Author of 'Nixonland' to Joe Biden: 'There is no sweet spot' that can 'turn off the spigot of reactionary rage'
Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States, but he appears to have remade the Republican Party in his image. Many or most Republican elected officials and other leaders remain committed to Trumpism and American fascism. Even those who may feel misgivings are terrified of Trump's 70 million-plus political cult members — some Republican elected officials have admitted to fearing that Trump's followers will kill them and their families for being disloyal.
Trump has suggested he may try to form his own political party, one that he will use to be a type of shadow president or political crime family boss who extorts the Republican Party to do his bidding. Trump's forces will also continue their war against nonwhite people and multiracial democracy. As Trump both promised and threatened in his farewell announcement to his followers, "We will be back in some form."
At Trump's encouragement, his followers launched a lethal attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Their obvious objective was to overthrow democracy, nullify the 2020 presidential election and keep Trump in power indefinitely.
While too many voices in the American news media downplayed such an imminent danger as some type of "joke" or "distraction," something that was "unimaginable" in the United States, ongoing criminal investigations and reporting have revealed that Donald Trump's coup attempt was not merely "performative" or merely "symbolic."
One of the most damning new "revelations" about Trump's plot is that he apparently considered replacing the leadership of the Department of Justice in hopes of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. Trump's cabal, under this plan, would then have pressured the Supreme Court and various state legislatures to discard Democratic votes in key battleground states. Law enforcement officials have also revealed that the Capitol attack also involved a coordinated effort by militia members with violent intentions, who may have hoped to kill or kidnap Democratic members of Congress or Vice President Mike Pence.
The Republican Party's evolution (or devolution) into an anti-democratic, white supremacist political organization has taken decades: From the 1960s and the Southern Strategy to Reagan and his "welfare queens" to Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, birtherism, the Age of Trump and beyond.
Ultimately, Donald Trump's presidency is but one more milestone on that journey. The resurgence of American fascism, in the form of the current Republican Party, the "conservative" movement and the White Right more generally, will long outlast Trump himself.
Writing at the New Republic, historian and bestselling author Rick Perlstein summarizes this:
Mere politics, however, could only deliver diminishing returns. With fewer and fewer old, white, terrified reactionaries to draw votes from, the Republicans since 1992 lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections — although, thanks to the minoritarian constitutional structures bequeathed them by their reactionary eighteenth-century forbears, they were able to squeeze three presidential terms from that increasingly meager electoral base.
This year, neither the most frantic conspiracy theories imaginable nor a fresh new outbreak of 1950s-vintage Electoral College chicanery were enough for the political wing to prevail. One of America's founding traditions, however, endures: a rump reactionary minority insisting that the nation is nonetheless theirs to rule by right. Their politicians having failed them, it should be no wonder their paramilitary wing charged into the Capitol behind a Confederate flag to finish the job.
Rick Perlstein's books include "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon," "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America" and, most recently, "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980." His essays and other writing have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The New Yorker and elsewhere.
I recently spoke with Perlstein about Joe Biden's presidency and the challenges he and the Democratic Party will face in trying to escape the ominous shadow of Donald Trump. He explained that in his view, Trump's rise to power and the American right's increasing extremism can be traced back many decades, to the 1950s if not before. Perlstein also offered President Biden some free advice: He should not concern himself with "bipartisanship" or "compromise" with a Republican opposition that will obstruct and condemn him no matter what he does.
This conversation took place before the Jan. 6 coup attack on the Capitol and Biden's inauguration. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for length and clarity.
How are you feeling given the Age of Trump and all that mayhem and pain, a pandemic and an overall surreal state of affairs? How are you making sense of this?
For all the horror of seeing one of America's two major parties descend into fascism, the fact is that I am a writer and a historian. That we are living in the middle of a time that people will probably be talking about in a hundred years is interesting and exciting to me.
COVID, for example, raises basic questions about how society organizes itself and how capitalism works. Trump's presidency forces us to revisit basic questions about our constitutional form of government and whether it works or not.
I fantasized about being a historian when I was a teenager. I was obsessed with the 1960s, a time when everything seemed so very dramatic and interesting. And here we are now, as they say, cursed to live in an in interesting time. Ultimately, I want to use my fascination with history in a productive way.
There are many political observers — the pundit class, journalists and the like — who are afraid to admit, privately or in public, that these events, even if horrible, are also exciting in a way. We are in a world-historical moment. Have you asked yourself such questions about this moment and what it represents?
When I wrote my essay about COVID and market society for In These Times, I included William James' famous essay "The Moral Equivalent of War." He was a socialist and a pacifist. In that piece, James was lamenting the fact that the only thing that really forces masses of human beings to sacrifice collectively in a way that is truly selfless is war.
In that essay, I drew upon James as a way of arguing that market society led us to our failure with COVID. I wrote that here we were presented with this opportunity to mobilize our society as if for war, and yet we had nothing in us to spur us to collective sacrifice because our society has become so selfish and so market-oriented.
As we try to make sense of American fascism and Trump and how that came to be, the mainstream news media has a large blind spot in term of grappling with emotions and politics. Trumpism and other forms of antisocial and destructive behavior are fun for the participants. That behavior makes the followers feel brave. Instead there is this obsolete focus by the mainstream news media on policies and agendas, and a ridiculous assumption that voters are "rational."
It is just that the reporting on politics in America is bad. Many journalists and reporters do not have the patience, skill, motivation and structural incentives to actually go out and talk to people in any in-depth or insightful way. The reporting is often so shallow and so cheap and so limited in terms of the questions asked. For example, being part of a mass movement is fun. Being part of history is fun. Collective struggle is fun. Being part of something that transcends the self is something that human beings long for. That is especially true in a time when there is great alienation.
Is this inability or unwillingness by the mainstream news media to get at real truths, challenging truths, caused by a lack of training in history and related fields? The superficiality of the 24/7 cable news cycle?
There is a lost intellectual tradition of understanding how demagoguery and mass movements rise to power. The generations that experienced the rise of fascism and World War II are very attuned to such questions, they know that it is not hard for an evil person to mobilize people by leveraging anger. For example, much of the popular culture from the 1950s and the 1960s, such as the film "A Face in the Crowd" or the TV series "The Twilight Zone," were about how thin the membrane is between civilization and barbarism. For many people, those memories have been lost. Those stories are not being told anymore in that same way.
If Rod Serling came back to life he'd say, "Well, of course this is happening." He had an experience with seeing the most civilized places on earth, places like Italy and Germany, descend into becoming charnel houses. How did that happen? There was a lot of critique and there was a lot of understanding of how ordinary people could lose their moral moorings very easily if the right inducements are placed in their way. That is especially true in times of economic dispossession and alienation, and when institutions are breaking down.
America needs to have truth and reconciliation commissions and other investigations to bring to light all of Trump and his regime's crimes and other misdeeds. But Biden has been insisting on "unity," on "reaching out" and "coming together." I believe that Joe Biden is a fundamentally decent human being. But can a president be too decent for a moment such as this, and just be taken advantage of by his adversaries?
Joe Biden, in many ways, is a decent man. But he obviously had some very profound moral blind spots along the way. I have written about how Biden ran for re-election [to the Senate] in 1978, and was basically a "I promise to lock them up" type of law-and-order politician.
For me, the interesting question is, what kind of blind spots can even decent people have? Specifically, what kind of awakening has Joe Biden had? What type of awakenings is Biden capable of having at this point in his life?
One thing I do like about Joe Biden is that he has enough self-knowledge and self-possession to be able to say out loud that he is part of a transitional generation of Democrats and that he sees himself handing the torch to the next generation. Biden knows that he is managing a dying regime. No one is going to be talking about the "Age of Biden."
I do not see Joe Biden escaping the shadow of Trumpism. He has the practical problem of unreasonable expectations. The news media is going to turn on Biden at some point, sooner rather than later, and default to scandal-mongering and both-sides-ism. I am deeply worried that Biden will be boxed in.
All Joe Biden can do is govern compassionately and well and let the chips fall where they may. Biden has to do what he can, using the powers at his disposal to create the types of political and social transformations that are required, for example, to stop the country and world from being drowned by global climate change over the next few decades.
Biden also needs to understand that there is no sweet spot, or some notional center that one arrives at which will somehow turn off the spigot of reactionary rage. Joe Biden is going to be seen as the warlord of a tribe of sex-trafficking demons by the right wing whether he introduces Medicare for All or not. Biden might as well actually do something that makes lives better for as many people as possible. On the margins, Biden can act hoping that he convinces enough people to vote with or become Democrats to squeeze out another Electoral College win for him or the next candidate. By doing that, Biden will create a future for the Democratic Party, a future which does not rely on merely reacting to what the Republicans do or say.
Here is one of my favorite data points about the fool's errand of trying to reach out to some type of notional center in American politics. The stimulus bill that Barack Obama signed in 2009 gave a tax cut to 95% of American families, but by the time of the 2010 midterm elections — when the Tea Party people did so well — among likely voters, by a margin of two to one, people actually believed that Obama had raised their taxes. There will be a backlash because there is just a considerable portion of Americans for whom liberals and Democrats are not legitimate governing partners.
How much distance do you believe will be necessary to get a sense of perspective on the Age of Trump?
There are different kinds of understanding. People will write brilliant stuff, which will help us put together pieces of the puzzle. I really enjoy Tim Snyder and Masha Gessen who do this kind of intellectual work in the moment. That gives their scholarship a certain urgency and truth that only that kind of closeness can tell. Other people will be arriving at structural understandings about these events with the Age of Trump, connecting events and facts and other information, and that might take 20, 30, 40, 50 or 100 years. There are so many things to put together. Why was there this right-wing authoritarian turn in so many societies all over the world? Brexit, Poland, Russia? What of Brazil? It has to be a global history.
You have written a trilogy of books on the American right wing and the country's politics from Nixon to Reagan. What is the role of critical distance in how we make sense of politics? What do you think you would have seen differently in terms of the United States, for example, if you were writing during the 1960s and 1970s?
If I were writing then, I would have been completely enraptured with the brave new world, one still waiting to be born. I probably would have been involved in these liberation movements and had no cognizance at all that being nurtured in its bosom was a force of triumphal reaction. Very few people had the insight to see that. It is very difficult to see the larger structures that determine the reality we are living in.
One of the dominant narratives of the last few years is this fixation on the "good Republicans" who are not Trumpists. In that narrative, Ronald Reagan and the two Bush presidents are put on a pedestal. In reality, Trumpism is the direct outgrowth of a long trend and a path-dependency in the Republican Party and the American right more generally that spans decades.
It is a longstanding pattern. When Barry Goldwater was around, there was this pining for the "good" conservatives of the 1940s and '50s. They would point to this guy Robert Taft, yet somehow forget that there was Joseph McCarthy who was coming up at the same time. When Watergate was happening, people were pining for Barry Goldwater as someone who had all these right-wing ideas, but at least he seemed straightforward and honest. We always seem to domesticate the reactionaries of the previous generation. I believe that to be a function of the cult of American consensus and the inability we as a people have to really wrap our minds around just how vicious the various strains of American history are.
That has not been the story we as Americans have told about ourselves. That is a very hard corner to turn and — that the history of America is full of the kinds of feral hatreds that we mostly associate with Europe. That is what was most dangerous about Ronald Reagan: He taught Americans to live a life of political denial. That was Reagan's whole appeal to the electorate. You don't have to criticize America. You can absolve it of any sins because it has no sins. Its sins are all introduced by people who are not quite American at all.
How do you reconcile the Lincoln Project's relationship with American conservatism and the Republican Party?
It is a really complicated phenomenon that ranges from cynical hustlers to earnest political and spiritual seekers. To borrow a favorite Ronald Reagan phrase, I would caution, "Distrust, but verify." There is this old saying that the left seeks heretics, and the right seeks converts. I'm perfectly willing to bring a convert to my bosom.
Why has Jimmy Carter become such a beloved figure in these last few years?
I was immediately attracted to writing in depth about Carter because he was the father of the Democratic Party's cult of austerity, the idea that the way to solve problems of economic dispossession is to cut government. I hope that people revisit Carter as the source of a colossal wrong turn in the evolution of the Democratic Party. That is my Jimmy Carter. People are hungering for public figures who present a face of decency. Whatever you say about Jimmy Carter, he oozed decency. It is not particularly surprising that people will roll up Jimmy Carter into another narrative of American innocence, that we can be governed by decent people. The danger of that temptation is that Carter pursued an agenda that was explicitly a backlash against the New Deal just as much as Reagan did.
If Joe Biden called you for advice, what would you say?
Govern compassionately and well. Do not worry about hitting some kind of notional ideological center because you will be framed as a Bolshevik enemy of truth, decency and the American way no matter what you do.
What if Biden then says "I want to heal America. I truly believe that the Republicans and Trumpists — my opposition — are basically good people".
I would say that America is a country where almost a million people killed each other in a war. So you have got to deal with that America, too.