Power  /  Book Review

To Understand the Modern GOP, Look at the Reactionary ’90s

The most vitriolic and morally panicked conservative figures of the 1990s contributed just as much to modern American conservatism as Ronald Reagan did.

For all of this scholarly interest in Trump’s precursors, however, relatively little has been written about conservatism in the 1990s. With her compelling, eminently readable new book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s, historian Nicole Hemmer seeks to correct this oversight. Partisans argues that the counterrevolutionaries of the 1990s wholly transformed the conservative movement, setting it on a course that would lead to the election of Trump in 2016. Whereas Ronald Reagan’s sunny, pragmatic “Cold War conservatism” had defined the movement in the 1980s, Hemmer claims, hard-liners like Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and lesser-known figures like Idaho congresswoman Helen Chenoweth helped build the “more pessimistic, angrier, and even more revolutionary conservatism” that remains with us today.

For Hemmer, whose earlier work traced the emergence of conservative media institutions in the mid-twentieth century, three developments explain the presumed shift from Reaganism to the vitriolic right-wing politics of the 1990s. First, the end of the Cold War changed the landscape of US conservatism. While anti-communism had long served as a lodestar for conservatives, informing their positions on a range of foreign and domestic policy issues, the fall of the Soviet Union forced conservatives to recalibrate. For instance, Reagan’s “preference for more-open borders and higher immigration levels,” positions structured by Cold War imperatives, ultimately gave way to Buchanan’s intense nativism and Trump’s demand to “Build the Wall.”

Second, the 1994 congressional revolution “reoriented the [conservative] movement away from the presidency and toward Congress,” writes Hemmer, a shift with “profound consequences.” “With a Democrat in the White House, congressional Republicans adopted a politics of destruction, concerned less with legislation than with investigation and obstruction.” There were in fact major continuities between congressional Republicans and the Clinton White House. House speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton had developed a mutual respect for one another, and their policy priorities — especially on matters related to race, social assistance, and the carceral state — often aligned. (Take, for example, the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.) Still, the intense anti-Clinton sentiment at the heart of the conservative movement drove the GOP’s efforts to delegitimize and obstruct the president, even as he was pursuing and enacting policies that they liked. (This campaign to undermine President Clinton would come to a head with his impeachment, though it would live on in the resistance to Hillary Clinton’s 2015–16 White House bid.)