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.”

Perlstein, who calls himself a “social historian,” now finds rumor more illuminating than fact. His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism. “My effort here is about intellectual democracy, in the spirit of the open source software movement,” he explains in the online notes for The Invisible Bridge, adding, “I welcome messages about errors, omissions, broken links and any questions.” He means it, too: he has included a Gmail address.

This crowd-sourced scholarship of the people’s historian is in keeping with the Greek-chorus theme of his new book, with its lurid picture of the mid-1970s as “death-haunted times” when the “survival of the republic” seemed uncertain and apocalypse awaited just offstage. “What madness couldn’t be visited on America next?,” Perlstein asks as he inches the story forward from the Watergate investigation to the 1976 election, lavishing attention on political and cultural events—the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the box-office triumph of The Exorcist, the “est” fad, the goofy skits on Saturday Night Live—and mixing them in with “a sort of biography of Ronald Reagan.”

“Sort of” because the story ends with Reagan’s one major electoral setback, his long-shot campaign to unseat the unelected incumbent Gerald Ford. The parallels with Goldwater’s insurgency a dozen years earlier are clear, and so are the differences. This time the defeat is really a victory, which will be realized one election cycle later and lead, in our own time, to Reagan’s enshrinement as the most beloved of modern Republican presidents, whose current acolytes—some of them in their teens when he was in office—still huddle in the penumbra of his remembered glow.

The Invisible Bridge follows Nixonland in its hyper-reductive psychobiographizing. Perlstein rehashes the familiar story of Reagan’s boyhood and youth, plus his years in Hollywood and as a General Electric pitchman, when he perfected a line of extremist patter at once alarmist and soothing. “At turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty, Ronald Reagan’s power was simply awesome,” Perlstein writes. “As an athlete of the imagination, he was a Babe Ruth, a Jack Dempsey, a Red Grange.” The cartoon prose obscures rather than explains. Garry Wills has as little use for Reagan as Perlstein does, but his book Reagan’s America, published in 1987, makes the more nuanced case that this most elusive of American political heroes was “just as simple, and just as mysterious, as our collective dreams and memories.” Thus he seemed the right man “at a time when the nation needed some reassuring.”

Perlstein does much better on different terrain. He reminds us that the other dark horse in 1976, Jimmy Carter, was a canny political strategist who read Watergate disillusionment more accurately than any other Democrat and shrewdly juggled personas, presenting himself both as a humble evangelical Christian and as an outsider technocrat-businessman. Perlstein also captures the beginnings of the culture wars in all their rawness. His retelling of a textbook controversy in West Virginia offers much useful new detail, and he deftly links it with anti-busing protests in Boston. Both reflected the “politics of rage” that continue to shape so much of conservative politics, including the Tea Party revolt.

But Perlstein seems unwilling, or unable, to acknowledge that the genie of the New Right might have been loosed by anything other than anger, almost all of it channeled through the Republican Party. “There were two tribes of Americans now,” he writes. The virtuous liberal tribe, appalled by Watergate and other Nixon-era revelations, embraced “a new vision of patriotism produced in the 1960s—a perfect passion for the rule of law, of the fairest possible proceduralism, a longing for political innocence that pundits referred to as the ‘New Politics.’ ” The other tribe, gathering behind Reagan, comprised “the people who had elected Richard Nixon in 1968, in a tangle of rage and piety,” and, like Nixon, believed “our neighbors might be our enemies, and our enemies might destroy us.” In truth, neither side had a monopoly on rage and piety. “The liberals failed,” Norman Mailer wrote after the Watergate hearings:

If Richard Nixon had been standing alone on the street and a thousand nonviolent liberals had been standing around him with flails, they would have beaten each other to death in their rush to get at him. They would have drowned in each other’s slobber in the fury to beat him to a pulp.

In this volume’s 800 pages, Perlstein might have shown how genuinely conservative ideas entered the upper as well as lower reaches of 1970s culture. But you will find only fleeting mention here of the challenge to Keynesian economics made by Milton Friedman and others, or of the reassessments of “the welfare state” in publications like Commentary and The Public Interest, and not a word on the presentiment, in the influential writings of Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Lionel Trilling, that the left, too, would play a part in enfeebling America’s liberal traditions.

The trouble, perhaps, is that Perlstein’s single-minded fixation on one period in American political life has immured him from the history that helped shape those decades. If Perlstein looked further, he would find outbreaks of American Dada in the first days of the republic, and the beginnings of polarization in that most gruesomely “death-haunted” tribal conflict of all, the Civil War.

And imagine the wealth of madness some future Perlstein will uncover by Googling through the first months of 2014: Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, the Santa Barbara murders, a nation transfixed by the vanished Malaysian airplane, the earnestly legalistic “case” for Obama’s impeachment published in book form by a former federal prosecutor. But how much of our national story is actually contained in those episodes?

In such a climate, it is always tempting to believe that things were once better. No wonder an ideal past has such a tenacious hold on us—the South that is ever rising, the New Deal coalition ever ready to re-form, the saner place America used to be before it became “Nixonland” and built a sinister “invisible bridge” to the toxic enmities of our current moment. “Nostalgia was becoming a national cult,” Perlstein writes of the year 1973. True enough. It remains a cult today, and Perlstein is in danger of becoming its captive. It is a luxury he, and the rest of us, can afford—until the day when the apocalypse is truly upon us.

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

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