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Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris

Dec 2, 2021

At War with Government

How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump

Columbia University Press 2021

Political Scientists Amy Fried (University of Maine) and Douglas B. Harris (Loyola University Maryland) have a new book, At War with Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump (Columbia UP, 2021), that looks at the question of distrust within American politics and how that distrust has moved from healthy skepticism to a weapon to be used to divide citizens and undermine the entire governmental system in the United States. Part of this is an historical examination, starting with the basic skepticism about power that was present in North America even before the Founding period. But the thrust of the book traces this distrust of government over the past half century, and highlights how it has become more overt, and more of a rhetorical tool used, in particular, by members of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Fried and Harris explain how this narrative of distrust in government has been used as an organizing umbrella for the contemporary Republican Party, as the strategic glue that holds together social conservatives, economic conservatives and libertarians, and national security hawks. This is the same organizing umbrella that was also implemented by politicians, especially in the use of the Southern Strategy, to pull the southern states into the Republican coalition over the past half century. This weaponization of distrust has been used, as the authors, note, in four different areas that can be seen again and again across historical periods during the last fifty years; these four areas include building organization, winning elections, securing policy gains, and moving functional power into the political institutions when they are controlled by the GOP. This use of distrust has also been woven into the conservative political identity, pulling in racial components and advocacy against the government itself to continue to build this political coalition. Fried and Harris make use of a lot of different archival sources to examine and explain how conservative elites have used this distrust strategically to help turn out voters, build the political organization, and construct a rhetorical narrative that indicts the American political system. At War with Government helps to explain not only the rise of Donald Trump, but also the asymmetrical polarization in which voters now find themselves in the U.S. system, and how Trump and those who preceded him capitalized on American distrust of and skepticism towards government.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at lgoren@carrollu.edu or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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