A Response to Rick Perlstein’s “I Thought I Understood the American Right . . .”

Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, prominent historian Rick Perlstein attempts to figure out how exactly American conservatism could produce, as if out of nowhere, a candidate and a president of such “intellectual embarrassment” as Donald Trump. What had American historians, particularly those of conservative focus, failed to see since William F. Buckley, Jr. supposedly recreated respectable conservatism out of the ashes of World War II by founding the National Review?

President Reagan meeting with William F. Buckley in the Oval Office. 21 January 1988. By White House photo office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The simple if perhaps too simplistic answer to Perlstein’s question is that the patron saints of the modern conservative movement–primarily Buckley and Ronald Reagan–have been venerated (mostly by conservatives) well beyond their actual intellectual/political brilliance. What they created has led to Trumpism because American conservatism was not grounded, beyond the small farm agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson, on justice and reality.

Perlstein does not mention in his Times essay that the year before Buckley founded National Review he wrote and published a book, co-authored with his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, in which the two men generally defended the ideas and methods of that great conservative symbol of national security paranoia and heavy-handed government intrusion– Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. A wonderfully droll and critical review of McCarthy and His Enemies appeared in The New York Times in April of 1954 by William S. White, a reporter at the time for the The Times Washington Bureau. The review of the Buckley/Bozell book is worth quoting from at length, for it sheds much light on the shallow intellectual acumen and slipshod academic methods of the (admittedly younger) William F. Buckley, Jr.:

“One assumes that Mr. Buckley led this team. They have written their book not as reporters who have followed the blow-by-blow contests, but rather as “historians” who have studied the “historical” documents. One may legitimately doubt their objective approach, however; the authors have consulted with Senator McCarthy, but it is not known that they have consulted with General Marshall or any of the other “enemies” of the title.

Here, at any rate, is proof that it is the young who are infinitely more deadly — in purpose at least — of the species. Essentially what they have attempted is a defense both of Senator McCarthy and “McCarthyism” and an argument, well written in the English language as it is, that will rather stagger those to whom that language has long expressed certain concepts of fair play which Messrs. Buckley and Bozell seem to think either out of date or not viable in a world of great peril. They wish to make that kind of “security” that would astonish and worry traditional Conservatives.

For the kind of “security” here proposed would, in the end, and by its own definition, result in enormous insecurity for every sort of person whose notions might run counter to the youthful Buckley-Bozell political dogmas . . . “

So right from the very beginning of Buckley’s career there is displayed the sort of radical reactionaryism that would be right at home among many of the “alt-right” to whom Trump turned as both candidate and president. Despite White’s acerbic review, McCarthy and His Enemies appeared on the NY Times best-seller list, which goes to prove, I suppose, that this sort of nationalism-gone-berserk conservatism was pretty popular already back in the 1950’s.

Buckley’s National Review also dabbled early in racism. This excerpt from The NY Times reporting on the life of Buckley soon after his death in February of 2008:

In 1955, Mr. Buckley started National Review as voice for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order” with a $100,000 gift from his father and $290,000 from outside donors. The first issue, which came out in November, claimed the publication “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”

It proved it by lining up squarely behind Southern segregationists, saying Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them. After some conservatives objected, Mr. Buckley suggested instead that both uneducated whites and blacks should be denied the vote.

This, then, was the nature of Buckley’s conservative “organic moral order.” Yes, as Perlstein points out, Buckley denounced the John Birch Society, anti-Semitism and the fanatical followers of Ayn Rand; Buckley was a clever and by all accounts charming defender of traditional, wholesome aspects of culture he thought liberals were too quick to dismiss. But generally speaking, William F. Buckley, Jr. was no Russell Kirk, no lover of quiet agrarian traditions in which both silly “progress” and sillier war were opposed.

Kirk’s brand of agrarian conservatism, closest to that of Thomas Jefferson, has always held some promise*(see note below), but is burdened, in my view, by an over-reliance on historical norms and prejudices and a suspicion of reason and egalitarian feeling. For Kirk, liberalism is always “radical collectivism” which “detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions.” Not true, I reply. Liberalism does not forsake tradition, virtues and satisfactions, but will not be made a slave to unjust, inhumane traditions and practices. Liberals believe in the power of individual reason and a democratic government acting for the common good.

 What stands as the foundation of American conservatism as invented in National Review is an intellectual anti-intellectualism which inevitably evolved into Trumpism– mere un-intellectualism. In other words, historian Richard Hofstadter was not as mistaken about the nature of American conservatism as Perlstein suggests:

Until the 1990s, the most influential writer on the subject of the American right was Richard Hofstadter, a colleague of Trilling’s at Columbia University in the postwar years. Hofstadter was the leader of the “consensus” school of historians; the “consensus” being Americans’ supposed agreement upon moderate liberalism as the nation’s natural governing philosophy. He didn’t take the self-identified conservatives of his own time at all seriously. He called them “pseudoconservatives” and described, for instance, followers of the red-baiting Republican senator Joseph McCarthy as cranks who salved their “status anxiety” with conspiracy theories and bizarre panaceas. He named this attitude “the paranoid style in American politics” and, in an article published a month before Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat, asked, “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?”

What Hofstadter said of Goldwater can be as easily said of Donald Trump, but Trump was actually elected. Perlstein writes that the election of Ronald Reagan to the office of president twice by landslides “made a mockery of Hofstadter.” Well, hardly a mockery. The “paranoid style” of national security coupled with the fairy tale style of “trickle-down” economics remains the heart of conservative ideology and thus does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Perlstein, seems to me, is just being too polite. Or too circumspect. And to risk being impolite, as Perlstein writes future historians may have to be–Trumpism is just the dumbest form of conservatism.

*Note–Today our “conservatives” are more likely than liberals to be supporters of “factory farming” and other forms of corporate greed/government austerity that harm rural areas.

4 responses to “A Response to Rick Perlstein’s “I Thought I Understood the American Right . . .””

  1. I think you’re talking past Perlstein a bit. In his discussion of Hofstadter, when he speaks of how Hofstadter didn’t “take conservatism seriously,” he is really pointing out how Hofstadter made the dangerous error of conflating two ideas:

    -That modern, McCarthy/Buckley/Goldwater conservatism is intellectually vacuous and exemplifies the “paranoid style” – I suspect Perlstein wholeheartedly agrees with this idea

    -That modern conservatism is doomed to remain unpopular and on the fringes of public discourse, because Americans find most of its principles repellent. Unfortunately, the way things played out was not kind to Hofstadter. Perlstein’s life’s work so far has been devoted to chronicling how: the story of how a bunch of fringe political insurgents managed to worm themselves into dominant political power. Part of the story is that conservatives just lie constantly to hide their less-popular beliefs, but part of it is the uncomfortable reality that many, many average Americans came to find some parts of conservatism (tax cut jihadism, some degree of anti-abortion/pro-death-penalty policies, etc.) actually appealing.


    • Thanks, Martin. Perhaps I should have made clear that Hofstadter’s liberal optimism was justified at the time. As was Lionel Trilling’s a decade earlier. Not sure why such optimism is “dangerous,” however. It is a faith in American liberal democracy to ultimately prevail, despite the fatal attractions of a fearful, reactionary response now reflected in too many politicians and media outlets.


      • By “justified at the time” it sounds like you mean something like “it was reasonable given events at the time to believe as Hofstadter did,” or “it is normatively desirable to believe in democracy winning over authoritarian challenges”? Because I agree with both of those. A commentator in the 1950s/1960s would have an easy time believing that a liberal, internationalist, welfare-state order seemed to be very, maybe even permanently, attractive to a post-New Deal American public. That political milieu is why Goldwater was viewed at the time as such an extremist.

        But that’s not really what I mean by Hofstadter’s “error.” He erred in understanding the political strength of challenges to this order. Hofstadter figured Goldwater’s ideas were permanently unpopular political losers, bound to remain on the fringes until eventually flaming out, just as happened with previous examples of the paranoid style in the 19th century. And they were losers – but not permanently; in a three-decade project, movement conservatives managed to use racism (among other things) to fracture that post-New Deal order, take over one of the two political parties, and eventually attract enough white voters to put Reagan in the White House.

        The reason I call this error “dangerous” was that it amounted to liberals failing to understand the danger posed by their enemy. Liberal intellectuals (of whom Hofstadter was a leading light) figured that enemy was, and would continue to be, so inconsequential that it was barely even worth going to the trouble to understand their appeal or their tactics. Had they made a more serious attempt to do so at the time, they might have been able to nip conservatism’s ascendance in the bud. That ascendance, even if it doesn’t ultimately succeed in destroying American democracy, has already had a real and terrible human cost.


        • Thanks again, Martin.

          George Will, columnist, wrote on Hofstadter: “Hofstadter dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders — a “paranoid style” of politics rooted in “status anxiety,” etc. Conservatism rose on a tide of votes cast by people irritated by the liberalism of condescension.” Liberals are “elite”, etc. Not sure we can blame Hofstadter and other liberal intellectuals for irritating conservatives. Hofstadter might say that anti-intellectualism deserves to be dismissed. But I get what you’re saying.


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