Book Review of Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American Politics in the 1990s by Nicole Hemmer


“In the long run, history will validate Donald Trump’s position on a border wall,” wrote Patrick Buchanan, Nixon and Reagan’s former White House aide and Republican presidential candidate, in 2019. “Why? Because mass migration from the Global South… is the real existential crisis of the West. After proselytizing for the repeal of NAFTA, isolationism and the “Buchanan fence” across the Mexican border decades before Trump burst into the political arena, Buchanan urged the president to push back the “multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural” changes he had long opposed. The op-ed ended with a catchphrase of odious origins: “’America first!’ is always a winning hand.

Although Buchanan has been out of the limelight for years, his repeating Trump’s agenda has shed light on the Republican Party’s unlikely journey away from Ronald Reagan’s principles to take shape as a much larger political force. conservative and partisan.

Identifying the causes of this radical transformation has occupied political columnists for years. Almost universally, scholars point to Barry Goldwater’s founding role in the rise of modern conservatism in the 1960s. This was followed a decade later by the rise of the New Right, which radicalized the party by stoking racial grievances. and exploiting contentious social issues. As one of its leaders, Howard Phillips, explained at the time, “We organize discontent”.

In “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Reshaped American Politics in the 1990s,” Nicole Hemmer, researcher in the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University and co-founder of the Historical Analysis Section Washington Post daily, Made by History, explains an insightful contribution to this body of work by examining how a new breed of Republicans propelled the party more to the right in the 1990s, moving it away from Reagan even as they continued to pledge allegiance to the legacy of the former president.

Calling Buchanan a beacon of this movement, Hemmer tracks the party’s embrace of his views and emulation of his pugilist style despite Buchanan’s exile from the GOP after his shocking 1992 presidential election.

As Buchanan’s stridency replaced the country club mores of the GOP, the brash demeanor and combative approach of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich polarized Washington in the 1990s. always been a combat sport, the two sides had regularly collaborated, limiting their biggest confrontations to genuine and consequential disputes throughout the Cold War. Hemmer ably recounts the pitched battles between Gingrich and President Bill Clinton, culminating in Clinton’s impeachment, which shattered that status quo and led Republicans to demonize Democrats, which made coexistence with the opposition, let alone cooperation, repugnant. Gingrich’s “perpetual state of war” and “constant revolution” also purged the GOP of moderates and diverted its attention from government to a fixation on obstructionism highlighted by multiple government shutdowns, a playbook followed by Congressional Republicans since 2009.

A new generation of right-wing media pundits has encouraged these tactics. As Hemmer points out, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, Dinesh D’Souza and lesser-known imitators chastised Republicans for making deals within a constitutional framework designed for compromise. No matter how intractable or mean-spirited they seemed, their ability to provoke outrage and provide political entertainment skyrocketed their popularity on radio and cable television: Limbaugh, the most prominent of the group, became the kingmaker of the party.

Given Hemmer’s description of the evolution of the GOP, it’s no surprise that in 2020 there were only remnants of Reagan’s legacy. Republicans have maintained conservative stances on religious freedom, gay rights and other social issues, and espoused a strong military and lower taxes while lip service to smaller government and restrictions budgets.

The adamant positions on other burning issues, however, bore little resemblance to Reagan’s. His drive to raise taxes, support modest gun control measures and grant amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants would have made him anathema among current Republicans.

Equally significant, the party’s populist rhetoric and isolationism has turned its back on free markets and globalization, concepts it once expressed in godlike terms.

From a stylistic point of view, the differences were more marked. Reagan, the “Great Communicator”, radiated optimism as he espoused America’s virtues as a “shining city on a hill”. Dark, resentful and boiling with rage, the conservative firebrands, meanwhile, approach politics with apocalyptic fervor. “There is a religious war going on in this country,” Buchanan said at the 1992 GOP convention, for example. “It’s a culture war…for the soul of America.”

No one personified this dramatic change in temperament better than Trump. He gleefully belittled his opponents with pejorative nicknames, mocked revered public officials such as John McCain, and made sexist, racist and xenophobic slurs. When protesters clashed with his supporters, his campaign rallies carried the vibe of professional wrestling events. In one instance, Trump urged the public to “fuck him.” Despite hand twists from party leaders like Paul Ryan, Trump’s dominance became evident at the 2016 Republican convention when delegates – mimicking more rowdy crowds at his rallies – chanted “lock her up” in repeated calls to imprison Hillary Clinton.

While Hemmer and others—Dana Milbank’s “The Destructionists” come to mind—have explored in depth the roots of GOP metamorphosis over the past 60 years, the failure of Democrats to effectively challenge this form of conservatism has received less attention. When Democrats moved to the right under Bill Clinton, they allowed Republicans to set the agenda and, with a few exceptions like the Affordable Care Act, spent most of their energy trying to preserving the liberal achievements of the Great Society rather than offering compelling alternatives. Their focus on national elections has also ceded control of state governments to the GOP, allowing Republicans to enact increasingly extreme abortion and gun control legislation over the past three decades.

The more pressing question is why the GOP base has been so willing to tolerate if not condone crass behavior, racist overtones, political violence and authoritarian threats to democracy, even in the wake of the onslaught of the January 6, 2021 against the Capitol and the removal of Trump. -claimed stolen election demands. This collective mindset has given him cult status: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose a voter,” he boasted in 2016. It’s incredible.”

Political observers have offered economic insecurity, racism, xenophobia, globalization, gerrymandering, disinformation, siled media consumption, social media, and authoritarian tendencies as a list of credible but frightening explanations. For anyone studying the rise of right-wing extremism, the next step is to move beyond these diagnoses to find a cure.

Michael Bobelian teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of “Battle for the Marble Palace: Abe Fortas, Earl Warren, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and the Creation of the Modern Supreme Court.”

The conservative revolutionaries who reshaped American politics in the 1990s


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