Rick Perlstein: Today's Right-Wing Journalists Are 'Hustlers, Haters, Hacks and Conspiratorial Lunatics'

As a historian, Rick Perlstein has produced two books about Republicans (Before the Storm and Nixonland) in which narrative almost always takes precedence over the author's lefty politics. As a blogger for The Nation's website, however, Perlstein treats the right far more harshly. On Thursday, for example, he posted an item called "There Are No More Honest Conservatives, So Stop Looking For One."

Perlstein reports that there isn't a single contemporary right-wing journalist he admires, whereas several decades ago, he notes, the estimable likes of William F. Buckley Jr., James J. Kilpatrick, and George Will roamed the earth. (Will, of course, is still around, but Perlstein, as you'll see below, considers the Will of 2014 essentially a generic Fox News talking head.) He perceives a "neurotic refusal" among liberals and centrists "to accept the reality that conservative intellectualism is a tradition that [has] quite nearly died."  

From Perlstein's post (emphasis added):

    Last November I received a friendly request from an editor at a political publication. A liberal himself, surrounded by liberal colleagues, he wanted to make sure that the journalists he was hiring were not drawn exclusively from the left. He wondered if I might help him out with a list of “conservative reporters, writers and commentators” whom I admired most...

    Maybe if I had a time machine and could travel back to the 1970s or 1980s, I could name names. Now, though, I can’t think of a single one.

    Sure, the right in previous decades was jam-packed with the same sorts of haters, hustlers, hacks and conspiratorial lunatics that are familiar to us now. But there were lively exceptions. George Nash, a still-active independent historian, celebrated The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America in a classic book published in 1976, when that tradition was very much still alive and kicking. James J. Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader, may have been an intellectual architect of the South’s “massive resistance” against integration in the 1950s, but he also wrote columns that were literary, politically independent and often wise. Kevin Phillips was an idiosyncratic conservative then who wrote brilliantly prescient articles with the same critical acumen and empirical ruthlessness he demonstrates nowadays as an idiosyncratic liberal...


    George Will...proved positively scathing as a principled critic of a [Nixon administration] that, during 1972, both believed “virtually every possible Democratic candidate was a garish sham who would destroy the country” but that they “couldn’t trust the American people to choose that way in a fair fight”...

    Then there was William F. Buckley Jr., a problematic figure in so many ways: seriously proposing marooning welfare recipients on an island off Manhattan, tattooing AIDS sufferers on the buttocks, mentoring flock after flock of right-wing journalists who got stupider and lazier and more hawkish with each successive generation. But at least Buckley himself was intelligent and honest—and granted his adversaries on the left, like Noam Chomsky, the respect of debating them seriously on TV.

    Now, however, Buckley is dead—very, very dead. Will, meanwhile, is ensconced exactly where he belongs, with the haters, hustlers, haters, hacks and conspiratorial lunatics at Fox News—but also, unfortunately, still at The Washington Post, enjoying a handsome living by making up things about Barack Obama and Benghazi and calling climate change a hoax.

    That’s about the long and short of conservative “journalism” these days. Sure, if you put a gun to my head I could name some right-wing journalists who are, at the very least, as they say, “smart.” But every time I think I can sign on to the promise of one of these folks, they just end up disappointing me...

    The level of conservative stewardship of their “intellectual tradition” is even worse: just look at the 204-page “poverty study” published by the Republican Party’s supposed intellectual heavyweight, Paul Ryan...The problem with our media ecology is...that conservatives are protected from any consequence for their intellectual failings...

    ...[T]he problem I have with my friend’s question to me in the first place: why is it that liberals and moderates and editorial non- and anti-ideologues of (too) good faith insist on making like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, scouring the horizon for the last honest conservative, instead of accepting the fact that there are virtually none to be found? Diogenes at least knew he was a cynic—a satirist. These editors, though, are entirely, pathetically, in earnest. It’s almost a psychological need—a neurotic refusal within in the reality-based community to accept the reality that conservative intellectualism is a tradition that quite nearly died. (But not entirely died: here, I want to single out the contributions of ISI Books, which among other things has published some genuinely scholarly biographies of important conservatives from a more serious conservative age like Brent Bozell Jr., Robert Nisbet and James Burnham.)

    Some smart speechwriter for George W. Bush once came up with a rather brilliant phrase to describe what conservatives see as the moral failing of affirmative action: that it imposes a “soft bigotry of low expectations.” By patting under-qualified minority candidates patronizingly on the head and giving them jobs and educations for which they are not prepared, the argument goes, liberals supposedly do the objects of their tender concern more harm than good—and the greater public good a grievous harm as well. Time to stop the soft bigotry of low expectations toward the right. No more affirmative action for conservatives. It does no good for a right-wing literati that would be better served by a swift kick in the ass.

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters