This January marks my 20th anniversary writing about the American right wing as a historian and a journalist. Wearing my historian’s hat, I’ve documented lunatic John Birch Society members convinced that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”; underground militias stockpiling guns against imminent Communist invasion, threatening death to congressmen who dared abet the evil socialist agenda; drunken louts in a Queens, New York, bar describing Richard Nixon’s impeachment as a liberal coup, opining, “If I was Nixon, that’s what I’d do—I’d shoot every one of them.” I stroked my chin, and explained how such maniacal, anti-democratic, and violently anarchic rage had always been part of the story, though really only at the margins of the American conservative movement.
At the same time, as a citizen and as a journalist, I documented that margin encroaching on the center, until, with Donald Trump’s apotheosis, it seems now to have to consumed the entire damned thing.
Let’s look at the score.
1994 was the year I started obsessing myself with conservatism. When I heard that G. Gordon Liddy had advised his radio listeners that when they fired upon agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, “Go for a head shot; they’re going to be wearing bulletproof vests,” I actually wasn’t surprised. I’d been listening to a lot of right-wing talk radio, where the notion that the federal government was a tyrannical occupying army had become a commonplace. Newt Gingrich’s revolutionaries took over Congress that year, trained by a memo called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” to dehumanize their Democratic opponents by using words like “sick,” “pathetic,” and “decay” in reference to them. Two weeks later, gracious in victory, Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina—nicely enough on November 22, the anniversary of JFK’s assassination—said President Bill Clinton “better have a bodyguard” if he visited Helms’s state.
Clinton didn’t need more bodyguards. He needed better lawyers—to keep him from impeachment on the heels of his persecution by a power-mad, right-wing special prosecutor, and a Republican Congress determined to fight their 1996 loss of the presidency by any means necessary.
Having tried and failed to turn oral sex into the pretext for a Constitutional coup, they attempted another bite of the apple after the 2000 census. The following year, Republicans in control of state legislatures redrew legislative boundaries with unprecedentedly partisan bad faith—and then, after this increasingly Grotesque Old Party took over the State House in Texas, Rep. Tom DeLay violated a century-old norm to redraw Texas’s Congressional districts without waiting for the next census, in a manner so vicious, a staffer boasted in a 2003 email, it “should assure that Republicans keep the House no matter the national mood.”
Came the tragedy of September 11, 2001, which the un-popularly elected president appointed by a right-wing Supreme Court envisioned as an opportunity. Vice President Cheney, as a congressman, had authored a Republican “minority report” to the 1987 Congressional investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal. It asserted: “To the extent that the Constitution and the laws are read narrowly, as Jefferson wished, the Chief Executive will on occasion feel duty bound to assert monarchical notions of prerogative that will permit him to exceed the law.” Now, licking his lips, he advised the Chief Executive to do exactly that—illegally creating military commissions housed solely within the executive branch, inventing the category “enemy combatant” to evade the entirety of Article III of the Constitution, authorizing warrantless surveillance, inventing out of whole cloth a causus belli in Iraq, and authorizing a torture regime that the Justice Department’s John Yoo affirmed would encompass the crushing of an infant’s testicles, if the president so desired.
For more than a year Trump’s “truthful hyperboles” and barbaric campaign persona have played to the fantasists on the right and on the left.
Honoring election results became optional, especially if they threatened to traduce white privilege. My first big reported journalistic piece was on the campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis of California in 2003. In the Golden State I discovered voters terrified to the point of palpitations by Davis’s proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses: for safety reasons. That fact notwithstanding, a talk radio host (once described by a cynical GOP operative I interviewed as one of his “precinct captains”) explained to listeners that the purpose of the driver’s license was to allow immigrants to vote, in order to turn California into “the northernmost province of Mexico.” Largely, upon that lie, an election won by Davis (in which the Republican finisher won only 42.4 percent of the vote) was overturned; and Republican brazenness vaulted to the skies.
In 2005 came Hurricane Katrina, which the conservative movement literally heralded as a “golden opportunity” to overturn as much of the liberal state as they could manage under the cover of storm-induced darkness. “Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked: a real sense of crisis that places his political opponents in an awkward position,” Tod Linberg, editor of the right-wing flagship “intellectual” journal Policy Review, rejoiced in the Washington Times. “He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wrote that Katrina “has introduced a valuable forum to promote the triumph of our ideas and solutions for government over the crumbling and outdated policies of the Democrat-controlled Congresses of past decades.” Jack Kemp spied opportunity to suspend “onerous regulations imposed by the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communication Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency.” Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese coauthored a Heritage Foundation report subtitled “Principled Solutions for Rebuilding Lives and Communities.” The principled solutions included “Waive or repeal Clean Air Act (CAA) regulations that hamper refinery rebuilding and expansion,” and “immediately exempt Katrina victims from paying death taxes”—democracy be damned.
Democracy and decency. In the spring of 2007, I reported on a spate of right-wing terrorism and attempts at terrorism, including accounts of a Liberty University student preparing napalm-bomb attacks on protesters at Rev. Jerry Falwell’s funeral, a deadly shooting spree by white supremacists at an Idaho courthouse, and an unexploded bomb left at an abortion clinic in Austin. A simultaneous raid by 150 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers in four counties that yielded 130 grenades and a rocket launcher belonging to the Alabama Free Militia. This convergence was ignored by the media.
For me, 2007 was the watershed, not 2009: that was when I began stating as a matter of fact that millions of Americans now considered a government controlled by Democrats de facto illegitimate. How illegitimate? In March I got a fundraising letter from the National Conservative Campaign Fund signed by the estimable Mr. Meese referring to the two contenders for the Democratic nomination as a potential “‘President’ Obama” and “‘President’ Hillary Rodham Clinton”—“president” in quotation marks, designating them as illegitimate before either of them would win the election. In September, I cited a 327-post thread on FreeRepublic.com “Preparing for the ‘Big What If,’” What sort of weapons to stock in the event of “the breakdown in social order such as happened with the Rodney King riots,” if Barack Obama were to lose. That prediction was subsequently endorsed by National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who can now be seen on television casting himself as the right’s preeminent #nevertrump voice of reason.
Obama won; and on November 25 I totted up Facebook groups dedicated to impeaching not-yet-President Obama. I lost count before I got to a hundred.
What happened next should be fresh still in most readers’ minds: a South Carolina congressman shouted “You Lie” during Obama’s September 9, 2009 joint speech to Congress; members of Congress were shouted down by “death panel” fantasists at the healthcare town halls of 2010; and Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012 on what the overly decorous New York Times called “a foundation of short, utterly false sound bites.” Then came a tsunami of electoral-democracy-repressing statutes passed by Republican state legislatures following the Republican Supreme Court’s overturning of key tenets of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Now Trump. Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.
So what happens next, after January 20?
I was asked this in an interview the day after the election on the British network Sky News. Having cemented myself to my bed three hours after my morning alarm rang, then consuming my customary two daily cigarettes over the next 15 minutes, chased with a generous gulp of rum, I was finally jolted out of my lethargic depression to conceive of an answer. Donald Trump had made scores of promises he could not possibly fulfill. The second biggest was an economic miracle: the dormant Main Streets of Middle America humming with dynamism in the blink of the eye. The biggest, only made implicitly, was the same one fascist strongmen always offer: transcendent national renewal, built upon the cleansing of dangerous untermenschen from the body politic. Then there were the more minor miracles: bringing back the coal industry. Building the wall (Mexico will pay for it). Etc., etc.
None of these things, however, are possible.
So what happens next? His worshipful admirers cannot blame Trump for the stymying of this agenda: Trump is a god. It must be the people he told them to blame who are actually responsible. The lying media. The quisling Democrats. The sellout Republican establishment. Mexicans, of course. The more Trumpism fails, the more, and more violently, scapegoats will be blamed. And only some kind of stalwart resistance will stand between America and fascism.
I got ready to say this. Made my way two sentences in. Then heard, “I’m sorry, Mr. Perlstein, our time is up.”
Maybe it was Hillary Clinton’s fault: her concession speech came at the interview’s scheduled time. Maybe they didn’t like the direction I was heading; Sky News, after all, is owned by Rupert Murdoch, same as Fox. Or maybe I’m just being conspiratorial: Trump may soon be doing that to all of us. The margin has become the center. Paranoia strikes deep.
Rick Perlstein is The Washington Spectator’s national correspondent.