Rick Perlstein, one of the most astute observers of modern conservatism, admits he’s completely baffled by the rise of Donald Trump.
The historian and author told Slate that the immediate embrace of Trump by the white nationalist movement upended almost everything he’d learned about the Republican Party and conservatism in nearly two decades of close study.
“It was right when Donald Trump burst onto the scene, and (Evan Osnos) wrote (in The New Yorker) about how these guys were embracing Trump, as they never had embraced any Republican candidate before,” Perlstein said. “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.”
Perlstein told Slate the Republican Party has become more conservative in recent decades as a backlash against liberalism, but he said the anger toward perceived elites and racial entitlements that has fueled the shift has spiraled beyond party leaders’ control — and he pointed out that Trump has repeatedly tangled with Fox News.
“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,” Perlstein said.
But he said Nixon rejected the right-wing John Birch Society, just as Ronald Reagan rejected the anti-LGBT Briggs Initiative and George W. Bush rejected attacks against Muslims in the U.S.
Perlstein told Slate those political figures resisted the urge to “go full demagogue” because they understood that doing so carried “very scary consequences.”
“I think that Donald Trump is the first front-runner in the Republican Party to throw that kind of caution to the wind,” he said.
Perlstein said those restraints had loosened as fewer people remain with a living memory of European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.
“I think there was this kind of understanding that civilization can often be precarious,” he said. “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,” Perlstein added.