From Nixonland and Before the Storm to Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein has chronicled the rise of the right in postwar America. He’s won many awards and publishes widely. We spoke with him before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: There’s been a consensus among historians of American politics about the rise of conservatism in postwar America. You’ve pointed out that it worked pretty well—until Trump won.
Rick Perlstein: What we call the modern conservative movement was seen to have emerged in the mid-1950s, when it was believed that conservatism was dead in American life. Then a group of high-minded intellectuals, largely around the National Review and its editor William F. Buckley, hashed out a fusion of various conservative traditions that had existed only in tatters at that point. They purged the conspiracy theorists, the anti-Semites, and the militia types. Maybe you had run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan, and white supremacists, and crazy conspiracy theorists, but they were seen as marginal to the main story. You emerged with a conservative movement that was safe to take home to mother. That paved the way for Reagan in California, and then his presidency.
Once Trump comes into view, a couple things happen. First of all, he’s a crazy conspiracy theorist. Second, the sort of dog-whistle conservatism that we’ve become so familiar with gets thrown aside for a train-whistle conservatism, in which you are allowed to talk about very racist ideas in quite flagrant ways. Talking about how Mexico is sending us their rapists is not dog-whistle conservatism.
Then you have the very people who saw themselves as the guardians of this polite conservative tradition, even the National Review, reversing course and embracing Donald Trump. I realized that we’d been much too polite to this movement that chose Trump as their apotheosis.
JW: A second part of the consensus looked at the grassroots basis of the 1964 Goldwater movement. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr wrote a book called Suburban Warriors. The thesis was that the Goldwater movement, at least in Orange County, California, was not made up of right-wing lunatics and Klan members. Instead, it was a movement of suburban middle-class housewives and their husbands who worked in aerospace. These are ordinary Midwestern church-going folk who have this paradoxical idea that big government is bad, even though their world exists only because of government funding. These people formed a grassroots movement that took over the Republican Party in 1964, and then, with Reagan, their movement captured the whole nation.