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Related Reading: Three new books look at the roots of today's conservatism, The Boston Sunday Globe


October 30, 2022

How did we wind up with Trump?

The question should have been handed off to historians long ago. Instead, we wake to it daily. While an ongoing flood of books seeks to explain the man, others focus more broadly on the rise of right-wing extremism. In what is becoming something like the standard model, Newt Gingrich has a lot to answer for. Spawning a parade of imitators, the former Republican House speaker relied on a confrontational style and overheated rhetoric to exploit voter discontent.

But as Nicole Hemmer convincingly argues in “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” the table had already been set by Pat Buchanan, whose three presidential campaigns, starting with 1992, tapped into a powerful strain of white grievance.

Distinguishing between the conservative movement and the GOP, Hemmer exposes the fault lines afflicting today’s right-leaning politics. The Cold War did much to unite, or at least mask, conservatism’s disparate strands. Ardently anti-communist, Ronald Reagan benefited, even as his optimistic style broadened conservatism’s appeal. He was a traditional hardliner on cutting taxes and non-military spending, but as Hemmer writes, he was also willing to bend with public opinion.

With the end of the Cold War, in 1989, conditions changed. A New Right more focused on social issues, and frequently critical of Reagan, asserted itself. By the time George H.W. Bush became the GOP standard-bearer, party leadership had shifted from the Northeast to the more conservative Sun Belt. To retain its backing, Bush dropped his longstanding support for abortion rights.

What Hemmer depicts as the right’s radicalization drew a significant assist from changes in the media landscape. By the fall of 1992, Rush Limbaugh was known by millions through his live radio broadcasts. Taking his cues from radio shock jocks, he based his distinctive brand of political entertainment more on ridicule than on ideology. He was helped by the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which also aided the rise of cable television punditry.

Despite having turned himself into the leading voice of the right, Limbaugh was not well schooled in conservative philosophy. Several of his lesser-known contemporaries were, however, and receive Matthew Continetti’s thoughtful appraisal in “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism.” Himself a committed conservative, Continetti reaches back to the administration of Warren G. Harding, and its rejection of Wilsonian progressivism, to locate the early currents of the movement.

Like Hemmer, he sees the Cold War as the glue that would later hold things together. Once anti-communism withered as a unifying force, however, a protracted civil war between establishment conservatives and populists ensued, culminating in Trump’s election.

Continetti is a measured writer who seemingly prefers to stick to ideas rather than muck about in the passions driving extremists. As a result, he pulls some punches, though not all. He dismisses Trump as a villain, and decries the National Review as having brought shame on the movement when it opposed civil rights.

Yet the magazine’s importance to conservatism, and to spreading the ideas of its founder, William F. Buckley Jr., cannot be overstated. Buckley proved vital to building public acceptance for an outlook long considered outside the mainstream.

As proof, Continetti offers Bill Clinton. While Hemmer concludes that Reaganism ended with Reagan, Continetti argues that Clinton consolidated the Republican icon’s legacy. “On economics, crime, and welfare,” he writes, “the Clinton presidency offered plenty for conservatives to like. They never forgave him for it.”

Both of these books describe the evolution of the Republican leadership class, leaving the essential mystery of individual actors untouched. Like many political reporters seeking to understand a movement’s appeal, Kyle Spencer turns to biography for clues. Her “Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement – and Its Plot for Power” profiles three young leaders whose development was underwritten by a well-financed conservative machine.

Among them is Charlie Kirk, who founded Turning Point USA to attract college students to conservative values. (A product of suburban Illinois public schools, he himself never bothered with higher education.) Kirk appears convinced that he is here to win a religious war, a former Miss Arizona (CEO of a pricy faith-based fashion line) at his side.

Spencer notes that the right’s decades-long effort to foster a new generation of conservatives is unmatched on the left. Its “hyper-organized network” targeting the young, she fears, could shape an electorate more receptive to oligarchy and theocracy than it already is.

We can probably never pinpoint exactly when the line between mainstream conservatism and a violent far right blurred. But since Trump’s ascendance, partisan opportunists have discovered multiple advantages, and little downside, to flirting with extremism. None of these books digs deeply into the whys of populist rage, but all have much to say about the kinds of people who climbed on board.

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