How the GOP Became the Party of Resentment

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, Rick Perlstein

In 1979, Barry Goldwater turned to his diary to register a change in the nation’s politics. “Today as I sit in the Senate,” he wrote, “it is interesting to me to watch liberals, moderates, and conservatives fighting each other to see who can come out on top the quickest against those matters that I talked so fervently and so much about in 1964.” That year, Goldwater had been thoroughly crushed in his presidential contest with Lyndon Johnson, earning only 52 electoral votes against LBJ’s 486 and less than 40 percent of the popular vote. Richard Rovere wrote in The New Yorker that the election had “finished the Goldwater school of political reaction.” But 15 years later, Goldwater looked out on a different landscape. “Now that almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964,” he concluded, had “become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics, there really isn’t a heck of a lot left.”

The transformation that Goldwater observed is one of the most important stories in the political history of the United States in the twentieth century. How and why did it happen? For almost two decades, over the more than 3,000 pages of a monumental tetralogy, Rick Perlstein has sought to answer exactly those questions. Four volumes—Before the StormNixonlandThe Invisible Bridgeand the new Reaganland—take the reader from Goldwater’s campaign, through the rise and fall of Richard Nixon, to the eventual triumph of Ronald Reagan in the presidential election of 1980. Perlstein largely moves through this history chronologically (augmented with some biographical flashbacks), taking the reader on the same journey in politics and culture that a person living through the time would have experienced. Garnering popular acclaim as well as respect from academic historians, the books have helped redefine the 1960s—often popularly a metonym for the left-wing counterculture—as a time also marked by the growing power of conservative political organizing.

But even with this historical perspective, Perlstein was shaken by Trump’s election. In a piece that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in April 2017, Perlstein asked if historians (like him) who had failed to see Trump’s victory had made some fundamental mistake. Historians are a more ideologically diverse lot than they are sometimes made out to be, but many fall somewhere on the spectrum from liberal to left. Had they, perhaps, focused too much on intellectual figures of conservatism that they could understand, underplaying the power of the paranoid fringe? Have historians, in effect, looked too hard for a conservatism that they could respect (even if most disagreed with it)? If Trump demands an explanation rooted in American history, where do we look? 

Reaganland, the fourth and final book in Perlstein’s series, is his first opportunity to answer his own challenge. The book concludes the series, providing continuity with the previous entries, but it will also be met by an audience that is living daily in Trumpland, an experience bound to shape their sense of conservatism’s impulses and effects. And though Perlstein resists making any explicit argument about either the present or the past, there is perhaps one to be found: that it would be a mistake to draw too fine a distinction between conservative intellectuals and the Republican Party’s base, for they were often animated by similar grievances and resentments.