House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Ga., holds up his "Contract With America" and a paperback best seller list during his usual Monday meeting with reporters, Jan. 30, 1995, on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/John Duricka)

Over the past decade, Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor at Vanderbilt and founding director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency, has been a prolific commentator about the political right. In her excellent 2017 study, Messengers of the Right, she traced the emergence after World War II of a right-wing media ecosphere, focusing on publications such as Human Events and National Review, not to mention pioneering figures like the radio broadcaster Clarence Manion. Now, in Partisans, Hemmer brings the story closer to the present, zooming in on the efforts of movement conservatives, ranging from Patrick Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh, to begin reshaping the Republican Party in their own image during the 1990s. 

Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s by Nicole Hemmer Basic Books, 341 pp.

At the outset, Hemmer stipulates that her intent is not to illuminate the origins of Trumpism. Rather, she indicates that her aspiration is to explore why Reaganism lost its mojo in the 1990s to a radical new right. She goes on to contend that during the Clinton era the rise of white aggrievement and a newly powerful political-entertainment-industrial complex played a key role in creating an advance guard whose raison d’être was owning the libs. Though Hemmer doesn’t devote much attention to Donald Trump, her forensic examination of the populist right of the 1990s suggests that he was no aberration—and that the groundwork in the GOP had been laid for him well before the 2016 presidential campaign.

In Hemmer’s view, Ronald Reagan successfully created a kind of optical illusion around the conservative movement, with his sunny optimism substituting for the hatreds that were at its core. Indeed, Reagan ended up disappointing more than a few on the right with his penchant for political compromise. The backroom operators who began mobilizing social conservatives in the 1970s—Heritage Foundation cofounder Paul Weyrich and the direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie among them—were wont to complain about insufficient zeal for the cause from the Gipper. As it happens, Reagan himself never personally attended an anti-abortion rally on the National Mall as president, preferring to address its foes remotely via loudspeaker. Nor did he turn out to be an altogether reliable anti-communist. In 1985, for example, the House Republican star Newt Gingrich gave voice to simmering anger on the right when he declared that Reagan’s first summit meeting with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the “most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.” Buchanan summed up the overall disaffection by grousing that Reagan should have “consulted his convictions more and his pollsters less” as president. According to Hemmer, “for many on the right, he was the God that failed.” 

This may be putting it too starkly. The truth is that the right reserved its real venom for George H. W. Bush, who was never able to earn the kind of conservative street cred that Reagan enjoyed. A staunch anticommunist as head of the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood, Reagan had solidified his conservative bona fides during the 1950s, when he traveled around America for General Electric and delivered anti-union speeches to its workforce. Bush, by contrast, was a New England patrician who had supported Planned Parenthood as a representative from Texas and an ambassador to the United Nations. His embrace of a tax deal with congressional Democrats in 1990—after announcing, “Read my lips, no new taxes” during the 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis—sent Gingrich and his cohort into paroxysms of rage. Bush’s other transgressions included signing civil rights legislation in November 1991 that expanded the right of employees to sue for discrimination. Buchanan was livid. “Every minority malcontent is going to be suing,” he complained. To Bush, he explained, “I just said goodbye: the final infidelity.” Even Bush’s intervention against Saddam Hussein in 1991, Hemmer observes, aroused apprehensions on the outer fringes of the right, prompting them to suspect a diabolical new program for global, one-world governance. The evangelical leader Pat Robertson, for instance, warned that Bush was “unknowingly and unwittingly carrying out the mission and mouthing the phrases of a tightly knit cabal whose goal is nothing less than a new order for the human race under the domination of Lucifer and his followers.” (Retired General Michael Flynn could hardly have put it better.)

Still, Robertson was a kook. Buchanan, by contrast, was a shrewd militant who wielded some real clout. Hemmer views the pugnacious former Nixon speechwriter turned TV pundit as a key figure in the restoration of the right to its original anti-democratic impulses. No one was a noisier proponent of the so-called silent majority than Buchanan, who failed to muster significant support in three runs for the presidency, the last in 2000 as a candidate of the Reform Party. An admirer of the old isolationist right—his authoritarian father was an ardent admirer of the fascist leader Francisco Franco—Buchanan initially ran for the Republican nomination against Bush in 1992 on the slogan “America First.” Buchanan first won the backing of the radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and put a scare into Bush in the New Hampshire primary. Bush felt compelled to give Buchanan a prime-time speaking spot at the Republican convention in August in Houston. It was a disastrous move. Buchanan called for a “religious war” and announced, “Block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” 

Two years later, however, the GOP rebounded in the midterm elections. Gingrich proposed the Contract With America and Republicans won the House and Senate for the first time since 1952. Hemmer usefully reminds us that one of the new members of the class of 1994 was Helen Chenoweth, the first female representative from Idaho. She championed gun rights, warned about “black helicopters” flown by the federal government, and intervened on behalf of militias, including the “constitutional sheriffs” movement, which claimed that local sheriffs outranked state and federal officials. “The idea,” Hemmer writes, 

had its origins in the Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s, a white-supremacist organization that believed the federal government was part of an illegitimate Jewish plot and that power thus devolved to the county level and sheriff. 

Chenoweth contended that civil rights laws protected “everyone but the white Anglo-Saxon male.” Hemmer also stresses that older pseudo-scientific theories about race were being refurbished by conservative writers such as Charles Murray in his tract The Bell Curve, which was excerpted in The New Republic.

Throughout, the right kept its eye on wielding power as punitively as possible against Democrats. When queried about why Republicans pursued impeachment against Bill Clinton over his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, for example, Gingrich gave the game away: “Because we can.” The hypocrisy soon became patent. Gingrich turned out to be involved in an extramarital affair himself. His successor Bob Livingston, the speaker-designate, resigned abruptly after his own affair became public. His replacement was the child molester Dennis Hastert. Other Republicans who admitted to infidelities included Chenoweth, Henry Hyde, Bob Barr, and Dan Burton. No matter. Conservative media—“impeachment chic,” as the pundit Laura Ingraham put it—was a financial bonanza. Limbaugh and Matt Drudge, not to mention Fox News, targeted Hillary and Bill. David Brock, who has since recanted, depicted Hillary as a Lady Macbeth figure. “It’s been a sad moment for America,” the network vice president John Moody said, “a fine moment for Fox News.” By 2012, Hemmer reports, the Fox host Lou Dobbs, at the behest of Steve Bannon, eyed running as a Tea Party candidate. Today, Tucker Carlson, who recently addressed the Family Leadership Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, is often touted as presidential timber. 

Any account of the right in recent decades is bound to find it difficult to grapple with the sheer febrility of the movement. Hemmer has produced an absorbing and fast-paced narrative. But there are two big topics that she scants. One is the devastating effect the Iraq War had on the Republican Party. While it’s true that right-wing radicalism was percolating during the 1990s, the party’s path to power was smoothed by the manifest bankruptcy of the Republican elite that was spotlighted by the calamitous conduct of the war by Bush and his malodorous vice president, Dick Cheney. Returning to the older traditions of the GOP seemed more plausible to the restive base in the face of the establishment Republican Mitt Romney’s failure to defeat Barack Obama in 2012 and the stubborn refusal of the party leadership to own up to its failures in the Middle East. The second issue is the significance of the machinations of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Federalist Society, who exploited Trump for their long-standing goal of capturing control of the Supreme Court. It was the coldly calculating McConnell, not Gingrich, who ultimately seized the day. 

Still, Hemmer makes an important contribution to the understanding of modern conservatism. She offers a valuable reminder that—decade after decade, generation after generation—a fresh cast of characters on the revanchist right has appeared to castigate liberals for their radicalism even as they themselves display an increasingly dark mastery of it. Now that our very democracy is under assault, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

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Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.