Politics & Policy

Rick Perlstein, You’re No Herodotus

Former President Ronald Reagan at the Reagan Library in 1991. (Reuters photo: Gary Cameron)
His article about the conservative movement depicts a world that exists only in his feverish mind.

There is no such thing as pure objectivity. Whatever our calling, whether politician, journalist, policy analyst, or historian, we all have our prejudices resulting from our upbringing, our education, and our life experiences. The best we can do is to control rather than to be controlled by our prejudices, and to be as fair, balanced and objective as possible in what we say and write — and do.

Sometimes, though, we surrender to our prejudices willingly.

A case in point is Rick Perlstein, journalist of the alt-left turned historian of the Right. More than a decade ago, after years as a contributor to the left-wing The Nation and similar publications, he wrote Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, an excellent and widely praised history about Goldwater and the early days of the conservative movement. One reviewer went so far as to hail him as another Herodotus, the father of history.

Since then, Perlstein has written two more books about American conservatism — Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan — that paint an increasingly ugly portrait of conservatism à la Dorian Gray. He has a special antipathy for conservative leaders such as Ronald Reagan, who deny what he calls the “great American divide.” Perlstein’s prejudices are revealed when he uses such loaded phrases as “a phony and a hustler, “a ludicrous sham,” “diarrhea mouth,” and “the Candidate from Disneyland” when referring to Reagan. His scorn ignores the uplifting and sorely needed rhetoric of the most successful presidents of the 20th century — Franklin D. Roosevelt and Reagan.

Perlstein’s ever-darker picture of the American Right, which he claims is responsible for a divided America, comes to full fruition in a recent New York Times Magazine article, “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard have written convincing rebuttals worthy of reading, but here are some additional thoughts.

One, the conservative movement and President Trump are not one and the same. The existence of the former does not depend upon the latter’s success or failure. The movement, guided by principle and not by politics, will support Trump when he warrants it, as with his selection of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch and his proposed tax cuts, and criticize Trump when he deserves it, as with his feckless tweets and $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Two, the modern American conservative movement is not and never has been a creature of the KKK, as implied by Perlstein, or inspired by the radical 1930s priest Charles Coughlin, who distributed the anti-Semitic forgery “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”

The movement is inspired not by the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” or Mein Kampf but by the wise words of F. A. Hayek, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr., and Irving Kristol and the principled deeds of politicians such as Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and Paul Ryan, who do not march up and down the halls of Congress in hobnailed boots.

It is a nightmare world that exists only in the fevered imagination of Rick Perlstein.

Perlstein populates his always-midnight underworld with devils and demons who shoot muggers at point-blank range like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, deny black applicants the opportunity to rent federal housing, and warn of “a diabolical transnational cabal of aliens plotting to undermine the very foundations of Christian civilization.” Perlstein’s “inferno” is ruled by the idea of “herrenvolk republicanism,” which preserves social democracy solely for the white majority.

It is a nightmare world that exists only in the fevered imagination of Rick Perlstein, who urges future historians to push aside Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan and study conservatism’s “con artists and tribunes of white rage” if they want to make sense of Donald Trump. But if they do, they will find little there but a few scraps of paper and some antique recordings of demagogues whose influence soon faded like their shrill voices and hateful pamphlets.

To find the truth, read historians such as George Nash, Douglas Brinkley, Lou Cannon, Matthew Dallek, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley, and Steven Hayward. Unlike Perlstein, they give us a true portrait of an intellectual movement committed to ordered liberty that became a political movement and then a governing movement whose influence continues to this day.

—  Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

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Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

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