This post first appeared at BillMoyers.com on October 30, 2017.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Take a long look at the photograph above of Donald Trump speaking to the American Conservative Union, the umbrella organization of the right. The ACU was founded in 1964, the year conservative icon Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president and was crushed at the polls that fall by the liberal, Lyndon B. Johnson. Keep that photograph in mind as you read my conversation with historian Rick Perlstein, which we might have subtitled “From Barry Goldwater to Donald Trump: You Must Be Kidding!” Perlstein has now written three best-selling books on the modern conservative movement. He still blinks at the thought of Trump’s triumph in capturing the Republican nomination last year and then beating Hillary Clinton. The photograph suggests the seminal moment in 2015 that led to both victories — as Trump convinced conservatives he was one of them. The legacy of both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan is now his. So is the Republican Party. He tightened his grip on the GOP in the last few days when two prominent Republican senators who are leaving politics rebuked the president as “dangerous to our democracy,” even as some of their colleagues were rushing into Trump’s arms with wet kisses, fearing, perhaps, that if they were any less ardent, Steve Bannon would come galloping down upon them in a future primary with an even more radical challenger. I asked Rick Perlstein to talk about these matters.
Moyers: So Republican Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker gave up, and others, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, gave in. And here are the headlines in The New York Times:
CRITICS GIVE WAY AS THE GOP TILT TO TRUMP’S ORBIT Acquiesce or Go Home Party With Less and Less Room for Older Breed Of Conservative
In other words, Donald Trump owns the Republican Party.
Rick Perlstein: That’s right. It’s like Ivory soap, “99 and 1/100 percent pure,” remember? Oh, the apostasy of Jeff Flake. The senator from Arizona gives this very histrionic speech about how Trump has introduced evasion and demagoguery and all these awful things into the Republican Party — and then announces he’s quitting. He’s really saying, “I’m not going to fight it. I’m going to surrender to it.” Remember, he’s voted 90 percent of the time with the Trump/Republican agenda. And then later that day, he and the other brave, bold critic in the Republican establishment, Sen. Bob Corker, both voted to end the rule that would have allowed people to sue banks and credit card companies that rip them off. They get to have their cake and eat it, too. They basically make a material contribution to the very damage to the body politic in the afternoon that they decry in the morning. Moyers: Sens. Murkowski of Alaska, Collins of Maine, Sasse of Nebraska and McCain of Arizona — John McCain! — also voted for Trump’s giveaway to Wall Street. Political commentator Kyle Kulinski called it “Your daily reminder that establishment Republicans want Trump to do every single thing he’s doing minus the mean tweets.”
Perlstein: I read Jeff Flake’s book, Conscience of a Conservative, written in homage to Barry Goldwater. Here’s a guy staking out in his ideology in terms that are quite reactionary, in a book that supposedly decries the turn of the Republican Party to dangerous reaction.
Moyers: Who is now the Republican establishment?
Perlstein: So interesting. I once saw a letter from H. L. Hunt, the purported richest man in the world in the 1960s, the oil billionaire, probably one of the first billionaires to bankroll Barry Goldwater. He said, “Beware the cunning of the establishment.” Richest man in the world. Didn’t think he was in the establishment. Now there’s Robert Mercer, billionaire extraordinare, and his daughter Rebekah, showering money on Steve Bannon to overturn the Republican establishment — are the Mercers not establishment? Are the Koch brothers, who have billions of dollars to spend, the establishment? The establishment is a very plastic concept. But as a Supreme Court justice said of pornography, maybe we know it when we see it. Establishments replace one another. The Republican establishment used to be Nelson Rockefeller types, and then it became Ronald Reagan types, and then it became Newt Gingrich types and then Bush types. It is a moving target and right now we don’t have a good answer.
Moyers: I’ve been thinking about that piece you wrote in The New York Timesearlier this year in which you said, “I thought I understood the American right. Trump proved me wrong.” Do you still stand behind that confession?
Perlstein: Oh, yes. What I got wrong about the American right was the idea that it succeeded in the 1960s by purging its crazier, more reactionary, more paranoid elements and becoming respectable. Historians are beginning to rethink that formulation, which is really the conservative’s own self-representation. It’s a very self-congratulatory representation. What if the crazy paranoid fringe was in fact the vanguard? What if they were kind of the people who created the political energy that allowed the establishment to float above it all and make their ex cathedra pronouncements, as William F. Buckley did for so many decades, while they were really working in a complicated partnership, in harness with one another, toward taking over the party?
Moyers: You said before the election last year that Trump had raised energies in the Republican electorate that may not be so easily contained.
Perlstein: Right. And I think it’s the next frontier for both historians and other sorts of analysts and journalists trying to figure out how the Republican coalition works and how conservatism works and what is different — what is the break between conservatism, say, from Goldwater to Reagan to Gingrich to Boehner and the conservatism of Trump and Bannon. The metaphor people have reached to describe how conservative politicians of a previous generation reached out demagogically to the feral impulses of the electorate was the dog whistle. They would use racist codes. You know, Richard Nixon running TV commercials in the South in 1968 with country singers talking about how they didn’t want Washington folks butting into our business. They wouldn’t come out and say, “Those dark people are taking over.” And when Richard Nixon even did that kind of thing, it was through a front group — through “Democrats for Nixon.” There was a distancing. And then of course there was Ronald Reagan and the welfare queen in 1976, and Reagan giving his famous speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, near where the three young civil rights workers were killed by white supremacists — the only time in the campaign he mentioned states’ rights. And then in 1984, saying the South shall rise again. Dog whistling.
Moyers: And Lee Atwater and the elder George Bush in 1988 with the Willie Horton ad. Perlstein: Yes. The revolving prison door — all that stuff. And there’s a plausible deniability. And what people have said is that Donald Trump takes the dog whistle and turns it into a train whistle. If only you could be a fly on the wall in the councils of power in the Republican Party in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and be privy to these conversations where these strategies are unfolding! Because I think that people who really have their finger on the pulse of the American electorate understand that there are always these kind of feral energies, wild savage energies, abroad in the land. Even Lyndon Johnson — when he’s heard talking on the Oval Office tapes about whether to escalate in Vietnam, will mention 1950 and what happened when the Republicans, especially Joseph McCarthy, started raising the cry that the Democrats lost China. As you must know, Johnson feared that this sort of paranoid, reckless madness would again be loosed in the land. I think sophisticated political actors all the way through George W. Bush understood this as a danger, and even as they tried to ride and surf and use that danger, they sought somewhat to contain it.
Moyers: How did George W. try to contain it?
Perlstein: He campaigned using those traditional Republican tropes, but then after 9/11, you see something very interesting. He calls Islam a religion of peace. He goes to a mosque. I compare this to Ronald Reagan in 1978, when he’s beginning his run for the presidency and there’s an initiative on the California ballot called Proposition 6 that will ban gay school teachers, and he comes out against it. This is a time in San Francisco — gay men were being cut down in the streets. Reagan in effect says: “I don’t want to be part of unleashing those energies.” And maybe you were there when Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president against LBJ in 1964, and he paid a courtesy call on LBJ right after rioting in Harlem following the shooting of a young black person by a white cop, and Goldwater said something like, “This is really frightening stuff. If my supporters start exploiting these riots and start exploiting racial turmoil in the United States to get me elected, I will withdraw from the presidential campaign.” There was some realization in all this that civilization in America is a very thin veneer and you have to master the savage energies — you have to contain them. And Trump does not understand that game. So now we see a certain class of Republican literally saying these lowborn, kind of louche, ill-bred “populists” are taking over from the “principled intellectuals. “Remember the National Review last year — Buckley’s old magazine? Their mantra was “Never Trump!”
Moyers: Is Trump more paranoid and dangerous than Nixon?
Perlstein: Oh, I think there’s no question. I mean, he really takes Nixon’s worst qualities and turns them up to 11. People have been talking a lot these days about Richard Nixon’s famous “mad man” — the idea that if you made the North Vietnamese Communists believe this guy [Nixon] is crazy and might do anything — he might launch a nuclear weapon — then they’re going to rush to the negotiating table and give us concessions. But Richard Nixon said you never get mad unless it’s on purpose. At least this was a conscious strategy on his part. It was a feint. A hustle. Now, today, we may have an actual mad man in the White House. I mean, these are not clever negotiating tactics he’s using. When Trump goes on TV and a reporter says, “So, Mr. President, you said that you were going to keep the 401(k) in the tax negotiations, but your Republican congressional negotiator said you’re going to get rid of the 401(k). Which is it?” And Trump says, “Well, maybe we’ll keep the 401(k) as a negotiating chip.” That level of stupidity — you don’t telegraph to the other side what your bargaining chips are. This is 10-year-old stuff.
Moyers: Could it be his opioid is revenge, not power?
Perlstein: That’s an interesting distinction.
Moyers: Well, it comes from considering his cultural upbringing, his father’s purported KKK activity, his relationship to Joseph McCarthy’s hit man Roy Cohn. You’ve pointed out Trump’s apparent interest in New York movies like Death Wish. He never seems to leave his fantasies. Perlstein: And consider how his racism played out here. Quite remarkable. He was an executive in his father’s company in the 1970s when the Justice Department discovered that they were putting little “C’s” next to the colored applicants in their housing and using testers. A white couple would come in and say, “We’re looking for an apartment” and be told, “Oh, we have plenty.” And a black couple would come in, say “We’re looking for an apartment” — and be told “Oh, I’m sorry. We’re filled up.” And then in the Central Park jogger case in 1989, Trump took out full-page ads in New York newspapers calling for the return of the death penalty because a white woman had been raped by minorities and he said they should die — that was what happened in the days of lynching. Trump was calling for a lynching. A white woman has been raped and attention must be paid and punishment meted out. Now, those youngsters were exonerated and the real perpetrator eventually apprehended, yet Trump still called for them to be kept incarcerated. We are talking here about the president of the United States. He’s fanning the most feral forces there are within the American political culture.
Moyers: Any insight into what’s going on inside his psyche?
Perlstein: I defer to your friend [the psychohistorian] Robert J. Lifton. There’s something sufficiently deep-seated in his psyche to almost constitute a psychopathology that keeps him from literally seeing reality as it is. Moyers: So you’re a historian, not a psychologist. Find anyone in the presidency like him before? We’ve had many flawed presidents.
Perlstein: It pops up from time to time. When Lyndon Johnson insisted that race riots must have been stoked by the communists, [Attorney General] Ramsey Clark came back and said, “We’ve really searched up and down and we don’t see any evidence,” and Johnson basically told him to go back and try again, because it has to be true. I’m sure that at his worst his paranoia matched Trump, but he had so many redeeming qualities he transcended it. With Trump, it’s just paranoia and vengeance all the way down, even in his moments of victory. Moyers: And taking the Republicans beyond restraint?
Perlstein: I think he has. And to their shame, a lot of Republicans who understand precisely how dangerous this is have decided to stick around for the ride. Trump is their ticket to getting their tax cuts, among other things. We need to understand it much better — the dance that’s been going on within the Republican Party and the conservative coalition, this dance between feral populism and an establishment kind of “principled intellectual conservatism.” And of course that’s not how they work.
Moyers: You mention tax cuts. So last year during the campaign Trump promised tax cuts to the middle class. He said specifically the hedge-fund guys would be paying up — the Wall Street crowd. But from what’s being circulated in Washington, the Republicans, apparently with Trump’s blessings, are backing tax cuts that would give 50 percent of the benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent and the top one-hundredths of 1 percent of earners would receive more than 40 percent of the benefits, while the bottom half would receive collectively something near 13 percent.
Perlstein: Yes, it’s pretty remarkable, isn’t it?
Moyers: Trump and the conservatives get their votes from angry populists. They get their money from rich people—
Moyers: —and from corporations. But what if it all springs back? Suppose that sooner or later the populists in the coalition wake up and realize they’ve been had — swallowed up in a great historical hoax?
Perlstein: Well, that’s where some very dark forces come into play.
Moyers: Dark forces?
Perlstein: Yes, what happens when the white working-class voters who supported Trump begin to feel the sting of economic dispossession in a new and profound way? Let’s say there’s a stock market crash, or the economy takes a dive. Let’s say their tax bills go up. That that’s when the scapegoating begins. I don’t know what happens when people start getting their tax bills and realizing that they were played for fools. But of course the people around Donald Trump control their own media — Fox, talk radio, the “alt-right” press — which means they control their own reality. And their propaganda is very much designed to work neurologically, not intellectually, to hit the amygdala of the brain in its fear center. If people don’t know what’s happening to them or who’s making it happen, it’s very hard for them to place the finger of blame in the appropriate place. “Dark forces” come into play. Moyers: Can a democracy die of too many lies?
Perlstein: It’s certainly happened before.
Moyers: The right seems to be even more fueled these days by some powerful resentments. Perlstein: You know, the club that Richard Nixon started at Whittier College, because he wasn’t allowed into the one fraternity, was called the Orthogonians.
Perlstein: Orthogonians, which kind of meant squares. You know, the right angles, the guys who were commuters and, you know, they weren’t from all the right families. The club that they weren’t allowed in was called the Franklins. So Richard Nixon always saw the world in terms of Orthogonians and Franklins, you know, the silent majority and the liberal elite. And if you think about it, all of us at some point of our lives are Franklins and all of us are Orthogonians. We’re always feeling the sting of resentment. So it’s a very powerful message.
Moyers: Trump struck many people here in New York City like that. He hungered to be accepted by the establishment. It was palpable.
Perlstein: An Orthogonian — that’s correct. Moyers: He was always trying to get into the—
Perlstein: Trying to get into the club. Trying to buy the World Trade Center to do it. And now feral greed seems to drive him, even as president.
And that’s the interesting thing, because we had a bait-and-switch. Of course Donald Trump doesn’t ever seem to have intended to govern in the interest of the blue-collar dispossessed white working class in whose name he claimed to speak. He handed over the keys almost immediately to the Goldman Sachs bankers and the plutocrats. And now there’s Stephen Bannon going off half-cocked on his own behalf and claiming to be the true avatar of the Trumpite revolution — you know, more Trumpier than Trump, I guess. So we’re at a pretty interesting crossroads as we speak here.
Moyers: Your books show how resilient the conservative movement has been in our time. It keeps rising from the grave to move the Republican Party further and further right. Defeated with Goldwater in 1964, back in 1968 with Nixon. Defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976, back with Reagan in 1980. Defeated by Clinton in 1992, back with George W. Bush in 2000. Defeated by Obama in 2008, back with Trump in 2016. Everyone kept saying the Republicans were finished unless they purged the conservatives. Now it’s the conservatives purging the Republicans.
Perlstein: So let’s talk about the transition from Carter to Reagan. That’s the subject of my historical research right now. Basically, you have the bounty of America’s postwar boom that was built upon the fact that all of our economic competitors were damaged by war. It was built upon cheap oil and cheap resources, and then on the social legislation of the 1960s that was offered on the assumption of a post-scarcity era — that we had basically solved the economic problems. Economists were confident, through Keynesian means, that they could keep recessions in check with low inflation. All that breaks down in the 1970s for various complicated reasons. And the response of a lot of Democrats — from people in Congress like Sen. Gary Hart, who essentially declared the New Deal tradition his ideological enemy, to Jimmy Carter, who said that the challenge of the future was accepting that we had to live in a period of austerity, to Jerry Brown in California, who backed a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution — all of them were saying, basically, folks, look, the party’s over. You can’t have all the nice things anymore.
And this is precisely at the time that Republicans like Ronald Reagan are saying, “The problem is that taxes are too high.” Remember, Republicans for generations had been saying with great frustration since the New Deal, “We can’t win elections because no one shoots Santa Claus!” Santa Claus could no longer deliver those things the Democrats were voting for the people from the public treasury. So basically Democrats in the late 1970s said, “We’re not going to be Santa Claus anymore. We’re going to be the responsible grown-ups in the room.” The Republicans had to figure out a way to be Santa Claus. In fact, Jude Wanniski — remember him, the guy from The Wall Street Journal, one of the brilliant propagandists of supply-side economics? — called his theory of why tax cuts were great politics and policy of the Republicans “the two Santa Claus” theory. Of course, it turned out to be complete poppycock. You know, it was just nonsense.
Moyers: Supply-side economics?
Perlstein: Yes, supply-side economics was just the sheerest invention. But as politics, the conservatives were able to take advantage of Democrats abandoning the field of, basically, populism in the same way you have Bill Clinton deciding that the answer to the recession in the early 1990s is giving in to the bond-holders. Moyers: And then there’s Barack Obama.
Perlstein: And you have Barack Obama, for all his administrative and communication skills, deciding that the important thing to do when the economy melts down after the big crash is to foam the runway for the banks and ease their soft landing instead of making people whole who literally had their homes stolen by banks. So the Democrats are not blameless in this.
Moyers: Are you saying Democrats provided the conservatives with the source of their resiliency?
Perlstein: But the fact of the matter is, liberals have always been too glib about the power and resilience of the reactionary tradition in America. Remember, half the country went to war to preserve slavery in this country — and it wasn’t just slavery; it was an entire feudal system in which basically society was ordered — the great chain of being from the slave to God.
Moyers: This is where your first book, Before the Storm, about the conservatives after the Goldwater defeat, tapped into historical DNA, connecting the modern conservative movement way back to people who were appealing to—
Perlstein: Whiteness — the white picket fence — the nuclear family—
Perlstein: —and Kevin Phillips called the other side — the liberals who were basically plunging ahead with all this social legislation that in a way rewired how people experienced their relationship to the state and to each other — he called them “the toryhood of change.” The snobs who are telling people how to live. They’re a toryhood. They’re controlling. They experiment with people’s lives.
Moyers: That’s obviously not how we saw it.
Perlstein: I’m sure. But unfortunately, the state can be a very scary thing, and benefits that are delivered by the state can often very easily be recast as oppressive to people, especially when their relative position in the pecking order is weakening. It’s not a zero-sum game. We know that as liberals when we invest in people who have been disinvested, that’s a rising tide that lifts all boats. But it can be a very traumatic thing to lose one’s sense of power and privilege in a changing world, and the conservatives recast themselves as not merely the preservers of order but the forces of dynamism. They saw themselves as cutting through this kind of sclerosis of liberalism. As the New Right leader and strategist [and] founder [with Jerry Falwell] of the Moral Majority Paul Weyrich put it, organizing discontent, finding places where people feel the world slipping away and gaining a toehold and turning that into political power, and if they have to lift a Trump on their shoulder to cross the finish line, well…
Moyers: You’ve spent years studying the infrastructure by which conservatives prepared for this moment. What do you see as the singular opportunity that enabled them to seize the opportunity in 2016, after eight years of Obama?
Perlstein: What was the discontent? I think that there are two kind of broad wellsprings of that discontent. One is economic — the fact that people weren’t made whole after the traumas of 2007 and 2008, the fact that the heartland Main Street America is being emptied out, that capital continues to flee overseas, that factories continue to close, that people are exploited by credit-card companies and student loan companies and all the rest. That sort of economic dispossession. But another wellspring, frankly, is the sense that one’s symbolic power that comes with being white and Christian and sitting behind that white picket fence, is not what it once was, especially in the hands of what they identified as “this foreign Kenyan usurper, Barack Obama.”
You know, back in Weimar, Germany, as Hitler was making his way to power, the socialists used to say anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools. And by that they meant when you’re being screwed by the boss and you blame the Jews instead of joining our socialist party in which we’re fighting to give you power in the workplace and power over the economy — well, that makes you a fool. But that interplay between ethnic scapegoating, religious scapegoating and a sense of economic dispossession — which doesn’t necessarily mean poorness or privation, it could mean a sense of economic vulnerability, the fear of falling that Barbara Ehrenreich a long time ago called the secret to the inner life of the middleclass — creates a situation where everyone’s place in the economic pecking order is ever precarious. Especially in America where we don’t have that safety net, that social democracy. I think that’s the enabling condition for a lot of this.
Moyers: And then there’s how you have put Donald Trump in the context of a sociological concept called “herrenvolk democracy.”
Perlstein: Oh, yes, which basically means social democracy for the favored race as a way not of expanding liberty to all citizens but only to the accepted in-group, people like us.
Moyers: The benefits were intended for the herrenvolk — universal for them but limited to them. Perlstein: And that’s always been the struggle. Think of the original populists, the People’s Party of the 1890s. Often described as very white. But there’s a book that just had its 50th anniversary. The Tolerant Populists, by Walter Nugent. And as against interpretations of the populists that were popular among certain mid-20th century historians and social scientists, Nugent actually read populist newspapers that were often German-language newspapers, revealing that among the populist party nominees in Kansas in the late 19thcentury were African-Americans, women, Jews — that there has in fact been a tradition of multiracial class-based political mobilization that is a spark, a flame we can fan, a heritage we can claim. And consider this: For all the compromises that Franklin Roosevelt made with Southern white segregationists to get his New Deal legislation passed, the fact of the matter is that African-Americans across the United States put pictures of Franklin Roosevelt on their walls. They knew that this guy had his heart in the right place. John F. Kennedy’s picture was up on the wall in African-American homes all across the country. They knew he had his heart in the right place, even though he was very slow to find his way to proposing a revolutionary civil rights act in 1963.
Moyers: Yes, when President Johnson traveled through Appalachia, or other impoverished places, he couldn’t get over it. Hadn’t he just signed the Civil Rights Act of ’64? The Voting Rights Act of ’65? But there, on the wall, were photographs of JFK.
Perlstein: Life’s unfair, no? So I’m saying, I wouldn’t get too hopeless. Some interesting things are happening now.
Moyers: I don’t recommend any rose-colored glasses, Rick. You have written over and again that our society has never been one of consensus. Americans are always in conflict, polarized, competing and fighting.
Perlstein: Our national community builds in the act of transcending original wounds. If you think back to the late 18th century to the constitutional convention where delegates were trying to figure out a way to hold together a nascent commercial society in the North and a feudal society in the South, and doing it over the bodies of enslaved Africans and yet at the same time were superintended by a new Constitution professing ideals of liberty and individual dignity — man, that’s very heady stuff and not something that lends itself to easy accord. We’d like to believe that we’re united and at peace with ourselves and that we have the will to transcend and even repress those original psychic wounds—
Moyers: But we’re yoked to reality, including human nature—
Perlstein: Which gets us in a heck of a lot of trouble. So I try to get people to face hard truths in the interest of a difficult healing and a grace that is not cheap. Moyers: The most somber realist in the White House, despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was Lyndon Johnson. He kept watching [Alabama Gov.] George Wallace campaigning in primaries rallying white Democratic voters. Wallace would in effect say things like, “I’m all for the New Deal. I’m just not for it for black folks.” Johnson saw the blowback coming.
Perlstein: Yes, that’s herrenvolk democracy. Social democracy only for the white majority. I understand that in that 1964 campaign, the great Daisy commercial guys — Doyle, Dane and Bernback — cut commercials celebrating the Civil Rights Act. But they were not run, correct?
Perlstein: Because you guys knew better than the liberal majority and the people at The New York Times what was going to happen. The Times ran a headline the day after the ’64 election saying, “White backlash does not develop.” Well, they didn’t notice [what happened] that very day in California, which voted by a million votes against ending housing discrimination.
Moyers: And two years later, in 1966, California elected Ronald Reagan for governor. Democrats lost heavily in the congressional races.
Perlstein: But look, at the same time after he signed the Civil Rights Act, when Lyndon Johnson told you that he thinks he’s just given up the South to the Republicans for his lifetime and yours, I like to think there was an implied second part to that sentence, which is, “We have cemented the loyalty of Northern African-Americans for your generation and mine.” And that was a dialectic too.
Moyers: Well, a lot depends now on whether Donald Trump is an outlier or the representative of a new and even more adamant conservative politics.
Perlstein: You know, a lot of African-Americans traditionally have said, “Give me an outright Southern racist than the polite wink and a nod of a Northern racist any day, because at least you know what you’re dealing with and you can fight him out in the open.” So I think that Trump’s radicalism represents a certain opportunity to the people who have been trying for generations to instruct white people about what it is like to be black in America, what it is like to be an immigrant in America, what it is like to be Mexican, what it is like to be of a minority religion or no religion, and women who are trying to instruct men what it’s like to be under the gun of constant harassment and sexual objectification at the office. Things are becoming a lot clearer now. The edges, the invisible lineaments that divide us from each other are becoming a lot more perspicuous, a lot more visible — and I think that’s a useful tool for social change.
Moyers: So the turmoil and conflict we’re experiencing today might be because we are beginning to strip the whitewash off the history of our country. Perlstein: I think it’s happening in a way that we haven’t quite seen in the past, and maybe we can hold out some promise for some interesting developments.
Moyers: We haven’t talked about guns, and the fierce religious zeal conservatives attach to guns. More than we can imagine at the moment, I sense we’re going to have to reckon with guns on the road ahead.
Perlstein: (Pause) I have a hard time understanding why conservative politicians don’t denounce what the National Rifle Association is doing with those video spots, in the figure of Dana Loesch, that really come straight from the propaganda files of Goebbels in Nazi Germany. They talk about how liberals are destroying truth and undermining our way of life and that guns are the only way that we can be safe. When are we going to demand Republicans start distancing themselves from a National Rifle Association that has literally become an anti-constitutional insurrectionist organization?
Moyers: But Republicans, conservatives, the NRA — are all part of the same ball of wax.
Perlstein: Well, the thing about the Second Amendment that’s so interesting to me as a historian, Bill, is that it’s the only part of the Constitution that really affirmatively mentions regulation as a good thing — “a well-regulated militia.” It’s such a bizarre text in the first place. But in the second place, a constitution is quite literally a machine for governing without violence. Without a constitution, it’s a war of all against all, and the person who can dominate the other person physically wins. As interpreted by the NRA and unfortunately by the Supreme Court as an individual right, it almost deconstructs the whole point of the Constitution, which is that people shouldn’t have to carry around guns. Our founders gave their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor for a government of laws and not a government of arbitrary—
Moyers: Coercion. Perlstein: Coercion, yes— Moyers: Enforced by guns.
Perlstein: Yes, again. Every clever college freshman will tell you that ultimately a government is the monopolization of the use of force, and if you resist the rule of law you are going to be physically removed from the body politic. That’s the last resort. But there’s a first resort — and the National Rifle Association, at the behest and by the funding of the weapons industry, has created it: the first resort of insurrection. A member of my family works for an investment bank. She once showed me a securities report — you know, one of those things that bankers come up with for analyzing an industry, whether it’s a buy or a sell. And it was so fascinating to read, in the cool rational jargon of bankers, the idea that the gun industry does great when there are Democrats in power because then they can scare the bejesus out of people that they’re going to take their guns away — an utter and rank lie, but one that the cunning forces of capital also have deployed as a profit-making strategy. It’s a very dangerous reality. And now we’re seeing it now. This did not get a lot of publicity but in Gainesville, Florida last week, when Richard Spencer was there—
Moyers: Leader of the white nationalists.
Perlstein: —leader of the white nationalists, and they had the largest police presence on a college campus in the history of the school. But that didn’t keep another white nationalist, who thought that he was being physically menaced by someone with a stick, to fire a shot at left protesters. They missed, but that sort of escalation by people who are trained to believe that they are under literal physical threat — demagogues like Dana Loesch and organizations like the National Rifle Association — may just cause an escalation of violence that is becomes extremely dangerous to all of our liberties.
Moyers: Do you ever go online to some of those gun sites? Do they frighten you?
Perlstein: Very scary. Because there’s an almost religious ideology that unless you are prepared to meet any threat with violent force, you, your family, the women and children you are charged by a kind of patriarchal ideology to protect, are endangered. I went to one site that offers tactical training on how to clear a room, how to get off the maximum number of rounds in the shortest period of time, what clothes to wear with breakaway pockets so you can shoot faster — there’s an entire narrative of how the world works, and the core of that narrative is that there are bad people who are not like you who are out to kill you and you have to kill them first.
Moyers: Do you write your history books to oppose the people you are writing about?
Perlstein: Do I write my books to oppose? I don’t think so. No, I think I write my books to affirm. Ultimately, I write my books motivated by a fascination, by the challenge of the various tribes of America to live together. I take great pleasure in making connections and in reaching readers and hopefully edifying them and enlightening them. I like to think that I use my work, my books, my journalism to create a community, a community of readers, of thinkers, of citizens. So ultimately, I think I do see it as an affirmative act. I’m not nihilistic, I’m optimistic.
Moyers: Thank you, Rick Perlstein.