Rick Perlstein Shows Cluelessness About ‘KKK’ Conservatism in NY Times Magazine

Next Sunday’s New York Times Sunday Magazine (April 16) will feature a long essay by left-wing historian Rick Perlstein: “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” Approach with caution, warn two prominent conservative writers.

Until Nov. 8, 2016, historians of American politics shared a rough consensus about the rise of modern American conservatism. It told a respectable tale. By the end of World War II, the story goes, conservatives had become a scattered and obscure remnant, vanquished by the New Deal and the apparent reality that, as the critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950, liberalism was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”

After some bragging by Perlstein about his previous histories of the conservative movement, purported to show how wrong he and his fellow historians have been about the conservative moment all along.

Then the nation’s pre-eminent birther ran for president. Trump’s campaign was surreal and an intellectual embarrassment, and political experts of all stripes told us he could never become president. That wasn’t how the story was supposed to end. National Review devoted an issue to writing Trump out of the conservative movement; an editor there, Jonah Goldberg, even became a leader of the “Never Trump” crusade. But Trump won -- and conservative intellectuals quickly embraced a man who exploited the same brutish energies that Buckley had supposedly banished, with Goldberg explaining simply that Never Trump “was about the G.O.P. primary and the general election, not the presidency.”

The professional guardians of America’s past, in short, had made a mistake. We advanced a narrative of the American right that was far too constricted to anticipate the rise of a man like Trump....If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?

....

....Leo Ribuffo, a professor at George Washington University....Ribuffo argued that America’s anti-liberal traditions were far more deeply rooted in the past, and far angrier, than most historians would acknowledge, citing a long list of examples from “regional suspicions of various metropolitan centers and the snobs who lived there” to “white racism institutionalized in slavery and segregation.”

....

Looking back from that perspective, we can now see a history that is indeed unsettling -- but also unsettlingly familiar. Consider, for example, an essay published in 1926 by Hiram Evans, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in the exceedingly mainstream North American Review. His subject was the decline of “Americanism.”....

....

Anti-Semitism in America declined after World War II. But as Leo Ribuffo points out, the underlying narrative -- of a diabolical transnational cabal of aliens plotting to undermine the very foundations of Christian civilization -- survived in the anti-Communist diatribes of Joseph McCarthy. The alien narrative continues today in the work of National Review writers like Andrew McCarthy (“How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda”) and Lisa Schiffren (who argued that Obama’s parents could be secret Communists because “for a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or ’60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics”). And it found its most potent expression in Donald Trump’s stubborn insistence that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

Trump’s connection to this alternate right-wing genealogy is not just rhetorical. In 1927, 1,000 hooded Klansmen fought police in Queens in what The Times reported as a “free for all.” One of those arrested at the scene was the president’s father, Fred Trump. (Trump’s role in the melee is unclear; the charge -- “refusing to disperse” -- was later dropped.)....

The 1960s and ’70s New York in which Donald Trump came of age, as much as Klan-ridden Indiana in the 1920s or Barry Goldwater’s Arizona in the 1950s, was at conservatism’s cutting edge, setting the emotional tone for a politics of rage. ....

After linking the Central Park Five rape case to the KKK, not even The Gipper was spared.

But another answer hides in plain sight. The often-cynical negotiation between populist electioneering and plutocratic governance on the right has long been not so much a matter of policy as it has been a matter of show business. The media scholar Tim Raphael, in his 2009 book, “The President Electric: Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Performance,” calls the three-minute commercials that interrupted episodes of The General Electric Theater -- starring Reagan and his family in their state-of-the-art Pacific Palisades home, outfitted for them by G.E. -- television’s first “reality show.” For the California voters who soon made him governor, the ads created a sense of Reagan as a certain kind of character: the kindly paterfamilias, a trustworthy and nonthreatening guardian of the white middle-class suburban enclave....

It is a short leap from advertising and reality TV to darker forms of manipulation. Consider the parallels since the 1970s between conservative activism and the traditional techniques of con men. ....

Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in the grim essays of William F. Buckley, the scrupulous constitutionalist principles of Barry Goldwater or the bright-eyed optimism of Ronald Reagan. They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage. It will not be a pleasant story. But if those historians are to construct new arguments to make sense of Trump, the first step may be to risk being impolite.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, whose position on Trump was falsely characterized in the piece, lambasted both Perlstein and the irresponsible New York Times itself on Tuesday in “What Rick Perlstein’s Embarrassing New York Times Essay Gets Wrong.” The subhead: “Perlstein’s essay offers a really good insight into how the Times has jettisoned so much credibility in the age of Trump.”

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Perlstein doesn’t explicitly say that I (or National Review) “quickly embraced” Trump, but the insinuation is (Perlstein has a gift for snotty insinuations) that I am emblematic of this sudden, hypocritical transformation. For the reasons stated above, this came as news to me.

....

For starters, Perlstein’s insinuation -- that my declaration that “Never Trump” is over represents some kind of “embrace” of Trump -- isn’t just wrong, it is breathtakingly dishonest. The very article he’s quoting from has the sub-headline: “The Never Trump movement is over, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop criticizing Trump when he deserves it.”

Of “Perlstein’s larger ‘argument’ -- which prattles on about how the modern Right is descended from the Klan, blah, blah, blah. It’s mostly so much indictment-padding and guilt by tenuous association. I particularly love his insinuation that Father Coughlin was a right-winger (a topic I’ve written about at length). In brief: Coughlin supported FDR, saying the New Deal was “Christ’s Deal,” and the Roosevelt administration welcomed his support. It was only after FDR moved too far to the right that Coughlin broke with Roosevelt.

Goldberg even got a call from a New York Times fact checker that was useless: “I do think it’s remarkable that Perlstein’s editors and the fact checker never bothered to figure out if the example setting the premise of the whole article was actually, you know, a fact -- or even a remotely reasonable interpretation. My only conclusion is that confirmation bias runs so strong at The New York Times Magazine (and journalistic curiosity so weak) that they didn’t see the need.”

The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway also ripped apart Perlstein’s shoddy work.

I find it genuinely head scratching how Perlstein could publish something so terrible and, frankly, ahistorical as his current essay in New York Times magazine...

...the TL;DR of Perlstein article is basically this: Historians failed to anticipate the rise of Trump because they tried, wrongly, to understand conservatives on their own terms rather than acknowledge they are a bunch of violent, radically anti-government racists....Perlstein concludes by saying that future historians looking to understand Trump need to forgo attention paid to the movement's intellectuals and instead highlight "conservative history's political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage" and "risk being impolite."

Hemingway also documented how wrong Perlstein was on Goldberg:

The suggestion that Goldberg has rolled over and embraced Trump post-election is simply absurd. He remains one of Trump's most dogged critics on the right, precisely because he argues that embracing Trump constitutes a rejection of conservatism.

Racism Weekly Standard National Review New York Times Rick Perlstein KKK Jonah Goldberg Donald Trump
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