Is This the End of the GOP as We Know It?

Historian Rick Perlstein on the rise of Trump, the fall of Reagan, and the fate of contemporary conservatism.

Rick Perlstein.
Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Jan. 26, 2016, in Marshalltown, Iowa. 

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rick Perlstein has established himself as the pre-eminent historian of modern conservatism. Starting in 2001, with Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and continuing on through Nixonland (2008) and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), Perlstein has shown how the Republican Party became more and more aligned with a powerful conservative movement, moving both the party itself—and the country—to the right.

With the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, however, there are signs of a crisis in conservatism. Donald Trump leads in the polls in every early state, the Republican establishment is panicking over the rise of both Trump and Ted Cruz, and the ability of that same establishment to control the nominating process seems tenuous at best. Perlstein and I spoke over the phone about Trump’s fascist tendencies, the history of extremism in America politics, and whether the Republican Party can ever be put back together again. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

Are you surprised that things seem to be turning up Trump?

I had a very interesting experience this summer. I remember exactly when it was. It was when I was reading an article by [Evan] Osnos in the New Yorker about Trump. He happened to be covering the white nationalist movement, basically neo-Nazis. Coincidentally, it was right when Donald Trump burst onto the scene, and he wrote about how these guys were embracing Trump, as they never had embraced any Republican candidate before. The feeling I got was that this was the first time in a very long time that I’ve read anything about the Republican Party that I couldn’t assimilate into my normal categories. That was a very uncanny and uncomfortable feeling for me. I realized that I had to go back to the drawing board and rethink what was going on. This is something that’s very new, very strange, and very hard to assimilate into what we thought we knew about how the Republican Party worked.

How has it changed your opinion of how the Republican Party works?

Well, of course, the whole of my intellectual project, which I have been working on for a good, solid 15 years now, has been the rise of a conservative infrastructure that has taken over the Republican Party and turned it into a vehicle for conservative policy. If there’s one thing that I thought I knew, it is that basically the ideas and the institutions that were born through the Goldwater movement were a backbone of this conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Donald Trump is perhaps most interesting in his lack of connections to that entire world. The first sign that something very different was happening was when he basically rejected Fox News, threw them over the side, and had no interest in kowtowing to them.

That has been amazing to behold.

By the same token, things I’ve been tracing about conservatism and the conservative takeover of the Republican Party as a backlash against the forces of liberalism—and anger at perceived liberal elites and all of the racial entailments of that—are part of the Trump phenomenon, too. So, how these things mix together and how they produce the phenomenon we’re seeing now is something that’s been very humbling for me.

Do you think the things that Trump has been exploiting have always been exploitable, or do you think that some conditions, either in the Republican Party or the country at large, have changed and made Trump possible?

That’s a good question. I think that people who base their political appeal on stirring up the latent anger of, let’s just say, for shorthand’s sake, what Richard Nixon called the “silent majority,” know that they’re riding a tiger. Whether it was Richard Nixon very explicitly, when he was charting his political comeback after the 1960 loss, rejecting the John Birch Society. Or whether it was Ronald Reagan in 1978 refusing to align himself with something called the Briggs Initiative in California, which was basically an initiative to ban gay people from teaching, at a time when gays were being attacked in the streets. Or whether it was George W. Bush saying that Islam is a religion of peace and going to a mosque the week after 9/11. These Republican leaders have always resisted the urge to go full demagogue. I think they understood that if they did so, it would have very scary consequences. There was always this boundary of responsibility, the kind of thing enforced by William F. Buckley when he was alive.

I think that Donald Trump is the first front-runner in the Republican Party to throw that kind of caution to the wind. As demagogic as so much of the conservative movement has been in the United States, and full of outrageous examples of demagoguery, there’s always been this kind of saving remnant, or fear of stirring up the full measure of anger that exists.

Do you think that was because of a core of decency, or do you think, as you’re saying, that it’s like, “Holy shit, if we let the cat out of the bag, the consequences could be really scary for us and for the country”?

I try not to, as our friend W. said about Putin, look into people’s souls.

Fair enough.

But, by the same token, for a lot of these people growing up, the experience of Europe, and World War II, and fascism, was a living memory. I think there was this kind of understanding that civilization can often be precarious. I think people knew that, and people saw that, and as ugly as some of these folks could be, whether it was Ronald Reagan going after welfare queens, or Richard Nixon calling anti-war protesters “bums,” or George W. Bush basically engineering a conspiracy to get us into a war in Iraq, there was a certain kind of disciplining, an internal disciplining. I think that anyone who plays the game of American politics at that level knows this can be a very ugly country, that a lot of anger courses barely beneath the surface.

Let me tell you a story about Barry Goldwater. One of the first big things to happen in America, after the Republican convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, in which he of course, famously said, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” was the outbreak of a very frightening race riot in Harlem, in New York. As I wrote in my first book, people who were rioting in Harlem were rioting, of course, in response to the shooting of a black young person by a white cop. Barry Goldwater kind of stuck his finger in the air and said, “This is really frightening stuff.” He actually, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, literally said, “If my supporters start exploiting these riots and start exploiting racial turmoil in the United States to get me elected, I will withdraw from the presidential campaign.”

That’s a profound contrast to someone like Donald Trump, who literally began his campaign by proposing one of the most massive ethnic cleansings in the history of mankind. I mean, can you imagine what it would mean? People talk about Bernie Sanders’ program being radical and inconceivable. Can you imagine what would happen in the act of trying to deport 12 million human beings, if people start resisting?

Even if Trump merely wins the nomination and ultimately loses in the general election, there is a concern that we will have opened up Pandora’s box. One of the nice things about our politics, compared with places in Europe, is that we don’t have these quasi-fascists making serious runs for office.

Right, and exactly how it is different is something we don’t quite understand yet. That’s where the humility is necessary. I’ve thought about Donald Trump in the context of a sociological concept called herrenvolk democracy. Herrenvolk was a word coined by a sociologist in 1967 that basically means social democracy for the favored race as a way not of expanding liberty to the entire citizenry but drawing a line between the accepted in-group and the hated out-group. There is a tradition of fascist-tending political movements being quite forthright about the favored group. That’s what’s freaking out the people in the National Review set. National Review freaked out a while back because [Trump] had been so aggressive about using eminent domain and talking about how he didn’t hold property rights so sacred. This is a fundamental conservative idea. He breaks away from conservative policy. It’s a lot like what George Wallace was doing in Alabama. Conservatives were distrustful of him because he was perfectly fine about starting social programs as long as they didn’t help black people. Or it’s a lot like what you said—the neo-fascist right in Europe, which, of course, holds no intention of unwinding the welfare state in the way an American conservative would traditionally dream of.

If Trump is defeated, do you think the Republican Party can right itself, or do you think Trump has opened up a permanent wound?

[Pauses.] Let the record show that I’m speechless. I have no easy answers for this one. What would it mean to right the ship? You have some very profound and fundamental problems. You have every senator who has ever worked with Ted Cruz turning toward Donald Trump, because they can’t stand Cruz. You have much of the infrastructure of the conservative movement explicitly saying that Donald Trump is unacceptable. That’s a pretty profound breach, especially for liberals who are so used to seeing conservatives and Republicans as united strategic geniuses. Again, I have to end on that note of humility. Where was the original contradiction? Where did this come from? Is it, you know, really just this one guy with big hair? Is this situation the result of the failure of political economy as practiced by the Democrats and the Republicans? I don’t have any good answers, and anyone who does, I think, is being glib.

Reagan still has this important role in Republican mythology, and he’s sort of the last pillar that hasn’t fallen. Could his reputation go, too?

Absolutely. The first crack in the wall was Bill O’Reilly coming out with Killing Reagan, in which he wrote quite explicitly about the question of Reagan’s fitness for office as his Alzheimer’s was advancing. That drove a lot of people in the conservative establishment berserk.

What do you make of the Bush flameout? Did it surprise you in any way? I know that now that I’ve asked this he will probably come back and win.

The Bush family is very interesting. We see a family that was kind of riding the currents of the Republican Party, wherever the center was. George H.W. Bush lost to the moderate in ’66 for Congress and then tried to run as a conservative in 1970. He was running against Lloyd Bentsen, and said something like, “The only way Lloyd Bentsen is going to get to my right is if he runs with Attila the Hun.”* So, we had this very ideologically plastic family that, you know, managed to latch onto the main chance, until now. But let’s not also forget that politics is about individuals and their own skills, and Jeb just doesn’t seem to have what it takes.

Thanks for chatting. I look forward to seeing you in a re-education camp after the Trump inauguration.

Join me in building a tunnel.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.

*Correction, Jan. 28, 2016: This article originally misspelled Lloyd Bentsen’s last name. (Return.)