By Michael McCord
“How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.” — Rick Perlstein, 2008
I first read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland shortly after the first election of Barack Obama. I had covered Obama in New Hampshire and Iowa during the presidential primary circus of 2007–08 and the general election. He was a compelling candidate who had barely bested a formidable and equally compelling primary foe in Hillary Clinton. I even wrote a hyperbolic editorial for my local paper that the election of 2008 would be the most consequential since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932 during the pits of the Great Depression.
Though it seems like a century and not a decade ago, there was a whiff of hope in the air, that something amazing had happened — the election of the country’s first African-American president — 143 years after the end of the Civil War. That was true. What was equally true but unknown at the time: the election of Obama would set off an eight-year-long nuclear-level political reaction that led us to the country’s first racist dunce president.
Nixonland struck me then as a remarkable book, a powerful narrative history of sweep and energy, book ended by two landslide elections: Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and Richard Nixon in 1972. It was an intense time. Having lived through this era as a precocious, politically aware kid (who still played little league baseball), it was familiar and vibrant. It was daily street theatre played out on a televised national stage: the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and urban race riots; the assassinations of Martin Luther King & Robert F. Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite saying enough was enough about Vietnam, and LBJ bailing on reelection in 1968; the cultural revolution that gave us the youth movement, the genre-shattering impact of the movie Bonnie and Clyde, drugs, Charles Manson, and the reaction to the youth movement, the violent crackdown at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (which happened around the same time the Soviet Union invaded uppity, reform-minded Czechoslovakia); the ever-growing urban-rural chasm, the “Law and Order” shibboleth (code to marginalize, beat, jail and or kill uppity blacks and war-protesting college students), Weathermen and the Black Panthers; left-wing bombings and hard-hat beatings of anti-war demonstrators, Kent State and Jackson State, George Wallace & Spiro Agnew, and the implosion of the Democratic Party. (I witnessed two race riots and had my first, scary experience with tear gas at an anti-war demonstration after Kent State. I also defied my parents and lied my way into a movie theatre to see Bonnie and Clyde as a 12-year-old.)
And those were just the headlines as Perlstein captured details small and large along with a staggering cast of characters worthy of a Sgt. Pepper’s album cover.
Nixonland chronicles the American 20th Century version of Kulturkampf, a fight for power, control, and ascendancy. If the German model was about a specific time (1870s-1880s) and subject (namely, secularization and who would control education in Bismark’s Prussia), the American version (aka Southern Strategy) was more eclectic, an insidious political, economic and cultural virus in the national bloodstream. Perlstein brilliantly plowed the fertile American soil that produced such a dizzying and violent era. As a former small-town reporter and editor, I appreciated his highlighting a week of pre-1970 midterm election headlines in The Rockford (Ill.) Star reflecting the Nixon administration’s campaign against the hippies and dangerous subversives. If they couldn’t bring back McCarthyism, they could at least exhume the corpse.
I barely noticed one of book’s final lines which was easy to overlook in the post-election euphoria (at least for many) of 2008: “Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not.”
Rereading Nixonland exactly a decade later was like running into an interesting old acquaintance who shared for the second time a mind-blowing tale. This time I paid better attention. The history and words of the book hadn’t changed but the country dramatically had. My perspective certainly had. The cultural and political discontent of 1964–1972 rendered by Perlstein acts as an air raid siren to the present.
This is what hit me more in the second read: the grievance mantra that drove the campaign of Donald J. Trump in 2015–2106 (and fuels his mad king presidency) was brilliantly exploited by Nixon during the 1966–1968 Götterdämmerung preceding the 1968 election. It set the groundwork for much GOP malfeasance to take place. Ironically, as we now know, Nixon was as much a betrayer of his country as Trump. Nixon used back channels to have South Vietnam to piss on the LBJ peace negotiation breakthrough before the 1968 election. The best case scenario for Trump is that he’s not an active Russian agent.
Grievances took many shapes and forms against minorities, anti-war demonstrators, drug-enjoying and sexually promiscuous college students, and liberals who supported them. Unlike Trump who is his own anti-media bullhorn, Nixon employed a middleman strategy. He rallied his Silent Majority base by sending Vice President Spiro Agnew around the country to attack the mainstream media (especially the television networks, The New York Times, and The Washington Post)for daring to do its job. A 1970 speech by Agnew unleashed the legendary line “nattering nabobs of negativity.” (Three years later, Agnew himself became legendary when he resigned in disgrace.)
The GOP racial grievance drum beat has found varying degrees of success for five decades. Ronald Reagan’s phony welfare queen sonata in the 1970s was followed by his kicking off the general election campaign of 1980 in, of all places, Philadelphia, Miss., the place where three civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) were abducted and murdered in 1964. Reagan was clearly not firming up the black vote — it was a bull horn to white racists everywhere that it was time to jump on board and reject southern native President Jimmy Carter — but he did like to put them in jail (see response to the 1986 crack epidemic).
George H. W. Bush, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a U. S. Senate Candidate in Texas, made murderer Willie Horton a household name in 1988. All-around racist Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) rang the affirmative action bell of white grievance during a tight 1990 reelection campaign against Harvey Gantt, an African-American, with the crude but effective white hands commercial.
But the election of President Obama stirred up a hornet’s nest of racists, political reaction, and conspiracy kooks. I witnessed peak Tea Party lunacy when Obama visited Portsmouth, N.H. in the summer of 2009 to lobby for health care reform. It was the summer of Tea Party rage and self-styled patriots arrived with loaded weapons and shouts about stopping a socialist takeover of Medicare (you read it correctly) and liberal “death panels” who would sentence good patriots to early graves. An elderly lady told me she had it on good authority that Obama was rounding up opponents and putting them in FEMA concentration camps.
It was batshit crazy but in line with the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh symphony foreshadowed in Nixonland: liberals and their fellow travelers aren’t like us. They aren’t real Americans. Liberal opponents were not just wrong but more evil than not and they wanted to register voters (see Acorn). That has been the proud GOP dog whistle since Newt Gingrich took control in 1994. Obama, multi-racial with a funny name, was the ultimate ‘other’ in the eyes of reactionary America. Trump rode the racist horse of anti-Obama Birtherism to political fame. We haven’t had this obvious a racist as President since Woodrow Wilson.
Racism and blunt, nihilistic GOP politics (Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell determined to make Obama a one-term President, almost no GOP support for economic recovery and health care reform efforts) went mainstream. The Supreme Court gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013 led to the greatest onslaught of nationwide voting suppression laws (against, of course, liberals, Democratic-leaning voters, and minorities) since the good old days of the post-Reconstruction South.
For extra measure, Chief Justice John Roberts — as determined a voting suppression zealot as could be — was pleased to report that America had become color blind and the bad old days of poll taxes and literacy tests were over along with the need for any more choruses of We Shall Overcome. (Lest we forget, Roberts was appointed by President George W. Bush who laid the groundwork for the GOP voter fraud delusion by pressuring U.S. Attorneys to gin-up investigations and prosecutions of non-existent crimes.)
The Southern Strategy wasn’t solely about race. It was about a new way of politics. Nixon’s cynical poison would infect every cultural wedge issue imaginable in the following decades: the crushing of LBJ’s Great Society and the end of the New Deal consensus, civil and voting rights, education, religion, immigration, abortion, gay rights, feminism, media, treating political foes as traitorous enemies, treating government itself as a suspicious foe, and the value of knowledge itself (i.e., the corporate-underwritten climate change denial juggernaut could not have succeeded unless there was an audience yearning to be manipulated).
Entire volumes are waiting to be written about the unique GOP gifts of fiscal hypocrisy, crime syndicate levels of corruption, and governing incompetence, too much of it given a free pass by the both-sides syndrome of American mainstream media. Nixon, a politician overflowing with paranoia and a fetish for political dirty tricks, massaged wedge issues that eventually became seismic fault lines. Trump’s unlikely but terrifying election was the culmination of five decades of national fracturing.
I highly recommend reading or rereading Nixonland. It’s a reminder that despite the daily, sometimes overwhelming madness of Trumpism, the era of Nixonland was dangerous and deadly. Americans killed each other over politics. As for Trump, there’s little doubt that we have yet to see the worst of his incompetence and cruelty.
Perlstein’s closing from 2008 has aged ominously well: “How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.”
Michael McCord is an award-winning journalist and writer living in New Hampshire. He is the author of the forthcoming political satire End Times: More Great Adventures in Real America, the second part of his Real America saga. Follow him on Twitter (@mmgolfer) and find out more at michaelmccordauthor.com