The Gonzo Historian

Rick Perlstein’s massive chronicle of “the whackadoodle far-right” gets ever more manic.
Associated Press (photos); Jackie Lay (illustration)

Political life in America has been so intensely polarized for so long that we now accept the condition as permanent, even as the costs steadily mount. A generation ago, it would have been unthinkable for one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in modern history, the Affordable Care Act, to be voted into law without a single Republican “aye” in either the House or the Senate; or for a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, to say that he no longer reads either The New York Times or The Washington Post, because both are incurably biased; or for the presidential nominee of one of the two major parties to get zero percent of the vote in some 150 precincts in New York and Philadelphia, as Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Our country, it seems, is fast becoming two separate nations. Each has its own political party, its own cable-news sermonizers; its own digital oracles, scandal-mongers, and data miners; its own billionaire donors and advocacy groups; its own economists and corps of scientific experts. Stranger still, this is happening at a time of unparalleled social and cultural heterogeneity. The long-deferred dream of the melting pot now seems within reach, and yet our politics feels savorless and unseasoned. The debates grow noisier but also blander, devoid of spontaneity and surprise, in part because once-thriving political subspecies—populist southern Democrats, liberal northeastern Republicans, prairie and plains Socialists, and mavericks in both parties—verge on extinction. We are left instead with ritualized conflict staged and restaged.

How to explain this paradox—this sameness-in-variety? How even to describe it? For more than a decade, Rick Perlstein, a historian born in 1969, has pursued the subject of polarization in a sequence of very long books. The latest, The Invisible Bridge, is the third in a project now exceeding 2,300 pages, covering a mere dozen years, 1964 to 1976. The trilogy centers on two defeated insurgent presidential campaigns (Barry Goldwater’s and Ronald Reagan’s), with an insurgent disgraced presidency, Richard Nixon’s, in between.

Along the way, something has happened. A mission that began with every promise of reconstructing the origins of conservative “movement” politics has degenerated into a manic chronicle of what Philip Roth, in a different context, once called “Pure American Dada,” and what Perlstein himself has labeled the “wingnuttism” of the “whackadoodle far-right.” Perlstein’s gift for energetic caricature and his taste for bizarre incidents have overpowered his impulse to sift through the ideas and beliefs that animate his subjects, and to grapple seriously with a politics rooted in authentic if not always coherent dissent.

The mid-1970s were “death-haunted times” when the “survival of the republic” seemed uncertain.

A self-described “sixties obsessive since childhood,” Perlstein buoyantly drew on the decade’s submerged history in the first and so far the best of the series, Before the Storm (2001), a thoroughly researched and exuberantly written account of the quixotic 1964 presidential campaign. The book’s subtitle, Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, is sardonic. Perlstein persuasively argues that even at its apogee in the prosperous 1950s, the “cult of ‘American consensus,’ ” as he would later call it, seethed with dark rebellions, some of them insurrectionist in spirit as well as in tactics: Joseph McCarthy’s Red-hunting investigations and the organized “massive resistance” of segregationist Dixiecrats, along with assorted anti-tax and states’-rights crusades. Radicals inspired, and in some instances orchestrated, Goldwater’s campaign—the literary ideologues at National Review, the grass-roots operatives in the John Birch Society and Young Americans for Freedom, the wealthy businessmen Frank Cullen Brophy and H. L. Hunt, who prefigured the Koch brothers of our own moment.

Goldwater, reluctantly “drafted” to lead the campaign, knew he would lose, and this lent his quest a piquancy and charm that Perlstein doesn’t find in later conservative tribunes. In his second book, Nixonland, Perlstein’s loathing of his subject erupts from the outset and spills over into absurdity. Stacking the deck early on, Perlstein ridicules a letter the 11-year-old Nixon, a poor boy from the Orange County provinces, sent to the Los Angeles Times asking for a job. “I am willing to come to your office at any time and I will accept any pay offered,” Nixon wrote. To Perlstein, this innocent plea is dark evidence of a “foreshadowing trait: groveling to elevate his station in life.” And he doesn’t let up. Not content to note Congressman Nixon’s dismay when McCarthy pilfered from the speech he gave in the House after helping to ensnare the Soviet agent Alger Hiss, Perlstein jazzes it up in the style, or anti-style, of Mickey Spillane. “The pitch Nixon had spent years setting up, McCarthy hit out of the park. The bastard.”

An insistent vulgarity has overtaken Perlstein’s prose, and it implies contempt not just for Nixon but for the public that eventually elected him president twice, the second time in one of the biggest landslides in history. For Perlstein, the mere fact of a President Nixon is explicable only as pathology. This is the same argument Barack Obama’s unhinged detractors make about him. And just as those detractors depict the pragmatist Obama as the agent of anti-Americanism, so Perlstein describes the centrist Nixon as the sole author of “the fracturing of America,” who feasted on middle-American fears of black militants and campus radicals—even as he turned the federal government into a private militia. After the Kent State protest, in which National Guardsmen killed four demonstrators, vapors of hatred enveloped the victims and, Perlstein writes, “a rumor spread” that one of the four, “whose head was blown off, was such a dirty hippie that they had to keep the ambulance door open on the way to the hospital for the smell.”

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Sam Tanenhaus is a writer at large for The New York Times

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