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Reagan Was an End, Not a Beginning

In most sweeping histories of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marks the dawning of a new era of American politics, the moment when conservatives finally completed their take-over of the Republican Party and began to remake the country in their own image. According to this narrative, the 30-year period that followed Reagan’s election — often dubbed the “Reagan era” — was defined first and foremost by the Gipper’s relatively sunny brand of conservatism grounded in anticommunism, social conservatism and small-government libertarianism.

But there’s another story to be told about the Reagan Revolution — one in which Reagan’s election, rather than marking the start of a new chapter in the history of American conservatism, marks the end of a previous one. In this story, the Reagan era was not a placid period of conservative domination, but rather a time of intensifying ideological conflict over the future of the Republican Party.

This is the story that Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, tells in her new book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, which hits the shelves on Aug. 30. Hemmer, who has written extensively about the rise of right-wing media, begins her story by noting an apparent contradiction at the heart of the Reagan era: “Nearly as soon as Reagan left office, the conservative movement he represented began to rapidly evolve, skittering away from the policies, rhetoric and even ideology that Reagan had brought into office.” As Hemmer writes in the introduction to Partisans, “With each passing year, conservatives looked less and less like Reagan, even as they invoked his name more and more.”

What replaced Reaganism, Hemmer argues, was a “more pessimistic, angrier and even more revolutionary conservatism” that shared none of Reagan’s optimism about the future of the country. This new style of reactionary politics found its mouthpiece in the “partisans” of Hemmer’s book: figures like Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich, Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza. Although they tapped into older strains of reactionary politics, their project was essentially forward-looking, more ideologically radical and politically ruthless than the Party of Reagan.

Figures like Buchanan have received more attention in recent years as historians and journalists have riffled the pages of conservative history for antecedents to Donald Trump. In Partisans, Hemmer casts aside this Trump-centric analysis: “This book is not a prehistory of Trumpism,” she writes in the introduction. Instead, she explores the rise of the GOP’s radical partisans by looking backward at what they rejected — namely, Reaganism — rather than ahead to what they anticipated.

But this more scholarly approach doesn’t mean that her argument is totally devoid of contemporary significance, Hemmer told me when we spoke last week.

“Even if Donald Trump hadn’t won the presidency in 2016 — even if he hadn’t won the Republican nomination in 2016 — the changes in the Republican Party had still taken place,” said Hemmer. “Something was in the air, something had been changing, something was visible, even without Donald Trump to shine a light on it.”

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Ian Ward: You open the book with the line, “This book began with a puzzle.” What was that puzzle?

Nicole Hemmer: The puzzle at the heart of the book has to do with President Reagan and his legacy. He looms so large in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement, and yet it seemed to me as I was studying the conservative movement that he was really the capstone of a movement that had been in motion since the 1950s, and that he really had started to lose his hold over the party pretty quickly [after being elected]. So even as he became more mythologically grand within the conservative movement, the tenets of Reaganism — the idea of American engagement in the world and the idea of an optimistic, upbeat conservatism and big tent Republican Party — all seem to be on the wane.

Ward: What were the early signs that Reaganism was being challenged from the right?

Hemmer: Even while Reagan was in office, there were some real trigger points. Social conservatism was a really big one. There was a group called the New Right, which was a group of social conservatives who tapped into the [Republican] grassroots and into an essentially fear-based style of politics. They just did not gel with Reagan. They attacked him relentlessly for his appointments, for nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, for not going hard enough on abortion or guns.

And then ultimately, U.S foreign policy was a trigger point as well. You will not see more brutal attacks on Ronald Reagan from any part of the political spectrum than the attacks from the New Right over his negotiations with the Soviet Union in 1987 and 1988.

Ward: Despite their name, the figures from New Right were drawing on older reactionary traditions in the United States, too. What were those traditions?

Hemmer: The biggest antecedent is segregation and anti-Black politics. A lot of the energy and the political style of the New Right comes out of the opposition not just to Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, but specifically to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and ultimately to affirmative action. There’s a real sharpness and meanness to the politics that come up through that.

They’re also very tapped into conservative Christian traditions. This is the group that is behind the rise of the Moral Majority and ultimately behind the Christian Coalition, and they are drawing from the older model of prescriptive anti-politics of conservative religious figures in the United States. That tradition goes all the way back to Father Coughlin, but also to Protestants in the 1920s who were trying to prevent people from being able to drink alcohol.

Ward: There’s a real sense of Confederate nostalgia within this movement as well — and that’s a point where the New Right comes into contact with Reagan, too. In the book, you cite Reagan calling the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “humiliating for the South.”

Hemmer: Confederate nostalgia is core to this politics, and it often gets coded as states’ rights. I think that’s the way that most people who follow modern politics think about it now — that you have the Civil War and this Lost Cause nostalgia, but that gets cleaned up into the language of states’ rights. But that really overlooks how close to the surface it was. That Reagan quote is a great line, but also think of the candidacy of George Wallace [in 1968] and how much he was calling on that Lost Cause ideology and blending it into a sense of decline among white Americans across the board. It had as much appeal in places like Wisconsin as it did in places like Mississippi.

And then, of course, there’s Pat Buchanan, who is not just going to someplace like Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Ronald Reagan went to start his presidential campaign and which was near the site where three civil rights workers were killed [in 1964]. But Pat Buchanan goes to Stone Mountain, Georgia, which is the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy. He talks about his Confederate ancestors, and it’s not just the Lost Cause — it’s [the sense] that these are our people, and our work is to defend and protect their memory and to advance their causes.

Ward: In historical terms, how do you explain the dissolution of the Reagan consensus and the rise of this even more radical style of conservatism?

Hemmer: One of the biggest factors contributing to the fragility of Reaganism was the end of the Cold War. I think in some ways we’ve forgotten how much Reagan was a Cold War president and that the conditions of the Cold War shaped his rhetoric, shaped the policies that he preferred, and really were necessary for the kind of conservatism that he championed. When the Cold War ends, it loosens not just the motivation for conservatives to get involved internationally, but also the motivation for them to champion democracy, which they hold on to a little more lightly after Reagan leaves office.

There’s also a massive shift in terms of domestic politics. It had been a goal of conservatives for so long to capture the presidency, and then they had captured it [in 1980], and they didn’t get everything they wanted. They knew that was partly because they hadn’t won control of Congress at that point for something like 40 years. So there is a real refocusing on congressional politics, not just in opposition to Bill Clinton but in opposition to George H.W. Bush as well.

And then, importantly, the media environment is changing so rapidly in the 1990s. You have the rise of cable news, you have the rise of new forms of political entertainment in shows like Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” and you even have the nascent internet. At the start of the ’90s, it wasn’t really possible to have a web browser and to just hop online, but by the mid- to late-1990s, the internet is a huge political player, and it leads to a very different type of politics.

Ward: The moment when divisions within the Republican Party become really apparent is the 1992 presidential election, which was pretty unbelievable, even by today’s standards. In the Republican Primary, you had an incumbent Republican in George H.W. Bush facing a serious primary challenge not only from Buchanan but from David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. And then in the general election, there was Ross Perot, who won a larger share of the third-party vote than any candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. What was going on in 1992?

Hemmer: I think it speaks to how fractured everything was in the context of massive global and economic change. We think of the end of the Cold War as reshaping the geopolitical landscape, but it also really changed economics and politics in the United States. There is a major recession in the U.S. at the time of the ’92 election, and parts of California that have been propped up by government spending and the aerospace industry had collapsed almost overnight. There was this sense of uncertainty about what the world is going to look like going forward and who is going to prosper and who is going to fail. It’s also at a pivot point in decades of deindustrialization and shifting toward a knowledge economy and a service economy. So things really were in flux, and I think the politics of the day reflect that.

Ward: The intensity of the Buchanan challenge and the success of the Perot campaign underscored the political importance of a demographic that social scientists had begun calling “Middle American Radicals.” Who are these Middle American Radicals, and what did the 1990s reveal about their place in the Republican coalition?

Hemmer: “Middle American radicals” is a term that was popularized by Sam Francis, who — spoiler alert — becomes a pretty out-and-out white nationalist by the 1990s, and who was an adviser to the Buchanan campaign. The idea was that there were these people in middle America — today, we often call it “the flyover states” — who were generally white, generally Christian of some stripe, and who had been radicalized by the politics of the second half of the 20th century. There was a sense that they were under threat, that they were no longer the dominant demographic, that they were losing power and losing control of politics. But now they were finally rearing up and fighting back.

It’s a lot like the Silent Majority that Richard Nixon talks about, but Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority was supposed to be the opposite of radical. They were supposed to be the reactionaries who were holding the center during a period of change and upheaval in the United States. The idea behind these Middle American Radicals was that no, actually, these are the people who want to radically remake American politics. Sam Francis, and later Pat Buchanan, really tapped into those folks.

Ward: One of the starkest transformations within the Republican Party that you trace in the book is the GOP’s evolving position on immigration. Reagan, for instance, had fairly liberal, Cold War-era ideas about the free movement of people, but then by the mid-1990s, the GOP has become an avowedly anti-immigrant party. Why did immigration become such a lightning rod for the tensions that were swirling on the right?

Hemmer: It was one of those issues that had to be activated. The United States is not a place where there has never been anti-immigrant sentiment, but in the 1980s and early 1990s, it just didn’t register for most people as a primary concern.

So we have to think about why politicians were able to put it at the top of the agenda, and a big part of it was linking immigration to criminality and linking it to economic threats and economic competition. Pat Buchanan himself in the mid-1980s was talking about immigration as something that’s amazing for the United States and saying that immigrants were hard workers who pay their taxes, so who cares that they’re not necessarily documented? But that all changed by 1992, when he was connecting immigration to all kinds of lawlessness — including the riots in Los Angeles in 1992, which then-Attorney General Bill Barr was also doing — and suggesting that basically anything wrong with your life is being caused by undocumented immigration, particularly if you’re in Arizona or California.

For Buchanan, he increasingly leaned on the non-whiteness of these immigrants as a particular threat. They’re not just a threat to your pocketbook, they’re a threat to the continued majority status of white people in the United States. That really becomes the big driver of anti-immigrant sentiment in California and then in the rest of the U.S.

Ward: And this was all taking place at the same time that conservative intellectuals like Charles Murray and D’Souza were embracing new pseudo-scholarly varieties of race science.

Hemmer: That’s exactly right. These more fixed and pseudo-scientific ideas about race — and in particular about the inferiority of Black people in the United States — became really important to conservatives in the mid-1990s. It sometimes overlapped with immigration, as in the case of Peter Brimelow, who wrote a pretty shockingly racist anti-immigrant tract called Alien Nation in 1995. But when you look at somebody like D’Souza or Murray, what they were adding to their arguments is an older idea about race, which is that Black Americans can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps [because] they’re in a fixed inferior position — and policy needs to recognize that. That’s different from Ronald Reagan, who wanted to roll back Great Society policies and affirmative action and all those kinds of things, but who didn’t profess this idea of a fixed, innate Black inferiority.

Ward: In addition to changes in the substance of Republican politics, the style of Republican politics changed quite a bit during the ’90s as well. You quote D’Souza, for instance, arguing that conservatives needed to be “philosophically conservative, but temperamentally radical.” What drove these stylistic changes?

Hemmer: The stylistic changes were driven a lot by particular figures. They were spearheaded by people like Newt Gingrich, who really believed that Republicans needed a rhetorical style that made it clear that Republicans were the good guys and Democrats were the bad guys. And it’s not just “good” versus “bad.” It is “moral” versus “degenerate.” Gingrich would pick the worst possible words — “treason,” “degeneracy” — to attach to Democrats, and he felt like that was important.

It also has to do with things like the rise of talk radio. It was in the early 1990s that Rush Limbaugh became not just a national radio host, but a national political leader. That medium of talk radio did drive a lot of that provocative language, [because] it showed that you wouldn’t necessarily pay the price for saying something really over the top and offensive.

Ward: That darker style of politics was sometimes described in the 1990s as “angry white men politics,” but you point out that these new conservative partisans weren’t exclusively men. What role did women play in pushing the Republican Party to the right?

Hemmer: Women do play a leading role, in part because they are members of a new class of pundits that was coming up in the world of cable news and who were learning this more pugilistic style of politics. [Figures like Ingraham and Ann Coulter] were very prominent, thanks in part to an organization called the Independent Women’s Forum, which did a lot to take professional women and move them into a political class and a punditry class where they could become the face of the new American right.

People like Helen Chenoweth, on the other hand, represented a different kind of threat. She was a representative from Idaho who was grandmotherly and soft-spoken, but her real extremism was in her ties to militia groups. Part of her district in Idaho was Ruby Ridge, where there was a strong militia presence, and she helped spread all sorts of conspiracy theories about government officials, the Bureau of Land Management, black helicopters, the United Nations and the like. And it was important that she was a woman and that she looked like a grandmother, because she was much less threatening than 30-year-old white male militia members surrounding a government building or yelling at a government official.

Ward: How does George W. Bush fit into the story of conservative radicalization that you’re telling? In many ways, he represented the heir to orthodox Reaganism, and it would be easy to point to his presidency and say, “Oh, look, those radical partisans of the ’90s were just a blip on the radar, and the saner, more mainstream conservatism ultimately prevailed.” Why is that the wrong way to think about it?

Hemmer: If history had stopped in 2004, that would be a very credible thesis, because Bush really was put forward as the second coming of Reagan. He had that same kind of sunny-sighted conservatism, he was interested in more open immigration, and he was very interested, certainly by the end of his first year in office, in America becoming more involved in the world and promoting democracy.

But so much of the Reaganism that he embraced failed so miserably during his second term. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the failure to commit to environmental plans were some of the first signs of this failure. But then, by the end of his presidency, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. adventurism abroad were also becoming clear. And then, of course, the financial crisis, financial deregulation and the giant tax cuts — all of that [added to this impression of failure]. By the end of his two terms in office, he had kind of disproven Reaganism and put the final nail in Reaganism’s coffin. He was the testing ground to see if Reaganism was still viable, and by the end of his presidency, he had shown that it was not.

Ward: How did the Democratic Party respond to these changes within the Republican Party?

Hemmer: Certainly, liberals during the 1990s were pretty open to the ideas of this new Republican right. One of the things that you see over the course of the 1990s is that the Democratic Party moved steadily to the right. Democratic politicians didn’t back something like Proposition 187 in California, which would have stripped all government services from people in the country without documentation, but they did move pretty far right on immigration, on border security and on the language of demonization around immigration.

That’s one of the reasons why I think of the 1990s not as a time of polarization but as a time of right-wing radicalization, because the Democratic Party isn’t running away from the Republican Party. Liberals are finding common cause in a lot of ways. In 1995, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich are sitting down and starting to talk about overhauling Social Security. So yes, liberals at least are on board with a lot of what’s happening.

Ward: They certainly weren’t erecting the barricades.

Hemmer: No, they were not.

Ward: A drawback to other, more Trump-centric approaches to conservative history is that they lend a sense of inevitability to Trump’s rise, and in the process, then they overlook the moments when Republicans consciously chose to invite the more radical members of the conservative coalition into the fold. For instance, you mention the episode in 1992 when George H.W. Bush invited Rush Limbaugh to the White House for dinner, and Bush even ended up carrying Limbaugh’s luggage for him.

Hemmer: I think that particular moment where Bush sides with Rush Limbaugh is an important one, as is the omnipresence of Roger Ailes in Republican politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

There were alternatives. Colin Powell is such a fascinating case study, because he comes out of a lineage that included people like Jack Kemp, the representative from New York who was often seen as the heir to Reagan. There were moments where Kemp was like, “What are you doing, Republicans? Stop paddling around with radicals and look at this other legacy that we could be following.” Imagine if in 1996, Colin Powell had won the Republican nomination and the presidency, not just as a Black man, but as somebody who was pro-abortion rights. It is a very different party in that case.

Today, that seems so impossible. But this is why the Perot campaign was so important. It seems like in the early 1990s, American voters were open to a lot of different possibilities. The country may have ended the decade as being an increasingly partisan and polarized country, but it didn’t start the decade that way, and that sense of possibility is important for making sense of the ’90s.

Ward: Trading your historian’s hat for your pundit’s hat for a minute, there’s an analogy to be drawn here with Trumpism. In some senses, Trump has captured the Republican Party today in a similar way to how Reagan captured it back in the ’80s. But as you point out, historians have a tendency to exaggerate the extent of the ideological homogeneity that follows these watershed elections. Are there any fault lines in the Republican Party today that are akin to the fault lines that emerged between Reagan and these partisans in the ’80s and ’90s?

Hemmer: There is this “national conservatism” that’s arisen today that occasionally has advocates of a stronger social safety net. [But] at the moment, it’s hard to talk about in terms of fault lines, because it’s such an ideologically unsettled moment. It really does seem like on the policy front, a lot of things are up for grabs. You could imagine a heterodox Republican candidate getting away with quite a lot [in the same way that] Donald Trump got away with quite a lot.

The thing that makes it hard to see the fault lines right now is this over-arching loyalty to Donald Trump. We’re talking the day after Liz Cheney lost her primary campaign, and that has nothing to do with her politics outside of her relationship to Trump. I do think we’re going to continue to see a kind of moderate-radical divide in the party, but it’s just that the center of that divide keeps shifting over further and further and further to the right.

I think that in general, most Republicans really do agree on the direction of policy, but the question is, how hardline and how attached to democracy are they going to be. More than anything, that question of “Are we pro-democratic governance or anti-democratic governance” is the real fault line.

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