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'Reaganland' Author Revisits The Roots Of American Conservatism


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies.

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's 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 Gov. 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 "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980."

Well, Rick Perlstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Hi, Dave. It's really great to be here.

DAVIES: 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 the unanimous support of the Republican Party. Is Donald Trump the product of the conservative movement? Is he a usurper of it? How do you connect him to the dynamics that you've studied?

PERLSTEIN: 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, you know, two points about that. One is that I don't think anyone can read "Reaganland" 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 who spoke at a anti-gay initiative rally in 1977 in Miami.

DAVIES: The prominent reverend from back in those days, yeah.

PERLSTEIN: 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? Is that worse? That's an interesting question.

But there are 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, you know, 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.

DAVIES: You know, one theme of this story is that the rise of the New Right is powered in part by populist anger.

PERLSTEIN: That's right.

DAVIES: We see it in the tax revolt that you write about in the book and in the Tea Party later on. And now we have a - 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?

PERLSTEIN: Well, the important thing to understand is you don't become president without having a coalition. Right? And you don't become a, you know, 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, you know, something called the New Right, which was 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 are going to go for alienated middle-class and lower middle-class voters. And one of their slogans was we organize 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 is something I wrote about my last book, "Invisible Bridge," in which rural, fundamentalist Christians in Kanawha County, W.Va. - 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 worth 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 Right's 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 anti-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.

DAVIES: 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 roaring to power over this inept guy.

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?

PERLSTEIN: Yeah, I literally found a planning memo. They had the line underlined, Carter is smarter than Reagan. And that was their way of saying, basically, that this guy didn't have a chance. Their overconfidence is incredible. Hendrik Hertzberg, who's, you know, 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 onstage next to Jimmy Carter, then it was over; it was finished. And the Reagan people seemed to agree.

I talk about the very intense debates in 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, the bait 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 causal effect to a political debate.

And during the debate, 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 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, you know, obviously referred to another supposed, you know - another moment in the debate where Ronald Reagan said that they were making up his record, right?

DAVIES: That was what it referred to. And he would do this with this endearing kind of grin and a nod of his head, (laughter) right?

PERLSTEIN: 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-fiving 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, you know, 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 whoosh away contradiction, whoosh away complexity and prevent this kind of smiling, optimistic front. And, you know, he did that again and again. He did the same thing in the debate in 1984.

DAVIES: You know, his answer to the criticism that he had opposed Medicare was to say, no, no. You're - no. 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 (laughter)?

PERLSTEIN: 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 kind of flay the hide off the political media for reporting this stuff as if they're drama critics and not as guardians of facts and truth. And Ronald Reagan really got a free pass. Jimmy Carter was slammed.

DAVIES: Didn't people look at the record and report that he was misrepresenting it? Didn't journalists do that?

PERLSTEIN: They did that sometimes.

DAVIES: But, I mean, in this case, with the debate, no?

PERLSTEIN: 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 Billygate, which was really was the kind of but-her-emails of 1980. It was - you know, you'll recall this terrible scandal if you're Billy Carter because he took thousands and thousands of dollars from the Libyans, who were - which is basically a terrorist state. Yeah (laughter).

DAVIES: 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?

PERLSTEIN: 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 lapsed judgment. But, you know, the media - and this was also during the Democratic convention - just obsessed over this.

They were so concerned to be, you know, equally censorious of both sides, the Republicans and the Democrats, that, you know, it 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 1976 and maintained his popularity for the most part when he did, through 1977 through 1980, 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'd now consider a meme, that Jimmy Carter had become mean - M-E-A-N. It was the meanness issue. And Jimmy Carter had to go on, you know, kind of, well, a modern confessional, Barbara Walters' interview show, and basically prefer a groveling apology for being mean and promising a higher tone in the future.

DAVIES: 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, you know, as an icon of decency. We're speaking with Rick Perlstein. His new book is "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: 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 "Reaganland."

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?

PERLSTEIN: (Laughter). Sure (laughter). 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, 50,000 donors. And he said nuclear waste was wonderful because it provided all these great economic opportunities. And...

DAVIES: For reuse or what (laughter)?

PERLSTEIN: You know, I'd have to look at my notes.


PERLSTEIN: 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, you know, 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, you know, his radio programs, which ran, you know, for five minutes every day until - from 1995 until he began running for president - in 1979 with a short interruption for when he ran for president in 1976.

And, you know, they could've - Jimmy Carter knew that Ronald Reagan was the No. 1 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, you know, begin to plan our campaign for 1980, he would, you know - whatever - go back to reading the tax code or something like that.

DAVIES: This habit of Reagan of winging it and getting stuff that is pretty wildly wrong - I mean, there's, 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?

PERLSTEIN: It absolutely is. That - you're referring to laetrile, which was made from apricot pits. And it was kind of 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, you know, keeping this, you know, 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 - it was 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.

DAVIES: 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?

PERLSTEIN: Well, there's an old cartoon about that. It's like, you know, he might have, you know, cut public housing by 80%, but he sure did smile a lot. You know, he might have, you know, 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 a American carnage kind of discourse; you know, Armageddon is just around the corner.

And Ronald Reagan always - you know, he talked about 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.

DAVIES: 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?

PERLSTEIN: It's pretty interesting because the phrase October surprise is - you know, has entered our political lexicon, and it's also remembered from 1980. So it's a conspiracy theory 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. I'm - 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. It 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, you know, 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 had a massive exit poll - 13,000 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 2-to-1. 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 respected Carter because the hostages weren't harmed.

But one more thing and 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 glows? You know, Tehran 15 seconds after Reagan's inauguration. So the idea that Reagan would do anything to release the hostages, you know, even, you know, nuke Iran or start another Vietnam, was very much abroad in the land.

Another result of the polls afterwards was, 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 office with a - with just a smashing mandate for what he was trying to do.

DAVIES: Rick Perlstein is a historian and author. His new book, the fourth in his series about modern American conservatism, is "Reaganland." We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. As the Republican Party re-nominates 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 "Reaganland."

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% 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 a 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.

PERLSTEIN: 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, you know, 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 1979. And evidence suggests that this was extremely successful. A whole class of liberal lions - George McGovern, Birch Bayh, 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 were the folks who really did the work to effectuate the Reagan agenda once he was inaugurated on January 20, 1981.

DAVIES: 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. Remind us what happened here (laughter).

PERLSTEIN: 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 (laughter), 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, 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, you know, Bob Dylan and, you know, all sorts of iniquities, had an excuse 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 through 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.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, because you had - there were clearly social issues 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 a little bit about some of those folks and the impact they had.

PERLSTEIN: 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, you know, end Western civilization as we know it, the better you could do for politicians. And one of the things that it was so effective for, it was a very stealthy strategy.

So I described in the 1978 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, you know, 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, who I've talked about. And they were not having as much luck as they hoped organizing people around issues like unions being too powerful, issues like the Tennessee Valley Authority being socialism - all this 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, you know, made kids wear short hair and believed in God, flag and the country - that they weren't following IRS guidelines against, basically, having two segregated student bodies.

And so he created new guidelines. And this became the spark that lit the prairie fire because it was the money nerve, right? These guys relied on the fact that they were tax deductions under, you know, 501(c)(3) 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.

DAVIES: 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. His new book is "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: 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 "Reaganland."

Another thing that happens over this period is business interests 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?

PERLSTEIN: Yeah. Business lobbying was very ineffectual, and it tended to involve zero-sum questions. You know, who was going to get the contract for the next, you know, 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 gave them automatic cost-of-living increases. And they began becoming, as I put it, class conscious, almost in the Marxist sense.

DAVIES: 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 of things. And...

PERLSTEIN: Yeah, it's astonishing how successful Ralph Nader's consumer movement was in really kind of back-footing 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 were 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 said, we don't have the technology to do this. And Sen. 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 Muskie's 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.


PERLSTEIN: So that's what they were reacting against. And they suddenly - there's a couple of, you know, 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 on TV. Suddenly, they found these ad hoc coalitions that used, you know, the most sophisticated Madison Avenue techniques. They used 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 was in 1978. And in 1978, this tide is so strong that Jimmy Carter, who makes tax reform the biggest campaign promise, signs a tax bill, reluctantly, that gives, you know, like, 95% of its benefits to rich people.

DAVIES: 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. You want to just describe some of the players and what came of that?

PERLSTEIN: Right. So this was in Richard Viguerie's, you know, colonial mansion, you know, in Virginia.

DAVIES: The big direct - conservative direct mail guy, yeah.

PERLSTEIN: 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, you know, part of the swamp, you know, to use a contemporary phrase, that they were trying to kind of disempower. They, you know, would often hold these meetings in which their various groups - you know, anti-gay rights groups, anti-feminist groups and anti-union groups - would get together and, you know, 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 consider these guys louche embarrassments. You know, these were the guys who, you know, were defending the dynamiters of school boards. These were the guys who were talking about, you know, gays recruiting children. They laid 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, you know, 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 allow Reaganland to triumph.

DAVIES: 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?

PERLSTEIN: That was a really fascinating story. So any - every Californian knows what Proposition 13 is because, you know, it had such a baleful effect on public finance in California.

DAVIES: But we don't. Tell us about it (laughter). Tell us, what's Proposition 13?

PERLSTEIN: 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 World War II skyrocketed because everyone wanted to move to California, basically. So, you know, a grandmother who owned a house that she never was going to sell whose, you know, 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. They were, you know, 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 name Howard Jarvis, who would say things like, 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 populous 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 is one of its biggest boosters.

DAVIES: 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.

PERLSTEIN: 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 on his way. There's other contributing factors, and there's lots of twists and turns. But, you know, we all know how the story ends.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. Rick Perlstein is a historian and author. His new book is "Reaganland: America's Right Turn 1976-1980." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: 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 "Reaganland."

So you write about these strands which give us the New Right - you know, the 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 on - 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's certainly had some bad luck - I mean, energy crises and a trucker strike resulting from that that was controversial and then, you know, the Iranian hostage crisis. How do we assess him?

PERLSTEIN: 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 an absolute 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 really quite remarkable. He has very sophisticated negotiating techniques. You know, I talk again and again of him balancing some very difficult international problems in ways that show some real skills. So maybe a reassessment is 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 a 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 a stamp on the federal judiciary for a generation - that would be a dream come true. But he really had this real contempt 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, you know, 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 find 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 II, 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, you know, 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.

DAVIES: Right. And then there 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 (laughter) although, you know, today he wouldn't be. But then he was.

PERLSTEIN: It's wild.

DAVIES: What were his gifts? You know, he would sometimes defy pollsters and, you know, media people and just follow his own instincts, which were pretty good, weren't they?

PERLSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, let me just give one example. You know, he's known as The Great Communicator. And I found, you know, speech drafts that he had, you know, kind of edited in his own hand that just made them sing, you know, turned kind of clouded 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 of 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, you know, charm the pants out of just about anyone.

And I found another (laughter) interview that he did during the Republican convention that was - it was published during the Republican convention - in which he 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 (laughter). You know, I'm not sure that's really true. But 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.

DAVIES: 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, 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 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 seems to be a really important difference in shaping partisan politics.

PERLSTEIN: 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 - they had 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, "Will," he talked about his admiration for Hitler. And people said, wow, Richard Nixon had fascists working for them. You know, I came across in a review in a small-town Alabama paper that said, well, yeah. Maybe he is a fascist, but maybe that's what we need.

So I think that we had plenty of kind of polarized media. It certainly didn't kind of - it hasn't advanced to the state 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, 250 years or whatever, 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 II, Cold War period in which we did seem to have this consensus is much more the exception in the longue duree of American history than the rule.

DAVIES: Well, Rick Perlstein, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

PERLSTEIN: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Rick Perlstein is a historian and author. His new book, the fourth in his series about modern American conservatism, is "Reaganland."

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 guest 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 you 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 Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.