Along the way, Perlstein name-checks currently active conservative journalists Jonah Goldberg, Andrew McCarthy, and Lisa Schiffren as exemplars of the continuing dark tradition of right-wing awfulness. Everything else that has been called “conservatism” in the 20th century—from Robert Taft to Mitt Romney—is so much misdirection, false consciousness, or outright deception. "The history of bait-and-switch between conservative electioneering and conservative governance,” Perlstein writes, “is another rich seam that calls out for fresh scholarly excavation.”
Perlstein does himself one injustice in his essay. It’s not quite right that the rise of Donald Trump jolted him into a new appreciation of the Republican Party’s underlying fascism. He has been edging toward that accusation for years, to the increasing consternation of those who praised his first book.
George Packer's review in The New Yorker of Perlstein's third book noted Perlstein’s trajectory.
In his accounts of the sixties, Perlstein had a more complex view of the decade’s political passions—he took pains to understand the mental world inhabited by Goldwater, Nixon, and their partisans. … But, as the story of modern conservatism moves toward the present, Perlstein’s attitude toward it begins to resemble the dismissiveness of those liberal critics, which takes some of the tension out of his dialectics.
In our own pages, Sam Tanenhaus offered a similar criticism of that book.
Perlstein’s gift for energetic caricature and his taste for bizarre incidents have overpowered his impulse to sift through the ideas and beliefs that animate his subjects, and to grapple seriously with a politics rooted in authentic if not always coherent dissent.
The deterioration has only accelerated since then, and it’s worth considering why—not to score points off Perlstein, but to think more deeply together about how (and how not) to do intellectual history.
It’s certainly true that the United States has noteworthy traditions of illiberalism and political violence. The 1920s suffered terrorist violence not only at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, but also those of anarchist bombers who maimed and killed hundreds of people from 1919 to 1921. From the Civil War to World War II, American labor relations were more violent than those of most other industrialized countries. Four presidents have been assassinated; four others—Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—only narrowly survived or escaped a bullet. Race riots have ripped apart American cities for almost as long as there have been American cities.
Donald Trump’s campaign for president certainly drew much energy from this long tradition of political violence. So too did some of Trump’s opponents: Protests in Washington, D.C. on Trump’s Inauguration Day did damage to property, sent two police officers to hospital, and led to 200 arrests. Smaller scale versions of this form of violent protest have targeted colleges—notably Berkeley and Middlebury—that have invited speakers whom rioters deemed sympathetic to Trump’s cause.