Rick Perlstein on “Bigotry Whack-a-Mole”

As noted briefly yesterday, the distinguished journalist/historian Rick Perlstein, author of three important books about the modern history of movement conservatism (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan) has a piece up at Ten Miles Square that is worth a careful and meditative read. He observes the fascinating coincidence of Republican self-congratulation over the lowering of officially sanctioned Confederate flags with the rise of the savagely intolerant Donald Trump and sees it as part of an eternally recurring tension within American conservatism.

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.

But sometimes the “raiment of liberation” wears very thin:

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….

[C]onservatism 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.

Perlstein concludes by encourages progressives to treat Trump like a human Confederate flag and demand that Republican pols take a position on his nastiness. But as he suggests, this is just one skirmish in an irrepressible conflict.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.