Author and historian Rick Perlstein is a seismologist of the chaotic American political landscape. His four volumes on the rise of modern conservatism have traced our cultural fault lines from the failed Republican presidential bid of Barry Goldwater in the 1960s to the success of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Over the past two decades the fifty-two-year-old has become a prominent chronicler of America’s rightward shift, charting the tectonic movements beneath the surface to show how today’s political divisions are the unmistakable aftershocks of earthquakes long ago.
Raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a Reform Jewish family, Perlstein became obsessed with the sixties while sifting through old magazines in the basement of that city’s Renaissance Books. After receiving his history degree from the University of Chicago, he pursued graduate work at the University of Michigan, receiving an MA in American Studies. His breakthrough 1996 Lingua Franca essay “Who Owns the Sixties?” helped him get an agent and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2001 Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus won rare raves from both conservative pundits and the progressive cognoscenti. The Los Angeles Times awarded him its Book Prize in History, and neoconservative commentator William Kristol hailed it as “an amazing story,” done justice by a “man of the Left.”
Perlstein’s most recent tome, 2020’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980, covers the formation, more than forty years ago, of a new Right, as the nation cast aside the social-welfare strategies of the New Deal for an extreme (and often self-defeating) individualism. The book ends with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, the former actor and onetime General Electric pitchman. It’s only 1980 at that point, but you can already see the formation of a paranoid new worldview — one astonishingly cynical about the promise of government and eager to accept myths about America. We are still living with the results.
Over a lengthy video call from his Chicago home and subsequent follow-ups, the bearded and bespectacled Perlstein applied his sense of historical rigor to the concerns of the present: the long shadow of Trumpism, the shaky guardrails of American democracy, and the massive iceberg we might not see coming.
Weiss: What does conservatism mean today?
Perlstein: Conservatism is a political movement designed to uphold hierarchies and authority. That is a goal that contains lots of paradoxes and challenges, because hierarchy and authority are always being transformed. In the face of progressive efforts to expand citizenship and humanity to new groups and the push for equality, a conservative is someone who — to quote [conservative columnist] William F. Buckley in his mission statement for his new magazine, National Review, in 1955 — “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” But history doesn’t stop, and trying to make it stop produces all kinds of ironies.
Throughout history people who identify as conservatives have believed many often contradictory things. In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan was opposed to private education and supported public schools, because many private schools were Catholic schools, and they were afraid the Catholics were going to take over the nation. Now the Catholic Church — or, at least, its leadership — is a crucial component of the American conservative coalition. In the late nineteenth century the chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismarck, was a conservative imperialist who invented government health and unemployment insurance because he wanted to win the loyalty of the working class from the socialists and gain support for his project of colonizing Africa.
Conservatives quite often occupy the lower strata of the elite, who believe the higher strata of the elite are feckless. They have some qualities in common with the revolutionaries on the Left, in that they’re often wreckers of settled norms.
American conservatism is upholding hierarchy and authority and fighting against movements of liberation, the taproot of which is the New Deal: the Depression-era social programs that established the modern American state as a referee that aims to make society freer and fairer. By the 1950s the New Deal was a settled norm in American politics, so you would think that most conservatives would be like Republican president Dwight Eisenhower, who decided to stick with the New Deal. But self-identified conservatives said Eisenhower was selling out. Eisenhower held them in contempt, because he saw them as a disruptive force. In modern times the American conservative tradition has been in favor of small government, but also of expanding certain aspects of government — for example, law enforcement. In contrast to liberalism, which has pluralism as a core value — meaning it respects different ways of life, including conservative ones — conservatism maintains a vision of an ideal society in which workers obey bosses and children accept their parents’ values (unless their parents are liberal). And it reviles ways of life that stray from that — like “nontraditional” families, for instance.
Weiss: How has the definition of a conservative changed over the last forty years?
Perlstein: In the 1980s Ronald Reagan introduced something new into American conservatism: a note of optimism. Conservatism, at least on the rhetorical level, had generally had a gloomy air and stoked fears about society slipping out of control. Reagan’s great gift to conservatism was to turn it into something that had dynamism, energy, youthfulness, brightness.
Obviously Donald Trump’s temperament is quite the opposite of that. In a sense Trump returned the Republican Party to a pre-Reagan style of conservatism, but while upholding a lot of Reagan’s key agendas. The one big bill he managed to pass was a huge tax cut. He outsourced a lot of his administrative work to legacy conservative groups like the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, who provided him with lists of people they wanted him to appoint as federal judges. But when Trump first emerged on the scene, he talked about fighting back against neoliberal global elites and building infrastructure and upholding Social Security and so on. A lot of people, including myself, kind of presumed he was going to represent a more European conservative tradition, which isn’t opposed to social programs; it just wants them to be for the native white majority only. European conservatives don’t go around saying, “We’re going to take away your two-month paid vacations, your labor protections.” Trump seemed to be opening up the possibility of that here. Had he actually delivered, he would have been a much more frightening figure, because he might have been able to assemble a majority coalition. As it turned out, his policy agenda pretty much rhymed with Reagan’s.
Weiss: Before Reagan ascended to the presidency, the majority of Americans weren’t necessarily opposed to letting their taxes go toward providing jobs. How was Reagan able to bend popular opinion?
Perlstein: He didn’t necessarily change American public opinion on the role of government. During his presidency the majority of Americans were still saying that taxes were pretty much where they should be and that they supported many government programs. Conservatism is often successful when it obscures questions like “How do we administer the government? What kind of redistribution of resources should the government achieve?” and instead focuses its public presentation on cultural issues. For instance, when American industrial jobs were threatened by foreign competition, Reagan quietly adopted the kind of protectionist measures favored by liberals in order to prop up job numbers — with no interruption in his rhetoric about upholding free markets. He justified his actions by claiming that foreign nations were breaking the rules and being “unfair” to Americans. Even when he won forty-nine states and 58.8 percent of the vote in 1984, people were not begging the government to deconstruct itself, but they did like the fact that Reagan was making America feel good again.
The way conservative political operatives talk among themselves often doesn’t match the public presentation. A perfect example was when George W. Bush won reelection in 2004 and said he had a mandate to turn Social Security over to the stock market. He hadn’t talked about it during the campaign.
Take unions. A majority of Americans say they have a positive view of unions. When they vote for Republicans, as lots of union members do, they’re not voting that way because they want to disempower unions. They believe they’re voting to disempower the “freeloaders” — a category that’s obviously inseparable, in the American context, from race. This is where the ugliness of the American conservative tradition comes in.
Weiss: Did Obama lead to Trump the way Carter is thought to have led to Reagan? Do you think these cycles are inevitable in American life?
Perlstein: I’m not a big fan of cyclical theories of history. We’re not captive to supernatural forces, whether it’s divine intervention or some idea of cycles. But progress does beget a reaction. A hidden storyline in all four of my books is the glib hubris of liberals who believe that progress is inevitable. It’s often exactly when some reform is about to be shoved across the finish line that there is a popular backlash. Under Reagan it was a backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment and gay rights. Under Trump it ranged from issues like trans rights to the kind of racial reconciliation a lot of liberals thought the presidency of Barack Obama would usher in.
Weiss: Do you agree with abolitionist minister Theodore Parker that the “arc of the moral universe” bends toward justice?
Perlstein: Oddly enough, I do. Martin Luther King’s version of that quote begins, “The arc of the moral universe is long.” For hundreds of years, even thousands of years, many people were basically property. The first time a man in the U.S. was indicted for raping his wife was, I believe, in 1978, and he was acquitted. When credit cards were invented, women weren’t allowed to get one in their own name; they could only use their husband’s name, which made them, in a sense, property of their husbands.
A lot has gotten better since then. So the moral arc of the universe does bend toward justice, but you have to keep in mind that, on the way to the present, we had two World Wars in which almost 100 million people around the world were slaughtered, and before that a Civil War in this country, where nearly a million Americans slaughtered each other. So you can’t be glib about it. The basic story line of history, I think, is a battle between the advance of dignity and justice for all and the reaction against that. Calling people “progressive” and “reactionary” wouldn’t make sense unless history had this rough direction to it.
American conservatism is upholding hierarchy and authority and fighting against movements of liberation, the taproot of which is the New Deal: the Depression-era social programs that established the modern American state as a referee that aims to make society freer and fairer.
Weiss: Joe Biden is a political chameleon in a lot of ways, so it’s difficult to predict where his presidency will go. What rumblings do you see right now that might play out in the coming years?
Perlstein: Let’s look at Biden in the context of this question about the arc of the moral universe. He makes several cameos in my book Reaganland and was basically the point of the spear as the Democrats reversed their New Deal legacy. He ran for reelection in 1978 by bragging that he was the most “frugal” senator, and he came up with rhetoric that gave other Democrats cover to vote against school-integration laws. On the other hand, he remembers a time before the Democrats turned to austerity. Every Democratic president since Jimmy Carter has upheld the idea that, as Carter put it, “Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy.” Bill Clinton, in his third State of the Union Address, said that the “era of big government is over.” Joe Biden was a pioneer of that idea, but he now understands that its time has passed. We’re seeing an earlier sort of Democratic agenda reemerge. There’s something very 1950s about Biden having meetings with labor representatives and business representatives, talking about how they’re going to harness the power of regulated capitalism to solve environmental problems while creating jobs.
Often in American history — in fact, pretty much universally in American history — the times in which we have expanded the scope of government to new categories of justice and dignity have followed crises or traumas. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments followed the Civil War. The New Deal came out of the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson was able to expand the New Deal on the heels of the trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Johnson gave a speech in a joint session of Congress and said, “Let us continue” — meaning continue Kennedy’s feints toward full civil rights for African Americans and an antipoverty program that wasn’t even fully conceived at the time he died.
Now we’re coming off another period of crisis and trauma in the form of COVID, and Biden is doing what Franklin Roosevelt did. He says he has a mandate to make people’s lives freer and fairer. This is in powerful contrast to Obama, who described Republicans’ refusal to cooperate with any of his agenda as a “fever” that would break if they lost the 2012 election. He insisted that, if he won reelection, we could begin to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency. He did win, but the Republicans did not become less recalcitrant. Biden, conversely, does not let achieving his goals depend on anything Republicans in Congress do or say. He has simply gone ahead and claimed as his mandate the fact that a majority of Americans, including a great many of Republicans, support what he wants to do. That’s where he locates his mandate, not on the achievement of bipartisanism under the Capitol dome.
Weiss: Many of the people you write about in Reaganland are still around, or their legacies are: the DeVoses, the Falwells, Orrin Hatch, Dick Cheney, Roger Stone. Who do you see as the new power brokers for conservatives?
Perlstein: Clearly that’s Donald J. Trump. He made his debut in public life by getting sued by the Justice Department for being part of a racist scheme to keep African Americans out of the apartments his father owned in Brooklyn and Queens. By the mid-1970s he’d crossed over into Manhattan and pioneered the idea of taking advantage of tax abatements for development in Midtown. The powers that be in New York City shoved him boatloads of public money to develop a luxury hotel near Madison Square Garden because when the 1976 Democratic National Convention was held there, the neighborhood looked like a scene out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Trump became president by being a public expression of this reactionary politics we see in the dystopian New York City movies of the 1970s: Death Wish, Taxi Driver. It’s the idea that New York is an open sewer only cold steel can redeem. That’s the way he sees the world. That’s the “American carnage” he spoke of in his inaugural address. The Republican Party has been so deranged by his leadership that they seem to be purging every party member who opposed it, from Mitt Romney to Liz Cheney.
Trump returned the Republican Party to a pre-Reagan style of conservatism, but while upholding a lot of Reagan’s key agendas. The one big bill he managed to pass was a huge tax cut.
Weiss: What about folks outside of elected office? The Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Art Pope — these individuals spent a lot of money fighting the Left in the Obama years. Does money equal power in 2021?
Perlstein: The Koch brothers despised Trump. Adelson initially backed Ted Cruz in the primaries. It turned out they were not the power brokers who determined the Republican nomination, no matter how much they spent on non-Trump candidates. Money is a necessary condition for political power, and it’s not insignificant that Trump has a lot of it. He has a proven ability to separate his followers from their money, by means both fair and foul. But wealth isn’t sufficient on its own.
Weiss: How long do you think Trump’s reign can sustain itself?
Perlstein: By one way of looking at it, it’s not a reign unless Republicans can gain some kind of operational control over our government. You have to remember that from the election of Franklin Roosevelt until the congressional elections of 1994, the country was pretty much governed by New Deal principles, because even under Republican presidents, the legislature was almost always controlled by Democrats. Until Reagan’s election, there were only two years when Republicans had control of either house of Congress. In the sixties and seventies Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Congress two to one.
What we might be looking at now is a period of opposition, where Republicans are a minority party and spend time in the wilderness. That was the norm for most of the twentieth century. But the media’s insistence that legislation is legitimate only if it has the support of both parties makes this period seem strange and dangerous. It also seems strange and dangerous because the reactionary traditions of violent insurrection have reared their ugly head for the first time since the run-up to the Civil War. Ever since the founding of the modern American state, with the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the slave-owning states believed they had the right to rule the country as a whole. They did so using legal and parliamentary means when they could, and violence and extraparliamentary means when they couldn’t. In a lot of ways the start of the Civil War at Fort Sumter in 1861 found its modern parallel on January 6, 2021.
Weiss: In many respects, parts of the South are still fighting the Civil War.
Perlstein: The Right now says the greatest danger to the country is critical race theory, which is basically America’s reckoning with its original sin of slavery. The Right has devised all kinds of rhetorical and political strategies to prevent that reckoning. Since the era of Richard Nixon, conservatives have learned never to speak of race explicitly, but instead with code phrases like “real Americans.” Or they claim people on the Left are the “real racists” because they demand affirmative action, which supposedly works to calcify racial division.
Reagan was very effective at this. He basically said America is fundamentally good and just, and we’ve solved all those racial problems. This was his gift to white America: permission to not reckon with reality. Conservatives are desperate to repeat that success Reagan had at absolving this country of its sins.
Weiss: Can there be an American conservatism without white identity politics and racism?
Perlstein: Anything is possible, but the experience of slavery and its racist aftermath has defined the history of American social movements, and I can’t name a time when the reaction against those movements wasn’t at the center of American conservatism.
It’s important to understand the history of “whiteness.” Black thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin were among the first to point out that whiteness is a concept invented by people of European ancestry in order to justify the enslavement and repression of people of African ancestry. Later scholars have explored how contingent white identity has been. Almost every ethnic group except African Americans has been afforded a shot at attaining this exalted identity of “whiteness,” but only by proving their willingness to ostracize Blacks. Historian Noel Ignatiev wrote about this in How the Irish Became White. And while there’s no shame in celebrating one’s Irish ancestry, for example, in light of this history there is really no moral place to stand if one wishes to claim pride in whiteness.
Weiss: The Right also claims to be at war with “cancel culture.” Do you think that’s a real phenomenon or just a political talking point?
Perlstein: I think it’s an old strategy to fight the expansion of freedom and dignity to new populations, which is always messy and sometimes stupid, but that’s the way change happens. And the culture is changing. I could show you an article from the 1980s in which Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales complains how you can’t even make fun of homosexuals anymore. The wider the aperture of your historical lens, the less exciting these controversies get.
Weiss: What roles will younger conservatives like Josh Hawley, Charlie Kirk, or Ben Shapiro play in shaping intellectual conservatism going forward?
Perlstein: In the past conservatives who saw themselves as intellectuals were desperate to be taken seriously by the establishment. William F. Buckley was the paragon of this. He had liberal friends and worked very hard to be invited to all the right parties in Manhattan. The last vestige of that politics of respectability evaporated when Donald Trump became the figurehead of the Republican Party. Unlike Buckley’s generation, younger conservatives like Ben Shapiro don’t care whether they have the respect of liberals. They’re the photo-negative version of a world of liberal tolerance. I think Shapiro is quite well-informed, but he uses his knowledge to bamboozle instead of illuminate. Shapiro’s parents were conservative. People who become conservative activists and rhetorical leaders, like Ann Coulter or Grover Norquist, often have fathers who are lobbyists or conservative businesspeople. They’re defending their family’s values on the battlefield of political rhetoric.
Weiss: Are there any younger conservative intellectuals you respect?
Perlstein: No. I think it’s interesting that liberals scour the horizon for conservative thinkers to respect. Why does it matter?
Weiss: Changing the topic a bit: as president, Jimmy Carter tried to do away with the electoral college and make voting easier, and Republicans basically reacted the way they have today — by stoking fear of voter fraud. Why do you think the GOP is still so opposed to expanding voting rights?
Perlstein: One of the paradoxes of conservatism is that it uses the shell of liberal Enlightenment values, like democracy, in order to denude actual democracy. Since the Reconstruction period in the South, which a lot of this hearkens back to, conservatives have talked of preserving the “integrity” of the vote. The argument in 1866 was that Blacks in Mississippi couldn’t possibly be exercising independent judgment when they voted. In 1966 it was that African Americans in Chicago couldn’t possibly be exercising independent judgment; they must be casting their votes in order to curry favor with the Chicago political machine. In 2021 African Americans in Georgia couldn’t possibly be exercising their independent judgment; they’re guilty of some sort of imagined chicanery.
The bottom line is that reactionaries regard the world as theirs to rule. Since the arc of the moral universe does bend toward justice and the official ideologies of modern civilization are rooted in the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of the law, conservatives have to find these clever ways to square circles, outwardly promoting democracy while making sure the right people win. And we all know who the right people are.
Weiss: In Reaganland you write, about Reagan’s election, “The country was missing seven-eighths of the iceberg.”
Perlstein: In the 2016 election we got only one-eighth of the iceberg, because of what was going on in targeted ads on Facebook and algorithms that foregrounded extremist content on all the social-media platforms and on YouTube.
Weiss: What’s underwater now that we’re not seeing?
Perlstein: Wouldn’t we like to know? Someone’s trying to figure this out, whether it’s in Moscow or Falls Church, Virginia. Someone is trying to figure out how to weaponize the darkest impulses of the human animal to uphold hierarchical authority. Before the Internet there was direct mail — basically sending people form letters. A man named Richard Viguerie became the master of this in the 1970s. Viguerie said direct mail was like a water moccasin: silent but deadly. Suddenly, in 1978, the liberal Democratic establishment was gobsmacked that reactionary candidates were having all these surprise victories in primaries — and even general elections. It was because this guy Viguerie had found the skeleton key: he had a list of millions of Americans who’d started giving donations to Barry Goldwater in 1964. The 2016 version of that was targeted Facebook ads.
A lot of political history is the hidden part of the iceberg. It’s fascinating to dig up the memos conservatives have used to communicate with each other. For example, there was this group called the Discovery Institute, and they had a secret strategy for how to get the public to question the theory of evolution. They called it the “wedge strategy.” The Cato Institute had a strategy called the “Leninist strategy” to get people to question Social Security.
The Right is always throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. One of my formative moments as a journalist was covering the recall campaign in California in 2003, which at first was seen as a joke. But it turned out that the Right had found a couple of hot buttons to push in the electorate. The Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis, was talking about letting undocumented immigrants get driver’s licenses. The logic was that if you don’t have a driver’s license, you don’t drive safely; you drive fifty miles per hour when everyone else is driving sixty-five. In the hands of talk radio and right-wing operatives, this became Davis’s secret plan to allow “illegals” to vote. And, lo and behold, the recall campaign started getting some momentum, and Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to declare himself a Republican candidate. He was able to ride that wave to the overturning of a democratic election. Sound familiar? Until the iceberg burst to the surface, the power they were tapping was invisible to the mainstream media. That’s a pattern we see over and over again in the history of conservative politics.
Weiss: What do you think it says about conservatives that three of their most formative figures of the last forty years were celebrities: Schwarzenegger, Reagan, and Trump?
Perlstein: The parallel between Reagan and Trump is stunning because they both were basically the stars of reality shows.
Weiss: General Electric Theater in the 1950s might as well have been The Apprentice.
Perlstein: And the character that Ronald Reagan played, scripted by sophisticated Hollywood writers, was basically the suburban dad in his state-of-the-art house, protecting his family with the marvels of modern technology. The character that Donald Trump played was the omnicompetent CEO, by whom even the most powerful celebrities were cowed. Of course we now know, from people who worked on The Apprentice, that what we saw was complete fiction. They had a terrible time every week coming up with enough scraps of useful footage to turn him into the character that had been written.
Weiss: A fundamental factor that led to Reagan becoming president was the combination of high inflation and high unemployment during the Carter presidency.
Perlstein: That was a onetime blip, and it haunted the Democratic elites, who abandoned this wonderful formula they had: using regulated capitalism to solve problems and put money in workers’ pockets. The Republicans used to complain that they couldn’t win elections because “no one shoots Santa Claus.” What they meant was that Democrats used the public treasury to help ordinary Americans by, for example, building massive dams that provided jobs, cheap power, and wonderful lakes for recreation. But in the economic traumas of the late 1970s, the old ways of doing things didn’t seem to work anymore, so Jimmy Carter had to shoot Santa Claus. Carter’s mantra was that Americans needed to sacrifice in order to rescue the country from economic perdition. That was a big reason Reagan won.
Weiss: Where do you see Reagan’s legacy most dramatically in the country today?
Perlstein: I don’t think people are particularly excited by Reagan these days. I think once conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly wrote a book arguing that Reagan was senile in his second term, Republican reverence for Reagan began to fade.
The experience of slavery and its racist aftermath has defined the history of American social movements, and I can’t name a time when the reaction against those movements wasn’t at the center of American conservatism.
Weiss: Where is the GOP headed? Is it going to double down on Trumpism?
Perlstein: Earlier I raised the specter of guns and violence, which we can’t rule out, but just at the level of banal politics, I expect to see the same thing we saw in the fifties, sixties, and seventies: an opposition party that represents a minority of the country but remains sturdy. We’ll have one party — the Democrats — that believes in the government doing things like putting vaccines into people’s arms and building highways and paying people to take care of the elderly, and we’ll have another party that’s opposed to all that. Maybe there’ll be some sort of opening for Republicans to regain power. In 2001 it was a terrorist attack that basically lowered all Americans several levels on [psychologist Abraham] Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so that voters were in the market for a sheriff to protect them from the dark Other. Until something like that happens, Biden has returned to a policy formula that has worked very well in terms of increasing prosperity and winning elections: taxing the rich to deliver more opportunities to the middle class — if only a few Democratic outliers in the Senate, like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, will let him do it.
Weiss: In Reaganland you write about corporate leaders who lobbied for their own interests in the 1980s. It feels like we saw a radical shift away from that this year as corporations denounced Republican attempts to suppress the vote in Georgia.
Perlstein: American capitalism has always had a seam down the middle of it. On one side are big brands and publicly traded multinational companies, which have to worry about their public image, and companies that have always trended liberal because of their partnerships with labor and the government. On the other side is the more reactionary capitalism, in which most companies are locally based and owned by families who present themselves as aristocrats in their towns. In Milwaukee, where I grew up, it was the Bradley family. In Los Angeles it was the Chandler family. The reactionary capitalists have always had this apocalyptic sense that capitalism is one left turn of the screw away from collapsing. So you see the big national companies like Coca-Cola casting their lot with cosmopolitan, small-d democracy, and the smaller, more reactionary elements — the core of the modern Republican Party — fighting them as if this were an existential battle for the survival of everything that’s good, decent, and true.
Weiss: Do you see Georgia’s voter-suppression laws as the start of a trend — what people call “Jim Crow voting rights”?
Perlstein: It does seem to be the leading edge of the Republican strategy. The party is doing nothing else of any consequence. They’re not serious about creating a majority coalition. If a coalition of African Americans and liberal whites can achieve a 51 percent majority in state after state, then we’re looking at a real transformation. The way American politics is set up, the party that gets the minority of the vote doesn’t get any power. You don’t get 49 percent of the power if you get 49 percent of the vote; you get zero percent of the power. Once that 51 percent threshold is crossed in a place like Texas, then we’re talking about a completely new paradigm in American politics. If Democrats are consistently able to win statewide elections in places like Texas and Georgia, conservatives may be shut out of power, much as nonwhites have been largely shut out of power for generations. Republicans have two choices: make their party welcoming to nonwhite voters, or, as is already happening, rig democracy to make it impossible for Democrats to win states like Texas and Georgia.
Weiss: The percentage of Americans who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown significantly in recent years. What does this increase in secularism mean for the next decade of conservatism?
Perlstein: I’m uncomfortable with predictions. People said the same thing about secularism in the 1970s, right before the explosion of Christian fundamentalism. If there’s one beef I have with pundits, it’s that they pretend they can know the future. If I had predicted in 1975, after Watergate, that in five years the Republican Party would be back to the pink of health thanks to the one guy who didn’t think Watergate was important, people would have looked at me like I was crazy. But that’s what Ronald Reagan did.
Weiss: Do you see the Republicans ever winning the popular vote in a presidential election again?
Perlstein: Only if they either come up with a figure of transcendent genius and charisma, a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Ronald Reagan, or they actually act like they want to win a majority. Nothing they’re doing seems like a realistic strategy so far.
Weiss: A lot of homegrown terrorist attacks came from the Left in the seventies. Now they are obviously coming from the Right. I hate to keep asking you to put on your Nostradamus hat, but do you see that becoming more of an election issue in the next decade as the Right is predicted to become a minority?
Perlstein: It only becomes an election issue if the Democrats make it one. Democrats need to seize on the reality that the Republican Party is indifferent to public order and constitutional strictures. No one wants to be governed by a party that doesn’t care about safety and the rule of law.
Weiss: In 1968 antiwar protests led to Nixon and a rightward shift in the country. Do you see any long-term political ramifications from the 2020 racial-justice protests?
Perlstein: I think the ramifications are pretty much baked in. Change is hard; change creates a reaction; change creates tension. Luckily we have a team in the White House that does seem to take a long view and isn’t spooked into knee-jerk responses. Joe Biden has got a long memory. He remembers the horrifying consequences of some of his own actions in response to the upsurge of crime in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Weiss: Many on the Left, and even some more moderate conservatives, are confused by the level of delusion in the GOP today. Some of this can be traced to the outrage-for-profit models of social media and sensationalistic journalism. But this acceptance of what is clearly not true can feel more like the behavior of a cult. What are your thoughts?
Perlstein: This is a sobering question to address. I don’t know whether it offers comfort or occasion for more fear, but American reactionary movements have exhibited cultlike denial of truth in the past. As I mentioned, in the 1920s the KKK believed that American Catholics were secretly conspiring with the pope to take over the U.S. Joseph McCarthy achieved a reign of terror in the 1950s based on the patently false notion that the Soviet Union had infiltrated the American government. So the fact that the “big lie” — the claim that Donald Trump had the election stolen from him — is believed by, according to some pollsters, as many as two-thirds of Republicans may be a crisis, but it’s not a new phenomenon. We can’t just pretend this isn’t happening. I think the only way through is an unflinching insistence that, past a certain point, a party that rejects the basic norms of democracy cannot legitimately govern in a democracy.