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What the rise of Reagan tells us about the age of Trump

Rick Perlstein's Reaganland charts the conservative counter-revolution that moved the US to the right. 

 

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For two full decades, Rick Perlstein has been that rare historian of American conservatism: one read as often and as eagerly by liberals as by conservatives. Reaganland is the fourth volume of his kaleidoscopic, Whitmanian chronicle of the rise of the modern right in the US, from the cultural schizophrenia of the 1960s to the miniature Victorian age of the 1980s.

The man in the White House during the years Perlstein writes about, 1976 to 1980, was not Ronald Reagan but Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. It hardly mattered: Americans were already in Reaganland. A change in feeling had washed over the nation. The Vietnam War now over, university students had returned to the classroom. Violent protests and bank burnings on campus had given way to toga parties. Perlstein quotes a college girl who, when asked if she would be upset if the US resumed bombing Vietnam, responded: “Well, I’d be pretty mad if they bombed this school.”

Meanwhile, a conservative counter- revolution barnstormed the country. Anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly and her cadre of crocheting old ladies and Mormon wives outnumbered the feminists at their own gatherings. Jimmy Carter was powerless to stop Schlafly from sinking the anti-sex-discrimination Equal Rights Amendment, never mind that it had been approved by both houses of Congress. Former beauty pageant winner Anita Bryant organised against a gay-rights ordinance in Miami and cheered on a proposed ban on gay schoolteachers in California. California!

Progressive issues were suffering loss after loss at the hands of the conservative grass-roots. But in Washington, DC and New York, the bien pensants hardly noticed. Reagan was still considered too right wing to make a serious run at the presidency. Hadn’t Lyndon Johnson united the country behind his “Great Society” social programmes? Was this not the America the New Deal made? Not for long. Shades of 2016 colour Perlstein’s story of an American political class blithely unaware of the ground shifting under its feet.

Yet Perlstein seems almost bored with his protagonist, Reagan, for swathes of this book. The old actor is notoriously hard to pin down (the failure of his would-be biographer Edmund Morris to pierce the veil is only the most widely known example of this). Perlstein proves rather more equal to the task. He has practice, having honed a talent for extracting punchy if reductive portraits of his characters from their biographies – Nixon, he says in Nixonland, the second book in the series, was a constant champion of the “Orthogonians” (a social club for outcasts he founded at university). Carter, in similar fashion, is a combination of the engineer and the missionary (he had been both prior to his political career). Perlstein attempts to defend Carter, the hapless peanut-farming president, whose “taste for Niebuhrian moral complexity” he admiringly contrasts with Reagan’s “unshakeable belief in his own purity of motivation”.

But Carter comes off as a genuinely good if feckless moderate whose lack of resolution spoiled a chance to restore national confidence – something which needed to come in a more right-wing flavour with Reagan. Carter’s mentioning “human rights” 16 times during a 1978 speech in Brazil is described by Perlstein as a “sharp rebuke to a host government that habitually violated them”. There is, presumably, nothing authoritarian governments fear more than American presidents repeatedly intoning the phrase “human rights”, and then immediately leaving them in peace.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat of events was grim and grimmer: persistent inflation, slow growth, the return of oil shortages, the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the interminable hostage crisis that followed – a humiliating episode by any assessment, which Perlstein inexplicably describes as an issue that Carter “won”. In the name of curbing inflation, Carter allowed the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, to shock the economy into a recession that wrecked his own re-election bid. He may as well have resigned.

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Each instalment of Perlstein’s series has been greeted warmly by the US’s most respectable conservative writers. The New York Times in-house conservative Ross Douthat called his first book, on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, “a near- masterpiece”. Arch-neoconservative and “never-Trump” Republican Max Boot relished the fact Perlstein was often at his sharpest when skewering “clueless establishment liberals who all too readily dismissed the significance of conservative champions such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan”. The approval of such eminences comes not because Perlstein shares their views; he is “a leftist (one assumes)”, so says Christopher Caldwell, a conservative Financial Times columnist and perennial Perlstein eulogist. Perlstein’s cardinal virtue, in the eyes of his right-wing readers, lies rather in his approach to his material. As Caldwell puts it, he is “refreshingly disinclined to moralise”.

The assessment is correct. Perlstein is a left-liberal whose sensibilities were formed under the administration of Bill Clinton; he made his name writing essays for publications such as the left-of-centre magazine the Nation. His sense of security in his liberalism allows him, like that administration, to make extended forays into realms of the right without discomfort. He also has a taste for scandal, and a certain confidence that allows him to describe scenes of racial violence, political assassinations and foreign wars from the serene point of view of an America experiencing Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”: unchallenged world hegemon, riding high on budget surpluses, run by broad-minded liberals, with crime dropping across the country.

Perhaps it’s this perspective that allows Perlstein to treat the conservative revolution as Thomas Carlyle treated the French Revolution: certainly not something he agreed with, but something suffused with transcendental energy that seemed somehow inevitable, and which caught you up and brought you along with it.

Perlstein’s successors, the new left-of-centre historians of American conservatism, have a different approach: they are concerned with the genealogy of evil. The “Southern Strategy”, Richard Nixon’s 1968 bid for segregationist support in the traditionally Democratic stronghold of the Deep South, is made into the Republican Party’s original sin. Never mind that Carter took the South in 1976. Essays scavenge through right-wing annals to discover the roots of Trumpism: it was Reagan, they argue, who first deployed the slogan “Let’s make America great again”; or perhaps it was his paleo-conservative speechwriter Pat Buchanan, with his vicious 1992 “culture war” speech, who set the tone for Trump. The history of conservatism is increasingly a tool to be deployed in an attempt to eradicate any doubt about who is good and who is bad.

[see also: From the NS archive: The battle for the mythical middle]

Perlstein is lauded by US conservatives because he is immune to this way of thinking. Although not entirely: the purpose of his epic, Perlstein explains in Nixonland, is to tell us how it is that Americans became so divided, how the country reached its current polarised state. His insistence that the US has never escaped the unrest of the 1960s, never healed the divisions driven into its cultural fabric by Nixon and his “Silent Majority”, was attacked as pessimistic by Ross Douthat in May 2008. As Barack Obama surged towards victory in the primary against Hillary Clinton, Douthat, like so many others, allowed himself to think America had been cured, that the country was witnessing the arrival of its juste milieu. Not so, we can say now with grim confidence.

But the polarisation thesis does not pervade Perlstein’s work: his habit of suspending judgement on the events he describes prevents that. This habit has something to do with his literary style. Each of the books contains nearly a thousand pages of non-stop somersaulting through period politics, and an inexhaustible well of outrageous characters – the “pornographer and born-again Christian Larry Flynt”, the right-wing International Women’s Year delegate who “was not, she insisted, herself a Klan member. She only attended its rallies, as ‘a concerned citizen’”. We savour the brief appearances like cameos (there is a televisual quality to the writing, after all) of characters thereafter known to posterity: Joe Biden (endorsed Carter), Hillary Clinton (dispatched to check up on an Alabama town’s civil rights record), Roger Stone and Paul Manafort (various “New Right” intrigues). But there are no real moments of reflection on the broader impact of the developments he relates. His sources are chiefly newspapers, magazines, TV broadcasts and, in some cases, the memoirs of leading figures.

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The result is a work that reproduces the spirit of the age very faithfully, but without any of the clarity that is supposed to be the benefit of historical writing. Like Thucydides, Perlstein shows us the maelstrom; but unlike Thucydides, he does not give us the chance to avoid being swept up in it. He has steeped himself so completely in the kitsch of the period that reading him is like living through the 1970s, or like turning on the television in the 1970s and frantically clicking through the channels for hours. The order is more or less chronological, but we frequently lose track of exactly when things are happening; appearances are jumbled with facts; major developments are announced from the perspective of historical participants. Key episodes receive 50 pages of close scrutiny, only for their conclusion to be briefly mentioned before we are jolted on to the next event. But for the foreshadowing of major set pieces – here, the Iranian Revolution – the work has practically no structure at all.

The only time Perlstein’s historian’s judgement emerges recognisably is in the smug parentheticals that point out instances when political figures, usually Reagan, abuse the truth in public remarks. This is the historian as fact-checker, no more; if journalism is the “first draft of history”, this is the second draft, not the finished product.

US conservative writers are right to elevate Perlstein above his peers for his refusal to engage in cheap moralism. But they do not so much agree with him as find him convenient: instead of replacing shallow progressive historical theories with more serious and judicious ones, he simply deposits bottomless truckloads of historical debris. This has allowed several of these writers to assemble hypotheses of their own out of Perlstein’s unprocessed raw material. Caldwell used Perlstein’s previous book, The Invisible Bridge, to develop the theory that Reagan represented a Faustian bargain between civil rights and the white middle class. Rather than pay for tax cuts – which, as Perlstein notes, were already being demanded under Carter – by rolling back costly civil rights state machinery and threatening the social peace they had bought, Reagan decided to have his cake and eat it, too. He bought the country an extra generation of relative peace and prosperity by condemning it to ever-mounting debt.

Douthat sees Nixon not as the man who first divided America, but as a kind of second-best figure in a time of crisis, the man Americans elected overwhelmingly to lead them in lieu of a genuinely unifying figure. Amid the chaos and the death, the sense that the “country doesn’t work any more”, the only leader there to turn to was Nixon. It is not ridiculous to suggest Joe Biden might play this role next month: not the man of the moment, but the man the country looks to instead of the man of the moment. Americans had to wait 12 years from 1968 to cross their “invisible bridge” to the restored sense of confidence Reagan heralded: perhaps they will have to wait as many years again now.

Perlstein certainly convinces us, with his endless string of howling politician lies, outlandish characters, racial violence, shootings, riots, police brutality, murders and sex crimes that the vulgarity of American politics in the age of Donald Trump is nothing new – although the decorum that still pervaded national politics in the late 1970s is in stark contrast with the current era. But the humorous style with which Perlstein relates all this offers nothing about how to address the same problems today: these are books written to inspire self-confidence in good times, but can arouse nothing but fatalism in bad ones. To a US now insecure of its moral and racial progress, its cities this summer consumed by flames, death roaming freely over the country, Reaganland seems only to say: things will eventually calm down. But not for long. 

Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980
Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster, 1,120pp, £30

Nick Burns is a Fulbright scholar at Queen Mary, University of London, where he studies intellectual history. He writes for publications including the New Republic, the American Interest, Foreign Affairs, and the Los Angeles Review of Books

This article appears in the 16 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?