Rick Perlstein’s still drawing brickbats for his confession in the NYT that historians (like him) have misinterpreted modern conservatism

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, Rick Perlstein, Trump



Josh Mound holds a PhD in history and sociology from the University of Michigan and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in political economy at Miami University of Ohio.

Historian Rick Perlstein has made a career of translating the American right for the liberal left. His book-length works have identified one Republican after another — first Barry Goldwater, then Richard Nixon, now Ronald Reagan — as prisms through which we can understand the modern GOP. While his books lack the rigor of principally archive-based scholarly work, all three are breezy, fun reads that capture the mood of their respective eras, especially when it comes to the oft-forgotten zaniness of conservatism in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

But according to Perlstein’s new piece in the New York Times Magazine, the election of Donald Trump has caused him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the American right and the appeal of its ideas to average voters. Perlstein thinks other historians need to do the same.

“We advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump,” Perlstein claims. To understand Trump, Perlstein continues, one needs to reach back beyond Reagan or Nixon or Goldwater to the “reactionary traditions” of the 1920s and ‘30s, including the Ku Klux Klan, businessman Henry Ford, and radio priest Charles Coughlin.

Trump’s election, in Perlstein’s view, proves that the history of the American right was even darker, even more motivated by irrational hatreds than his own already critical work (and most scholarly history) has assumed.

“Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in the grim essays of William F. Buckley, the scrupulous constitutionalist principles of Barry Goldwater, or the bright-eyed optimism of Ronald Reagan,” Perlstein concludes. “They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage. It will not be a pleasant story.”

But historians don’t need “new arguments to make sense of Trump.” We have plenty of places to look in the historiography if we seek to understand the dynamics that opened the door for Trump.

Perlstein’s call for new historiographical directions to explain the rise of Trump makes no mention of economics, the Democratic Party, or (most importantly) the interaction of the two in setting the stage for Trump. This framing fits with Perlstein’s model of political change as the cultural-cum-psychohistory of how the mental idiosyncrasies of particular leaders interact with the public’s irrationality and innate conservatism. ...





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