Nixon’s and Reagan’s choice to temper their rhetoric reflected the reality that in the early years of the Republican political revival after 1968, both men still needed to attract voters and navigate around institutions sympathetic to the Democratic Party, which had dominated national politics since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“In the case of Nixon, that apocalyptic vision was clearly something that lived in his heart,” Perlstein told me, noting that Nixon expressed it in his once-secret White House tapes. But Nixon was also “tactically and strategically shrewd.” He “prepared obsessively, was extremely concerned about how he came off to the public, and was working in a context in which the dominant political institutions were largely liberal—both the media and largely Congress.”
Though Reagan was a more ideological figure than Nixon, in the big, signature speeches of his presidency, Reagan talked about Democrats more in sorrow than anger. He sought to attract wavering Democrats by noting that he had once belonged to their party too—before, as he charged, the party evolved away from him. Once Reagan took office, “he understood that he was the institutional embodiment of this country that had to put a public face forward to the world that was respectable,” said Perlstein, whose latest volume is titled Reaganland. “So he understood that he believed things that maybe the public wasn’t ready for.”
Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush often criticized Democratic policies and denounced their opponents as too liberal, but neither routinely portrayed the party as a threat to America’s fundamental traditions. Neither did the GOP’s presidential nominees in 1996 (Bob Dole), 2008 (John McCain), or 2012 (Mitt Romney).
The apocalyptic strain of Republican argument never entirely evaporated, though. It persisted in Newt Gingrich’s caustic portrayal of Democrats as the enemies of “normal Americans,” among conservative grassroots groups (particularly religious conservatives), and within the emerging conservative-media empire, led at first by Rush Limbaugh and other talk-radio hosts in the late 1980s and by Fox News starting about a decade later. In 2010, the Tea Party movement, which erupted after Barack Obama’s first two years in office, revived charges of “socialism” against Democrats more forcefully than at any point since the 1960s, and merged them with the ongoing anxieties about cultural and demographic change that radiated through the social-conservative movement, talk radio, and Fox. That anxiety crystallized into the birtherism slur (promoted by Trump) against Obama.
Like an invasive plant species, the fevered Tea Party style steadily drove out the more restrained rhetoric deployed by both Bushes, Dole, McCain, and Romney. Trump has completed that transformation with years of messaging that’s portrayed his supporters—the virtuous “real America”—as under siege from a pincer attack by contemptuous elites above and dangerous minorities and immigrants below determined to steal “our country.” Changes in the electoral and media environment have reinforced this shift: Although in the era of Nixon and Reagan, Republicans tried to win voters not entirely in their camp, the party now operates in more of a closed circle. It relies primarily on overtly conservative media to mobilize a more homogeneously conservative electoral base. Those changes have not only allowed, but encouraged, Republicans to vilify Democrats more extravagantly.