Rick Perlstein is the national correspondent for the The Washington Spectator, where this article first appeared. His most recent book is The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
Suddenly, with a single flap of the Angel of History’s wings, America has experienced a shuddering change: the American swastika has finally become toxic—a liberation that last month seemed so impossible that we’d forgotten to bother to think about it.
One doesn’t waste energy worrying over the fact that America controls over 700 military bases in 63 countries and maintains a military presence in 156; or that Israel has staged a civilian-slaughtering war approximately every other year since 2006; or that in America there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to vote or that unregulated pyramid schemes fleece Middle Americans out of $10 to $20 billion a year or that a private organization runs our presidential debates, sponsored by the same corporations that underwrite Democratic conventions … on and on and on: permanent annoyances.
Like the Confederate flag.
People Can Change?
While ignorant or insensate bitter-enders will continue to screech, there’s no going back: This thing is toxic even to Republican backbenchers. You could see that on Capitol Hill last week: late Wednesday night, Republicans sedulously repealed a Democratic amendment banning this flag of treason against the U.S. government from U.S. cemeteries. Dozens of Democrats then stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the House floor to all but accuse their colleagues across the aisle of evil. (Imagine the impossibility of them doing the same on, say, gun control.) The Republicans, embarrassed, backtracked—and the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) issued a statement disclaiming responsibility, blaming his leadership instead. (Wedge issue!)
Or watch the awe-inspiring speech of the Republican South Carolina state representative who burst into tears, begging her party-mates to finally come to their senses: “I have heard enough about heritage. I have a heritage. I am a life-long South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis, okay? But that does not matter!”
So, progress, right? The Republican Party, or at least more of it than we ever would have dreamed, abandoning yesteryear’s bigotry, proving that progress is possible: people can change.
Baked into the Reactionary Cake
Not so fast. Let’s not forget the juxtaposition: at almost precisely the same moment, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign with the immortal words: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And, immediately, Trump shot to the top of the Republican charts—with a bullet: he’s now the most popular candidate among GOP likely voters, four points ahead of Jeb Bush.
There’s an enormous amount to learn in this juxtaposition about how conservatism works at its deepest levels. It drives liberals crazy when conservatives dress themselves in the clothes of the great social-justice movements of the past: when they avow that were he alive now Martin Luther King would be a Republican, when they compare their crusades to force pregnant women to give birth to Mahatma Gandhi’s March to the Sea. This is not a new development; indeed, it’s baked into the reactionary cake.
Conservatives understand that the direction of human history is not on their side—that, other things equal, civilization does tend toward more inclusion, more emancipation, more liberalism. That is the great source of their anger. And that, too, is the source of the compulsion to dress reaction in the raiment of liberation. Politically, it is the only way.
Public Profession, Private Confession
There is, however, another parallel right-wing drive, the “other” side of reaction’s Möbius strip—the same side, really. It emerges, for instance, in phrases like Barry Goldwater’s campaign slogan: “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Or “Silent Majority”: Richard Nixon’s phrase, deployed in a November 1969 speech two weeks after the largest antiwar demonstration in human history, the National Moratorium Day, when approximately 2 million Americans from all walks of life, in cities and small towns alike, took the day off from work or school to protest the Vietnam War. They express a core conservative contention: that there are certain things that a vast majority of Americans know to be true, even if propriety—or the liberal thought police, what Nixon called by implication the silencing minority—do not allow them to say.
(And the skill and determination deployed by conservatives in convincing each other that the vast majority of Americans—and all “real” Americans—believe what they do is bottomless. The Gallup poll? As Phyllis Schlafly explained in 1964, they ask “a lot of questions of a very few people” until they “come up with answers that [please] the New York kingmakers.”)
This particular understanding of the gap between public profession and private confession is one of the five or six things most fundamental to conservative thought. The spectacle of Republicans lowering a flag could not be more public. The act of a Republican anonymously telling a pollster what she really believes about the candidate with the guts to call Mexicans what they “really” are, which is barely-human vermin, is not so public. Significantly, one of two polls that finds Trump ahead by four points was staged by YouGov, which does its polling online, without requiring respondents to talk to another, possibly judgmental, human being—about as private as a political act could be.
Trump: “The Silent Majority Is Back”
Another eminently private political act, of course, is entering a voting booth. Which was what Barry Goldwater was trying to encourage when he invited people to have the courage to vote what they knew in their hearts. The work of conservative politics is, at bottom, the attempt to create the conditions to flush out the forbidden truths that Americans supposedly bear in their breasts—the “conscience of the conservative” to borrow another Goldwater idiom—from the realm of secrecy into the arena of policy.
Timing, though, is everything. The annals of conservative history are full of documents not meant for public consumption, theorizing over the stand-or-fall question of for how long time needs to be bided before the subterranean truth can practically be surfaced, and how the ground can best be prepared for the crucial moment: the Cato Institute’s 1983 “Leninist strategy” for privatizing Social Security; the Discovery Institute’s 1998 “Wedge Document” for undoing the teaching of evolution. Timing, however, demands discipline.
And discipline is precisely what the demented Mr. Trump lacks most.
This helps explain why the Trump business finds Republicans in such political disarray. Soon after Trump’s immigration utterances, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona (95 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, 99 percent from the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity), called for the Maricopa County Republican Party to pull its sponsorship of last weekend’s Trump campaign rally: “I don’t think that [Trump’s] views are reflective of the party, particularly in Arizona, a border state.” He also called Donald Trump “coarse.” That was the old way to play it.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, on the other hand, was thrilled to read the political cues differently. She said, “I believe that Mr. Trump is telling it like it really, truly is.” Arizona’s Republican rank-and-filers, ecstatic to finally find someone to say what they know in their hearts to be true, plainly agreed: thousands of them turned out to the Phoenix Convention Center to hear Trump cry, “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back.”
Like Bigotry Whack-a-Mole
All these figures, the censorious Flake, the welcoming Brewer, and, of course, The Donald Himself, pose as daring truth tellers. The real truth-teller in this business, however, was Lindsey Graham. He’s harvested praise for being the only Republican contender willing to call Donald Trump out. But note how Graham hardly criticized the substance of what Trump wants to achieve. Graham, too, thinks we need to “secure the border” (he wants to triple the number of drones), in abject denial of the fact that the border is more “secure” by any objective measure than it’s been in a generation. He blamed 9/11 on undocumented immigration. Instead his moral objections took a back seat to utilitarian ones: “We have to reject this demagoguery. If we don’t, we will lose, and we will deserve to lose.” That gives the game away.
I’ve never seen anything that lays bare the core lineaments of conservatism so neatly: there is our tribe, which is good, true, and pure; and there are those other tribes, who are existential threats to you and me (Reagan’s favorite phrase), and must be suppressed in order for good to be preserved. “We” all know this, even if “they” don’t allow us to say this. If anything, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina opens space for this particular new longing to air this other silent truth more freely.
This is important: conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole. The quantity of hatred, best I can tell from 17 years of close study of 60 years of right-wing history, remains the same. Removing the flag of the Confederacy, raising the flag of immigrant hating: the former doesn’t spell some new Jerusalem of tolerance; the latter doesn’t mean that conservatism’s racism has finally been revealed for all to see. The push-me-pull-me of private sentiment and public profession will always remain in motion, and in tension.
Wedges, for Liberals
Liberals of a strategic bent should pay close attention for those moments in which the tension between them becomes most palpable. They reveal potential offensive wedges—opportunities to sow just the sort of confusion we see between Jeff Flake’s utterances and Jan Brewer’s. This is the way the operational trust among Republican politicians can be degraded, the better to make their unity come fall of 2016 that much harder.
Smart Democratic politicians now have a useful script. Ask: Are you for Donald Trump or against him? Politically, that opportunity is precious. You might, say, ask Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois: Donald Trump’s name hangs conspicuously on his tower along a gorgeous vista on the Chicago River. As with the Confederate flag, would you support taking it down?