Rick Perlstein’s Epic History of Conservative Politics in America
Reaganland: America’s Right Turn (2020)
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014)
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001)
Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, the fourth and final volume of Rick Perlstein’s magisterial series on the rise of conservative politics in the United States between 1958 and 1980, emerged in the midst of the 2020 election for president that pit Donald Trump against Joseph Biden. People wondering how we arrived at such a place may want to immerse themselves in Perlstein’s epic work.
The tomes span some 3,326 Kindle pages of deeply researched campaign and political history, cleverly marked with cultural cairns. A combination of scholarly detachment and wry humor creates a compelling storyline that follows the arc of well-known events while simultaneously revealing crucial currents deep beneath the surface.
The story begins in earnest in 1964 when Republican Barry Goldwater went down in stunning defeat to Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. presidential election. The pummeling he suffered was so complete that many believed it signaled the end of America’s two party system. Conventional wisdom declared the nation’s moderate political consensus would rule unopposed for the rest of the millennium. That, Perlstein informs us, “was one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism.” A vibrant and rising conservative counter-culture lived in an enormous intellectual blind spot that caused the nation’s liberal elite to dismiss it, when it saw it at all. “America would remember the sixties as a decade of the left,” Perlstein writes. “It must be remembered instead as a decade when the polarization began.”
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus reveals its essential point in the subtitle. From the late 1940s into the early 1960s there was a consensus about American government. Leading Democrats, and many Eastern and Midwestern Republicans including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were at peace with the expanded federal powers accumulated during the New Deal and World War II.
Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, on the other hand, was a true libertarian believer in small government. He despised the ever growing Washington, D.C. Leviathan, and along with many fellow Westerners, feared it would strangle American freedom. They found allies for their opposition to big government in Dixie, where politicians deemed the nation’s central government a dark knight intent on slaying Jim Crow, white supremacy’s determined protector. The stage was set for a GOP showdown.
In 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon hoped to claim the Republican nomination for president without a divisive philosophical battle. It was not to be. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, his party’s chief moderate, forced liberal planks onto the GOP platform. An enraged Goldwater denounced the betrayal of conservative principles, but soldiered on for the good of the party. His zealous admirers vowed vengeance, and until the votes were counted thought they achieved it in 1964 when Goldwater won the Republican nomination for president.
Goldwater’s dismal showing as a candidate belied the strength of the conservative roots growing behind him in America’s prairies, suburbs, and southern towns. His 1960 manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative, sold 500,000 copies. Many were purchased on college campuses. That should not have surprised. In 1955, thirty year old William F. Buckley, Jr, launched the National Review to promote conservative ideas. The magazine attracted a generation of young, like-thinking intellectuals. Before long an energetic group of them got out of their reading chairs and created Young Americans for Freedom. In short order, they opened ninety-seven clubs in twenty-five states. Their 1962 convention overflowed New York’s Madison Square Garden. After Goldwater’s disappointing 1964 electoral loss, they grew angry and stronger. They pioneered new techniques of organization and politics, most notably direct mail marketing. Fraternity house pranks morphed into malicious dirty tricks.
Conservative adults were on the move too. The John Birch Society in 1958 organized patriots who believed the nation faced a diabolical foreign conspiracy. “The trouble in our southern states has been fomented almost entirely by the Communists to stir up such bitterness between whites and blacks in the South that small flames of civil disorder would inevitably result. They could then fan and coalesce these little flames into one great conflagration of civil war,” wrote Robert Welch, the society’s leader. On the basis of this and other farfetched theories, the society rapidly attracted tens of thousands of Americans structured into cells of less than two dozen members to prevent outside infiltration from the top down. Just like the communists.
Paranoia to be sure. But it was a time when the United States government told school children to hide from Soviet atomic bombs under their classroom desks, and warned of the risk of Russian spies boring from within. It was a time when southern governors, senators and other procrustean leaders told citizens that racial segregation represented the natural order of things and that any change to the status quo would precipitate the end of civilization. The paranoids, it might be said, were guilty of believing their country’s leaders. In time, Goldwater and Buckley both distanced themselves from the Birchers, but the group never went away. Nor did the sorts of fears that gave it purchase.
Political paranoia is an apt segue to Perlstein’s second volume, Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Once again, the subtitle tells the tale. In 1972 Nixon won the identical, overwhelming share of the popular vote that Johnson captured eight years earlier, 61 percent. Millions of voters “in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and . . . eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
What caused the change? The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and all that followed from those two seminal events — resistance to the draft and distrust of authority, the rise of hippie culture, school busing, and the quest for equality for women and gays. Many on the left welcomed the developments as progress towards America’s unfulfilled promise of universal democratic freedom. On the right, there was a backlash. The same events were blamed for a breakdown in the social order that caused big city race riots, a sharp rise in drug use and crime including high profile serial killings, assassinations and political violence including thousands of bombings, and the cumulative sense that the America conservatives loved was being destroyed.
After suffering a humiliating loss for governor of California in 1962, and observing Ronald Reagan win the office in 1966 by embracing conservative voters’ fears, Nixon pursued the same strategy on a national level. Above all, to Americans feeling a lost sense of security, he pledged to restore law and order.
Restoration appealed to many whites who associated urban riots and violent crime with aggressive African American demands for equality. Law and order became a dog whistle signaling a willingness to enforce America’s color coded rules of social conduct. This was predictably effective in the South, where white voters were drawn towards the Republicans at an accelerating pace because of Democrats support for civil rights. It was also true in northern cities and suburbs where aggressive integration efforts, especially forced busing, created a hostile reaction among Irish, Italian and other whites who sought to preserve what came to be called the ethnic purity of their neighborhoods.
Nixon’s 1968 victory by the slimmest of margins owed much to the third party candidacy of George Wallace, former and future Governor of Alabama who syphoned off traditional Democratic voters increasingly out of sorts with that party’s multi-cultural vision of America’s future. The Republican standard bearer also benefited from the scenes of chaos that accompanied the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s inability to separate himself from what was then the Democrats’ war in Southeast Asia.
Nixon’s 1972 landslide was the result in great measure of a determined appeal to conservative American anxieties. He asserted support for states’ rights as code for keeping the federal government out of the South’s racial conflicts, proposed conservative judges for federal courts, and promoted law and order in its deliberately ambiguous meanings. Vice President Spiro Agnew became the full-throated champion of white grievance, the voice of Americans Nixon labeled the silent majority. The press was treated not as a pillar of democracy, but as biased against conservatives and complicit in the country’s diminished respect for authority.
Nixon is America’s transitional president. He was a philosophical moderate, but postured conservative on emotionally charged issues. It was on Nixon’s watch that American voters solidified into two competing blocks. “Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way,” Perlstein says of the era. “America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which.”
And then came Watergate and revelations of all the dirty tricks Nixon relied on in his paranoid drive for reelection. Perlstein recounts the tale of the only American president forced to resign from office in the series’ third book: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. It is a curious volume. The presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are covered in the same satisfying detail as the others, but the men are incidental to the deeper meaning of the period, as the subtitle tells.
Gerald Ford inherited a diminished presidency. Nixon’s abuses yielded predictable calls for greater control over executive power. Even more alarming were revelations that emerged from Senate investigations into U.S. intelligence activity. Our Cold War commanders in chief had ordered assassinations of foreign heads of state and coups against democratically elected regimes. They had ordered the FBI and CIA to spy on Americans for purely political purposes. Presidents, it seemed, could not be trusted.
Ford, a long serving Michigan congressman who rose to minority leader of the House of Representatives, was the unelected choice to replace Vice President Agnew, who resigned amidst a bribery scandal. Ford had no mandate to lead. He pardoned Nixon to end the “long national nightmare” Watergate had become, but the decision smacked of a deal — an appointed president elevating above the law the disgraced former president who had appointed him. Presidents, it seemed, could not be trusted.
A perplexing economy awaited the new occupant of the Oval Office. Unemployment and inflation were high at the same time. Economists told him it was not supposed to be like that, but they could not tell him how to fix it. Vietnam collapsed on his watch projecting dispiriting television images across the country and the world of mighty America in disarray. An Arab oil embargo imposed shortly before Ford assumed the presidency destroyed America’s long-standing confidence in the unlimited bounty of its natural resources. The United States, it seemed, had lost control of its destiny.
Like Nixon, Ford was at heart a moderate. Like Nixon, he pandered to conservatives to win the Republican nomination for president. New groups commanded attention. In 1976 Ford became the first president to address the National Religious Broadcasters and the National Association of Evangelicals at a joint convention attended by 2,000. Every week Oral Roberts preached to seven million viewers on 349 stations. Pat Robertson had his own satellite network. Jerry Falwell, who managed The Old Time Gospel Hour, declared on television, “There’s no question about it. This nation was intended to be a Christian nation by our founding fathers.” The confidence is striking. The historical record does not support the claim.
The preachers had become active in ways considered bad form in the past. They lobbied directly for issues important to them, and to an estimated forty million voting age evangelical Christian Americans. The most emotionally charged was opposition to abortion, which took on fundamental importance a few years after the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling constrained states from outlawing the procedure. Passion for the topic was hot enough to melt the traditional suspicion between evangelicals and Catholics for whom protecting the unborn became a common cause.
Nearly as contentious was conservative opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, intended to ratify the notion that women should not suffer arbitrary discrimination. Half the country viewed it as a long overdue common sense expression of fairness. The other half interpreted it as disrespectful of motherhood, an assault on the traditional role of women in society, a slap at those who chose not to pursue professional careers. They imagined it as another attack on the established order, another push towards societal chaos. Reactionaries alarmed about bending gender roles asked, what’s next? Would liberals insist a man could marry a man?
Ford’s Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, was the former governor of Georgia. As a candidate, his politics defied easy categories. He was liberal on matters of race, but relatively conservative for a Democrat on most other issues. He promised he would never lie to Americans the way other presidents had. Importantly, Carter was a born again Christian and evangelicals backed him as one of their own. The support was a crucial element of a coalition that delivered him a slim majority of votes.
By the time a diligent reader arrives at Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, Ronald Reagan is a familiar figure. As a national spokesperson for General Electric he learned to tell optimistic stories about America that people wanted to believe. He spoke in a soothing voice, with what his friend Frank Sinatra called a “gee-whiz, golly-shucks” manner. His genial demeanor drew people towards him. By the early 1960s he had channeled the ability to connect with his audience into politics. It drove his opponents nuts that the stories he told were often untrue. To a Hollywood man trained to read scripts so people would believe them, the story was the point, the facts incidental.
A televised speech in support of Barry Goldwater had catapulted Reagan onto the national political scene at the end of the 1964 presidential campaign. In it, he told communist obsessed America, “We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars.” He borrowed a phrase from President Franklin Roosevelt, declaring, “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny,” and described its terms in fitting language for a jeremiad. “We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness,” he intoned. It was, in the opinion of seasoned political observers, “the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic Convention with the ‘Cross of Gold’ speech.”
During his two terms as California governor, Reagan established himself as conservative America’s champion. While not much of a church goer, he made easy friends with important evangelical leaders. Religious references, like John Winthrop’s encomium of America as a shining city on a hill, rolled easily off his tongue. He preached law and order, and Barry Goldwater’s conservative gospel: what America needed was a strong military to defend its freedom against the atheists atop the Soviet Union’s evil empire, a limited government that did not interfere with the magic of America’s free markets, and low taxes so private capital could spread economic prosperity across the land.
Reagan’s spirited challenge of President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 fell just short, but set the scene for his successful bid for the spot in 1980. His election contest against President Carter was neck and neck until a winning stage performance in a single debate during the final week of the campaign shifted undecided voters towards him, including many evangelicals.
Reagan’s economic policies found philosophical support from two now famous sources.
University of Chicago Nobel laureate Milton Friedman asserted that America’s economy would grow fastest and operate most fairly if the government would only leave it alone. His dogmatic free market faith was highly controversial, but the rigor of his scholarship lent credibility to his ideas. They have never been truly tested since no complex economy is without substantial government involvement.
A little known California economist named Arthur Laffer promoted a theory that when tax rates are too high, reductions in them can provide so much economic stimulus that revenues actually grow because the smaller slice is taken from a much larger pie. Campaigning against Reagan in 1980, George H. W. Bush called the notion “voodoo economics.” He stopped calling it that after Reagan chose him for vice president. The idea became known as supply-side economics. The theory has never been successfully implemented. Tax cuts reduce revenues, and if services are not cut to match, the result is budget deficits. That is what happened while Reagan was president.
The line from Nixon, to Reagan, to President Donald Trump is easy to draw. Roger Stone, convicted of felonies on behalf of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was a youthful soldier in Nixon’s army of dirty tricksters. Arthur Laffer was one of Trump’s economic advisers. In ways that make Nixon seem timid, Trump attacks the press and he disparages the nation’s elites with Agnew’s highly honed instincts for the task. Trump panders shamelessly to evangelicals. Swap Reagan’s Hollywood career with Trump’s television show, The Apprentice. The story is all, the truth nothing. Swap the evil Soviet Empire with Fundamentalist Islamic Terrorists. America should be very afraid and it must take extraordinary measures to defend itself against diabolical foreign foes, goes the story. The racist ghost of Jim Crow hovered over Trump’s false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate president. Proud Boys, Minutemen Militias, and other white nationalist groups are modern day John Birch societies.
“The sides have hardly changed,” Perlstein writes. “We now call them “red” or “blue” America.” The size of the constituencies that sort into one or the other of the coalitions will always be temporary, he advises. There are enough variables to make it so. Peace and prosperity, or war and recession. Domestic tranquility or internal strife. A failed response to a pandemic. A global collapse of the financial system. The persuasive power of social media campaigns. The profile and skill of the candidates.
But for every election since 1964, the narrative has been about two competing visions of America, and which would win the “temporary allegiance” of a majority. “It promises to be thus for another generation,” he warns.
So America is now a house divided. President Abraham Lincoln warned such a place cannot stand, but we are standing all the same. The ability of the Republic to endure is being tested, as it has been many times before. Except for the epic failure of the Civil War, it has survived without rupture every challenge put to it in 232 years since ratification of the Constitution. Odds are it will persevere this time too. Perhaps making sure of it is this generation’s rendezvous with destiny.
Chris McNickle /// December 2020