republicans who rejected what they saw as their party’s too easy cooperation with the Democrats. A master of demagogic attacks on real and alleged Democratic Party corruption, Gingrich rode popular anger at the political system to victory in the 1994 midterms and his own elevation to speaker of the House—a political journey that culminated in his push to impeach Clinton (a controversial move that lost the Republicans seats in the 1998 midterms and cost Gingrich the speakership).
What did this politics to the right of Reagan look like? On a theoretical level, it meant breaking with Reaganism on foreign policy, trade, and immigration. Reagan, whose thinking on politics owed much to the “fusionist” conservatism that was being developed in William F. Buckley’s National Review during the early Cold War, believed that the United States, in order to fight communism, had to be the cornerstone of international alliances like NATO, that it had to push for global trade agreements, and that it should be open to immigration (which would enrich the country with cheap, hard-working labor).
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved a boon to those on the right who were already questioning whether prioritizing the Cold War still made sense. Circulating around small magazines like Chronicles and tiny think tanks like the Mises Institute, these people called themselves “paleoconservatives” or, sometimes, “paleolibertarians.” The major figures among them included the political theorist Paul Gottfried, the polemical journalist Samuel T. Francis, and the anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard.
The paleoconservative argument was a simple one: If the Soviet Union was no longer a threat, did the United States really need NATO, free trade, and immigrant labor? In order to achieve the hierarchical white Christian society that the right desired, wouldn’t it make sense to have a more unilateral foreign policy free of foreign entanglements, combined with protectionist measures to preserve manufacturing jobs and immigration restrictions to keep America as white as possible?
This new paleoconservative politics—a kind of inward-looking nationalism—eschewed Reagan’s sunny talk of America as a shining city upon a hill that attracted immigrants from around the world. In an important 1992 essay, Murray Rothbard hailed Buchanan for giving up the shibboleths of National Review fusionism and returning to the truths of the “Old Right” that had flourished in the 1930s and ’40s—the isolationist right of the America First movement. “Buchanan’s race for the presidency,” Rothbard argued, “has changed the face of the Right-wing…. He has created a new radical, or Hard Right, very much like the original Right before National Review.”
This new hard right would also forgo Reaganite dog whistles in favor of explicit appeals to racism. In a 1989 column titled “Old Klansman, New Republican,” Buchanan offered up the erstwhile Klansman David Duke as a potential political model. “Take a look at Duke’s portfolio of winning issues; and expropriate those not in conflict with GOP principles,” he wrote. These issues included lower taxes, the criminality of the “urban underclass,” and the threat of “reverse discrimination against white folks.”
This racist hard-right politics reflected broader cultural shifts in the 1990s. Figures like Charles Murray, Richard Herrnstein, Peter Brimelow, and Dinesh D’Souza won national audiences for racist arguments, whether framed in terms of pseudoscience (Murray and Herrnstein), nativism (Brimelow), or a contempt for Black culture (D’Souza).
It would be tempting to place the blame for this new racism, nativism, and hostility toward the poor solely on the right. But putative liberals and centrists eagerly joined in. One of the main lessons of Hemmer’s book is that the reigning centrist consensus helped to elevate the radical right. The New Republic infamously gave its imprimatur to Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve—which claimed that there were racial differences in intelligence—by excerpting it (albeit with some critical accompanying essays). Bill Clinton himself praised Murray’s previous book, Losing Ground, which wasn’t explicitly racist but was a vicious attack on the welfare state and the supposed low moral culture of the poor. “He did the country a great service,” Clinton said. In 1992, as Hemmer notes, Clinton “openly courted white voters with his own anti-Black dog whistles, criticizing civil rights leader Jesse Jackson at a conference for his Rainbow Coalition and traveling to a correctional facility near Stone Mountain, Ga., to deliver his tough-on-crime message in front of a phalanx of incarcerated men, nearly all of whom were Black.” Stone Mountain, of course, is the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan. Buchanan also made a pilgrimage to Stone Mountain that year.
Clinton’s praise of Murray and his trip to Stone Mountain were just two of the many ways he signaled that, as a centrist politician, he was willing to make overtures to right-wing voters. Clinton’s centrism was overdetermined, rooted partly in his slippery personal character (like a chameleon, he was quick to change his color to suit his environment) and partly in the historical juncture. The Democrats, chastened by having lost the last three presidential elections, were eager to placate an electorate they imagined as profoundly conservative. Labor unions, the historical bastion of economic liberalism inside the Democratic Party, had been battered by deindustrialization and by Reagan’s repressive policies. This left the Democrats looking for new sources of financial support in corporate America and among socially liberal but economically conservative suburban voters. After Clinton’s election, the Democrats got swamped in the 1994 midterms, and the GOP, under the incendiary congressional leadership of Gingrich, swept the House of Representatives. With the fire-breathing right in control of Congress, Clinton calculated that his political survival depended on triangulation: If he presented himself as the moderate alternative to both liberal Democrats and right-wing Republicans, he could regain control of the political conversation. Clinton’s triangulation strategy worked—but at the cost of further emboldening the right.
The reigning political dynamic of the 1990s was that, as Clinton moved the Democratic Party to the center, the space for Buchananite ideas to take hold in the GOP expanded. This was particularly evident with respect to immigration, as Buchanan became a pioneer in calling for a border fence.
In Hemmer’s account of the 1996 presidential campaign, GOP nominee Bob Dole “found his move to the center repeatedly blocked by Bill Clinton, who kept shifting to the right. In 1996, Republicans in Congress struck a number of deals with the administration, not only piling up victories for Clinton as he ran for reelection but boxing Dole in. The 1996 immigration bill made that clear: Clinton’s willingness to take a hard line on undocumented migrants meant that Dole, to differentiate himself, grabbed onto an amendment barring undocumented children from attending public schools.” Clinton also pushed a welfare reform program that imposed new requirements on recipients and dramatically curtailed benefits, fulfilling a campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it”; a free-trade program that bolstered corporate power; and a crime bill that escalated mass incarceration. With Democrats like Clinton in power, there was hardly a need for the Republicans to push conservative policies.
Clinton wasn’t the only centrist who inadvertently fueled the far right; the mainstream media also played a role. Pat Buchanan, like Pat Robertson and Ross Perot, belonged to a new species of presidential candidate: media stars with no political experience. Buchanan was a national figure because of his role as cohost of CNN’s Crossfire and his appearances on The McLaughlin Group; Robertson was the host of the long-running 700 Club; and Perot rocketed to fame thanks to his appearances on Larry King’s CNN talk show. Other rabble-rousers and provocateurs, such as Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, were also elevated once cable news became a 24/7 fixture after the Gulf War in 1991. And Fox News, which only started in 1996, wasn’t the main driver of this change. Rather, CNN, MSNBC, and Comedy Central were the real innovators in fusing entertainment with politics.
Buchanan’s manifest bigotry was long tolerated because he was good television and, for his colleagues in the elite media, a charming companion. As Washington Post columnist David Broder, the very Nestor of centrist conventional wisdom, noted in 1995, “He has been ‘Pat’ to so many of us who have known him since he was a traveling valet and speechwriter for Richard Nixon in 1966—the combative but personally congenial guy who was writing columns, or doing TV or flacking for Nixon or Agnew or Reagan—that it’s hard to imagine him as president.” For this reason, Broder concluded, the media treated Buchanan “lightly.”
Two decades later, another charismatic TV personality would take up Buchanan’s politics and be similarly treated with indulgence by the mainstream media because he was good for ratings and hard to imagine as president.
In a 2015 Washington Post interview, Buchanan anointed Donald Trump as his political heir. “On building a fence to secure the border with Mexico, an end to trade deals like NAFTA, GATT, and [most favored nation status] for China, and staying out of unwise and unnecessary wars,” he noted, “these are the issues I ran on in 1992 and 1996 in the Republican primaries and as Reform Party candidate in 2000.”
This was no idle boast on Buchanan’s part: The embrace of globalism by the bipartisan centrist elite had created the space for Trump. “What Trump has today,” he continued, “is conclusive evidence to prove that what some of us warned about in the 1990s has come to pass. From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. lost 55,000 factories and 6 million manufacturing jobs.”
Buchanan laid the groundwork for Trump, not just in making trade an issue but also in terms of the racist demagoguery and the fusion of TV celebrity with politics. In forging this new politics, both Buchanan and Trump profited from the bipartisan centrist elite turning its back on American workers. That’s the true legacy of the 1990s.