Reaganland' Author Revisits The Roots Of American Conservatism (audio)

Historians in the News
tags: conservatism, Ronald Reagan, Rick Perlstein, books


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

You hear a lot of people say these days that the 2020 election is the most important of our lifetimes. For American conservatives, the election of 1980, 40 years ago, is remembered as a critical turning point. It ushered in the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan, who's still idolized by many Republicans. But our guest historian Rick Perlstein says for much of Reagan's campaign for the presidency, he was written off as too old to have a chance. He would be nearly 70 by the time he was sworn into office.

Perlstein is one of the country's foremost students of the rise of the New Right in American politics. He's just published his fourth volume about the roots of modern American conservatism. This one focuses on the period from 1976 to 1980, beginning when Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was running for the White House and culminating four years later with Reagan's triumph over Carter after a chaotic term for the Democrat.

Besides his three previous volumes on American conservatism, Perlstein has written essays and book reviews for The New York Times and other publications. He's a contributing editor and board member for In These Times magazine. He spoke to me from a neighbor's apartment in Chicago about his new book "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980."

Well, Rick Perlstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Hi, Dave. It's really great to be here.

DAVIES: You have studied the roots of the conservative movement in modern American politics for decades, and now the Republican Party is renominating a president who really didn't come from a traditional party background but who has nearly the unanimous support of the Republican Party. Is Donald Trump the product of the conservative movement? Is he a usurper of it? How do you connect him to the dynamics that you've studied?

PERLSTEIN: Well, I think any historian worth his or her salt has to master the phrase it's complicated. It is complicated. But I'll make, you know, two points about that. One is that I don't think anyone can read "Reaganland" and come away without understanding that sort of the viciousness, the naked will to power wasn't always a part of the conservative Republican coalition. You know, I give an example of, say, Jerry Falwell who spoke at a anti-gay initiative rally in 1977 in Miami.

DAVIES: The prominent reverend from back in those days, yeah.

PERLSTEIN: Right - and a big ally of Reagan. And you know, he said a homosexual will just as soon kill you as look at you. Right? So that kind of viciousness, you know, has always been present. One major difference is that, you know, even though conservative politicians were in coalition with people like that, they wouldn't necessarily display that sort of naked viciousness, you know, themselves, right? Is that better? Is that worse? That's an interesting question.

But there are certainly important differences - some of them minor, some of them major. I think one difference certainly between Reagan and Trump is on the issue of immigration. You know, Reagan revered immigrants. He loved the idea of America being a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. And as a matter of fact, in the, you know, 1980 Texas primary, it was a showdown between Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the last two men standing in this very crowded Republican field. And by the way, there was never any foregone conclusion that Reagan was going to win this thing. But both of them were competing at the debate to see who could be sort of more welcoming of immigrants. And Ronald Reagan, in his opening speech of his primary campaign in November of 1979, called for open borders between the United States and Mexico.

DAVIES: You know, one theme of this story is that the rise of the New Right is powered in part by populist anger.

PERLSTEIN: That's right.

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