In addition to the ever growing multitude of Trump-related books, there is increasing interest in how we got to this terrible place in out history. One excellent early effort at this was Steve Kornacki's, The Red and the Blue: The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism (Harper Collins, 2018). Now, Nicole Hemmer an American historian and an associate research scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History project at Columbia University has given us Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (Basic Books, 2022). Hemmer specializes in the history of conservative media in the United States from the 1940s to the present, and the role of right-wing media in American electoral politics and was previously author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative media and the transformation of American politics (2016).
Despite having elected a democratic President for eight of the decade's years, the 90s are remembered as a rather conservative era, a continuation in many ways of the lamentable "Regan Revolution" of the 1980s. Except, of course, the Cold War was over. and in that singular fact of history, Hemmer finds a key to the unraveling of Reaganism and the emergence of the revolutionary conservatism that remade American politics in the 1990s, the full fruits of which we are forcibly digesting now.
For Hemmer, "unpacking the puzzle" of the 1990s requires "making sense of two things: Reagan’s transformative effect on the conservative movement in the 1980s and the quick dissipation of the conditions that made the Reagan era possible" (p.9). Hemmer traces the unique story of Ronald Reagan's evolution form Liberal New Deal Democrat to Goldwater conservative and how he gave the Right a happy, optimistic face, "a conservatism that was optimistic and popular, two things the American right had not been for most of the twentieth century." With Regan gone, however, "in the 1990s, the sunny optimism of the Reagan era fell away, and grievance politics took over. Conservatives were in power, and they were furious" (pp. 17-18).
It turns out the key component keeping the disparate conservative coalition together had been the cold war. Once its restraints were lifted, the lid blew off the conservative coalition, so to speak, which reminds me in a sense of what happened (much more violently) in Yugoslavia after Communism.
In fact, for many on the extreme Right, Reagan had always been a bit of a disappointment. With the unifying force of the Cold War out of the way, right-wing dissatisfaction could freely be expressed - not against the popular Regan but against his successor, George Bush, whom right-wing firebrand Pat Buchanan campaigned against as "King George." Others played important parts in the story - Rush Limbaugh on Republican radio, newt Gingrich in Congress, Ross Perot the populist presidential candidate. But Pat Buchanan topped the chart as a herald of change - a man who had dutifully served Reagan but who was an anti-immigration, anti-free trade, neo-isolationist, over-the-top grievance politician.
Another important factor about the 1990s was the new media landscape. "Buchanan’s arrival on television came just as a major transformation was happening in television journalism (p.79)." Starting in the 1970s already, "suddenly there was space for political commentary that was openly, proudly biased, giving conservatives a platform for punditry that spoke not just to other conservatives but to the entire country." And it "had the added effect of introducing an element of entertainment into political coverage." After decades of radio and television journalism that drew its credibility from the host's "neutral tone and professed objectivity," this represented "a jolt to the system." (pp. 79-80).
The 90s ended, as we well remember with the bizarre episode of the Clinton impeachment. The Republicans lost, of course, "but many elected officials in the GOP understood that it was never just about removing Clinton from office. With a white-hot base and a quickly expanding conservative media ready to call out any sign of moderation or compromise, broadly unpopular policies and political maneuvers were becoming key to retaining office" (p. 255).
Hemmer carries the story forward into the administration of George W. Bush, whom she labels, "the last Reaganite," who in many ways - and certainly way more than his father - embodied Reagan's agenda. "The younger Bush also seemed to embody a kind of optimism in his rhetoric that cut against the culture-wars pessimism of the 1990s" (p. 257). At first, "few partisans sought to draw a bright line between themselves and the president. The centripetal force of the disputed election and the War on Terror kept them tightly bound. But by the second term, they were ready to break free, aligning with congressional Republicans and the party’s base while rejecting the man whom his biographers dubbed 'Reagan’s disciple.' With a Reaganite in the White House, it became clear that whatever affection they voiced for Reagan, by the start of the twenty-first century, a significant portion of the right was finished with Reaganism" (pp. 258-259).
In the aftermath of Bush's unsuccessful second term, "antiestablishment conservatives would present themselves as heterodox populists and yet remained yoked to the GOP. Republican leaders, in turn, found they couldn’t purge the party’s antiestablishment wing; nor could they effectively negotiate with its members. As a result, the party reorganized around antiliberalism and, in particular, intractable opposition to Barack Obama" (p. 281).
By then, we were heading full steam ahead into where we are now. The age of Reagan was well in the past. Thus, Donald Trump in 2016 "felt no compulsion to mention Reagan or tie himself to Reagan’s record. Instead, he talked about raising taxing on hedge fund managers and sharply limiting immigration—not as a rebuke to Reagan but without any reference to Reagan at all" (p. 302).
The 1990s had developed "a politics that was not just conservative but antiliberal, that leaned into the coarseness of American culture and brought it into politics, that valued scoring political points above hewing to ideological principles" (p. 20).
And so here we are now!