“In the long run, history will validate Donald Trump’s stand on a border wall,” Patrick Buchanan, the former Nixon and Reagan White House aide and Republican presidential candidate, wrote in 2019. “Why? Because mass migration from the global South … is the real existential crisis of the West.” Having proselytized for NAFTA’s repeal, isolationism and the “Buchanan fence” across the Mexican border decades before Trump burst into the political arena, Buchanan urged the president to fend off the “multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural” changes he had long railed against. The op-ed ended with a catchphrase with odious origins: “‘America First!’ is still a winning hand.”
Though Buchanan was years removed from the limelight, the fact that he parroted Trump’s agenda cast light on the improbable journey of the Republican Party away from Ronald Reagan’s principles to take shape as a far more conservative and partisan political force.
Identifying the causes of this radical transformation has engrossed political chroniclers for years. Nearly universally, scholars point to Barry Goldwater’s seminal role in the rise of modern conservatism in the 1960s. This was followed a decade later by the ascension of the New Right, which radicalized the party by stoking racial grievances and exploiting contentious social issues. As one of its leaders, Howard Phillips, explained at the time, “We organize discontent.”
In “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” Nicole Hemmer, a scholar at the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University and a co-founder of The Washington Post’s daily historical analysis section, Made by History, makes an insightful contribution to this body of work by examining how a new breed of Republicans propelled the party further to the right in the 1990s, steering it away from Reagan even as they continued to pledge allegiance to the former president’s legacy.
Casting Buchanan as a beacon of this movement, Hemmer tracks the party’s adoption of his views and imitation of his pugilistic style despite Buchanan’s exile from the GOP after his surprising 1992 presidential run.
While Buchanan’s stridency displaced the GOP’s country club mores, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s brash demeanor and combative approach polarized Washington during the 1990s. Though politics had always been a combat sport, both parties had regularly collaborated, limiting their biggest confrontations to genuine and consequential disputes throughout the Cold War. Hemmer ably recounts the pitched battles between Gingrich and President Bill Clinton, culminating in Clinton’s impeachment, that shattered this status quo and led Republicans to demonize Democrats, which made coexistence with the opposition, let alone cooperation, repugnant. Gingrich’s “state of perpetual warfare” and “constant revolution” also purged the GOP of moderates and turned its focus away from governing to a fixation on obstructionism highlighted by multiple government shutdowns, a playbook followed by congressional Republicans since 2009.
A new generation of right-wing media pundits encouraged these tactics. As Hemmer points out, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, Dinesh D’Souza and lesser-known copycats chastised Republicans for striking deals in a constitutional framework designed for compromise. No matter how intractable or mean-spirited they seemed, their capacity to induce outrage and deliver political entertainment skyrocketed their popularity on talk radio and cable television: Limbaugh, the most prominent of the bunch, emerged as the party’s kingmaker.
Considering Hemmer’s description of the GOP’s evolution, it comes as no surprise that by 2020, there were only remnants of Reagan’s legacy. Republicans maintained conservative positions on religious liberty, gay rights and other social issues, and espoused a strong military and lower taxes while paying lip service to a smaller government and budgetary restraint.
Unbending positions on other hot-button issues, however, bore little resemblance to Reagan’s. His willingness to raise taxes, support modest gun-control measures and grant amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants would have made him anathema among current Republicans.
Just as significant, the party’s populist rhetoric and isolationism turned its back on free markets and globalization, concepts it had erstwhile cast in divine terms.
From a stylistic standpoint, the differences were starker. Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” beamed with optimism when espousing America’s virtues as a “shining city upon a hill.” Gloomy, resentful and boiling with rage, conservative firebrands, on the other hand, approached politics with apocalyptic fervor. “There is a religious war going on in this country,” Buchanan declared at the 1992 GOP convention, for instance. “It is a cultural war … for the soul of America.”
No one personified this dramatic shift in temperament more than Trump. He gleefully belittled his opponents with pejorative nicknames, mocked venerated public officials such as John McCain, and made sexist, racist and xenophobic remarks. When protesters clashed with his supporters, his campaign rallies carried the vibe of professional wrestling events. In one instance, Trump urged the audience to “knock the crap out of them.” Despite the hand-wringing by party leaders like Paul Ryan, Trump’s dominance became evident during the 2016 Republican convention when the delegates — mimicking the rowdier crowds at his rallies — chanted “lock her up” in repeated calls to imprison Hillary Clinton.
While Hemmer and others — Dana Milbank’s “The Destructionists” comes to mind — have comprehensively explored the roots of the GOP’s metamorphosis over the past 60 years, the Democrats’ failure to effectively challenge this brand of conservatism has received less scrutiny. As Democrats moved to the right under Bill Clinton, they allowed Republicans to set the agenda and, with a few exceptions like the Affordable Care Act, spent most of their energy trying to preserve the liberal accomplishments of the Great Society rather than offering compelling alternatives. Their focus on national elections also ceded control of state governments to the GOP, allowing Republicans to enact ever-more extreme legislation on abortion and gun control over the past three decades.
The more pressing question is why the GOP’s base has been so willing to tolerate if not condone crass behavior, racist overtones, political violence and authoritarian threats to democracy even in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol and Trump’s far-fetched stolen-election claims. This collective mind-set has granted him cultlike status: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he famously boasted in 2016. “It’s like incredible.”
Political observers have offered economic insecurity, racism, xenophobia, globalization, gerrymandering, misinformation, siloed media consumption, social media and authoritarian tendencies as a credible yet frightening list of explanations. For anyone studying the rise of right-wing extremism, the next step is to go beyond making these diagnoses to finding a cure for them.
Michael Bobelian teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “Battle for the Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Forging of the Modern Supreme Court.”
The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
By Nicole Hemmer
Basic. 358 pp. $32.