Forty-four years ago this very month, as this review goes to press, Richard Nixon became the first American President to resign that office, on the heels of almost certain impeachment. Apologists then and now snort dismissively of a “second-rate burglary,” while more perspicacious observers might point out that Watergate was the least of what were certainly nothing less than high crimes and misdemeanors; that a brilliant yet amoral and often unstable Nixon brought the mechanics of a criminal syndicate to the Executive Branch, and—much worse than that—in an attempt to achieve some sort of personal glory selfishly extended a war he had long privately admitted was unwinnable, thereby needlessly sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, as well as hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian civilians and combatants. Forty-four years on, and some might argue that not only have the deep scars Nixon inflicted on the national landscape never healed, but that both his methods and his madness are currently enjoying a kind of renaissance that either signals a reverse to the remission that was once a cancer upon his Presidency, or an underscore that there is a deep well of malevolence in our national character that can never really be expunged. Of course, neither of these notions satisfies or reassures, which is precisely why we must never let Nixon’s legacy be overlooked: like it or not, Nixon forever altered America and put a terrible mark upon all of us that may have faded but will not go away.
I am reading Rick Perlstein backwards, which is less ironic than perversely logical, since the nation is itself tumbling rapidly backwards into the kind of hate and racism and division by any other name that Nixon championed so expertly in the era that he once commanded. My first read was Perlstein’s latest, from 2014: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, his splendid analysis of how it was that after Nixon went up in flames, Reagan managed to emerge from the ashes and with a shrug and an “aw, shucks” declare that there really wasn’t any fire at all. Though Reagan had unrelentingly defended everything noxious that Nixon was about, after the ignominious fall virtually all of Nixon’s political capital clung to Reagan but none of his toxicity. But by that time, the political landscape, indeed the entire nation, had been irrevocably altered by the Nixon phenomenon that had turned politics into a zero-sum game, and divided Americans into distinct groups of us vs. them, good guys vs. bad guys, patriots vs. traitors, solid citizens vs. arrogant elites. It was hardly coincidental that Nixon surveyed the universe through a similar lens that only detected black and white, that ever filtered out any and all gray areas. And by the time Nixon had finished with America—or America had finished with him—he had forever after transformed it into “Nixonland.” That is the remarkable thesis of Perlstein’s brilliant study of the 1960s, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, first published in 2008.
Nixon endured a forbidding childhood beset by poverty, the death of a sibling, and ever grim, unyielding parents who enforced such a rigid religious fundamentalism that it bordered on abuse. An enthusiastic but mediocre athlete, Nixon instead scored academically and distinguished himself in debate, but at his hometown Whittier College he was snubbed by the “Franklins,” a prestigious literary society comprised of members from prominent families. He responded by leading the effort to forge a rival society of “Orthogonians” for those like himself who might not otherwise get a seat at the table with the elite. This was to prove a defining moment in the life of Richard Nixon that Perlstein argues set him on an unrelenting path that would carve a cleft in America that ever clings to us like a poisonous film on the flesh of the nation that simply will not wash off.
Nixon seems to have never gotten over his rebuff by the Franklins, and the wrath that was born of that rejection fueled a resentment that he wielded like a hammer for the rest of his life. It was not simply the “us vs. them” mentality—but that was certainly part of it—but it ran much deeper and was far more vicious, because it was at root about whether or not you were “like us” or “like them,” and if you were “like them,” it meant that you were “the other,” and therefore not worthy of the same rights or the same respect we might require for ourselves. Nixon was neither the first nor the last to turn his opponents into “the other,” but he was indeed the first to successfully take that into the White House and weaponize it on a mass scale. The clarion call to the “silent majority” to stand up for the America they loved was a dog whistle to the Orthogonian hard hats that bloodied Franklin hippies on the streets of New York in 1970.
Perlstein’s book is as much a masterful history of America in the tumultuous 1960s as it is a chronicle of Nixon and how he put that indelible mark upon it, a reminder of how much those days seem like a study of an entirely different country from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, a time of great violence and radicalism that—it should not be forgotten—barely touched the vast majority of Americans who simply went about their lives anonymously in what was also a postwar economic boom in the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world. I was a youth in that era, and the truth is that more Americans listened to Pat Boone than Jimi Hendrix. Nixon knew his audience—the former, of course—and he knew how to transform them into vehement foes of the latter.
It was Nixon’s genius that he could identify these two emerging America’s and exploit the divisions there that he could actively shape, and compartments that he could adeptly construct, that would admit no shades of anything that was not an “either” or an “or.” There were the patriotic Americans who had defied economic depression and world war for a better life—only to see it put in jeopardy by unwashed longhaired cowardly druggies manipulated by communists from abroad seeking to undermine our democratic institutions; and, lazy unmotivated welfare recipients who demanded entitlements without a willingness to put in a good day’s hard work; and, most especially, violent, radical blacks who refused to be grateful for all that was being done to assist them with their seemingly endless and relentless demands. And there was now more opportunity with these same black people! There was the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln—which had long been the not-always-reliable-friend but a friend nonetheless to African Americans against the scourge of the Southern branch of segregationist unreconstructed Democrats—who now with Nixon’s Machiavellian sleight of hand could almost silently (with a swelling cohort added to his “Silent Majority”) exploit the national Democratic Party’s embrace of Civil Rights to actively turn Republican backs on blacks and instead entice the great white backlash of the South to join their ranks. (Reagan took this baton of this “southern strategy” and skillfully ran with it under the same barely disguised cover; Trump does not bother with even a token shellacking of the ulterior motives here. And Trump doesn’t need batons: he has far more effective and not-so-subtle dog whistles. Neither Nixon nor Reagan would consort with Nazis; Trump finds good people among the crowd.)
Nixon was hardly the first politician to capitalize upon fear, upon hate, upon racism, upon xenophobia, upon a misguided fantastical nation that the very essence and identity of traditional values central to a national identity were under attack and needed to be actively defended before it was too late—but he was the first American figure of national prominence to successfully parlay this tactic into a kind of art form that drove a great and enduring and unrelenting wedge into the country that has never since been bridged, and perhaps never will be.
That Nixon wedge has long been exploited, by both Reagan and his descendants, but never so cruelly and with such baseness as it has been by Donald Trump, who not at all coincidentally was a student to all of the lessons Nixon taught, and who has associated with a lot of same villains that have been key to the rise of Nixon: Roy Cohn, Roger Ailes and Roger Stone among them. Much of the wreckage Nixon left behind was superficially paved over by Ronald Reagan, and there is no little irony to the fact that Reagan’s campaign slogan—”Let’s Make America Great Again”—has been disingenuously expropriated by Donald Trump. And Trump, it must not be forgotten, has like Nixon styled himself a great defender of “law and order,” even as it becomes increasingly clear that his administration may turn out to be the most criminally corrupt in American history.
The author wrote Nixonland nearly a decade before Trumpworld, but yet it seems to eerily presage it. Perlstein’s magisterial work may not only be the best book written about Nixon and the 1960s, but should also be required reading for anyone who wants to try to comprehend the madness that besets the nation today. Of course, Nixon was a far more clever fellow than Trump, and the Republican Party of his day was not the cult of personality of its current iteration, wagging a collective tail at the master of tax and tariff scams calculated to enrich a select plutocracy, and Nixon’s motives were more about leaving an enduring mark in the history books rather than the cheap Trumpist thrills of amassing trinkets and celebrity stardom, but nevertheless there is much of then that has come back to haunt us now. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” Mark Twain was once alleged to quip. We can only hope that the last stanza of that rhyme ends for Trump much as it did for Nixon, forty-four years ago this month …
I reviewed other Perlstein books here: