January 30, 2024
From The Real News Network

The political crisis that has gripped the US over the past decade is the outgrowth of this country’s peculiar political history. Just as the hard right turn of the 21st century GOP can be traced back to the failures of post-Jim Crow desegregation, so too can the Democrats’ failure to uphold any ‘left’ politics worthy of the name be drawn back to a betrayal of labor decades in the making. Few are as equipped as Rick Perlstein, historian of the post-1980s conservative movement, to place our current conjuncture in the context of the long arc of US history, as he does in his forthcoming book The Infernal Triangle: Authoritarian Republicans, Ineffectual Democrats, and a Clueless Media. Perlstein joins The Marc Steiner Show for a discussion on his work and the present political moment as the US enters yet another election year.

Studio / Post-production: David Hebden


Marc Steiner:  Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, it’s great to have you all with us, and let’s get ready for another episode of Rise of the Right. We talk today once again with Rick Perlstein, who’s renowned for his books like, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and before that, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His latest article in Prospect Magazine has an ominous title, “You Are Entering the Infernal Triangle: Authoritarian Republicans, ineffectual Democrats, and a clueless media.” Let’s talk about what’s happening now, the future, where it may be taking us, and what we might do about it. Welcome back, Rick.

Rick Perlstein:  Hi, Marc. It’s good to be here. I feel like every interview I do, it’s like when you go to a funeral, I wish we could meet under better circumstances.

Marc Steiner:  [Laughs] I thought about the same thing as we started this. This whole series I do on Rise of the Right sometimes could drive me to drink.

Rick Perlstein:  Well, at least you have your Israel-Palestine series too –

Marc Steiner:  Right, that, too. I pick the most uplifting subjects.

Rick Perlstein:  – Tell me about it.

Marc Steiner:  But you’ve been covering this for a long time. This has been part of what you’ve been talking about, rising in America, for decades.

Rick Perlstein:  I started working on this stuff in 1996. Right at the beginning of ’96, I started my Goldwater book. It’s like if I had chosen a different subject, my life would’ve been very different. But I picked a winner, Marc. It turned out to be something that was at the center of America’s and the world’s prospects. Now I am mostly writing about much more recent history, and it’s like an emotional live wire for me. It’s a lot easier to write about dead people, even when they’ve had a profound influence on the present.

Marc Steiner:  Exactly. I understand. Before we jump into “The Infernal Triangle,” let me play on what you said here for a moment. It seems that many of us grew up in the era that started during the Depression with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took us through Kennedy, and the Vietnam War, and so there’s this illusion America was moving to a progressive world and then something shifted. Talk a bit about that shift historically and what exactly happened.

Rick Perlstein:  There’s this, really, really wonderful historian, who makes me look like a piker, named Jefferson Cowie. Blessed that he won the Pulitzer Prize this year for his book on this county in Alabama since the 1830s and tracing how the word “liberty” became an alibi for domination. Anyway, he wrote a book called The Great Exception, and he points out that this time, which seemed like it was the way America was going to go and more and more of a progressive direction, turned out to be this strange exceptional window. And he says a couple of fascinating things about why this period from 1932 – I’ll give you a very specific date – To 1965, was able to have this window in which America became much more of a social democracy, much more of a multiracial democracy. There are a couple of things: There’s one thing he says and one thing that I will say, Marc. What happened in 1965? A lot of things. But what might’ve happened to – If I can get Socratic – And this exception of tolerant, cosmopolitan, progressive, social, democratic, liberalism in America?

Marc Steiner:  You’re asking me to answer that question?

Rick Perlstein:  It’s a mind-blower [Marc laughs].

Marc Steiner:  Well, we had the Voting Rights Act.

Rick Perlstein:  Right? That is definitely one contributing factor. Remember that Kevin Phillips said, don’t worry about the Republicans winning the South. We’ll win the South because of the reaction against the Voting Rights Act.

Marc Steiner:  Exactly.

Rick Perlstein:  And in fact, it has happened that the counties that have the most African-American voting are the ones that have the most strong conservative movements. But there’s another thing that happened in 1965, another landmark piece of legislation, and that was the one that opened up immigration to the non-European world.

Marc Steiner:  Right.

Rick Perlstein:  Between 1924 and 1965, America had very few – Unless you were Chinese, Chinese Exclusion Act – Immigration laws at all. You showed up and proved that you weren’t infectious, and the next thing you know, you’re working at a factory or a push cart or whatever.

In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act, inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, made it impossible for anyone who wasn’t from Western Europe to immigrate to the US. In 1965 that was repealed. The very dark, tragic point that Jefferson Cowie makes is that it was that window of relative ethnic homogeneity that gave Americans the trust to let down their guards and feel like they could share more creepy stuff. Another point I would raise that helped lead this reaction goes a little further. It’s the post-World War II prosperity that did seem like it would live forever. America went from something like 20% of the world’s exports to like 50%. We bestrode the world like a colossus, and, as every leftist knows, that broke down. And the neoliberal era of this era of the ’70s was driven by falling corporate profits.

To give an excellent example of how that enabled a progressive imagination, do you know how the – Not to get Socratic again – Freedom Budget, which was what Martin Luther King was fighting for when he did the poverty encampment on the mall?

Marc Steiner:  I was there.

Rick Perlstein:  Well, the whole idea of how the Freedom Budget worked was – I don’t want to get too deep in the weirds – Do you know what the Taxpayer Increment Financing System is? The people who wrote it, economists and civil rights activists like Bayard Rustin, the idea was they would take the amount of tax revenue America had in 1968 and all the tax revenue above it as America grew and grew and grew and grew. Because we – Again, bestrode the world as a classist – Would be committed to things like building community centers, income supports, all this stuff. It wasn’t this idea that they were going to expropriate the rich. It was the idea that America was going to be so rich we would make sure that the excess went to the people who needed it most.

So once you get to 1973, 1974, and 1975, and you get stagflation, and you get recession after recession after recession, that idea that America’s bounty could be redistributed in a freer and fairer way is out the window and you get this zero-sum idea about economics. You get the idea that this guy next to me wants to take from me and if he looks different and smells different and eats different foods and looks different, well then I better protect me and mine against him.

So that’s, in a nutshell, the Reagan era. And the thing about that that’s so disconcerting now is one of the things – And, of course, from [inaudible] trial, and I talk about what happens to the Democrats, too – The Democrats feel like they need to get on board with the neoliberalism. And a lot of it is bad faith rich people who want to have a hand in both parties, but a lot of it is, wow, this New Deal stuff doesn’t work anymore. Look how stagnant the economy is.

Marc Steiner:  I would maybe – As you’ve written about as well – Add to that the civil rights struggle and race and how that affected all of this.

Rick Perlstein:  Yes, and it’s a real paradox. Progress does beget reaction. I look at how it’s our moral imperative as human beings born within the geographical confines of the US that we repair this breach. But it has consequences. It makes it harder for people to let their guard down. Those basic, lower down on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and people get very defensive. They get very sharp elbows. And the apotheosis of that is they’ve stolen our birthright, make America great again. And that’s why we have a left and we have a left to fight the right, but we have a left also to make sure the Democratic Party doesn’t become the tool of the right.

Marc Steiner:  I want to jump into “The Infernal Triangle” here but I have to ask you one quick question. Your analysis about how the deindustrialization of America feeds into that.

Rick Perlstein:  Right. It’s quite fascinating. You might know a Marxist historian named Judith Stein.

Marc Steiner:  Oh, sure.

Rick Perlstein:  She passed away. The book about Clinton’s neoliberalism that came out with Nelson Lichtenstein, another great historian of labor, called Fabulous Failure was written with her notes. But she wrote a book on the ’70s in which she pointed out that because of this prosperity, it’s like we will develop the economies of our Cold War allies, but there was never really any thought for the consequences of giving them a piece of the industrial pie. And she gives this amazing example of this guy, George Ball, who’s one of the good guys in the Johnson administration who fought the Vietnam War, but during the Kennedy administration, he was a trade representative and he would have these meetings with textile union representatives in which he would show off his British suit.

Or if you look at how America industrialized Japan, said, we need this Cold War bulwark in the East against the Chinese monster. And it wasn’t that there wasn’t enough to go around, it wasn’t that the whole world doesn’t deserve to develop, it was that they didn’t spare a thought for the blue-collar industrial factories. It would take care of itself. It was one more constituency that the Democrats took for granted. Then you get Jimmy Carter who had no interest in unions, completely sold them out consistently, and then you get NAFTA. And you look at what Bill Clinton said when he signed NAFTA, he said it was going to create 5 billion new jobs. Who doesn’t want that? Right? It’s a combination of reasonably good intentions, bad intentions, tragic outcomes, unintended consequences, intended consequences, and history.

Marc Steiner:  Now we find ourselves in this “Infernal Triangle” that you talk about, which I thought was a brilliant way to look at it. Let’s break that down for all of us in what those three parts are.

Rick Perlstein:  So what I’m doing with my life now – Happy days – Is writing a book about America since the year 2000, since Bush v Gore. And I try and create a portrait of what got us to the Trumpian moment that has three broad moving parts. One I’m most associated with is what I call the “authoritarian ratchet” of the Republican Party. I have a theory about why and what it is about conservatism that makes it more and more and more authoritarian over the years. We all know about that. The inadequacy of the Democrats in responding to it, whether they are Boy Scouts who refuse to play hardball, or whether they take their working class and minority base for granted. This goes all the way back to the ’50s. You should see what Adlai Stevenson said about the idea of national healthcare.

This idea that they’re aloof and above the grubby give and take of real hardball politics, the neoliberalism, all these things we associate with the failures of the Democratic Party, that’s the second side of the triangle. But the third part is the one I obsess over most because I find it the most depressing, and it’s the media. In that first column, I compare, for example, the way the media performs a little trick of affirmative action on behalf of Republicans when you take as the structural bedrock of your professional ideals as a journalist that each side has to be treated the same, but one side lies, cheats, and steals far more than the other side which tends to act like boy scouts, then you’re biased towards the people who lie, cheat, and steal. You’re not depicting reality.

I compare that to the picture that Americans get from the mainstream media and resembles, in its accuracy, the picture that people get in an authoritarian country where the media is not free. And I use the word profta. To take an example from 2004, because the right did such a good job of vilifying Dan Rather who accurately reported that George W. Bush went AWOL from the Texas National Guard, but he used a forged document, which for all we know was a [inaudible] that was forged by Karl Rove. And that became normalized as an issue of debate by the mainstream media.

There was a poll that more people thought CBS was biased against the Republicans than Fox was biased against the Democrats. And you see that all the time. Barack Obama passed a tax cut that covers 99% of wage earners. For all of Barack Obama’s flaws, he created a tax cut that gave the average family $1,200 for the 2009 tax year. And then in 2010, CBS did a survey: 53% of Americans think that their taxes were the same, 23% think under Obama they went up, and only 11% say they got a tax cut. That’s because the media depicted the right-wing tea party doing what they said they were doing. They said they were fighting high taxes from Barack Obama. So they laundered a lie, they became the conveyor belt for disinformation. So you combine all these things together and there’s a very narrow aperture for building a mass public for multiracial democracy, social democratic policies, cosmopolitanism, science, truth, and all the things that I’m proud as a left-leaning liberal to say that we need in order to have a healthy functioning society.

Marc Steiner:  I’m curious where you think this takes us. As we have this conversation today, David Smith of Sinclair Broadcasting, who is a right-wing demagogue, bought The Sun, which is Baltimore’s daily newspaper.

Rick Perlstein:  It’s as if Rupert Murdoch took over the Washington Post.

Marc Steiner:  Exactly. Right.

Rick Perlstein:  So, yes. The Sun is a newspaper. There was an old joke, it was on Family Guy, and the dog told his 20-something that he was dating and she asked what a book was, and he said, it’s like a blog made out of trees. This was the early-2000s or something. But, young people don’t read newspapers, and young people – And this is very much my friend Jeff Charlotte’s rift, too – Are going to save us. The young people who are willing to walk into a church and yell at the president about Israel-Palestine, the young people who are willing to put their bodies on the line when the State Department is talking with energy executives.

One of the tragedies of the Democratic Party is that it holds not only its activist base but its next generation of politicians in such patronizing contempt. There’s a new book by Ryan Grim about The Squad and the way Nancy Pelosi treated AOC. Your jaw will drop. It is like fear and contempt of 80-year-olds for 30-year-olds. But if there’s a dialectical turn, it’s obviously going to come from the people who’ve gotten the shit end of neoliberalism, the shit end of climate change, and understand that the old institutional arrangements don’t work. When you pedal the bicycle the chain does not catch on the gear and they’ll do their own thing.

The fact that the Democratic Party has never had the wit to realize that you invest more in the younger members of the party than the older members of the party who are going to die anyway, that’s a paradox of the Republican Party. They love bomb young people. I read a memoir by a young reporter named Tito Wen, who was formerly on the right, and the stuff about the money they showered on her to go to journalism camps, paid internships, all this stuff, that the investor class to the Democratic Party doesn’t want to have anything to do with it ‘cos they can’t control it. But young people find their way to the right values anyway.

Marc Steiner:  So, given what you laid out in ‘The Infernal Triangle,” you’ve given the three parts that you broke down for us a few moments ago, one of the things I’m going to throw out to you as thinking about this is that it seems as that left-liberals, the Democrats in general, have forgotten how to organize.

Rick Perlstein:  Yes, totally.

Marc Steiner:  And we, as a former union organizer, community organizer, we invented that shit. We invented that, we did that.

Rick Perlstein:  And they freely admit that they stole it all from us. Stupidly, they think we still do all this stuff. There’s lots of projection but this Tina Nguyen memoir is heartbreaking. She spends all this time on the right, then she becomes the correspondent covering the right for Vanity Fair, and she goes to her editor and she’s like, well, I want to do this for the left. I want to cover Democratic Party organizations. And the guy’s like, great, go for it. And she’s like, wait a sec. There aren’t any. It’s absolutely gobsmacking because she’s naive, she doesn’t know much. She’s young.

She expects to find the Alec of the Left. She expects to find the Federalist Society of the Left, and they try and create these pale limitations, but they’re so tepid and Boy Scoutish. She wants to find the CPAC of the left. CPAC, it’s free for kids to go there, it’s like Heritage Foundation, they have their own door. I have a brilliant nephew who’s desperate to get a job within the activist world, on the left, an analysis job, think-tank job, whatever, and he’s done so much, he has so many fascinating things on his resume, and he won an award for his thesis and he can’t even get an interview.

Marc Steiner:  In the time we have left, let me hit two things here before I come back to where “The Infernal Triangle” may take us as we can close out on that. Why do you think we got here?

Rick Perlstein:  The biggest, highest level principle is… Do you remember Old Sam Rayburn, the former Speaker of the House?

Marc Steiner:  In Texas.

Rick Perlstein:  From Texas. He was one of these classic, he is probably racist but he gave a lot of white guys jobs, and then with these New Deal programs he built a lot. He had a saying, he passed it along to his protege, Lyndon Johnson, who really took it to heart: Any jackass can knock down a barn. It takes a carpenter to build and a lot of what the right does is entropy; They destroy. They destroy people’s faith in government, they destroy regulatory organizations, and they destroy anything that’s a countervailing power against corporations. Building those things is much harder. Building those things requires trust, it requires reciprocal effort, it requires leadership, and it requires also a media that plainly explains what’s going on. It’s like, here’s this for generations, we learned, oh, well, the Democrats sold out blue-collar factory workers.

Well, Joe Biden, for all his awful qualities is creating all these factory jobs for white guys in the South. The CHIPS Act. But it’s so far gone, that people don’t even connect the idea that government can do anything to help them. I once read an article about a guy talking about how he was going door to door – This was a long time ago in the 2004 election for John Carey’s campaign with undecided voters – And he would say, oh, John Carey wants to lower your health insurance premiums. And he said people would look at him like he said John Carey wants to fix your deck. The idea that you hire people in the government to help you, that’s another one of these chains that slip the gears. We don’t even think that way anymore. And that’s a project of building and it’s happening but it’s something that is a generational project. We don’t have much time.

Marc Steiner:  Well, picking up on that “we don’t have much time” theme, I think about all the stuff you’ve written and you talk about the Republican Party ratcheting and moving towards authoritarianism, Democrats who have lost their way and seem to have no –

Rick Perlstein:  Chutzpah.

Marc Steiner:  – That’s a good word. Chutzpah. Yes. And then you have the media who’s not doing their job. So none of us are with crystal balls but we do have analysis. You do have a worldview of where we’ve been and when there were movements that moved us forward. What do you think it takes us now? What do you see happening given that inferno in the next generation?

Rick Perlstein:  I don’t want to be glib. I’ve already been a little glib by saying the [crosstalk] but there are so many geostrategic things that are going on around the country. I could see a World War happening. Maybe it’s an 1860 movement, maybe it’s a 1660s movement, maybe it’s an 1830s movement. This is a big, big moment in history. And may you live in interesting times, that supposed old Chinese curse. We all have very meaningful jobs to do and it ain’t fun. It’s like we’re living in the woods, living off the land, and fighting the resistance.

Marc Steiner:  It does feel like that. I think about this piece that I worked on a few years back which was making an analogy between the Civil War and the post-Civil War reconstruction period and the period we’re in now, and what form that takes. I can’t tell, but it feels like from, and also what you’re saying, that’s where we are. We’re at one of those precipices.

Rick Perlstein:  One more thing. I got to use this because the person who told me it didn’t give me permission to use it in my book [both laugh]. So I’m going to put it out there and pretend you didn’t hear it.

Marc Steiner:  Okay, got you.

Rick Perlstein:  Someone told me about how their partner grew up in a conservative home and their father would wake them up every morning with a catechism: What is liberalism? Liberalism is a mental disease. That way we have a generation of people who’ve grown up in that world then now they’re trying to destroy us. And by the way, liberal means left, too. This is a working alliance. If you’re a leftist and you think liberals are your enemy, I have no time for that. If you’re a liberal, and you think the left is your enemy, I have no time for that. This is popular front time.

Marc Steiner:  This is a time for what in my parents’ generation, they called a united front.

Rick Perlstein:  That’s right. United front.

Marc Steiner:  Rick Perlstein, as always it’s a pleasure to talk with you. It really is. And your analysis is amazing. Your articles are amazing. We’re going to link to all of them here, on this page.

Rick Perlstein:  And if you go to prospect.org, a splash page will come up and it’ll say, this is not a paywall. Then you go down to the bottom. You can click on my column and sign up for it every week, every Wednesday morning.

Marc Steiner:  Well worth the read as well. And I look forward to many more conversations.

Rick Perlstein:  Yes, thank you.

Marc Steiner:  I want to thank you so much for your work, Rick, and we’ll stay in touch. Thank you for this. This is really an important piece of work you’ve been doing, so thank you.

Rick Perlstein:  Thank you, Marc. Bye-bye.

Marc Steiner:  Thank you all for joining us today. And a special thanks to Dave Hebdon for running the show today and editing this program, the tireless Kayla Rivara for making it all work behind the scenes, and everyone here at The Real News for making this show and our other shows possible. And we want to thank Rick Perlstein for joining us. We’re going to link to Rick Perlstein’s stories on the American Prospect on our set here at The Real News. You can catch up with what he’s saying. He’s always well worth the read.

Please let me know what you think about what you heard today and what you’d like us to cover. Write to me at, [email protected] and I will write to you immediately. Stay tuned for more conversations and stories about the Rise of the Right here on The Real News and The Marc Steiner Show. We have a fight on our hands for our future, our children’s future, the nation, and the world’s future. It’s all at stake and we here at The Real News will do our part and bring those stories to you. So for the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.

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