Lefty Author Rick Perlstein: Hate-Driven Conservatives Play ‘Bigotry Whack-a-Mole’

Historian Rick Perlstein, the author of three books (so far) on American movement conservatism from the mid-‘50s through the mid-‘70s, believes, in essence, that conservatives are tribalists whose central task is to promote hatred against other tribes. According to Perlstein, two recent news stories serve to illuminate that process, which, he suggests, involves an almost scientific-sounding conservation of the right wing’s bigoted energy.

“Conservatism is like bigotry whack-a-mole,” wrote Perlstein. “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, [Donald Trump] 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’s analysis first ran this past Wednesday in The Washington Spectator and subsequently appeared on lefty sites including Salon and Talking Points Memo. From the piece (bolding added):

While ignorant or insensate bitter-enders will continue to screech, there’s no going back: [The Confederate flag] is toxic even to Republican backbenchers…

So, progress, right? The Republican Party, or at least more of it than we ever would have dreamed, abandoning yesteryear’s bigotry, proving that progress is possible: people can change…

Not so fast…[A]t almost precisely the same moment, Donald Trump [said] “When Mexico sends its people…they’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”…

There’s an enormous amount to learn in this juxtaposition about how conservatism works at its deepest levels…

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…

There is [also] a core conservative contention: that there are certain things that a vast majority of Americans know to be true, even if propriety—or the liberal thought police, what Nixon called by implication the silencing minority—do not allow them to say…

This particular understanding of the gap between public profession and private confession is one of the five or six things most fundamental to conservative thought. 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…

…The work of conservative politics is, at bottom, the attempt to create the conditions to flush out the forbidden truths that Americans supposedly bear in their breasts…from the realm of secrecy into the arena of policy…

…[T]he core lineaments of conservatism [are that] there is our tribe, which is good, true, and pure; and there are those other tribes, who are existential threats to you and me (Reagan’s favorite phrase), and must be suppressed in order for good to be preserved…If anything, the lowering of the Confederate flag in South Carolina opens space for this particular new longing to air this other silent truth more freely.

This is important: conservatism 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.

Campaigns & Elections 2016 Presidential Culture/Society Immigration Conservatives & Republicans Race Issues Racism Salon Talking Points Memo Rick Perlstein Donald Trump


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