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.
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.”