BEFORE THE STORM
BY RICK PERLSTEIN
Rick Perlstein’s Before The Storm is a prequel to his book Nixonland and views the rise of the modern conservative movement through the lens of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. The book reminds us that the rehabilitation of figures like Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan as moderate compared to today’s Republicans is nostalgic and rewrites history. The monster that is today’s Republican party was built by these men, as well as William F. Buckley and George Wallace. Behind them was a cadre of sophisticated and cynical political operatives. They were funded by wealthy, right wing ideologues. Where today we have the Koch brothers and the Tea Party, in the 50’s you had the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom. Goldwater emerged from the swirling mists of postwar right wing politics just as Julian Beck and Judith Malina of The Living Theatre did in radical Manhattan in the 40’s. For Beck and Malina the drug was anarchism: liberation of the body and spirit and the transformation of American politics. For Goldwater it was libertarianism. The liberation of—what? Capital? White people? In the 60’s these two movements would collide, and the fuel would be the war in Vietnam. But the other movement of those times, the civil rights movement, would supply the fuel to the conservatives. Few understood the white backlash. But attentive conservatives could smell it in the wind.
Perlstein’s writing has the hard edge of satire. He ridicules his subjects with their own words. He obviously is on the left, but his scorn is not reserved for conservatives, and his contempt for Goldwater is tempered by his contempt for Johnson. What agitates and delights Perlstein is hypocrisy. But say what you want about Goldwater, he was no hypocrite, though he was a bit of a fool. Goldwater’s life is a good example of the weakness of the conservative argument. The Goldwater’s owned a huge retail business. They were very good to their employees. People working for the Goldwaters made an excellent wage. They had healthcare, even on-sight psychiatric care. Because the Goldwaters were good employers Goldwater felt they did not need a union. He also personally opposed segregation. He supported desegregation in Arizona and was disgusted by racial prejudice. Goldwater’s honesty is endearing. When he had a gay grandson whom he adored he opposed his party’s anti-gay stance. But again, this is a personal transformation. Perhaps millions have had the same experience. But without a militant gay rights movement these personal epiphanies would be meaningless. A desegregated Phoenix is irrelevant to the vast African American populations of the south under Jim Crow. Conservatives purge the complexity from life and run on a secret appeal to people’s darkest paranoias.
Mainstream America, the press, academics, moderate politicians of both parties, believed at the time that they were living in an age of consensus. America was a good country. Every problem could be managed. They thought the right wing movement to be insane, an outlier that would destroy the Republican Party. They couldn’t see what was happening. Perlstein writes:
“Years earlier, Fortune had called Barry Goldwater the ‘favorite son of a state of mind.’ Gene Pullman had recently termed the candidate’s swarms a ‘federation of the fed up.’ But a more appropriate metaphor was that of a virus. It might have come long ago: if you were a manufacturing baron, while fighting a grasping union boss or filling out your one-thousandth federal compliance form. But most people weren’t factory barons. Most likely it came after writing an ungodly sum on the bottom line of an income tax return. Or from watching your ancestral party, the party of Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, crawl into bed with civil rights carpetbaggers. Or after your northern suburb became gripped by rumors of Negro families moving into your neighborhood, Negro children busing into your children’s schools, negro men taking your place at work to fulfill some egghead’s idea of justice. Or from newspaper columnists asking you to ‘coexist’ with the slavemasters of your relatives in Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary. Or you caught the bug just watching the evening news, seeing citizens of countries that were perfectly happy to take our foreign aid spitting on our flag; you had not fought for that flag to put up with that. You felt helpless to do anything about it. You were looking for an army to march in. You saw one forming around the junior senator from Arizona. And—four years ago, three years ago, last year, last week—you took that first, fateful step.
“You licked an envelope, phoned a phone tree, planted a yard sign, thumbed a file, put a bumper sticker on your car reading ‘GALLUP NEVER ASKED ME!’….”
After reading Perlstein’s book it is impossible to think that the conservative movement of today is any different. It is more religious, yes. But the continuity between its origins, and whatever act it is in today is undeniable. The difference perhaps lies in the fact that there are fewer moderating forces at work. Or that the longer things are bad, the worse they get. It is possible to look at Johnson and think what a hypocrite he was. He was corrupt. He was psychopathic. But a victory for Goldwater would have been a disaster. Just as Nixon’s and Reagan’s victories were disasters. They laid the groundwork for Rove, Delay, Gingrich and W. John Yu is not a creature from the black lagoon, he is part of a line of conservative ideologues committed to the long war of transforming this nation into a corporatist state without countervailing influences. Torture, war, unlimited corporate funds in politics, a scorched earth environmental policy, destruction of worker’s rights, division by race and ethnicity are the stock and trade of the Republican party. Romney may have been a reminder that in his father’s day the Republican party was moderate and cooperative, but the Republicans didn’t win elections that way. When they did, as with Eisenhower, they governed within the New Deal consensus. It took a long time and a lot of red baiting, head bashing, and law breaking to change that, but it worked. Read this marvelously mean, entertaining book. Never Forget!