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Jun 28, 2024, 10:23am EDT
politicsNorth America

John Ganz on how 1992 broke American politics for good

Macmillan Publishers
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The News

America couldn’t go on like this. At the end of 1991, their faith in the federal government had collapsed; the president told them that the recession would be over soon, and they didn’t believe it. A nationwide movement drafted Ross Perot into the presidential race, and for a while, he led it. John Gotti was sentenced to life in prison, and some law-abiding people wanted him sprung.

When the Clock Broke,” the New York Times-bestselling history by John Ganz, pinpoints 1992 as the breakthrough year for right-wing reaction — politics that the Republican Party first resisted, then absorbed. He talked about his findings and theories with Americana, and this is an edited transcript of the conversation.

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Q&A

Americana: Why was 1992 the year that the clock broke?

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John Ganz: Basically, at the end of the 1980s, you had a hangover from the bust of the Reagan boom. The effects of that were not so great for the working class and the middle class in America. This created a lot of discontent about the American political system. And that didn’t express itself as a pendulum swing back to the left. What happened was an explosion of right-wing populist anger at the system.

That was embodied in David Duke, running for governor of Louisiana, then by Pat Buchanan, running in the Republican presidential primary against George H.W. Bush, then by Ross Perot. He tried to portray himself as neither right nor left, but I think any honest assessment of his policies and his style would identify him as a right-wing or reactionary figure. When I started looking into this time period, it was so suggestive of Trump and our own period that I kept going.

Americana: How does the Republican Party of that time hold off this insurgency?

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John Ganz: Not particularly well! They really struggled with David Duke’s insurgency in Louisiana. They threw the might of the RNC and the President of the United States against it and couldn’t stop him from being the candidate of the Republican Party. And Buchanan’s campaign really wounded Bush; it was arguably one of the reasons he lost. After they spent the primary connecting him to antisemitism and the far right, they invited him back in to give a very rousing speech at the Republican National Convention — the “culture war” speech — and suddenly the Republican Party could not really distance itself from these tendencies or beat them back long-term.

I do think Newt Gingrich did a pretty good job at assimilating some of the energy of the Perot movement, which became much less of a factor as the decade went on, but it was always hanging around. And the conservative movement seemed to, really successfully, write Buchanan out of the party during the debate around the Iraq War. But that was only temporary.

Americana: You write about David Duke manipulating some TV networks; a little bit later you write about Perot cracking under the pressure of investigative reporting once he’s actually in the race. How did the media environment of this period affect how the movements were seen?

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John Ganz: I think this was the last golden age of print media. The coverage is good. The opinion writing is very perceptive and interesting. I’m less impressed with radio and TV from the time. This is the golden age of talk radio, too, and some of the views expressed on there are wild and deeply irresponsible; a lot of the TV coverage is already more entertainment than journalism.

Americana: Do you see audio and visual media as inherently good media for the right, or for right-wing populists? Or is there some way for the left to break in?

John Ganz: They’re more helpful for the right wing populists. They require emotional appeals, which are much easier to do through broadcast; they require not being put into context, which is very much helped by being on TV. And they require being able to bowl over their interviewers and act outrageously and get attention with histrionics. The medium allows them to have a direct relationship with a crowd and for people to create a kind of parasocial relationship with them, which is really important. It basically allows them to recreate the dynamic of the rally at mass scale.. So there’s definitely an interplay between the needs of the demagogue and the commercial needs of TV and radio — and now, the internet.

Americana: Was there any history that surprised you?

John Ganz: I don’t know that it surprised me, but my favorite part of the book was telling a story of how John Gotti became such a hero in New York, which I think is very telling now. Even before Trump had any criminal convictions, you had fans kind of playing off his gangster image, talking about Al Capone — people were showing up at his rallies with flags that called him “the Donfather.” Trump’s mafioso-type image for himself is not really a liability, so much as an attractive thing for a lot of people. When I read about Gotti, I couldn’t help but think about Trump.

Americana: Are there choices that Democrats could have made to head this off, to bring these voters back into their coalition?

John Ganz: Well, I’m biased. My politics are to the left. I think that it’s a shame that the Democratic Party just doesn’t look back to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt. My belief is, if they had been more energetic and aggressive about the policies enacted in the wake of the financial crisis, we might be in a much different situation. The Democratic Party and its leaders moved much too cautiously, when it was clear that the intellectual consensus about governance and the economy that had been in place for the past 30 years was broken.

That revision is happening now, but it’s a little too late. Biden has been the best president towards organized labor in my lifetime. He’s shown a willingness to spend serious money on behalf of the poor and working people in this country. He’s shown some effort to think seriously about redeveloping American industry. But I don’t think that’s what he’s associated with in the public mind.

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