Trumpism Before Trump: How a small group of reactionaries hijacked the Republican Party--decades before the 2016 election.

AuthorHeilbrunn, Jacob
PositionNicole Hemmer's "Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s"

Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s

by Nicole Hemmer

Basic Books, 341 pp.

Over the past decade, Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor at Vanderbilt and founding director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency, has been a prolific commentator about the political right. In her excellent 2017 study, Messengers of the Right, she traced the emergence after World War II of a right-wing media ecosphere, focusing on publications such as Human Events and National Review, not to mention pioneering figures like the radio broadcaster Clarence Manion. Now, in Partisans, Hemmer brings the story closer to the present, zooming in on the efforts of movement conservatives, ranging from Patrick Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh, to begin reshaping the Republican Party in their own image during the 1990s.

At the outset, Hemmer stipulates that her intent is not to illuminate the origins of Trumpism. Rather, she indicates that her aspiration is to explore why Reaganism lost its mojo in the 1990s to a radical new right. She goes on to contend that during the Clinton era the rise of white aggrievement and a newly powerful political-entertainment-industrial complex played a key role in creating an advance guard whose raison d'etre was owning the libs. Though Hemmer doesn't devote much attention to Donald Trump, her forensic examination of the populist right of the 1990s suggests that he was no aberration--and that the groundwork in the GOP had been laid for him well before the 2016 presidential campaign.

In Hemmer's view, Ronald Reagan successfully created a kind of optical illusion around the conservative movement, with his sunny optimism substituting for the hatreds that were at its core. Indeed, Reagan ended up disappointing more than a few on the right with his penchant for political compromise. The backroom operators who began mobilizing social conservatives in the 1970s--Heritage Foundation cofounder Paul Weyrich and the direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie among them--were wont to complain about insufficient zeal for the cause from the Gipper. As it happens, Reagan himself never personally attended an anti-abortion rally on the National Mall as president, preferring to address its foes remotely via loudspeaker. Nor did he turn out to be an altogether reliable anticommunist. In 1985, for example, the House Republican star Newt Gingrich gave voice to simmering anger on the right when...

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