U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“Trump Proved Me Wrong”: Historians of Conservatism and the 2016 Election

This weekend, Rick Perlstein confessed to feeling that his highly regarded histories of modern U.S. conservatism may have led liberals and progressives to misconstrue and underestimate the appeal of Donald Trump. Or as he puts it, “We [meaning historians of modern conservatism like Perlstein] advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump.”

David Frum, for his part, took Perlstein’s mea culpa as an opportunity to wag his finger: although he disclaims a desire “to score points off Perlstein” Frum states that Perlstein’s essay demonstrates a need “to think more deeply together about how (and how not) to do intellectual history.” Although I find Frum’s answers exceedingly inadequate (some of his attempts at historicization are cringe-inducingly shallow when they are not uselessly partial and partisan), I don’t disagree with his assessment. I also found that reading Perlstein’s essay left me confused about where the last twenty or so years of the intellectual history of conservatism led us and where it has left us, and I also feel that it is a worthwhile moment to take stock and contest much of Perlstein’s story about what the principal arguments and the larger narrative that emerged from this body of scholarship.

Perlstein describes what he calls “a rough consensus about the rise of modern American conservatism” and characterizes it as telling “a respectable tale.” Let’s hang on to that word “respectable,” but this is the tale as Perlstein condenses it.

Year Zero [of the conservative movement] was 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. started National Review, the small-circulation magazine whose aim, Buckley explained, was to “articulate a position on world affairs which a conservative candidate can adhere to without fear of intellectual embarrassment or political surrealism.” Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society, anti-Semites and supporters of the hyperindividualist Ayn Rand, and his cohort fused the diverse schools of conservative thinking — traditionalist philosophers, militant anti-Communists, libertarian economists — into a coherent ideology, one that eventually came to dominate American politics.

That is certainly a version of the history of the conservative movement, although it is not (as Frum also notes) precisely how I would characterize the whole of Perlstein’s own writings about conservatism or most of the scholarship that has come out in the last ten or so years. What it does recapitulate particularly well is George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement and maybe a few works that were most influenced by Nash’s scholarship, which identified National Review not only as the clearinghouse for conservative ideas but as a kind of civilizing or refining influence for the right as a whole, disciplining the movement by removing or marginalizing many of those elements which supposedly were tarnishing the more principled and intellectually serious—i.e., “respectable”—conservatives. Nash’s story positioned National Review as the ‘conscience’ of conservatism, imbuing it with a kind of respectability politics—a desire to be taken seriously by serious people.

Perlstein doesn’t namecheck Nash, though he does identify some of the other significant historians of conservatism, beginning with Alan Brinkley and his legendary 1994 essay “The Problem of American Conservatism.” Perlstein sets up a sort of dialectic between Brinkley and Leo Ribuffo: Brinkley on the one hand forging a tradition of scholarship that emphasized the proximity of conservatism to the mainstream of U.S. political culture and thought, Ribuffo insisting that, yes, conservatism really did have its monsters. Perlstein groups himself—and Lisa McGirr, author of the extremely influential Suburban Warriors—among the former group, which he charges with diminishing or even ignoring the presence of “hysterical” elements in their subjects. Paraphrasing his rationalization of this willed blindness, Perlstein argues “I was writing about the modern conservative movement, the one that led to Reagan, not about the brutish relics of a more gothic, ill-formed and supposedly incoherent reactionary era that preceded it.” In seeking to account for conservatism’s electoral successes, he argues, most historians turned away from Ribuffo’s insistence that conservatism had never fully purged the more conspiratorial, xenophobic, and simple-minded elements that remained visible just under its newly respectable surface.

The trouble is, I’m not sure Perlstein’s historiographic interpretation does full justice either to Brinkley or to Ribuffo (or even to his own writing). I’ll return to those two scholars in a moment, but this holds broadly true for the literature on what he calls “modern” (i.e, post-’45) conservatism as a whole. When we look closely at any of the historians he either names or likely had in mind, his characterization of their work as willfully ignoring “the bizarre, the unusual, or the unsettling” (in the words of Kim Phillips-Fein) appears to distort the record: scholars who took conservatism seriously and sought to re-articulate the complexity, sincerity, and what we could call the mainstream-ness of conservative ideas and beliefs did not thereby obscure or suppress those elements which remained clearly unusual and unsettling. A fantastic example is Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, but there are numerous outstanding monographs that easily combine both a deeply respectful and empathetic treatment of conservatives’ lives and aspirations with a clear-eyed awareness of the roots of some of their ideas and actions in “unusual” or “unsettling” belief systems and values. To claim that this literature somehow kept anyone in the dark about the connections between grassroots conservative mobilization and, say, the John Birch Society is to ignore a big chunk of what the authors actually said.

But that is not to say that Perlstein’s interpretation of the broader atmosphere of scholarship on conservatism is wholly incorrect either. When Corey Robin published The Reactionary Mind in 2011, he positioned it as a necessary counterweight to the received wisdom about what “modern” conservatism was. The conservative intellectual tradition, he argued, was not characterized by a yearning for calm and order and an abhorrence of disrespectability; rather, it craved turbulence and enjoyed playing the ruffian from time to time—provided it could flout liberal pieties of egalitarianism while doing so. Robin was not shadowboxing when he pointed out where, time and again, those figures held up as the icons of conservative respectability and sobriety—Burke and Buckley foremost—indulged wholeheartedly in fantasies of immoderation and transgression: Robin was correct in assuming that even most of his likely readers believed that conservatism was (at least ordinarily) completely different from counterrevolution and reaction.

In other words, Perlstein could not be totally incorrect in asserting that treatments of conservatism have tended to play up its respectability unless we assume that everyone has always agreed with Corey Robin—safe to say, a dubious proposition!

The question is, however, whether the Brinkley line of scholarship is really at fault, and whether we should really have just listened to Ribuffo. And that, for me, is where Perlstein’s account falls apart. What he has done, I think, is to combine Nash’s very real desire to legitimize the intellectual seriousness of National Review-style conservatism with Brinkley (et al.)’s argument for conservatism’s continuing presence as a major force in U.S. political culture and its continuing role in generating important political ideas. There is a rather large difference between legitimacy (or respectability) and significance, and I believe that Nash was making the former argument while Brinkley was making the latter, although it has never helped that both arguments can be advanced under that tired cliché of “taking x seriously.”

Nash certainly was arguing for the significance of National Review-style conservatism as a factor in modern political history but he was also arguing for its distance from other parts of the conservative movement: he wanted to place it somewhere nearer the mainstream of U.S. political and intellectual culture as a way to sever and disavow its connections with less savory elements. Brinkley, on the other hand, was less interested in separating “conservatism” from its “fringe” than in advising historians not to ignore the influence of conservative ideas on the development of those major events and institutions of modern political and intellectual life—especially the welfare state. That was, in a manner of speaking, the message of his first book, Voices of Protest—the influence of Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, and Francis Townsend on the New Deal’s development was both substantial and, in a sense, positive: the New Deal was forced to adapt by incorporating certain elements of these movements rather than by fighting and defeating them.

So it is hardly fair to characterize Brinkley’s purpose in calling for a more dedicated study of U.S. conservatism as a desire to focus only on its brighter or more respectable elements. And just so it is hardly just to Ribuffo to portray his role as a kind of Cassandra, forewarning that we were ignoring the loonies to our detriment. One of the more basic but important critiques he made in his original rejoinder to Brinkley’s article was that there actually had been a lot of historical research already done on conservatism, and that it needed to be engaged in its multifariousness. For if Brinkley did set up one kind of misunderstanding about the history of conservatism it was that there was nothing much of value written about it before 1994, that comments like Lionel Trilling’s bluff assertion that liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” truly summed up the state of the field all the way up to the 1990s. (Perlstein quotes this chestnut in his essay’s first paragraph.)

If there was a deleterious effect of the Brinkley line of scholarship, then, it was this: that historians of conservatism worried a great deal about falling into a kind of Trilling-like condescension when it came to writing about conservative ideas, that the attitude of a Trilling or a Hofstadter always seemed to be a kind of special specter hovering over their shoulder—more so than over anyone’s who writes about political ideas. But I am not convinced that this specter materially impaired these scholars or should be held responsible for a rosier picture of conservatism than what it otherwise would have been.

Instead, we should turn back to people like Frum or some of the people he cites in his rebuttal to Perlstein (e.g., Sam Tanenhaus) who spent much of the Bush years insisting either that real conservatism was not a bunch of hair-on-fire warmongers or that Bush’s widely parodied verbal ineptitude was not representative of the genuine intellectual firepower of conservatism. Much more than the post-Brinkley scholarship on conservatism, it was this defense of conservatism by people like David Brooks or Tanenhaus or Ross Douthat that was, I think, Corey Robin’s primary target for revision, and it has been their insistence—and the insistence of those historians who have more avidly followed the example of George Nash—that “mainstream” conservatism really did sever and disavow its connections to its “fringe” that made it, for so many people, an article of faith that Donald Trump could not capture the Republican nomination, much less win a general election.

Although I don’t think he intended this moral, Perlstein’s essay would seem to conclude that as historians, we would be better off being less charitable towards our subjects, more insistent on detailing their warts. But I am not convinced that charity is the same as vulnerability or credulity, and it certainly was not the culprit here.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Some well-articulated thoughts. One might argue, among the Douthats, Brookses, et al that a few additional points were in play.
    1. As op-ed writers of PR flak, they had reason to “hide the crazies.”
    2. As being largely inside the Beltway-Acela axis, they may have been uninformed about how much a problem the crazies were. On the other hand, there’s plenty of crazies inside there, too
    3. They were whistling in the dark.

  2. Per Perlstein, while Goldwater never publicly embraced the full-on racist anti-civil-rights crazies in 1964, he never full-on repudiated them, either, to my recollection.

  3. Oh, found one error in Perlstein’s essay, re the 1927 Klan event. He wonders if Donald, as well as his father, was involved. Erm, he’s got either the date wrong or his math wrong, as Donald wasn’t born yet in 1927.

  4. Andy,
    “There is a rather large difference between legitimacy (or respectability) and significance, and I believe that Nash was making the former argument while Brinkley was making the latter….”

    This distinction sounds right, though I haven’t read Nash or done more than glance at Brinkley’s essay.

    Quite a while ago I read some of Perlstein’s Before the Storm, and I’m not sure that book supports Perlstein’s view of his own work. Based on the roughly 200 pages of it I read, I’m not sure Before the Storm has an especially coherent narrative line, but if the emphasis was supposed to fall on how ‘modern’ conservatism a la Nat’l Review rejected the fringe such as the Birchers, it’s nonetheless true that Perlstein spends a lot of time writing about the Birchers and about others who never forgave Eisenhower for defeating Taft in 1952. Maybe my impression is skewed because I didn’t finish the book. Anyway, there are some very insightful passages in Before the Storm (what I read of it, that is), but I didn’t come away with the feeling that precision in argument is one of the book’s particular strengths.

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