How did the Party of Reagan become the Party of Trump’s populist politics? It was a shocking surprise to many Republicans in the years after 2016 when Donald Trump overthrew longstanding Reaganite conservative positions on issues like trade, immigration, and democracy. But historian Nicole Hemmer points out, in her new book Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American politics in the 1990s, that the template for today’s populist conservatism was created in that earlier era.
Hemmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and a veteran podcaster and media commentator, believes that Reagan’s legacy in the Republican Party and the conservative movement was short-lived. The 1990s witnessed the end of the Cold War, the transformation of the media environment, and the “Republican revolution” of 1994 that made Newt Gingrich the first Republican Speaker of the House in four decades. These developments changed the image and substance of the GOP from the one that Reagan presented to the American people — a party that was optimistic, pragmatic, popular, and tolerant of internal differences — into one that was angry, pessimistic, uninterested in governing, obsessed with ideological purity, and increasingly counter-majoritarian.
In this podcast episode, Hemmer discusses how 1990s conservative revolutionaries and political actors like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan pointed the way toward the triumph of Trumpism within the Republican Party. She analyzes the Republican establishment’s Faustian bargains with populists like Buchanan and conservative-entertainment innovators like Limbaugh, and how it became unable to stand up to a base that became radicalized by those figures the establishment thought it could control. And while Hemmer believes the GOP could return to being a more or less conventional party, she emphasizes that “This is not a party looking to moderate. This is not to say that those incentives can’t change — they can. But it would take more than an insurrection at the Capitol to do it, so I do not want to think about what would have to happen in American politics and life to make that change happen.”
Nicole Hemmer: You have been robbed of a kind of power that is justly yours, that you should have access to, and you have been denied it because of the biases in these institutions. And that has been a very powerful idea at the heart of conservatism and today’s populist politics now for more than half a century.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted today to be joined by Nicole Hemmer, who is an associate professor of History at Vanderbilt University and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency. She writes a weekly column for CNN Opinion and is co-host of the podcasts Past Present and This Day in Esoteric Political History. She is the author of the 2016 pathbreaking history Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, as well as a wonderful new book that just appeared on August 30th, which everyone interested in U.S. politics and history should buy and read, entitled Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries who Remade American Politics in the 1990s. Congratulations on the new book and welcome, Niki!
Nicole Hemmer: Thank you so much, Geoff. I really appreciate it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your book has received great reviews across the board, including not one but two reviews in the New York Times, along with major media attention and even publishing house promotion, which doesn’t happen much anymore. And your book really is a tour de force. I’m so grateful for it, and its reception has also been gratifying to see. And I know you have a lot of demands on your time, so I’m especially grateful to you for carving out some time to talk to me.
Nicole Hemmer: Always happy to chat.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I know you publish under your given name of Nicole Hemmer, but I have known you for a decade now as Niki, so I hope it’s okay that I call you that here.
Nicole Hemmer: By all means, please do.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you. I actually realized, in putting together that introductory wind-up, that long as it is, it skips over a lot of your history and work. So you received your Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, where I think your doctoral advisor was the late, great Alan Brinkley?
Nicole Hemmer: That is correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: He of course wrote that famous 1994 essay in the American Historical Review in which he observed that at that time, “twentieth-century American conservatism has been something of an orphan in historical scholarship.” Nowadays, it would be fair to say that, like success, it has a thousand fathers — and mothers.
Nicole Hemmer: That is very correct. Yes, it is one of those fields where… I don’t know that I knew it at the time that I had signed up with Alan as my advisor, but there really was this resurgence of conservative historiography that was underway. And when I ultimately decided on a dissertation topic on conservatism, I was joining this rapidly growing body of historical knowledge. So I’m really glad that that happened, because there are so many just really incredible works on the history of conservatism these days.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, I agree. Kim Phillips-Fein recently reviewed your new book in the Atlantic, along with two books by Dana Milbank and Matthew Continetti, under the title “The Long Unraveling of the Republican Party.” And it occurred to me that I really wish that Kim, or someone of her caliber, would update her 2011 Journal of American History review article called “Conservatism: A State of the Field.” She listed a half-dozen or so areas that at that time, eleven years ago, she thought needed further scholarship. And among them were the conflicts between moderate and conservative Republicans, which I had something to say about a year later, and the role of mass media in the creation of the right, which you had written about in your dissertation the year before. And you’ve now shed new light on the right in the 1990s, which I think likewise was an understudied period.
Nicole Hemmer: It’s remarkable how much has been published in the last decade, how the historiography of conservatism has really pushed forward. Because so much of it, especially in the early 2000s was, because of Alan Brinkley’s observations, really just about uncovering the history of conservatism, because so few scholars had done so little work in that area. And part of it, I think, was about discovering or writing a history of responsible conservatism. And much of the scholarships of the past decade has said, “Oh, wait a second. There’s a broader right out there that we need to map.” And so there have been a number of really excellent books that have come out in that arena.
Geoff Kabaservice: So at the time I met you, you were a post-doctoral fellow and research associate at the United States Centre at the University of Sydney in Australia. You then returned stateside to be on the history faculty at the University of Miami, and then you were at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. And then, after a stint as a fellow in residence at the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement at Purdue University, you moved to the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics at Columbia University as a scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project. And now you and your puppy — who’s some sort of poodly mix, as I recall?
Nicole Hemmer: Yes, she’s a Havanese poodle mix. I’m glad she got a shout-out.
Geoff Kabaservice: …are both at Vanderbilt. But it seems to me that you’ve taken a cross-wise path through academia. Because on the one hand, you’ve had an academic focus that doesn’t always fit neatly within the conventional disciplinary categories. And on the other, you’ve also had a focus on public engagement that manifested, for example, five years ago when you co-created the “Made by History” historical analysis section of the Washington Post, as well as all the writing that you’ve done for major newspapers, magazines, and websites, and as well as your work as a podcaster and television commentator. Am I right in thinking that there’s something a bit different about your trajectory?
Nicole Hemmer: It is not a straightforward path to where I am now. This is really my first time on a formal history faculty. I had never been in a tenure-track position, and so to find myself as a tenured professor was not something that I thought was in any way in the cards for me. I do think that there was some suspicion around the history of conservatism as an area of study. I think that occasionally historians have difficulties separating the topic one studies from the historian themselves, particularly when it comes to the history of conservatism. And the job market when I came out of graduate school in 2008, 2009 was, as you might imagine, not terribly robust. So yes, I have taken a very winding road through the academy and through journalism and have just recently landed in a more traditional space.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sure we could spend a lot of time talking about the disadvantages of that untraditional road, but I’m more curious to know what the advantages have been for you as a historian, as a commentator, and as a thinker.
Nicole Hemmer: Well, I think that… A couple of things. One, because I wasn’t necessarily pursuing the tenure track, I was able to pursue my intellectual interests without necessarily thinking about how historians would weigh them up for tenure, for an associate promotion. I didn’t have to navigate, necessarily, the politics of the academy in the same way. And I do think that writing for a public audience, which was very outré when I was doing it in like 2008, 2009, that has changed dramatically in the years since. At that time it was considered a little unrespectable and a waste of time. Historians have changed a lot on that front in the past decade. But it allowed me a kind of nimbleness in both my thinking and my writing, and I think that it has helped make my writing more straightforward and more clear in ways that I really value as a scholar.
Geoff Kabaservice: I remember that when I was living in England, there was a term known as the “dial-a-don,” where the papers would call up some kind of academic and get them to write something. And there was something sort of disreputable about it, even though those people became reasonably famous. But at the same time, I think there’s also a real case to be made for actually giving the public some scholarly perspective, particularly on the kind of politics that’s usually just the stuff of talking heads.
Nicole Hemmer: I think that’s exactly right. I do think that, especially as punditry became so widespread — basically anywhere you looked that there was a place for pundits — punditry became kind of expected. You knew pretty much what a commentator was going to say. And one of the things that I really appreciate about a historical perspective is that it can pull you out of reflexive responses to the things that are happening in the world and give you a different kind of grounding. That doesn’t always happen. I think there are some pitfalls to the way we sometimes try to work history in to fit our contemporary politics. But I do think that it allows a different perspective.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like the motto that you have on your Past Present podcast site: “Where hindsight becomes foresight.”
Nicole Hemmer: Yes. Even though I have since come out against prediction in the last several years, I do think that there is something about looking back to look forward.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. So can you tell me something about your biographical background — where you come from, where your early influences were, how you came to your political interests?
Nicole Hemmer: So I grew up in southern Indiana in a rural community, a pretty conservative Catholic community, and a household that was pretty conservative. I think my dad was the one of the four of us — I have a brother as well — who was the most politically engaged and also the most conservative. But I grew up in a community where, when the 1994 Republican revolution happened, two students came to school with black armbands on and everyone was like, “What is happening?” For the most part, I don’t think students in my high school followed politics very closely at all, but certainly to be a Democrat and to care that much about politics in the community where I grew up was pretty strange.
I got increasingly interested in politics in college, where I got a minor in Political Science. And when I went off to graduate school, I was interested in studying Pragmatism. The book… Oh, what is that excellent book that came out in, I think in the late 1990s, early 2000s? There was a great book on the Pragmatism movement that I was really inspired by. But the first summer that I came home from graduate school, my dad, who had retired, was listening to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity nonstop. And when we were out driving in the car, he turned it on one day and he said, “My goal while you’re home this summer is to get you to vote for George W. Bush,” because it was the summer of 2004. And I didn’t ultimately end up voting for Bush, but I did end up becoming fascinated with the idea that if I listened to these programs, my dad thought I would change my political perspective. And that kick-started my career.
Geoff Kabaservice: I actually saw the odd little note which is that you actually were a psychology major in college, is that right?
Nicole Hemmer: I was indeed. So I’m a first-generation college student, and trying to figure out what to major in in college was really confusing, because my parents wanted me to have a degree that would allow me to go get a job and make money and retire comfortably. And the only people who I had known who had gone to college were an aunt and uncle of mine, and they were both psychologists. So I dutifully signed up to get a degree in psychology. As I mentioned, I ended up getting a minor in political science. But my last year in college, I took some history courses. And I have to say, after my first U.S. history course, probably the first two lectures, I was like, “Oh no, I think this is what I need to do with my life.” And that upended a lot of plans for me, but ultimately it worked out.
Geoff Kabaservice: So as I said, your doctoral advisor was Alan Brinkley, who himself had written about a conservative media person in the figure of Charles Coughlin in his book Voices of Protest.
Nicole Hemmer: That’s right. And I had not intended to write a sequel to Voices of Protest, but in looking back, I really did in a lot of ways. Alan isn’t normally thought of as a media historian, although his career is bookended by two books that are primarily about media history. So Voices of Protest was his first book, and one of his final books was a history of Henry Luce, a biography of Henry Luce, a magazine publisher who played a huge role in crafting the idea of “the American Century.” And so I think Alan understood, on a lot of levels, the centrality of media to politics and politics to media, perhaps in no small part because his father was a famous journalist. And so I can’t say, necessarily, that he and I had a lot of conversations about media and politics, but it is fascinating to look back and realize how closely my work seems to have grown out of his.
Geoff Kabaservice: Your dissertation was likewise entitled “Messengers of the Right,” and that was your first book. And although it’s been a while since I’ve read it, I remember being very impressed by it. And it seemed to me that you were looking back to the 1940s and in subsequent decades for the antecedents of the media conservatives of the present day, and you were focusing on figures like broadcaster Clarence Manion, book publisher Henry Regnery, National Review magazine publisher William Rusher. And one of the things I remember from that book, too, was how central the America First Committee was in so many ways to that early conservative movement.
Nicole Hemmer: This was a surprise to me, because when I started turning the dissertation into a book, I really thought that the origin would be in the early 1950s. Clarence Manion’s show starts in 1954; Regnery’s publishing company gets underway in the early 1950s; National Review launches in 1955. But when I started trying to trace all of these networks that I wanted to talk about, they all seemed to lead back to 1939, 1940, 1941, and the America First Committee — which is actually one of the origin stories for the newsweekly Human Events, which is another publication that I study.
And I think that it is a good window into a couple of things. First, the people in the U.S. who opposed U.S. entry into World War II did not really have a voice in either of the two major parties. When it came to the 1940 election, they did not have a representative on the presidential ticket, and they felt intentionally shut out of the political conversation. And that sense of a blackout of their views led to the foundation of the America First Committee, led them to begin to suspect that there was something less than objective about the media.
Second, I think that looking back at the America First Committee shows you a pre-Cold War conservative movement. The America First Committee was not just conservatives, but there were conservative nationalists who played a huge role, particularly in the Chicago region, who saw the America First Committee as an expression of their foreign policy ideas — foreign policy ideas that would continue on into the late 1940s and early 1950s, until the Cold War becomes such a pressing matter that those non-interventionist or anti-interventionist voices largely just don’t have a role to play in the Cold War conservative movement. And so it helps to explain a transformation that’s happening on the right that would then ultimately lead to the conservative movement that someone like Bill Buckley and Bill Rusher would have a role in.
Geoff Kabaservice: We have participated in scholarly discussions of the America First Committee and isolationism and phenomena of that sort. As I think I probably told you on that occasion, at least, the subject of my first book was Kingman Brewster, who became known as the president of Yale in the 1960s and ’70s. But he was actually pretty well known to the American public in the early 1940s because he was one of the student leaders of the America First Committee, way back in the days when it was the Committee to Defend America First. And you’re right, the America First Committee was not entirely the kind of Midwestern, nativist, xenophobic movement that it eventually became. But on the other hand, it really was anti-establishment, populist politics, even on campus, even at places like Yale. And in many ways it really was the fons et origo of the conservative movement as it later came to be. And so many people, whether we’re talking about Bill Buckley or the people at Human Events, were really deeply influenced by the most conservative version or incarnation, I guess I would say, of the America First Committee.
Nicole Hemmer: And that word “anti-establishment” is pretty important for capturing something about the twentieth-century conservative movement: that even though at times it was particularly wedded to hierarchies and to traditions, it had a kind of anti-establishment ethos or positionality that becomes important at particular times in conservative history. But also — I know we’re not quite there yet — but as I write about in my book, by the time there is a real conservative establishment, that conservative establishment also has to deal with an anti-establishment right and the conservative revolutionaries trying to overthrow it. So I do think that that anti-establishment positioning is so important for making sense of the different iterations of the Cold War and post-World War right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Now, this is also leaping ahead… I think it’s important in terms of the way that populist politics develop and take shape if it is coming in response to an issue position or issues generally that aren’t recognized, or to some extent championed, by either of the major parties. And you certainly saw that with immigration in the ’80s and ’90s.
Nicole Hemmer: You see it with protectionism as well, I think, especially in the early ’90s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, absolutely. Something that also struck me about your book Messengers of the Right… I’m coming to you just less than a week after having been at the Miami National Conservatism conference, which was kind of a circus as these things tend to be. But coming out of that conference, Josh Hammer, who has a column at Newsweek, offered the uninitiated a primer on National Conservatism, which has positioned itself as the Trumpiest variety of conservatism going. And there was a quote from that article… He said, “Perhaps most fundamentally, illusory ‘values-neutrality’ must be rejected as the lie that it is. It is impossible for any political regime, or any political or constitutional actor, to be truly, unequivocally ‘neutral.’ This is particularly true in our partisan age, but it is generally true as well; every legislative decision on what to tax and what to subsidize entails the making of value judgments, no less so than does the act of judging.” And this attitude really comes out of the people that you were writing about in your first book, who really did pioneer this belief that political change stems not just from ideas but from the expression of ideas and the dissemination of ideas through media sources — but that this was something that could not be done effectively through traditional media because of liberal media bias. And they really argued that there can be no non-ideological media institutions.
Nicole Hemmer: Which was such a radical idea at the time. The idea of objectivity as both a governing philosophy and a set of practices when it came to journalism in the United States, particularly for newspapers and for network radio and network television, it was such a central value and it fit in with a politics of technocracy and this idea that Daniel Bell would talk about in “The End of Ideology” that America was moving past a politics of emotion and bias and was moving toward something pure that saw the world through clearer eyes and was able to shed many of its biases. Conservatives looked at that and they said, “But our views aren’t represented in these media. How can they be objective if they persist in the idea that, say, the New Deal was a good idea, or that government has a positive role to play in the world?” Or that the U.S. — in their earlier era — that the U.S. should be engaged in world affairs, or — in a slightly later period — that the U.S. should be pursuing a policy of containment rather than a policy of rollback when it came to communism.
And so the right looked at this and they said, “You say you’re objective. You don’t seem objective to us. So objectivity must be a tool that you’re using, a political weapon to disguise your own biases and to give it more of a veneer of scientism and of neutrality.” And the right attacked that frontally and in fact said things like, “We should be biased in the direction of certain values and certain ideas. In fact, the right way to be biased is to be biased towards conservatism, to be both right-wing and right, because conservatism is the correct way of understanding the world.” That was a pretty radical idea. It’s something that the left also picks up at times; you can see this in books like Manufacturing Consent. But because liberals often saw their ideas reflected in the media of the day, they didn’t have any reason to challenge objectivity and so remained attached to it quite a bit longer than the right did.
Geoff Kabaservice: That was something I noticed when I was studying the 1960s. You would get people on the left criticizing liberals, and they would call them “establishment liberals,” right? That they couldn’t see the truth of the radical case because they were too wedded to the power structure. But the right never talked about “establishment liberals.” They talked about “the liberal establishment.” It was all this unified power structure arrayed against them.
Nicole Hemmer: That’s exactly right. That idea that all institutions were biased, and that all institutions were biased in the direction of liberalism, was a powerful political idea for the right. Because it gave many conservatives, many of whom had access to traditional sources of economic and social and political power, a kind of populist positioning — and also a kind of embattled positioning that was pretty effective for pulling a movement together. To be able to tell people you have been robbed of a power that is justly yours, that you should have access to, and you have been denied it because of the biases in these institutions — that has been a very powerful idea at the heart of conservatism now for more than half a century.
Geoff Kabaservice: But that sense of grievance and even victimization would also prove to be a big obstacle when it came to getting the right to govern effectively.
Nicole Hemmer: That’s right. It didn’t always translate easily into a governing agenda, something that we are seeing the right really struggle with in recent years and occasionally struggled with in earlier periods.
Geoff Kabaservice: How did you come to the focus of your new book, Partisans, and particularly the focus on the 1990s conservative movement?
Nicole Hemmer: This is something that had been bouncing around in my mind for a while, that the 1990s, it seemed like something very interesting was happening there. You have the rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. The kind of second generation of conservative media comes of age in that decade. You have the Republican revolution and the closer ties between media and politics. But it was actually this line in my first book that I think ultimately led to Partisans. It’s kind of a throwaway line near the end, when I’m trying to make sense of the Reagan revolution at the end of Messengers, where I talk about Reagan’s election as both a victory and a valedictory. It was the triumph of Cold War conservatism, but it also felt like the end of something. And it took writing this book for me to realize that it was the end of the Cold War.
There was a Cold War conservatism, the logic of which was reliant on that geopolitical reality. That conservative movement — and many people have talked about this, including conservatives at the time — was bound together by the centripetal force of the Cold War. It was conditioned by the Cold War; the policies that the right pursued were largely conditioned by the Cold War. Then the Cold War ended, and that created a real space on the right for something different to emerge. In the book, of course, I latch on pretty quickly to Pat Buchanan, who in many ways is resurrecting the Old Right and America First and those ideas, but adapting it to a modern age through modern media and a new political era. So that’s kind of how I got myself to the topic. And then it was a matter of trying to fit together a bunch of different puzzle pieces in an archive that does not exist — the 1990s is not something where we have a lot of well-organized archives — and a period that really does straddle the line between history and not-quite-yet history, and in which there’s so much information. You don’t have the traditional manuscript archives in the same way, but you also have just endless radio and television archives. And the internet was coming of age, so you have the entire Wayback Machine that becomes part of your archive. It’s an interesting era to be diving into as a historian.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m not quite ready to think of myself as history, but I remember the ’90s. I remember the ’90s quite well and with considerable fondness. That also could have something to do with having been a quarter of a century younger. But it also seemed like a really optimistic moment. It actually seemed like some of the most extreme aspects of politics had actually been vanquished, because Bill Clinton won that smashing 1992 victory as a centrist. It also was an optimistic moment with the Cold War having come to an end, a peace dividend seemingly at hand, and half of Europe also being reintegrated back into the continent. I remember that Jesus Jones song from 1991 — I’m sure you’re too young to remember it — but it has the chorus, “Right here, right now/ There is no other place I’d rather be/ Watching the world wake up from history.” It really did feel like that. And man, does it make one old to think about that moment of optimism in view of the crappiness of the moment we’re living in right now.
Nicole Hemmer: Well, what really was that small-d democratic triumphalism, the idea of “the end of history,” or as Charles Krauthammer would later call it, “a holiday from history.” This idea that you had this decade that was not constrained by the Cold War and the fears of nuclear annihilation in the same way, and yet an era before the War on Terror and the military state that followed. So yeah, there are lots of reasons to like the ’90s and the sense of peace and prosperity that I think, for many Americans coming out of the ’90s, felt like the thing that you had just lived through. Things were really good and they weren’t going to stay that way forever. So I do think that’s right, but I also think that a lot of the divisiveness and the anti-democratic politics that we are more familiar with today have their origins in the 1990s as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Your book has complicated my understanding of my own time in the ’90s, as academics like to say. As you just touched on… Among the many merits of Partisans is that it is spicily revisionist. Because from the time that Donald Trump stood up there on the Quicken Loans stage, so many people I knew, maybe even myself at times, were saying, “How could this have happened to the party of Reagan?” Because Trump not only overthrew so many of the ideological tenets of Reaganism, he also utterly lacked Reagan’s optimism, his pragmatism, his sense of the Republican Party as a big tent, and his broad popularity. This seemed to many observers, even some well-informed ones, like a sudden and shocking change. I mean, no less a historian than Sean Wilentz had proclaimed as recently as 2008 that we were all still living in The Age of Reagan. But in your telling, the pessimistic, angry, and even revolutionary Republican Party of Trump actually was formed in the 1990s. So the “Age of Reagan” barely outlasted the Reagan presidency.
Nicole Hemmer: That is my argument. It is, I think, what I see in the historic record. It’s one of those things where I wasn’t necessarily hunting for the origins of Trumpism. But you talk about, for instance, the switch from an optimistic conservatism to a pessimistic conservatism, a big-tent conservatism to one that’s increasingly obsessed with purity, and you really do see that in the switch from Reagan Democrats to “RINOs” that happens between the 1980s and the 1990s. You have so many critics of Reagan in the 1980s, people like Pat Buchanan and people even like Newt Gingrich, who saw Reagan’s popularity not as a good thing but as a sign of wasted political capital.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s that great Wall Street Journal editorial you quote where they’re criticizing Reagan’s popularity, saying he could have done so much more if he was willing to be more unpopular.
Nicole Hemmer: Yeah, this idea that an ideological conservatism was a better way to govern than this kind of pragmatic and occasionally willing-to-compromise conservatism of Ronald Reagan, and this idea that being popular and even being majoritarian was not necessarily the right way forward. Pat Buchanan is such an excellent container for this argument because he initially considers running in 1988, and he makes the observation that “the greatest vacuum in American politics is to the right of Ronald Reagan.” In 1988 he’s like, “Okay, Reagan’s a little too popular for me to run against this guy even as he is leaving office.” But after four years of George H. W. Bush, the end of the Cold War, a massive recession at the beginning of the 1990s, and suddenly Pat Buchanan was like, “Okay, now is my time. Now is the time to really take Reaganism head on and offer a different vision for what American politics can look like.” And he offers a very different vision of that. It’s not that Pat Buchanan and his politics are suddenly ascendant. It’s not that they are the only politics of the Republican Party and there are no Reaganites left. But that particular form of politics really does gain a toehold in the party and is able to get even more power over the course of the 1990s because it’s so adept at both the structures of politics in Congress and in taking advantage of new forms of media in the 1990s.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should add that you are not all that fond of Reagan, necessarily, as a politician or Reaganism as a phenomenon. You have that excellent line where “Reaganism is a place where wishful thinking met wistful thinking.” A lot of it was very backward-looking, and you are quite critical of Reagan in spots. And yet someone like me, who does feel much more strongly about Reagan and more positively about Reagan… I feel that Reagan was a unique figure, partly in the ways that he was able to bring the further right, the more extreme parts of the party, to heel and to go along with what often were very heterodox departures from conservative orthodoxy.
Nicole Hemmer: This is why his popularity was so important. Because you did have a pretty well-connected and vocal part of the right, whose leaders called itself the New Right, who didn’t think that Reagan was conservative enough even when he was in office. They were carping the entire time that he was president. And yet they couldn’t really break through. There were real limits to how hard their criticisms hit because Reagan was so popular, because Reagan didn’t need to defend his conservative bona fides. That really did blunt a lot of their criticisms in a way those same criticisms of George H. W. Bush would hit a lot harder.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s an interesting “what if” to contemplate: What if Ronald Reagan had stayed more of a public player or a more engaged presence in the Republican Party after he left office? On the one hand, that wasn’t possible because of his Alzheimer’s. But also, you did point out in the book that he actually kind of anointed Rush Limbaugh as his successor as the spokesperson for conservatism. So maybe his judgments would’ve been bad, and maybe the tendencies that we deplore in the Republican Party might have continued if Ronald Reagan had been on the scene or not.
Nicole Hemmer: That sort of Reaganite wing of the party — and I include George H. W. Bush in that — they see this growing anti-establishment and populist new conservatism up and coming, this very media-savvy conservatism. And in the case of somebody like Rush Limbaugh, they both try to co-opt him. You have Reagan anointing him the number one voice for conservatism, you have George H. W. Bush inviting him to the White House and trying to bring him onto the team. And so there is this kind of embrace of the new form of conservative political entertainment. There are moments of really breaking with the emerging right that Pat Buchanan represents, and you see that I think most clearly around gun policy. Ronald Reagan comes out very firmly both for the Brady Bill — which for personal reasons makes a lot of sense; it was named after his press secretary who was grievously injured in Reagan’s assassination attempt in 1981 — but also the federal assault weapons ban that was part of the Omnibus Crime Bill in 1994. And the right did not go along with him on that; they really embraced a more deregulatory approach to guns. And ultimately — this might be skipping ahead a bit — but in 1995, Bush resigns his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association because of the incendiary comments that its leader made about federal agents…
Geoff Kabaservice: “Jack-booted thugs.”
Nicole Hemmer: “Jack-booted government thugs,” a statement he stood by even after the Oklahoma City bombing. So there was a kind of space for dissent from former presidents that did not move the base of the party.
Geoff Kabaservice: So there were three critical factors that you highlighted in sort of a coming-apart of the Reaganite fusionism, if you want to call it that. One of them is the end of the Cold War. The second was the 1994 midterm elections, which not only returned the Republican Party to a House majority for the first time since the 1950s but also, as you say, made it more of a congressional party than a presidential party. And then the transformation of the media environment. Can you expand on why these factors seem to you to be the critical ones?
Nicole Hemmer: Sure. So a couple of reasons… For the Cold War, again, this was the defining logic of all of U.S. politics for 50 years. And when it ends, there are politicians who suddenly see an opportunity to talk about ideas they didn’t feel it was possible to talk about before. And the big case in point here is in 1990, months after the Berlin Wall comes down, Pat Buchanan is like, “Is democracy really that good of a kind of government? Shouldn’t we do something else like autocracy?” An idea that just would’ve been very difficult to speak into existence and also still be a kind of mainstream candidate in the Cold War era. I do think that the Cold War and the way that it conditioned conservative foreign policy, the way that it conditioned the language of democracy and freedom on the right and on the left as well… When the Cold War ends, it just really opens up the space for a broader, more political dissent, frankly.
And as far as the switch from a presidential to a congressional party, I think you’ve seen this in your own work that the right really was obsessed with capturing the presidency. It was one of the biggest motivators for conservative electoral politics going back to when Robert Taft was fighting Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and obviously around Barry Goldwater. And then with Reagan’s election, the right finally wins the presidency — and they’re so disappointed. At least a fraction of the right was like, “But we did it. We got our guy in there and he didn’t do all of the things that we wanted him to do.” And there is this kind of disappointment with the presidency and the possibilities of the presidency. And Newt Gingrich really takes advantage of that opportunity to point out what Congress can do, particularly if you nationalize congressional elections. It gives you a sense of national political identity, but you are not facing a national electorate. You’re still facing those tiny-district electorates, which gives much more range for more conservative candidates to win.
And the media environment — not a big surprise coming out of my first book — but the 1990s really does give rise to a much more interactive media landscape. And that includes talk radio, it includes cable news, which had a lot of call-in features. It also includes the nascent internet in the 1990s, but also a more ideological and a more fragmented media. And that fragmented media allows for more kinds of specialized punditry, particularly on cable news. But it is also this space where the lines between politics and entertainment, which — there was never a big wall between politics and entertainment — but where they blend in interesting new ways. It’s not only because these new cable news channels have to attract an audience in a much more crowded landscape, where you have to fight to get the attention of people who look at 50 channels instead of just three or four. But also you have MTV, which is supposed to be playing music videos, suddenly holding programs like “Rock the Vote.” Now you have Comedy Central, which is supposed to be about comedy, going to the 1992 conventions and setting up… I think the first one was “Indecision 1992.” That gives birth to Bill Maher and ultimately to The Daily Show. And so that idea that politics should be entertaining and entertainment should include politics — again, not new, but it emerges in a distinct way in the 1990s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Just to go back to the point about the Cold War… I don’t want to be overly nostalgic about a period where a lot of people went to bed fearful of nuclear incineration. But what it did in a lot of ways was put a kind of deep freeze on the political landscape — obviously in places like Yugoslavia, for example, where once the Cold War went away, you had a thawing of ethnic animosities that resulted in massacres. But here in the United States as well, the Cold War really was what put the Old Right into a deep freeze, if you will. And you had conservative politicians who might not otherwise have gone along with desegregation, for example, saying, “Oh boy, this Southern segregation thing looks bad at a time when all of these African and Asian nations are shaking off colonialism and becoming independent.” And likewise, you had conservatives making arguments for investment in highways and scientific research and higher education as a way of combating the Soviets. So many ways in which the Cold War actually acted as a moderating force on both parties.
Nicole Hemmer: Yeah. It both narrows the range of political possibilities in good and bad ways and creates, in a sense, more room for bipartisanship because there’s just less room to maneuver within the political landscape. But you’re exactly right that it forced, in many ways, politicians in the United States to try to live up to certain American ideals that they had not been forced to confront in a very long time. And these ideas of freedom and democracy, they’d certainly been part of both World War I and World War II. But the ability of the Soviet Union to use American racism as a real cudgel on the world stage against the United States, and the recognition at home that if we don’t fix this, we are really losing a public relations war… It might not be the most noble way into more expansive civil rights, but who cares about the nobility of the actors so long as those rights were secured? And not just the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but of course it has a tremendous impact on immigration and the decision to get rid of racist quotas and to lead to a far more open immigration system, one that for the first time really included measurable immigration from places like Africa and Asia.
Geoff Kabaservice: It can really be shocking to go back and read those Ronald Reagan speeches, as you did, which are praising immigration and diversity and, at least in one of his speech drafts, saying “We cannot erect a Berlin Wall on the southern border.”
Nicole Hemmer: It’s amazing to read that. And it shouldn’t be a surprise when it comes to Ronald Reagan. Because in 1980, when he’s running for president, he calls for a “North America accord,” which is kind of a precursor to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. He really does believe in this idea that democracy means freedom of movement — and that means the freedom of movement of goods, it means the freedom of movement of people. So it is a rhetoric that has real policy implications. What I found more surprising was that Pat Buchanan in the 1980s is talking about the nobility of undocumented immigrants, and the ways that they… And when I say “undocumented immigrants,” I mean Pat Buchanan was using the language “undocumented” in this period and talking about what hard workers they are and pointing out that they pay payroll and sales taxes and they don’t go on the government dole. And yes, he was using it to compare them to black Americans, but it was still a language that Pat Buchanan was using in the 1980s that is pretty far afield from the Pat Buchanan of the 1990s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Quite. I want to just briefly touch on an article that you published in the Atlantic just a few days ago called “The Republican Party was Trumpy Long Before Trump.” And your central figure there is Ross Perot and the 1992 campaign, which as you described it in the book really is revealing of this odd, off-kilter moment of the 1990s when one era has come to an end but another has not yet quite begun.
Nicole Hemmer: This was one of the moments when I was researching and writing the book that was so fun and interesting for me. Because it would be very easy to write a book about how the right just goes off the rails in the 1990s at the end of the Cold War, and that doesn’t have a ton of nuance about how the conservative movement evolves in this moment. But Ross Perot provides a real challenge to that. This isn’t an era purely of partisanship and polarization. This is an era where 20% of Americans said, “You know what, I’m not going to vote for either a Republican or a Democrat when it comes to the president. I’m going to vote for this kind of random guy who I know from Larry King on CNN and who has a very heterodox platform. He’s for gun regulation, and he opposes restrictions on abortion, and he wants a balanced budget, and he opposes the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he doesn’t fit neatly in any of these boxes. But the one thing that I do know that he stands for is throwing the bums out and protesting the two parties as they now stand.”
And I find that fascinating. Because not only do you have such tumult in that 1992 election, and not only is Ross Perot somebody who was a terrible candidate — he comes into the race, he drops out of the race, he comes back into the race, and he still gets 20% of the vote. But then you have both parties, who I do think in some ways move closer together in different parts of the 1990s… You have both parties trying to figure out: How do we get the Perot vote? And one of the answers in the Republican Party is the Contract with America.
Geoff Kabaservice: That also is rather counterintuitive. Because so many people sort of see the Contract with America as having been this very ideological project, whereas in fact Gingrich cut out all kinds of the red-meat issues to try to get these Perot voters to go along.
Nicole Hemmer: That’s right. It’s counter-ideological. So here’s Newt Gingrich, who believes that polarization is the way forward, that he needs to polarize the electorate and that is how Republicans are going to win. And yet in 1994, facing the electorate two years after Ross Perot ran for president, he is pulling together a document that makes no mention of Republicans or Democrats, doesn’t mention Bill Clinton, doesn’t include any of the divisive, polarizing social issues that had become so important in the 1990s, and focuses almost entirely on reform and agenda items that use language that had been tested as popular.
So it was about being very popular. It was about being very nonpartisan. And what’s so interesting is, of course, that the Republicans win in that election, they pass as much of the Contract with America as they can, and then Newt Gingrich goes right back to the politics of polarization, which is the way that he mostly governs as Speaker of the House. So it’s a really important, interesting heterodox moment in politics that deserves a lot more attention than it’s gotten. Ross Perot needs a big fat bio and we need to wrestle more with this moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, he does. Actually, I wrote a piece on Perot for “Made by History” in the Washington Post.
Nicole Hemmer: Oh, great.
Geoff Kabaservice: So yeah, I’m with you on that. One of the great delights of your book is how enjoyable it is to read. And actually, speaking of technological innovation, your book is the first that I’ve owned as a hard copy, on Kindle, and as an Audible. And in fact I listened to a lot of the book while I was driving back from upstate New York just a few days ago. And part of what you do so well is mix analysis with these really vivid portraits of figures like Perot and especially, I would say, Pat Buchanan. I want to give a little shout-out here to my friend John Price, who’s also been on this podcast, and who I think might have put you in contact with Pat Buchanan?
Nicole Hemmer: I think that that is right, yes. I didn’t have a chance to interview Buchanan for the book. The pandemic, as you can imagine, interrupted all the best-laid plans when it came to the workload of 2020 and 2021. But yes, I’ve had a chance to exchange a few emails with him, because he is still alive and still generating, I think, a great deal of writing for somebody who is now in his 80s, if not his 90s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, his books are quite good. And he’s clearly kept a lot of his papers too from that period, which makes them very interesting.
Nicole Hemmer: Absolutely.
Geoff Kabaservice: Buchanan — this is probably the wrong metaphor… I was going to say he was like a John the Baptist to Trump. Maybe in the QAnon cosmology. But at any rate, he was really a forerunner. And you point out that both Pat Buchanan and David Duke used the slogan “America First” in their respective presidential campaigns. And that also, as a result of his campaigning on the Mexican border, the GOP platform in 1992 for the first time endorsed building “structures” on the border with Mexico. But in so many ways, it seems that we’re really kind of living in Buchanan’s world, given that so many of his obsessions have become mainstream Republican talking points.
Nicole Hemmer: I think that’s right. And I think that it’s important that Buchanan’s world is a combination of both a kind of anti-establishment sentiment… When he is running against George H. W. Bush, he talks about when he… He doesn’t even win the New Hampshire primary, but he comes much closer than he expected to — he lost by 16 points. And he’s talking about how “The new American revolutionaries are going to fight King George! They’re going to fight him on the Nashua line. They’re going to fight him in Concord.” And he does have this real revolutionary, pitchfork-and-torches language that he uses. So that is something that feels very familiar.
Pat Buchanan as a media figure, somebody who was a household name not because he worked in the Nixon White House but because he was the host of CNN’s Crossfire and because he appeared so regularly on PBS’s McLaughlin Group… But I also think that Buchanan is important because Buchanan was a thinker. And he was somebody who brought a bunch of different ideas together and figured out ways to tap into a more far-right and a more extreme politics, and to clean it up enough to fit into the Republican platform in 1992.
Nicole Hemmer: He was somebody who saw David Duke, who was running in Louisiana in the early 1990s — and was admonished greatly by most Republicans, including Ronald Reagan and George Bush — as someone who… Pat Buchanan is going to put a lot of distance between himself and David Duke. But he sees David Duke as the canary in the coal mine in some ways. He’s like, “He is on to something. And we need to figure out what David Duke is tapping into and tap into that same sentiment, and that’s how we’re going to win elections.” And that feels like a really important part of Buchananism if we’re trying to understand the connections between Buchanan and ultimately what would become Trumpism.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that I find admirable about your account is that you actually think that the liberal media has a lot to answer for in terms of elevating figures not just like Buchanan but everybody else who kind of comes to prominence in that era, whether it’s conservative revolutionaries like Rush Limbaugh or Dinesh D’Souza, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham… I mean, the liberal media in some ways contributes to this ideological revolution that moves the Republican Party away from Reaganism.
Nicole Hemmer: This was such an important point that I wanted to develop because, first of all, conservative media in the 1990s… You have publications, you have Rush Limbaugh and some copycats later in the 1990s. But you don’t really have Fox News yet. And even the Fox News that you do get in 1996 has tens of thousands of viewers at most, and so it’s not this big powerhouse that it would later be. The place where conservative punditry is being born is in mainstream media outlets and on cable.
Again, Pat Buchanan came up on CNN and PBS. People like Ingraham and Ann Colter and Dinesh D’Souza are appearing fairly regularly on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect. Colter and Ingraham are going to have their first cable news positions at MSNBC. So there is a way that news media or political media are changing in the 1990s. And there was a change that was happening earlier in the 1970s, in large part in response to Nixon’s criticisms of “the liberal news media.” You have news outlets beginning to say, “Okay, we’re going to put a liberal on next to a conservative.” You get things like “Point/Counterpoint” on 60 Minutes, Phyllis Schlafly gets a spot on CBS…
Geoff Kabaservice: William Safire gets a New York Times column.
Nicole Hemmer: Exactly. And by the 1990s, there’s this idea not only that you should have both conservatives and liberals, but that they should be entertaining and outrageous. And that outrage and provocation are the things that these outlets are looking for. There are a lot of people on the right who really lean into that idea of provocation and outrage, not just as a rhetorical tool but to push some pretty outrageous ideas in the 1990s. And I think that they benefited quite a lot from a media environment that favored that kind of provocation.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, it’s interesting… This isn’t really the approach you take, but it did seem to me in hindsight that the 1990s is when we start to get the idea that conventional politics, conventional government, is boring. And obviously there’s a large chunk of partisanship that comes into this period as well; you can’t reach across the aisle and cooperate with these people who you’re casting as enemies. But really the idea that experts should be giving neutral testimony on issues and that we should be reasoning together to come to these things… It’s not just that it’s wrong in the eyes of partisans, it’s that it is boring.
Nicole Hemmer: Not only is that right, but you see that in politics, even presidential politics. Pat Buchanan is not boring. Bill Clinton is not boring. Ross Perot — not boring. There’s a reason why these folks are doing so well in the political landscape of the 1990s, why New Gingrich is doing so well, and why George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole aren’t doing so great, right? They haven’t really adapted to this “We must be entertained” environment.
And one of the ways you see that in interesting ways with Bush in 1992… Ross Perot launches his presidential campaign on Larry King Live. Of course, immediately Bill Clinton goes on Larry King Live, and he’s taking phone calls from people, and he’s hamming it up. George H. W. Bush has an opportunity to go on Larry King Live and he’s like, “This seems beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.” And then he’s like, “Well, I’ll do it, but it has to be pre-recorded and there can be no phone calls.” He’s just dragged kicking and screaming into this new media environment because of that kind of blue-blooded reserve — but also the “dignity of the office” idea, which somebody like Bill Clinton did not hew as closely to.
Geoff Kabaservice: I mean, I have to admit this dynamic has affected my own professional life. I give a fair amount of speeches. I haven’t actually read from a prepared text in at least ten years because I honestly think that audiences find it boring and inauthentic. And I’m kind of amazed, frankly, that faculty still read from prepared texts, and even that people present papers that they just kind of read at these conferences. I don’t think the American attention span can sustain that. And I also think people, like I said, find it boring and inauthentic.
Nicole Hemmer: The word “inauthentic” is so important there, because I do think that the 1990s is part of an era of changing ideas of authenticity and also a changing importance of authenticity to politics; that Americans are noticing more and more how handled their politicians are. Movies like The Manchurian Candidate helped to drive this home. But they wanted politicians who seemed a little rougher around the edges, who didn’t seem like they were handmade to run for president.
So again, you get very oversharing people like Bill Clinton. You get somebody like Ross Perot, who does not fit anyone’s image of what a presidential candidate should look like but really resonates with audiences — and resonates in part because he doesn’t look like the expected presidential candidate. And that begins slowly to seep into presidential speech. It’s something that benefits George W. Bush and certainly something that benefits Donald Trump when he comes along.
Geoff Kabaservice: Niki, when I read a really good book like yours, it tends to ricochet around in my brain for days or weeks and colors the way that I look at things or even read the daily news. So on that note, this morning there was a piece in the New York Times by Peter Smith, who was a former Republican congressman from Vermont. His op-ed is entitled, “Moderate Republicans No Longer Have a Home, and It Started with My Defeat.” I’m not sure that’s totally true, but it is true that when he was running for reelection, I think in 1990 or in ‘92, that the NRA (the National Rifle Association) and conservative Republicans in his home state of Vermont united to defeat him after he’d cosponsored a bill to ban assault weapons. The funny part is that they united behind Bernie Sanders, his Democratic opponent, figuring that they could get rid of him after one term. And as it turned out, they couldn’t.
Nicole Hemmer: That didn’t work.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, and I have come across other examples of this sort of thing where the conservative Republicans, in defeating the moderate, make that district Democratic forever. I kind of presented this as just stupidity in terms of political calculation. But I think what comes through in your account is that the goal was control even in defeat. Really the line that it brings to mind is in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Satan says, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” And this is the dynamic that you’re really tracing throughout the ’90s, where even hard-right conservative defeats are really victories from their point of view.
Nicole Hemmer: Right, because it diminishes and ultimately disempowers the moderate Republicans that you write about. This was a process that had been underway for decades by this point. But the kind of electoral hardball, the idea that you would rather lose control of Congress than continue to empower these moderate Republicans or even just conservatives willing to govern — you do start to see that in the 1990s, but it becomes a wholesale force in Republican politics in the 2010s with the Tea Party. That’s when you really see that idea that “We would far rather have somebody like Richard Mourdock lose a Senate seat in Indiana than we would want to have Richard Lugar serving one more day in the Senate.”
And you see that happen over and over again. You see it happen to Eric Cantor. His successor held that seat for a couple of terms, I think. But this idea: “We would rather put a seat into play, make it a toss-up than a sure-fire Republican seat, because we are working to transform the party.” And now of course it is increasingly difficult to find very contested seats, so winning the primary doesn’t necessarily mean losing the seat for Republicans. But that idea of defeat not being the worst thing in the world is one that begins to take hold in a real way in the ’90s.
Geoff Kabaservice: And your book, again, presents this series of Faustian bargains that establishment Republicans entered into, particularly by taking on the conservative media-entertainment complex. Rush Limbaugh’s show ratings are much better when Republicans are out of power. Bill Clinton was the greatest gift to those conservative media figures that they possibly could have received. And you come away with this picture of Republican politicians shackled to this base which is in thrall to the conservative media, and forces them to take unpopular positions, and moves them away from everything they once had believed toward a lot of really outré positions, including an opposition to democracy itself.
Nicole Hemmer: And there’s a kind of hubris at play there too. Because again and again these members of the conservative and Republican establishment really do believe that they can control this space, right? That once they have harnessed them, that then they can bring them to heel and govern with them. Actually, you see this a little bit with Newt Gingrich, who is constantly being challenged from his right. And you definitely see it with John Boehner, who keeps thinking he can just get the Freedom Caucus to govern — and they never do. Instead, his legacy is a lot like Gingrich’s in the sense that all he has left is obstruction and investigation, but there’s just very little room left to govern.
Geoff Kabaservice: If Kevin McCarthy wants a view into what his future may be like, he should read your book.
Nicole Hemmer: Yes, or he should just look at the past two Republican Speakers of the House for some insights into how their lives went.
Geoff Kabaservice: I really was impressed with the conversation you had with Walter Isaacson on PBS about these anti-democratic tendencies that have come up over time in the Republican Party. I would recommend that to everybody. I want to ask you a question which I’m not the first to ask you, but do you think the Republican Party can be salvaged? Can it be returned to being a governing party more or less animated by more or less Reaganite ideals?
Nicole Hemmer: I would never say never. That’s as optimistic as I’m going to get. But I do think that all of the incentives within the party right now are going to continue to push it in the direction it has been headed. I mean, you need to look no further than Liz Cheney’s defeat, or the defeat of basically every Republican who voted to impeach Donald Trump, or the kind of wholesale lockstep votes to stop the certification of the 2020 election even after the insurrection had happened just hours before. That is not a party that is looking to moderate. Which is not to say that those incentives can’t change — they can. But it would take more than an insurrection at the Capitol to do it, and so I do not want to think about what would have to happen in American politics and life to make that change happen. There is no natural path back as far as I can see, although I’m always open to hearing people’s thoughts and their conjecture about how it could happen. I just don’t see what that path looks like. It’s beyond my imagination at the moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned the January 6th insurrection… I don’t actually study conservatives as such. My focus is mainly on the Republican Party, and within the Republican Party it mainly was on people I really liked: moderate Republicans like Amo Houghton, whose memorial service I just recently attended. You, on the other hand, have come face to face with some of the most unpleasant characters in American public life. I’m thinking especially right now of A12, which was a six-episode podcast you did, I think in 2018, that was on the previous year’s white power rally in Charlottesville, which you experienced while you were living and teaching at the University of Virginia.
And I wonder what kind of toll this takes on you. I’m thinking of that Nietzsche quote, “Battle not with monsters lest you become a monster. If you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I’m very pleased that I got you into the Quicken Loans Arena to hear Donald Trump give his “Only I can fix it” pronouncement at the 2016 Republican National Convention, but how do you insulate yourself from the harder emotional aspects of your work?
Nicole Hemmer: It’s challenging. Because when I first started in this field, it really came out of my relationship with my father, but that my firm belief, based on our relationship, that you could disagree with someone and also understand and respect where they were coming from. And that was a pretty good place to make sense of a political movement that I was not a part of. And I didn’t really intend to study the extreme right, but in studying the right, the contemporary right, I was sort of naturally led in that direction. That made for some really hard years between 2015 and I would say especially 2020 and 2021. I think 2020 and ’21 were hard for everyone, so I claim nothing special about that.
But I have had to take breaks from politics in a way that I’d never had to before. Being in the Quicken Loans Arena when Donald Trump was formally nominated by the Republican Party, that in of itself was a hard moment because you realized what this party had become. I had been there amongst the delegates who thought that I was a delegate and told me, “Just hold your nose and vote for him.” And that night when he accepted the nomination, no one was holding their nose. The people in that arena were all in. And so I felt like I was witnessing something pretty dark. Then as a commentator after the Access Hollywood tape came out, there was a lot more sexist abuse. There was a lot more racist abuse in the years that followed. And Charlottesville… Witnessing that kind of deadly violence is not the easiest thing in the world.
So I take a lot more breaks and try to remind myself of people who are doing good in the world. But I also think that I spend more time thinking about first principles and the things about politics that really matter, rather than focusing on the ephemera. That’s, I think, something that I learned from the Trump years, is that it is very easy to just follow the shiny object. And it is very unfulfilling, and it doesn’t give you a kind of grounding that lets you get through the difficult moments.
I think the thing that lets you get through the difficult moments is stopping and thinking: Why are we having these debates? These debates aren’t about migrants and refugees on Martha’s Vineyard. They’re about human rights, and they’re about democracy, and they’re about what kind of government we want to have, and what kind of values we want to hold. And if that isn’t the center of our political analysis and our political conversation, we’re missing the thing that is at stake. We can talk about migrants in Martha’s Vineyard, but if that conversation is not driving us toward those core values, then again we’re missing the point. So that has been something that has helped me stay engaged at a time when it is very desirable to disengage.
Geoff Kabaservice: I like that approach. Niki, I don’t think I’ve seen you in person since the January 2020 American Historical Association convention in New York City.
Nicole Hemmer: That sounds about right.
Geoff Kabaservice: But I congratulate you on the appearance of Partisans, and all the work you did during the pandemic. And I hope that you can maintain that sustainable approach to your life and work.
Nicole Hemmer: I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for this conversation, it’s been wonderful.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you. It’s been great, Niki. Take care.
Nicole Hemmer: You too.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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