Once upon a time, I was at a conference. Over beers with fellow attendees, the topic of conservatism came up.
“I just don’t get it,” said one of our company. I asked what they meant.
“I don’t get conservatism – I mean what is it about? What are they thinking?” I scrunched my eyebrows.
“Well on the most basic level it is about racism and sexism, right?”
“What?” came the slightly shocked reply. “That’s way too simplistic. You can’t just say it’s racism and sexism.” The others nodded in agreement.
Fast forward 45 minutes later and I had done my best to defend my position that while how they work is anything but simple or straightforward, it’s perfectly accurate to summarize the major causes of American conservatism as a commitment to and defense of white supremacy and patriarchy. (And, in retrospect, I would add imperialism.)
I recalled this conversation while reading both Rick Perlstein’s recent essay on how American historians “missed” the trends that made a Trump presidency possible, and the various responses to it both on social media and here on our own blog. At the risk of reproducing the tale told above, I’d like to offer what I think are a few mistakes many historians are making when we try to think about “mainstream” versus “fringe” conservatism.
My experience at the aforementioned conference is a good place to start because it is hardly exceptional. Historians – and let’s be real, it is usually radical historians who make this argument in such a blunt or “simplistic” fashion – are constantly told they are being too reductive, that the “real” situation is more complex, that identifying white supremacy and patriarchy as the main wellsprings of conservatism is to grasp at low-hanging fruit. I know this because I am one and I frequently talk to many, many others about their experiences. But this level of academic discourse, unlike published work, does not make it into the archives or even a conference transcript or video, usually. That does not, however, make it any less real or significant.
So while I agree with Andy when he corrects Perlstein’s broader narrative with a list of books that do look the ugly of American conservatism, so to speak, in the face (and I would also just note that Kevin Kruse’s White Flight should really be among those books), there is a broader problem that Perlstein is identifying. Of course, there are many exceptions, but just because the forest includes a variety of trees does not mean that the forest cannot, as a whole, be described in more general terms.
One of these broader characteristics is, as Andy suggested (see post below), the ghost of Hofstadter, who warns the scholars of today to make sure they “take conservatism seriously” and do not condescend to their subjects. But this concern misses the real moral of the story – for the problem with Hofstadter was not that he was condescending, the problem was that he was wrong. As a conceptual framework, status politics can be very useful, but Hofstadter and other liberal scholars of the period filled it up with the wrong thing, or, more accurately, almost nothing at all. What is the content of this “status” of which Hofstadter and so many others spoke? According to them, it is neither economic, nor racial, nor gendered, nor a combination of these things, but a general and diffuse anxiety about “modernity” and, perhaps, a splash of ethnic resentment here and there. Or, as Seymour Martin Lipset put it, “status insecurities and status aspirations are most likely to appear as sources of frustration, independent of economic problems, in periods of prolonged prosperity.” As for race, it is difficult to find a quote indicating that Hofstadter or others rejected the idea that conservatives were trying to gain or preserve whiteness, because the idea seems to never even have crossed their minds.
Today, we know better – or we ought to. This is not to say that Hofstadter’s condescension was appropriate, or that condescension in general does not interfere with a scholar’s ability to understand their subjects clearly; for sure, it is never advisable. However, condescension was not Hofstadter’s cardinal sin, and if we allow our fear of being disrespectful to get in the way of recognizing what is really happening, we have privileged our self-image of being open minded over our historical understanding.
And facing – and naming – things squarely is central to that understanding. Here at the blog, Andrew Hartman has asked me, what is the point of calling people racist? I must admit I find this question a little baffling. What is the point of calling anyone anything, if the name fits? We have to – without doing so we will never fully install the relevance of that knowledge into our perspectives. Euphemisms – like calling conservatives “racial conservatives” rather than white supremacists – will not do. That’s precisely why (or one of the reasons why, so as to not be too reductive) that not merely scholars but pundits and politicians never saw Trump coming. How could they, when even respected historians referred to a “culture war” or “traditional Americans” rather than xenophobes and racists?
For sure, some conservatives have received this straightforward treatment; the wacky and outlandish ways and claims of the “fringe” right have not been so delicately handled. But the division between the “fringe” and the “mainstream” is the other misconception hobbling research on the right. Just as William F. Buckley hoped, the crew of the National Review and likeminded fellow travelers discarded the distractingly bizarre and packaged (and repackaged) conservative goals in more polite language. This is not to say that they merely constructed ideas as a smokescreen; I have no doubt of anyone’s ability to believe their own rationales when it serves their primary purposes. But what I cannot help but groan over is how generations of liberals have fallen for this ruse. We shouldn’t be talking about how it turns out Rush Limbaugh might be as relevant as Reagan; we should be talking about how Rush Limbaugh and Reagan are not nearly so far apart as many assumed.
Style and affect are important; they can never be totally separate from content. But they don’t entirely control it, either; and affect can be put to various uses rather deliberately, as Alex Jones’ recent claims about merely playing “a character” attest to. And if you are too distracted by the surface performance of affect – which does not even have to be consciously deliberate – you are going to miss a lot, and might not even notice the deep river of commonality that runs not only from Rush to Reagan, but through time, stretching back to at least the 1920s and, quite clearly, to the foundations of the country itself.
Scholars inclined to be splitters are going to split, and that has its value for certain purposes. But for myself, I want to understand why, in 2017, the United States has the largest incarcerated population of minorities in the world; why dozens and dozens of communities do not have drinkable water; and why the basic right of healthcare continues to be denied to millions. And we can’t answer those questions while trying to assure ourselves that the really ugly stuff is at the margins. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written:
The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies — the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of suspects— are the product of democratic will … The problem with the police is not that they are fascist pigs but that our country is ruled by majoritarian pigs.
White supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism are not simple things, and they do not always function in a straightforward way and must always adjust to the politics, prerogatives, and perspectives of the day. But to identify them as the primary reasons we have arrived here is not to grasp at low-hanging fruit; it is to see clearly that the majority of the fruit is poisonous.
 Lipset, “The Sources of the ‘Radical Right,’” in ed. Daniel Bell, The New American Right (New York: Criterion Books, 1955),194, emphasis mine.