Rick Perlstein says liberals shouldn’t trust the anti-Trump Republicans

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

Rick Perlstein is national correspondent for The Washington Spectatorand the author of "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."

… [Jeff] Flake, or whatever robot it is that writes books “by” senators, put his objections to his party’s surrender to Trump between covers earlier this year. He borrows his title from Barry Goldwater’s 1960 manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative. “As conservative principle retreated,” he argues, “something new and troubling took its place.”  

Its lineaments, he says, are “nationalism, populism, xenophobia, extreme partisanship, even celebrity.” Reading that, liberals might find their heads swiveling like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. When, precisely, has American conservatism been bereft of nationalism, populism, xenophobia and extreme partisanship, let alone (in its deification of a certain former movie star) celebrity? Other supposed heresies include rejecting conservatives’ “ardent belief in free trade” (but for most of the first half of the 20th century, non-Dixie conservatives were protectionist), and “realpolitik federal budgeting” (he must have missed the day Dick Cheney explained, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter”). Flake’s bad history goes on from there.

Conservatism is an ideology that, at its essence, is about reasserting hierarchy and authority against the liberatory energies of the subaltern classes. The methods and means, however, vary greatly across time and space. In late 19th-century Germany, for instance, Otto von Bismarck established a system of social insurance to cement workers’ loyalty to German empire; that was conservatism. In the 1920s, in the United States, many Ku Klux Klan leaders supported universal government-provided healthcare as a way to protect Nordics from diseased immigrant hordes; that was conservatism. The more Goldwaterite version Jeff Flake reifies as conservatism tout court is, like all conservatisms, a contingency born of a particular time and place. Because in both style and substance the original Conscience of a Conservative remains the best short introduction, we might label it “conscientious conservatism.”

Conscientious conservatism is policy-centered, aimed at end runs around the liberal state that the New Deal created. (Goldwater’s book, for example, proposed replacing the graduated income tax with a flat tax for all earners, and “a 10 percent spending reduction each year in all of the fields in which federal participation is undesirable.”) It fetishizes something it calls “freedom” (which is only ever traduced by the state, never private employers), and also “principle,” which for Goldwater meant proposing things that during his own time bore little chance of enactment (like ending all farm subsidies). For Flake, it involves staging the occasional act of spectacular, if limited, political self-immolation. For instance, lovingly recounted here, the time he went after an earmark (for a local highway interchange) beloved of one of the most powerful members of his party, then-House Speaker Denny Hastert (R-Ill.)….

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