Nicole Hemmer on the Fall of the Republican PartyHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, political history, Nativism, Pat Buchanan
Kim Phillips-Fein, who teaches American history at Columbia University, is the author, most recently, of Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politic
Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s NICOLE HEMMER, BASIC BOOKS
The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party DANA MILBANK, DOUBLEDAY
The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism MATTHEW CONTINETTI, BASIC BOOKS
In 1992, Pat Buchanan made a campaign stop at the San Diego–Tijuana border. As a few white-power activists who had tagged along milled in the background, he called for the United States to build a wall—a 200-mile-long physical boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. At the time, Buchanan was seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, the first of two consecutive efforts that were rebuffed by party voters and leaders alike. Buchanan and his politics seemed to be on the verge of being drummed out of the GOP altogether. (When he made one last try for the White House, in 2000, he ran on the Reform Party ticket.) From the start of the 1990s, his hostility toward free trade and NATO, his extremist proposals on immigration, and his jeremiads against cultural decline marked him as an outlier. Communism was over, the stock market was rising, Silicon Valley was just taking off, and few were interested in Buchanan’s grim vision of a looming “illegal invasion.”
Three decades later, Buchanan’s ideas may still seem fringe, but they are no longer marginal. His call for a barrier at the border has become a staple of Republican platforms, as have his denunciations of cultural decadence, his skepticism about free trade, and his warnings about the dangers of the “global elite” and of immigrant incursions. As the midterms approach, Donald Trump’s conspiracy-laced version of those views shows no sign of flaming out, which forces the question: Is this ethno-nationalism and pugnacious stance toward cultural “elites” going to be the signature of the Republican Party from now on? And if so, what happened? Not all that long ago, the GOP was the party of Big Business, free markets, “traditional” family values, and anti-communism. Now it has become the party of election denial and the Wall.
When Trump first surfaced as a 2016 presidential candidate, his dizzying ascendance, seemingly out of nowhere, fueled the sense that he was hijacking a GOP theretofore rooted in the confident optimism that had come out of the Reagan era. Historians have considered Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and the adoption by the Democratic Party (especially under Bill Clinton) of Reagan’s end-of-big-government-and-big-labor-and-high-taxes ideology, as the formative development of the last quarter of the 20th century—the vision that laid out the parameters for American politics in the new millennium.
Conservatism was fraught with tensions long before Donald Trump’s emergence.
Yet the recent trajectory of the Republican Party, and its turn against many of the key precepts of Reaganism, calls for a reassessment of this perspective. That is precisely what the historian Nicole Hemmer offers in Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. She is joined in rethinking the evolution of conservatism by two journalists who approach the subject from different places on the political spectrum. Dana Milbank, the author of The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party, is a liberal Washington Post columnist. Matthew Continetti, the author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism, arrived at The Weekly Standard as a 22-year-old in 2003 and is now a Never Trumper at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to National Review. All three books portray a conservatism that was fraught with tensions long before Trump’s emergence. Their goal is to explain why the current incarnation of the GOP shouldn’t come as a surprise. In showing the deep roots of our present crisis, their analyses also suggest the limits of any politics focused on a dream of salvaging the Republican Party.