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This message comes from NPR sponsor W.W. Norton and company publisher of Underland A Deep Time Journey by Robert McFarlane, hailed by Terry Tempest Williams as a portal of light and dark times, now available in paperback. Visit Underland book. Com for more. From W.H y in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. As Republicans renominate President Trump for a second term, we talk with Rick Perlstein, who spent 20 years studying the roots of American conservatism.
His latest book is about the events that propelled Ronald Reagan to the White House and made him a revered figure among Republicans. We'll talk about some of the ways Reagan and Trump are alike. They both played fast and loose with facts, and some ways they're different. Reagan welcomed immigrants and in 1980 talked about establishing an open border with Mexico. Perlstein says the presidential race between Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter was more closely contested than many remember. Reagan scored a decisive win in their televised debate six days before the election, in part because his campaign had acquired a copy of Carter's debate briefing book.
Pearlstein's book is Reagan Land.
You hear a lot of people say these days that the 2020 election is the most important of our lifetimes for American conservatives. The election of 1980, 40 years ago is remembered as a critical turning point. It ushered in the two term presidency of Ronald Reagan, who still idolized by many Republicans. But our guest historian Rick Perlstein, says for much of Reagan's campaign for the presidency, he was written off as too old to have a chance. He would be nearly 70 by the time he was sworn into office.
Perlstein is one of the country's foremost students of the rise of the new right in American politics. He's just published his fourth volume about the roots of modern American conservatism. This one focuses on the period from 1976 to 1980, beginning when Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter was running for the White House and culminating four years later with Reagan's triumph over Carter after a chaotic term for the Democrat. Besides his three previous volumes on American conservatism, Perlstein has written essays and book reviews for The New York Times and other publications.
He's a contributing editor and board member for in these Times magazine. He spoke to me from a neighbor's apartment in Chicago about his new book, Reagan Land America's Right Turn 1976 to 1980, while Rick Perlstein, welcome back to Fresh Air.
Hi, David. It's really great to be here.
You have studied the roots of the conservative movement in modern American politics for decades. And now the Republican Party is renominating a president who really didn't come from a traditional party background, but who has nearly unanimous support of the Republican Party.
Is Donald Trump the product of the conservative movement? Is he a huge supporter of it? How do you connect him to the dynamics that you've studied?
Well, I think any historian worth his or her salt has to master the phrase. It's complicated, it is complicated. But I'll make two points about that. One is that I don't think anyone can read Reagan land and come away without understanding that sort of the viciousness the naked will to power wasn't always a part of the conservative Republican coalition. You know, I give an example of, say, Jerry Falwell, you know, who spoke at anti-gay initiative rally in 1977 in Miami, the prominent reverend from back in those days, you know.
Right. And a big ally of Reagan. And, you know, he said a homosexual will just as soon kill you as look at you. Right. So that kind of viciousness, you know, has always been present. One major difference is that, you know, even though conservative politicians were in coalition with people like that, they wouldn't necessarily display that sort of naked viciousness, you know, themselves. Right. Is that better or is that worse?
That's an interesting question, but they're certainly important differences, some of them minor, some of them major. I think one difference certainly between Reagan and Trump is on the issue of immigration. You know, Reagan revered immigrants. He loved the idea of America being a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. And as a matter of fact, in the 1980 Texas primary, it was a showdown between Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the last two men standing in this very crowded Republican field.
And by the way, there was never any foregone conclusion that Reagan was going to win this thing. But both of them were competing at the debate to see who could be sort of more welcoming of immigrants. And Ronald Reagan, in his opening speech of his primary campaign in November of 1979, called for open borders between the United States and Mexico.
You know, one theme of this story is that the rise of the new right is powered in part by populist anger. That's right. We see it in the tax revolt that you write about in the book in the Tea Party later on. And now we have a report, the Republicans have a president who's maybe the angriest politician publicly we've ever seen. He clearly rode to office on that anger. But by stoking it, does he change politics forever after?
Well, the important thing to understand is you don't become president without having a coalition, right. And you don't become a transformative president unless you create a new coalition. And Ronald Reagan and the people around him were coalition builders. Right. And a big part of the coalition was something called the new right, which is a phrase that began to be used by the people who considered themselves leaders of the new right in the mid 1970s. And they were quite explicit.
They called the Republican Party as it then existed as a country club party. And they said we're going to go for alienated middle class and lower middle class voters. And one of their slogans was we organized discontent. So what these very clever organizers did was they would kind of cast their eye across the nation and look for things that people were getting enraged about. And an excellent example, something I wrote about my last book, Invisible Bridge, in which rural fundamentalist Christians in Canal County, West Virginia, that's Charleston, were enraged that the school board was making their kids read these books that were multicultural, that, you know, considered Greek myths, were studying instead of Christianity.
And they got so mad in their organization against this stuff that they dynamited the school board building and the new rights think tank, the Heritage Foundation. They sent lawyers down to West Virginia to represent these guys who had dynamited the building, and they got them in touch with a.. Textbook activists all over the country and tried to basically create a movement and to fold these people into this emerging new right formation. So that was one part of the coalition. What did Ronald Reagan think about these people?
He absolutely embraced them. Right. So even though he wouldn't have spoken like them, certainly in public, he might do so in private, they were part of the story.
So let's talk about the story here. And I kind of want to start at the end, 1980.
You know, this election is regarded as a turning point for the American conservative movement. Reagan winning over the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, the folksy peanut farmer from who was governor of Georgia.
Carter had had a rough presidency.
And this is kind of remembered as an inevitable landslide. I mean, Reagan returning to power over this inept guy. But but when I read your book, I'm reminded that actually at the end of that race, the polls showed it about dead, even between Reagan and Carter. There was a third party candidate, John Anderson.
But a lot came down to this critical debate in the last few days before the election. And you write that Carter's people were very confident because he was so much smarter than Ronald Reagan. Why was their confidence misplaced?
Yeah, I literally found a planning memo. They had the line underlying Carter is smarter than Reagan, and that was their way of saying basically this guy didn't have a chance. Their overconfidence is incredible. Hendrik Hertzberg, who is a wonderful writer himself. He was Jimmy Carter's speechwriter, you know, told me over and over again that they thought that if they could only get Ronald Reagan on stage next to Jimmy Carter, then it was over, it was finished.
And the Reagan people seem to agree. I talk about the very intense debates when the Reagan camp over whether they should dodge the debate or not. What basically both sides had forgotten was that Ronald Reagan had never lost a debate in his life. You know, he's the great communicator. And lo and behold, debate comes off and like you say, it's neck and neck. And Ronald Reagan wins in the end in quite a smashing landslide. So much more clearly than is usually the case.
We can impute a causal effect to a political debate. And during the debates, of course, what's most famous and by the way, when they negotiated the debate on the Carter side, they created as much time as possible for rebuttals because they thought it'd be great if Carter could show all the things that Ronald Reagan was making up. And he did make up a lot of stuff. And when Jimmy Carter just laced into him for opposing Medicare to start his political career, which is really an undeniable fact, in 1961, he was hired by the AMA to basically be the spokesman to say Medicare was socialism and it was going to destroy American freedom.
Ronald Reagan, that was his famous line. He said, there you go again. And this obviously refer to another supposed, you know, another moment in the debate where Ronald Reagan said that they were making up his record. Right.
That was why he referred to and he would do this with this endearing kind of grin and a nod of his head. Right, with this grin. Yeah, and it was clearly a prepared line because you could see him kind of like if you watch the video, you can see him just kind of like grinning and getting ready for the roundhouse punch. And what Hertzberg tells me is that backstage they were high five to each other. They're like, oh, my God, he's finished.
The media's going to report how many mistakes he's made, which is exactly our strategy to prove that he can't speak unscripted without making stuff up. Of course, this is remembered as the moment in which, you know, he won the debate. He completely charmed the audience by, you know, doing what Ronald Reagan did, which is wish away contradiction, wish away complexity and prevent this kind of smiling, optimistic front. And, you know, he he did that again and again.
He did the same thing in a debate in 1984.
You know, his answer to the criticism that he had opposed Medicare was to say, no, no. You know, it's there were two different bills. And it wasn't that I opposed Medicare. It was just that I had chosen one piece of legislation over another. And this was completely wrong. Right?
Total nonsense, complete fabrication. It was the political equivalent of two plus two equals five. And a lot of what I do in all my books is, with the benefit of hindsight, to be sure, is really going to fly at the height of the political media for reporting this stuff as if their drama critics and not as guardians of facts and truth. And Ronald Reagan really got a free pass. Jimmy Carter was slammed.
Didn't people look at the record and report that he was misrepresenting it? Didn't didn't journalists do that? They did that sometimes.
But I mean, in this case, with with the debate, no, I couldn't find a single example of The New York Times, for example, criticizing Ronald Reagan for his distortions about his record on Social Security. But I did find, you know, 50 articles where they talked about Billingsgate, which was really was the kind of but her emails of 1980, it was, you know, you'll recall this terrible scandal if Billy Carter, because he took thousands and thousands of dollars for the Libyans who were which was basically a terrorist state.
You have to explain to people who are young and don't remember this.
Billy Carter was President Jimmy Carter's brother in Georgia, and he had a beer called Billy Beer. Right. But there was a more serious problem with him representing the government of Libya, right?
That's right. He was literally on the payroll of the government of Libya. He got interest free, quote unquote, loans, terrible corruption. But, you know, there was investigations and they could not tie this to the White House. They didn't find any favors. They didn't find, you know, they found a couple of instances of lapse judgment. But, you know, the media and this was also during the Democratic convention, just obsess over this.
There was so concern to be equally censorious of both sides, the Republicans and the Democrats that, you know, basically drove Carter around the bend and he did something that was absolutely fatal to his campaign. He began to attack Ronald Reagan on personal terms. And the reason that was so damaging to him was that the way he had gotten elected in nineteen seventy six and maintained his popularity for the most part when he did through nineteen seventy seven through nineteen eighty, was being seen as a fundamentally decent guy.
He didn't do it through surrogates. He did it on his own. He stuck in the knife by saying Ronald Reagan is making things up and the media kind of the media gatekeepers, the referees basically created what we now consider a meme that Jimmy Carter had become mean me and it was the meanness issue. And Jimmy Carter had to go, you know, kind of a modern confessional Barbara Walters interview show and basically prefer a groveling apology for being mean and promising a higher tone in the future.
Yeah, you know, it's funny to think of Jimmy Carter as mean because, you know, in his post presidency, he's done all this volunteer work and is sort of regarded as a you know, as an icon of decency.
One of the things that you write about the debate is that the Carter team didn't do any opposition research, that they could have dug up all kinds of things that Reagan had said over the years, which were just, you know, in some cases ridiculous.
You want to give us a few examples?
Sure. He had a column in his newsletter that went to every member of his political action committee. So basically his own sort of little private newsletter that went out to, you know, maybe like fifty thousand donors. And he said nuclear waste was wonderful because it provided all these great economic opportunities. And for reuse or what, you know, I'd have to look at my notes, but yeah, he's like he would list all these industrial uses. And it came from a report from the Heritage Foundation, you know, or he had said that the National Education Association, the teachers union, was following a line laid down by Hitler to destroy public education.
And all this stuff was in his. Radio programs which ran for five minutes every day until from nineteen ninety five, until he began running for president in nineteen seventy nine with a short interruption for when he ran for president in nineteen seventy six. And you know, they could have Jimmy Carter knew that Ronald Reagan was the number one contender to face him in 1980.
The all he would have had to do is put some low level DNC kid on the case, you know, recording and transcribing these radio interviews. But they didn't do it. Ronald Reagan, you know, was a thoroughly political creature. And Jimmy Carter wasn't every time his staffers would come to him and say, we need to begin to plan our campaign for 1980, he would, you know, whatever and go back to reading the tax code or something like that.
This habit of Reagan, of winging it and getting stuff that is pretty wildly wrong. I mean, there is, I guess, some communications from him that endorsed a cure for cancer that was kind of discredited. Is it fair to compare him to Donald Trump?
It absolutely is. That you're referring to lay a trail which was made from apricot pits. And it was kind of a quack cancer cure that had no effectiveness. But people would go down to Mexico and get cyanide poisoning from taking it right. So there was an article not signed by him saying the FDA is keeping this effective treatment from being used very much like Trump does now. And under Reagan's byline, to whom we can assign a lot more responsibility, he very adamantly called for the repeal of the law, so called the Kefauver amendments that required the FDA to certify the safety and effectiveness of any drug before it was put on the market.
He said that it was causing economic harm to the pharmaceutical industry and it wasn't necessary. So I think you have to lay that kind of anti science contempt for public health at Ronald Reagan's feet as well.
But people I don't think people remember Reagan as anything like Trump. I mean, he was an actor. He was a better communicator. He hit a different tone. The media was different.
What was different? Well, there's an old cartoon about that. It's like, you know, he he he might have, you know, cut public housing by 80 percent. But he sure did smile a lot. You know, you might have X, Y and Z, but, you know, his he was always sunny and optimistic. And he was his tone was very different. And this is pretty unique in the history of conservatism. It's always been kind of American carnage kind of discourse.
You know, Armageddon is just around the corner. And Ronald Reagan always you know, he talked about his his his mother's optimism that was as boundless as the cosmos. And he certainly shared that, you know, to a fault. And he was very, very good at basically reassuring Americans that there was nothing that couldn't be accomplished or solved by Americans. And the only problem were these kind of anti-American foreign intrusions, you know, like liberalism. And he did it so genially that the nastiness of that implication that, you know, an enormous amount of Americans aren't quite really Americans at all was often easy to miss.
You know, another thing that was happening in the closing days of that race was that there were still American hostages being held by revolutionaries in Iran. And the Reagan campaign was concerned that Carter might negotiate the release of the hostages, which would be a terrific political benefit. So they had something the Reagan campaign had a little had a set of plans called the October Surprise Project. What were they up to?
It's pretty interesting because the phrase October surprise is essential to our political lexicon. And it's also remembered from 1980, it's such a conspiracy theory that that that there was a literal back channel effort to get the Iranians to keep the hostages in Iran. And then Ronald Reagan would give them a better deal. You know, we could go into that. But I'm absolutely convinced that that's not borne out by the facts. But, you know, what is borne out by the facts was that they had a massive intelligence operation that was involved that involved both CIA officers and former CIA officers and personnel all over the world who were basically had their ear to the ground to develop intelligence about what might happen and when.
And the reason they did this was it was working the refs. They were trying to persuade the media that Jimmy Carter was corrupt, that he would do anything to win. Remember that the Reagan campaign had already convinced the media, much of the public, that Jimmy Carter was mean. And then, you know, that would denude the political impact of any hostage release. Basically, people could say, oh, well, he gave away the store and NBC and The New York Times did a massive exit poll.
Thirteen thousand people in which it really suggests that people were rather convinced. And one of the things that exit poll found was that of people who named the hostages as their most important voting issue. That was basically the fourth most important issue in the. Campaign, they went for Carter by a ratio of two to one. I haven't really figured out a good explanation for that, but this is a fact we have to deal with. Maybe it was because people trusted Carter and respect to Carter because the hostages weren't harmed.
But one more thing. One more possibility is really important to understand, and that's that a lot of people were just terrified of Ronald Reagan. Someone shared a joke with me that was circulating at the time. It was what's green and close in Tehran 15 seconds after Reagan's inauguration. So the idea that Reagan would do anything to release the hostages, you know, even nuke Iran or start another Vietnam was very much abroad in the land and other results of the polls afterwards.
Those people were very, very apathetic. They did not love Ronald Reagan. Most people were voting against Jimmy Carter, who voted for Ronald Reagan. Most people who voted for Carter were voting against Ronald Reagan. So, you know, Reagan did not come to come to office with a with a smashing mandate for what he was trying to do.
Rick Perlstein is a historian and author of his new book, The Fourth, in his series about modern American conservatism is Reagan Land.
We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air.
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As the Republican Party renominates Donald Trump for president this week, we're speaking with historian Rick Perlstein, who's been writing about the emergence of modern American conservatism for the past 20 years. His latest book about the events leading to Ronald Reagan's triumph in the 1980 presidential election is called Reagan Land.
You know, we kind of remember it as this huge victory for Reagan. It was morning in America, his supporters said, after he was inaugurated. But when you look at the actual numbers, Ronald Reagan got about 51 percent of the vote, popular vote.
He got a big Electoral College majority because there was a third party candidate, John Anderson, former Republican. Well, he was Republican congressman who ran as an independent. Right.
But in the end, a pretty closely divided electorate, but a big right turn for the country.
Well, there was another result, which I think is even in a way more important than Ronald Reagan's election, and that was that the Republicans took the Senate and to take things full circle. One of the big reasons the Republicans took the Senate was a very unprecedentedly clever and nasty negative campaign program, run basically through soft money by this new right. These guys who were running around looking for people, bombing school boards so they could bring them into the conservative movement.
This group called the National Conservative Political Action Committee, came up with a set of commercials that began kind of softening up incumbent liberal senators as extremists all the way in the middle of nineteen seventy nine. And evidence suggests that this is extremely successful. A whole class of liberal lions, George McGovern Birch by Gaylord Nelson, the guy who started Earth Day, suddenly were out of a job. And in a lot of ways, that was the most transformative result, because these are the folks who really did the work to effectuate the Reagan agenda once he was inaugurated on January 20th.
Nineteen eighty one.
The personalities of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were big factors in all this. But you are also chronicling the coalescence of the new right and forces that would become important for decades to follow. One of them was evangelical Christians as a much more muscular political force.
And the funny thing about this is that Jimmy Carter comes into political life himself, a born again Christian, and he ends up kind of raising questions about himself in an interview in Playboy magazine. Reminds us what happened here.
A fascinating thing. One of the things is that interview by Robert Scheer was probably the most revealing document of a presidential candidate in the history of American electioneering. He went very deep about himself, about the prospects for the nation, and he went deep theologically. One of the things he did was he was asked if he was afraid of being assassinated and he explained that he wasn't and that the reason was his Christian faith. You know, that gave him a confidence that there was more to life than this world.
And that led to a very deep disquisition about the way Christianity works and also reassuring people that he was not going to, as he put it in the article, be banging down people's doors for fornicating, which, OK, that's interesting. And then he said. He was explaining the Christian concept of sin and redemption that he had lusted in his heart after other women, but he knew that Jesus had forgiven him, which is pretty interesting stuff. But since he used the word lust and fornicating, that literally became the only thing people talked about in the interview.
That and the fact that he said he wasn't going to lie like previous presidents. And that was seen as an insult to Texas and Lyndon Johnson. The upshot of that was that evangelicals who had always had maybe some ambivalence about Jimmy Carter because of his association with liberals and Bob Dylan and, you know, all sorts of inequities had an excuse to to dump him or to question him. Jerry Falwell gave a sermon against him and he couldn't even play it on TV because it fell afoul of Federal Communications Commission rules, which created a rivalry that, of course, paid off in spades in 1980.
Lo and behold, the first evangelical modern evangelical president who was very adamant that he wasn't going to let his religion affect his politics, caused an enormous backlash against evangelicals, who specifically thought that evangelical fundamentalist Christian should be determinative of people's politics. And, you know, one of the threads that runs to the whole book from 1976 to 1980 was the increasing confidence of these folks, not just to get their opinions out there in the public sphere, but to basically organize themselves like precinct captains.
One of the leaders of this movement taught people to run precinct meetings based on the model of Bible study, you know, because there were clearly social issues that that were very important to them, gay rights, abortion.
But they also became politically organized and effective. And in doing so, they connected with this growing cadre of operatives who had just gotten more mobilized and smarter about using data and mailing lists. Talk to talk a little bit about some of those folks and the impact they had.
So there was this guy, Richard Viguerie, who was a Catholic. He was the maestro of direct mail. He was the guy who figured out that the bigger the mailing list you had and the more terrifying the letters you sent to this mailing list about how liberals were going to end Western civilization as we know it, the better you could do for politicians. And one of the things that was so effective for it was it was a very stealthy strategy. So I describe in the nineteen seventy eight congressional elections all these conservative results that no one saw coming because they didn't realize that this guy, Richard Viguerie, was sending out millions of direct mail pieces that were basically scaring the bejesus out of these, you know, kind of rural conservative folk.
You had Howard Phillips, who was a converted Jew. You had this guy, Paul Weyrich, I've talked about, and they were not having as much luck as they hoped, organizing people around issues like unions being two powerful issues like the Tennessee Valley Authority being socialism, all the stuff that Barry Goldwater had tried to become president and failed. But once they picked up things like gay rights, like feminism, they found that they had a lot more success.
And Paul Weyrich later said he realized that sex was the Achilles heel of liberal politics, that the fact that someone like Jimmy Carter could be yoked to people who thought that gays should not be discriminated against on the job and the fact that Jimmy Carter was a very big supporter of the era and actually lobbied very strongly for it, became their battering ram. And Richard Viguerie was very, very confident that if he could only win the loyalty of the nation's evangelical preachers, who, after all, had these built in organizations of churches, they had this built in communication network in the form of things like church newsletters that liberalism could not live to see another day.
And he worked very hard at this. And then he discovered the perfect issue for it. When Jimmy Carter's IRS commissioner realized that a lot of Christian schools, not necessarily segregationist schools, but just these schools that had kind of sprung up to protect kids from the influence of the 60s and made kids wear short hair and believes in God flag, God flag in the country, that they weren't following IRS guidelines against basically having to segregated student bodies. And so he created new guidelines.
And this became the spark that lit the prairie fire because it was it was it was the money nerv. Right. This these guys relied on the fact that they were tax deductions under. I've only seen three of the IRS code in order to keep their doors open, and once they saw that threat, suddenly it was a stampede to Washington. And that's one of the most dramatic parts of the book, I think.
So evangelicals became a potent force. We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Rick Perlstein is a historian and author of his new book is Reagan Land America's Right Turn 1976 to 1980. We'll talk more after a short break. This is Fresh Air.
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This is Fresh Air, and we're speaking with historian Rick Perlstein, who's been writing about the emergence of modern American conservatism for the past 20 years. His latest book is about the events leading to Ronald Reagan's triumph in the 1980 presidential election. The book is called Reagan Land.
Another thing that happens over this period is business interest became organized in a way that they hadn't. You know, we're used to a world now where business interests invest a lot of money in aggressive lobbying and in spending on political campaigns. It's interesting.
That really wasn't true. Up through the 60s, they tended to cooperate with unions and kind of acceded to government regulation. What changed all that?
Yeah, business lobbying was very ineffectual and it tended to involve a zero sum question, who was going to get the contract for the next jet engine or something like that? And you know, what happened to change that was basically profits began following, you know, because of the Arab oil embargo, because of regulation, because of unions winning contracts that give them automatic cost of living increases. And they began becoming, as I put it, class conscious almost in the Marxist sense.
Well, and you had Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader bursts on the scene and suddenly wants, you know, gets legislation to regulate the safety of cars and all kinds.
Yeah, it's astonishing how successful Ralph Nader's consumer movement was and really kind of back in corporate America itself and how well liberal Democratic politicians did with this agenda and how aggressive they were. I mean, a lot of us are frustrated with how, you know, kind of wimpy the Democratic Party is. This is a different Democratic Party. My favorite example is when new amendments to the Clean Air Act that we're going to introduce for the first time what they call CAFE standards, which basically meant that each company had to have an average fuel economy below a certain level.
All the car manufacturers, we don't have the technology to do this. And Senator Edmund Muskie, who was the big liberal Democratic environmental senator, said, I don't care, get the technology. And in fact, one of their lobbyists came to muskies, chief congressional aide on this stuff with a list of negotiating suggestions. And the aide folded the piece of paper into a paper airplane and sailed it over his head.
So that's what they were reacting against.
And they suddenly there's a couple of signal examples in the book. One is a law to reform labor standards that make it basically harder to break the law and fire people who organize unions, which, you know, wouldn't harm ordinary law abiding companies at all and was in fact arrived at in coalition with big business. Another was the possible regulation of advertising to children and TV.
Suddenly they found these ad hoc coalitions that used the most sophisticated Madison Avenue techniques. They use things like focus groups to, you know, come up with phrases like national nanny that the Federal Trade Commission wanted to be the national nanny.
And lo and behold, some of these lobbyists were so successful that to take my favorite example, you had two thirds of Americans agreeing that business taxes had to be cut. And this is way before Reagan. This is in nineteen seventy eight and in nineteen seventy eight. This this tide is so strong that Jimmy Carter, who makes tax reform the biggest campaign promise, signs a tax bill reluctantly that gives you like ninety five percent of its benefits to rich people.
Wow. One of these little details that you find. There's a meeting in the summer of 1978 between a lot of these new right activists who have these techniques to mobilize conservatives. And then a bunch of corporate political action committee leaders wanted to just describe some of the players and what came of that.
Right. So this was in Richard Viguerie's colonial mansion in Virginia, the big direct conservative direct mail guy.
Yeah, yeah. The big conservative direct mail. They call him the godfather of the new right. And these were guys who had, you know, part of their rhetoric, although I, you know, I think often honored only in the breach was that they were against big business. That big business was a part of the swamp, you know, to use a contemporary phrase that they were trying to, you know, kind of disempower. They would often hold these meetings in which their various groups, you know, anti gay rights groups, antifeminist groups and anti-union groups would get together and strategize.
But at this one meeting, they got all the big business lobbyists together and the big business lobbyists and big business, you know, probably considered these guys louche embarrassments. You know, so the guys who, you know, were defending the dynamiter of school boards, these were the guys who were talking about, you know, gays recruiting children.
They lay down their arms. And within the space of a month after this meeting, you began to see the proportion of corporate donations that were going to conservative challengers instead of Democratic incumbents in places where companies had their factories or that were on committees that regulated their activities. The donations to conservative challengers went way, way up. So suddenly you have this new again coalition of the new right, the kind of right wing populists and big business and those sort of shifts in the.
Basic terrain of American politics is what allowed Reagan land to triumph.
The other thing that happens is, you know, this antipathy towards any kind of tax increase, it really took flight in this period. You noted that in the midterm elections in 1978, Democrats, even Democrats, were becoming tax cutting hawks. Where did this revolt come from?
That was a really fascinating story, so every Californian knows what Proposition 13 is because, you know, I had such a baleful effect on public finance in California, but we don't tell us about it.
Tell us what's Proposition 13?
So basically, California had this very unfair and very draconian property tax system that just really kind of didn't work simply because property values in California after a war to skyrocket, because everyone wanted to move to California, basically. So a grandmother who owned a house that she never was going to sell, whose value doubled her property taxes were doubled and she had to produce cash on the barrelhead. It was a disaster. And the people who were organizing against this at first were kind of technocratic liberals.
There were people who wanted to come up with a nice policy fix for this. And this movement was basically hijacked by this absolutely colorful, strange populist named Howard Jarvis, who would say things like, we're going to we're going to ram, if you'll excuse me, a hot poker up the butt of those politicians. Right. And one of the things that happened was he got Proposition 13 on the ballot and the people he hired to run the campaign said, well, we got to keep this guy as far from the camera as possible because he's just an embarrassment, again, this populist.
Right. But lo and behold, it emerges that people love him. He's a folk hero. He becomes, you know, almost like the Donald Trump of California in 1978. And this property tax revolt, extreme draconian wins overwhelmingly. And, of course, Ronald Reagan as one of his biggest boosters. All right.
So this anger over government taxation fits very well into one of Reagan's core messages, which is that government is too big. They're spending your money. We have to get this under control.
It was a perfect fit straight up. And, you know, the next thing you know, a New York Times columnist is writing a column, Ronald Reagan's Magic. And you know, this guy who in 1976, after he lost to Gerald Ford, was seen as this over the hill extremist whose political career was over, suddenly was was on his way. The other contributing factors and there's lots of twists and turns. But, you know, we all know how the story ends.
We're going to take a break here.
Let me reintroduce you. Rick Perlstein is a historian and author of his new book is Reagan Land America's Right Turn 1976 to 1980. We'll talk more after a short break. This is Fresh Air.
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This is Fresh Air, and we're speaking with historian Rick Perlstein, who's been writing about the emergence of modern American conservatism for the past 20 years. His latest book is about the events leading to Ronald Reagan's triumph in the 1980 presidential election. The book is called Reagan Land. So you write about these strands which give us the new right, you know, a muscular evangelical conservatism, the business being more active, putting more money into conservative politics, the tax revolt.
But none of this is determinative, right?
I mean, it all depends upon the players in the field and what they're like. And so from 1976 to 1980, we have this president, Jimmy Carter, who comes to power as a populist and a decent guy. He's kind of seen as someone who is inept at both politics and statecraft. I mean, he certainly had some bad luck. I mean, energy crises and a trucker strike resulting from that that was controversial. And then, you know, the the Iranian hostage crisis.
How do we assess him?
Yeah, I think actually his statecraft was quite remarkable. I mean, the fact that he was able to, for example, pass a set of treaties to turn over the Panama Canal back to Panama and kind of give hope in the Third World that America was no longer the kind of global hegemon who was going to dominate them was absolutely stupendous political accomplishment. You know, the getting Israel and Egypt to the table and agreeing on a peace deal, as incomplete as that was, the way that he kind of wired that together was was really quite remarkable.
He is very sophisticated in negotiating techniques. You know, I talk again and again of him balancing some very difficult international problems in ways that show some real skill. So maybe maybe a reassessment isn't in order for that. I think that his contempt for the normal routines of politics really was, if anything, worse than we knew. I was very struck that when Congress passed a law opening one hundred or so new federal judgeships, and he wrote in his memoir how distasteful it was for him to have to nominate all these new judges, any other president would look upon the possibility to put his stamp on the federal judiciary for a generation.
There would be a dream come true. But he really had this real contempt for for for power. Right. And, you know, even the power to do good. And finally, the last part of my assessment of Jimmy Carter, the part that literally made me cry when I was writing about it was his passion for austerity, the absolute emotional commitment and passion with which he spoke about the necessity for government to retreat from its post New Deal role in helping build and maintain the middle class.
He was so passionate about deregulation, he promised on the campaign trail, again, that populism that he would never do something like induce a recession in order to wring out inflation. Right. That's what Republicans did. And there are several instances I found in the book in which he unquestionably chose that course and he would speak about it in terms of, you know, war. He said, you know, during World War Two, we made all these sacrifices.
We have to do it again. And the tragedy of that is it's based on a very false intellectual theory that was very big at the time and kind of unquestioned that inflation was caused by budget deficits. Now, of course, we have enormous budget deficits and practically no inflation. So we know that all this misery to America's working class and sort of people working in factories was done for absolutely no good reason. And, you know, we got to bring in the critique of the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker.
But, you know, Jimmy Carter backed him to the hilt, too. So I think he bears a real responsibility in a tragic way because he couldn't have known that this was going to happen for some of the inequality we're facing now.
Right. And then it was Ronald Reagan who was running for president from the minute. You know, he didn't get the nomination in 1976. He spent the next four years running for president, but he had a lot of competition and a lot of people wrote him off as too old know today he wouldn't be, but then he was.
It's wild. What were his gifts? You know, he would sometimes defy pollsters and media people and just follow his own instincts, which were pretty good, weren't they?
Yeah. I mean, let me just give one example. You know, he's he's known as the Great Communicator. And I found, you know, speech drafts that he kind of edited in his own hand. It just made them sing, you know, turned kind of clouted prose into exquisite prose. Here's a really good example. He, of course, is a guy who got a very small proportion of the African-American vote, not known as a great champion in African-American causes.
Somehow he managed to charm Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King's right hand man, into endorsing him in a very impassioned church sermon. You know, a lot of that was frustration with Jimmy Carter, but a lot of that was Ronald Reagan's ability to charm the pants out of just about anyone. And I found another interview that he did during the Republican convention. That was it was published in the Republican convention. And when she said, you know, no one remembers, it's one of these kind of crazy things that Ronald Reagan would say, no one remembers what Abraham Lincoln did, but everyone remembers his speeches.
You know, I'm not sure that's really true, but that it really kind of speaks to his mind and how seriously he took the craft of communication. And he was really, really good at it.
One of the things that occurred to me is that, you know, you've really identified some of these trends that propelled the new right to a lot of the success that it had. One thing that wasn't true back in, you know, in the 1970s that we have now is a completely different media environment where you have these polarized cable news channels. I mean, back in the 1970s when there was, you know, the the energy crisis and the hostage crisis, there wasn't sort of competing sets of facts about what was happening.
Now, people kind of live in different media realities now. And it just seems to that seem to be a really important difference in shaping partisan politics.
Well, I have to do the old historian thing and say it's a little more complex than that because, you know, a lot of people had their local newspapers and places like Alabama or even Chicago for a lot of the time, was at a very reactionary newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. And, you know, just to give an example, when G. Gordon Liddy came out with his memoir in 1980, well, and talked about his admiration for Hitler and people said, wow, Richard Nixon had fascist working for them.
You know, I came across a review in a small town, Alabama paper that said, well, yeah, maybe he has a fascist, but maybe that's what we need. So I think that we we had plenty of kind of polarized media. It certainly didn't kind of it hasn't advanced to the state where where, you know, you can completely turn on your TV and get into a different bubble. But, you know, one of the big themes of my work is that Americans have always been divided, that we've always been separated into different tribes.
And, you know, somehow for, you know, two hundred and fifty years or whatever, we've we've we've been able to make it work. But I think it's very important to keep in the forefront that this kind of post-World War Two Khawar period in which we did seem to have this consensus is much more the exception in the long term of American history than the rule.
Well, Rick Perlstein, thank you so much for speaking with us again. Thanks, Dave. Rick Perlstein is a historian and author of his new book, The Fourth, in his series about modern American conservatism is Reagan Land. On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about a new strategy devised by epidemiologists and economists to defeat covid-19 even before a vaccine is developed. Our guests will be Alexis Madrigal. He has an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic. He's also co-founder of the covid-19 Tracking Project, which collects and publishes data from all 50 states about covid testing and patient outcomes.
I hope he can join us. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Challoner, Seth Kelly, Joel Warfrom and Carla Latimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Queensborough. Teresa Madden directed today's show for Terry Gross.
I'm Dave Davies and Ann.