This interview with historian and author Rick Perlstein originally appeared in the Berlin daily Neues Deutschland.
After Trump won the election you published an essay titled “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” How did Trump’s election change your view of American conservatism?
The conservatives’ own story about their evolution has been that there were two streams of conservative political activity in the US: one that was extremist and conspiratorial, often viciously racist and even violent. And then there was a mainstream movement that policed those boundaries, associated with the figure of William F. Buckley and the magazine National Review. That mainstream conservatism, as the story goes, had largely prevailed, and the extremist elements were pretty much vestigial. What Trump demonstrates is that those much more feral streams in the movement never really went away. Knowing about Trump, it was a lot easier to see in retrospect how often that extremist underbrush was part of the story.
Is Trump even a conservative in the traditional sense? The National Review published an issue during the 2016 primaries titled “Against Trump,” in which various conservative intellectuals stated that a true conservative could not support Trump, because he violated conservative principles.
Yes, but if you look at the National Review website in the years before that, pretty much everything nasty and politically grotesque that we associate with Trump could be seen in National Review, too.
But weren’t there also actual policy disagreements, regarding the economy or trade for example? Did Trump in that sense violate the principles of US conservatism?
The problem with that idea is that if you survey self-described conservatives, about 90 percent identify with Trump. So you have to question the conservatives’ own story about what was at the heart of their movement. Conservatism, in the basic sense of valuing authority and hierarchy over equality and fluidity, has taken different forms in different times and different places. In the US in the 1920s, the strongest conservative force was the Ku Klux Klan; they ran some states. I saw KKK pamphlets from that time that supported universal government-provided healthcare — because of the fear that dirty immigrants would bring disease with them. The precise policy formulae that conservatism has exhibited over time have to be analytically subordinated to the bottom line: That they are the forces of order, hierarchy, and frankly, the strong leader.
You have used the term “Herrenvolk Democracy” to describe this kind of right-wing social populism.
Yes, but Trump seems to have largely abandoned that by now. Herrenvolk democracy would have been, if he had spent a lot of money on infrastructure, which he promised to do, and provided blue-collar construction jobs; if he had worked to shore up programs that serve mostly middle-class and elderly people, like Social Security or Medicare. But instead he has gone with the more traditional right-wing laissez-faire economic program.
Tucker Carlson of Fox News, one of the most vocal supporters of the President, has recently aired a segment which was very critical of neoliberal capitalism, which he said destroyed families and the social fabric of the country.
Tucker Carlson is a proponent of “herrenvolk democracy”. This has always been a tradition in American conservatism, but very minoritarian. You would never see this kind of thing on Fox News until now. But American right-wing populism has always seen the white middle class in kind of a pincer movement between the rich liberal elites from above, and the rent-seeking, parasitic poor from below.
Steve Bannon often speaks of the Davos Class.
The form that this “herrenvolk democracy” takes seems to be a dog-whistle for anti-Semitism: the idea that unseen, mysterious moneylenders and financial elites are determining the fate of ordinary Americans.
As you said, the actual practice of the Trump administration is not much different than how a traditional Republican would have governed. Traditional, more libertarian Republicans like Paul Ryan found a lot of common ground with Trump, regarding tax cuts, cuts to welfare programs, or gutting environmental protection.
Yes, but there are important differences, too. Ronald Reagan, for example, was actually quite reverent about the idea of immigration to the United States. He was very sentimental about it, he loved the idea of people wanting to come tot he US. That was a central form that his patriotism took.
But mobilizing white racial resentment has always been central to US conservatism, such as Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Is this racial politics under Trump more central to the GOP, or is it just different, or more honest and open?
It’s more central and it’s more open. Historically, elite conservative politicians did a much more careful job of stoking racial resentment without actually using the language of racial resentment. There is a civil religion in America that includes equality and a rejection of ethnic particularism. You see this in figures like Reagan and Newt Gingrich and generations of conservative politicians. And then you see Donald Trump, starting his campaign in Trump Tower by saying that Mexico is sending us their rapists. He ripped off that skin of civility and was perfectly willing to show the ugliness that other people were careful to hide.
After the election, there was lots of talk about how Trump was very successful with the “white working class,” which maybe hadn’t been voting Republican before. Do you think that the social base of Trump is different than the one that elected George W. Bush or Reagan?
That’s been exaggerated a bit. He got plenty of support from richer white suburban Republican voters as well, even though that is the most vulnerable part of his support. But he did receive an enormous emotional affection from this white working class in the areas of the country that were ruined by neoliberalism. Ronald Reagan had a lot of affection in those areas, too, where his voters were called “Reagan Democrats”: unionized workers who were doing very poorly in the international economy in the late 70s. So it’s an acceleration of a trend that’s been going on for a long time.
In Nixonland, you describe how Nixon in the 1960s engineered a realignment by using racial and culture war issues to split the Democratic voter coalition and create this new social base, on which the power of conservatism rested in the next decades. Is this still the basic split in the population?
Yes, it’s still indispensable to understand our time. In fact, I have a placard from a Donald Trump rally I went to that said: “Donald Trump Stands with the Silent Majority,” which of course was the central slogan that Nixon used back then. And Trump used the same slogan as Nixon did in 1968 in his acceptance speech: “Law and Order.” Donald Trump came out of that world, the early 1970s.
The way you describe Richard Nixon’s emotional appeal seems very similar to Trump today, how he presented himself as the advocate of the common man against the arrogant liberal elites.
To quote Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew, “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” He was talking about the press, but the idea is that people who are more liberal are part of this Davos Class of international ruthless snobs who look down on everyone else.
One central concept in this regard is resentment.
Resentment is contempt mixed with envy. And even though Trump is a very wealthy man, his habits of mind are very status conscious. He constantly talks about how he went to an Ivy League school, because he felt condescension by the intellectual class that also went to Ivy League schools. Trump went to a college that was very much on the lower rung of the Ivy League. This game started with Richard Nixon. This kind of class politics is very surreal, because Trump wraps himself in all this refinement, but it’s been said that Donald Trump is a poor person’s idea of what a rich person looks like. His aesthetic is very much a brutish, arriviste flaunting of wealth.
And very vulgar too, like when he ordered cheeseburgers for his guests in the White House. It’s almost like he is doing it on purpose, to provoke the liberal condescension.
That was a call back to Michelle Obama, who had a vegetable garden in the White House, and made her big public issue healthy food for children. You see Republicans rebelling against this idea, as in “eating what you want to eat is what a real American does.” While Obama was eating all this fancy food that no one knows how to pronounce. It’s very much part of the class template of American politics, and Donald Trump is playing it to the hilt.
Very few Republicans still criticize the president, Mitt Romney for example. Did Trump take over the Republican Party, or is there any chance that it could revert back to more traditional, less populist styles?
No, these people have no popular constituency. They have a lot of articulate spokesmen, but no bodies on the ground.
Rick Perlstein is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and Nixonland:The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history.