In This Review

The Destructionists: The Twenty-five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party
The Destructionists: The Twenty-five Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party
By Dana Milbank
Doubleday, 2022, 416 pp.
Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s
By Nicole Hemmer
Basic Books, 2022, 368 pp.

These two books cover much of the same history but merit individual attention. Both identify the 1990s as the key decade that spawned the Republican Party that exists today. Milbank compresses every awful political occurrence of the past quarter century into a page-turner that is both difficult to stomach and hard to put down. He traces Donald Trump’s prehistory to the Republican revolution of 1994 which made Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House and indelibly changed the language—and soon the content—of politics. Gingrich identified one of the Republican Party’s “great problems” as insufficient nastiness and produced a memo that laid out the words Republican candidates should use to describe their Democratic opponents: “sick, corrupt, cheat, betray, lie, steal, greed, destroy, pathetic, bizarre, anti-family,” and so on. Political compromise with such a group was obviously out of the question: unyielding obstructionism was the course to follow.

Rather than trace Trumpism’s roots, Hemmer begins several decades earlier by asking why the more moderate doctrine of Reaganism collapsed so quickly after President Ronald Reagan left office in 1989. Anticommunism, she finds, was the glue that held the various strands of American conservatism together. With the end of the Cold War, traditional conservatives and the New Right diverged, with the latter turning toward populism and increasingly overt racism. Pat Buchanan is the central figure in this telling. In three presidential runs, Buchanan championed the strand of conservative politics that Trump later channeled in his “America first” slogan, his opposition to nato, hostility to immigrants, and support for trade tariffs. This was Buchanan’s populist, xenophobic agenda with “few updates.” Hemmer focuses on the evolution of conservative views on key policies from isolationism to trade and on the crucial role of far-right media that sidelined mainstream Republicanism. Two weeks into the Barack Obama administration, the right-wing talk-show host Glenn Beck sensationally denounced the new president as a dictator: “We are really, truly stepping beyond socialism, and we’re starting to look at fascism.” As the narrative nears recent years, Hemmer’s account and Milbank’s converge in a similar retelling of the anger, grievance, nativism, anti-elitism, and conspiracy that Trump recognized and exploited.