The End of Resentment

The best way to convey Rick Perlsteins achievement in writing Nixonland is to observe that he has taken one of the most endlessly chewed-over periods of American history, the late 1960s and early 1970s, and one of the most thoroughly analyzed American politicians, Richard Nixon, and come up with a fresh and convincing perspective on both.

Perlstein made his publishing bones with a widely praised 2002 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Nixonland picks up where the earlier books narrative sections leave off, after Lyndon Johnsons crushing landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964. But its more than a sequel. Much of Before the Storm focused on the history and internal dynamics of the conservative movement that ultimately conquered American politics in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Nixonland is an exceptionally broad and thorough social, cultural and political history of eight tumultuous years. It should quickly become the standard history of this period. And it sings with outstanding storytelling and insight. Even readers who reject Perlsteins interpretation of the Nixon era cannot help but get carried along by such instant classics as his hour-by-hour account of how the chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention looked on network television (a pitch-perfect account from my own heat-seared memories of the event, which occurred before Perlsteins birth).

The books hypothesis is straightforward. Perlstein sets for himself the goal of explaining why the LBJ landslide of 1964 was followed so quickly by the Nixon landslide of 1972. His explanation is that what looked like a durable center-left consensus in 1964 actually disguised fault lines that produced a culture-based fracturing of the country, characterized by the defection of much of the white middle class from the New Deal- Great Society coalition. Richard Nixon, says Perlstein, was the perfect demiurge for this fracturing, as a man consumed by the very middle-class striver resentment of liberal elites and their political clients that he so successfully elicited in the electorate.

Perlstein uses a Nixon biographical detail to organize much of the book: the young Whittier College students organization of an outsider social group, the Orthogonians, to rival Whittiers dominant Big Man On Campus group, the Franklins. Throughout his subsequent career, Nixon perpetually appealed to Orthogonian silent majority folk against the wealthy, sophisticated and fashionable Franklins of American society and politics, increasingly identified with the supposedly working-class-rooted Democratic Party.

As Perlstein explains, before the 1960s, Nixon warred with Franklins like Jerry Voorhis (his first congressional opponent); Alger Hiss (the darling of diplomatic elites, and the object of his first congressional anti-communist crusade); Helen Gahagan Douglas (his Hollywood-connected first senatorial opponent); Averill Harriman (the plutocratic Democrat who sneered at Nixon as a social inferior); Adlai Stevenson (whose haughty description of Nixons constituency gave the book its title); and John F. Kennedy (the Senator from Camelot, whose family represented every privilege and advantage denied to the Whittier striver). But Nixon hit his stride in the mid-1960s, when vast numbers of Americans who voted for LBJ and civil rights in 1964 reacted in Orthogonian revulsion to riotous students and rioting African-Americans: people who appeared to be elite liberalisms arrogant praetorian guard and ungrateful proletarian clientele.

[This] man Nixon was stubbornly successful in answering Americans yearning for quiet; but even so, in a complex admixture, Nixon also rose by stoking and exploiting anger and resentment, rooted in the anger and resentment at the center of his character.

Rick Perlstein is most definitely a Man of the Left, but as in his earlier book, Nixonland benefits from his ability to understand and even sympathize with those who held views that he considers abhorrent. Moreover, unlike many baby boomer liberal observers, Perlstein isnt enraptured by the kids of the anti-Vietnam War movement, despite his cold assessment of that wars cynical immorality; and he doesnt have much use for the shoot the pigs wing of the post-MLK civil rights movement, despite his careful documentation of police abuses in anti- riot exercises. Hes particularly acerbic about the New Politics activists and their glitterati allies who helped make George McGoverns 1972 campaign such a ripe target for Nixon.

In terms of Nixon himself, Perlstein pulls no punches: he was a brilliant and tormented man whose limitless ambitions and insecurities were not constrained by any ideological commitments or conscience. In his obsessive drive to win reelection in 1972, Nixon embraced wage-and-price controls; temporary pro union policies; the famous opening to China; a deliberate government-spending- driven inflation of the economy; and an incredibly cynical (given his own much earlier private assessment that South Vietnam was inherently untenable) manipulation of the Vietnam War, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and American lives in order to arrange Henry Kissingers peace is at hand statement just prior to Election Day. Although Perlstein ends his book before the Watergate investigation, he makes it abundantly clear that Richard Nixon was the White Houses most extreme cheerleader for the illegal measures and dirty tricks that characterized the scandal which ultimately brought him down.

The broader questions raised by Nixonland are the parallels between the Nixon era and later political and cultural trends, including those of the present decade. Perlstein clearly believes Nixon, his allies and enemies unleashed divisive forces that still dominate our politics. How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet, he says in the books final words.

One of the books great contributions will be to instruct todays political activists, particularly younger readers who may know little of Nixon other than his disgrace and resignation, that the conservative politics of polarization were not invented by Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. Indeed, in his first major speech as Nixons attack dog, Vice President Spiro Agnew (who comes across as Nixons Nixon, a man obsessed with order and his own personal status who was, ironically, felled by a sordid and petty kickback scheme) explicitly called for a positive polarization of middle-class Americans against the cultural and political dissidents he famously described in the best Orthogonian fashion as an effete corps of impudent snobs.

If anything, George W. Bush, that birthright Franklin who invented an Orthogonian identity for himself, is a piker compared to Nixon when it comes to the ruthless exploitation of social resentments and fear. Yes, Bush, like Nixon, has promoted a politicization of the federal government, expressed regular contempt for constitutional and legal restrictions on his power, and stubbornly prosecuted a failed war for no better reason than the refusal to admit failure. Bush, like Nixon, has stimulated, and often seems to welcome, a visceral hatred among his progressive enemies. And Bush, like Nixon, is ending his two-term administration in virtual ruin, though under less lurid circumstances. But due to incompetence or ideology, or laziness, or simply the limitations imposed by objective reality, Bush has never achieved Nixons level of demonic efficiency in harnessing cultural furies to his own political agenda. As Perlstein points out, todays political adversaries may hate each other, but at the apex of Nixons power, some of them literally wanted to kill each other.

If we are still living in Nixonland, is it ever to end? Its sometimes easy to forget that in the wake of Watergate, the Democratic landslide of 1974, the bland presidency of Gerald Ford and the election of Jimmy Carter, there was a strong sense among most observers that the hysteria of the Nixon era was gone for good, and even if the consensus of the early 1960s would not return, some boundaries on divisiveness had been reestablished. We know now that these hopes were to be regularly dashed.

It appears now, however, that the conservative politics of middle-class cultural resentment may have finally reached its point of rapidly diminishing returns, starved slowly by a lack of external nourishment. Despite sharp public divisions over the war in Iraq, National Guard troops arent shooting students on college campuses. The abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have aroused reasonably general condemnation, not the vengeful mass popular support attracted by the perpetrators of My Lai. The contemporary symbols of Scary Black Anger are hip-hop celebrities and a certain minister from Chicago, not armed militants. Race-fueled political issues like crime, welfare and busing have significantly abated. Even if we are still living in Nixonland, the landscape is less perilous.

Moreover, there are signs that the progressive opposition to Nixon-Bush politics is finally getting its act together. Thanks to economic and demographic changes, the New Politics coalition of young voters, minorities, and socially progressive upscale voters heralded by McGovern advisors like Fred Dutton is now large enough to constitute the core of a durable political majority. Internet-based fundraising is outmatching the transactional financial arrangements pioneered by Nixons 1972 reelection campaign and perfected by Bush era Republicans. Amidst general fatigue over the political warfare of the Clinton and Bush eras, the Democratic nominee for president is explicitly calling for a truce in the divisions that can be traced directly back to the Nixon period. And even the GOP is staking its hopes for retaining the White House on a nominee whose personal story represents the one non-controversial memory of the Vietnam War, the heroic POW.

I dont know if Rick Perlstein plans to continue his remarkable account of recent political history with books on such later conservative figures as Ronald Reagan (a significant figure in both of his previous works) and George W. Bush. But if he does, I profoundly hope that after more than four decades heavily influenced by the bitter legacy of Richard Nixon, the next Perlstein book can be confidently described as history, not prophecy.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.