Nicole Hemmer: Trump Didn't Kill off Reaganism—Reagan's Contemporaries DidHistorians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, MAGA
In most sweeping histories of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marks the dawning of a new era of American politics, the moment when conservatives finally completed their take-over of the Republican Party and began to remake the country in their own image. According to this narrative, the 30-year period that followed Reagan’s election — often dubbed the “Reagan era” — was defined first and foremost by the Gipper’s relatively sunny brand of conservatism grounded in anticommunism, social conservatism and small-government libertarianism.
But there’s another story to be told about the Reagan Revolution — one in which Reagan’s election, rather than marking the start of a new chapter in the history of American conservatism, marks the end of a previous one. In this story, the Reagan era was not a placid period of conservative domination, but rather a time of intensifying ideological conflict over the future of the Republican Party.
This is the story that Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University, tells in her new book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, which hits the shelves on Aug. 30. Hemmer, who has written extensively about the rise of right-wing media, begins her story by noting an apparent contradiction at the heart of the Reagan era: “Nearly as soon as Reagan left office, the conservative movement he represented began to rapidly evolve, skittering away from the policies, rhetoric and even ideology that Reagan had brought into office.” As Hemmer writes in the introduction to Partisans, “With each passing year, conservatives looked less and less like Reagan, even as they invoked his name more and more.”
What replaced Reaganism, Hemmer argues, was a “more pessimistic, angrier and even more revolutionary conservatism” that shared none of Reagan’s optimism about the future of the country. This new style of reactionary politics found its mouthpiece in the “partisans” of Hemmer’s book: figures like Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh, Ross Perot, Newt Gingrich, Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza. Although they tapped into older strains of reactionary politics, their project was essentially forward-looking, more ideologically radical and politically ruthless than the Party of Reagan.
Figures like Buchanan have received more attention in recent years as historians and journalists have riffled the pages of conservative history for antecedents to Donald Trump. In Partisans, Hemmer casts aside this Trump-centric analysis: “This book is not a prehistory of Trumpism,” she writes in the introduction. Instead, she explores the rise of the GOP’s radical partisans by looking backward at what they rejected — namely, Reaganism — rather than ahead to what they anticipated.
But this more scholarly approach doesn’t mean that her argument is totally devoid of contemporary significance, Hemmer told me when we spoke last week.
“Even if Donald Trump hadn’t won the presidency in 2016 — even if he hadn’t won the Republican nomination in 2016 — the changes in the Republican Party had still taken place,” said Hemmer. “Something was in the air, something had been changing, something was visible, even without Donald Trump to shine a light on it.”
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Ian Ward: You open the book with the line, “This book began with a puzzle.” What was that puzzle?
Nicole Hemmer: The puzzle at the heart of the book has to do with President Reagan and his legacy. He looms so large in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement, and yet it seemed to me as I was studying the conservative movement that he was really the capstone of a movement that had been in motion since the 1950s, and that he really had started to lose his hold over the party pretty quickly [after being elected]. So even as he became more mythologically grand within the conservative movement, the tenets of Reaganism — the idea of American engagement in the world and the idea of an optimistic, upbeat conservatism and big tent Republican Party — all seem to be on the wane.
Ward: What were the early signs that Reaganism was being challenged from the right?
Hemmer: Even while Reagan was in office, there were some real trigger points. Social conservatism was a really big one. There was a group called the New Right, which was a group of social conservatives who tapped into the [Republican] grassroots and into an essentially fear-based style of politics. They just did not gel with Reagan. They attacked him relentlessly for his appointments, for nominating Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, for not going hard enough on abortion or guns.
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