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Hegel Meets Reagan

Rick Perlstein is a master chronicler of American political absurdity. But explaining Reagan and the Right requires more than a catalog of the absurd.

The 1976 presidential primaries were entertaining as hell. In response to Jimmy Carter’s unexpected rise to the top of the pack of Democratic candidates, fascinated yet confused reporters wrote about the Southern evangelical society from which Carter came “as if it were as alien to American culture as a Balinese cockfight.”

The chief attraction of the 1976 primaries, of course, was Ronald Reagan, the Midwest radio sports announcer turned Hollywood B-list actor turned California governor turned conservative icon. Nobody was more quotable.

A few years earlier, in response to people attempting to fulfill the demands of Patty Hearst’s kidnappers by donating groceries to impoverished Californians, Reagan revealed his true feelings about the poor: “Sometimes you wonder whether there shouldn’t be an outbreak of botulism.”

Reagan’s growing army of zealots gave good press, too. His Florida campaign chairman, a larger-than-life car dealer, told reporters: “If I was going to give the world an enema, I’d insert the nozzle in Washington.”

The joy of reading Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan — the third in his ongoing saga about the rise of the American conservative movement — is found in such gritty details. Perlstein is perhaps our best historian of American hyperbole. He is the master excavator of the politically absurd.

Where else can a reader discover that in 1974, the seventy-four-year-old chair of the House Armed Services Committee F. Edward Hebert, a long-serving conservative Democrat from Louisiana, demanded that Pat Schroeder, the only woman on the committee, and Ron Dellums, the only African American, share a seat? Such is Perlstein’s ironic method of showing how an old order reacted to coming into contact with a new one. It’s both sensationalistic and understated.

The Invisible Bridge is over 800 hilarious and frightening pages about the short period from “the fall of Nixon” (Watergate) to “the rise of Reagan” (the 1976 Republican National Convention). “The fall of Nixon” part of this equation is self-evident: Watergate is the label for the host of Nixon administration crimes that, once revealed, brought down a presidency.

“The rise of Reagan” part is less obvious: Reagan narrowly lost a fiercely contested race for the Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford, a loss that signaled to many pundits the end of a strange political career. (Perlstein brilliantly concludes this book — and foreshadows his next one — with an un-prescient quote from New Yorker political correspondent Elizabeth Drew in the wake of Ford’s nomination: “This is probably the end of Reagan’s political career.”)

But in barely losing the 1976 nomination, Reagan lit the fuse of a growing right-wing coalition on the verge of ignition.

The Invisible Bridge is one of an expanding number of books about the 1970s, a decade that most historians now understand as a conduit from the liberal New Deal era to the conservative Age of Reagan. Jefferson Cowie’s much-lauded Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class explains the rise of conservatism as a failure of liberalism, especially the white-working-class liberalism of the labor movement, to reconcile the industrial unionism of the 1930s with the more multicultural social movements of the 1960s. Stayin’ Alive is a cultural history of white-working-class resentment — Reagan explained by way of Archie Bunker and Merle Haggard — and as such lays some of the blame for Reagan at the feet of the white working class.

In contrast, Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s argues that the most important factor to understand about that crucial decade was the political response to economic crisis — for instance, the focus on controlling inflation instead of fighting unemployment. In this way, Stein shifts blame away from the white working class and pins it squarely on policymakers and their corporate overlords. Merle Haggard and other cultural ephemera had little to do with Reaganism and what we now call neoliberalism.

The Invisible Bridge builds from these and other historical accounts, relying on plenty of cultural, economic, and policy history to explain how our contemporary world was born in the 1970s. But Perlstein mostly brings the reader’s attention back to high political drama. National elections and high-profile congressional hearings are where Perlstein looks to understand historical change — to explain “how Americans divide themselves from each other.”

So how did Americans divide from each other? In the aftermath of Vietnam, many Americans joined the “suspicious circles” composed of those who had grown increasingly cynical about the American project. During the Watergate scandal, the suspicious circles grew by leaps and bounds and even came to comprise politicians such as Idaho Senator Frank Church, who held hearings on the CIA and its history of illegal operations that included assassinations of foreign leaders.

In the face of such institutionalized pessimism, most pundits assumed that, unless Republicans somehow distanced themselves from Nixon, Watergate spelled the death of the GOP. Thus the fact that Reagan barely fell short of capturing the Republican nomination from a sitting president a mere two years after Nixon’s disgrace, though Reagan refused to criticize Nixon, even at the apex of Watergate, is remarkable. It is indicative that ground-shaking historical forces were at work.

Perlstein makes clear that the suspicious circles helped shape post-Watergate America, but that they failed to carry the day. Instead, those who questioned the faith of American exceptionalism were overwhelmed by a larger number of Americans who submerged any doubts they had about their nation. Unlike their more pessimistic fellow citizens — those who looked Vietnam and Watergate squarely in the face — millions of Americans turned away from the national horror show.

These were the Americans who embraced cheap redemption in the form of a mythical past. These were the Nostalgic Americans. Reagan was their natural leader.

Reagan’s autobiography perfectly situated him to guide the Nostalgic Americans. He had spent his entire life crafting narratives of simple redemption. Even when complex factors had made his life difficult, Reagan devised Hollywood endings. Perlstein writes:

Ronald Reagan was an athlete of the imagination, a master at turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-hearted certainty. Transforming his life, first his own and then in others’ eyes, into a model of frictionless ease — and fashioning the world outside him into a stage in which to display it — was how he managed to fly.

To take one example: Reagan’s father was a drunk who had difficulty keeping jobs and thus moved his family from one small Illinois town to another. But in Reagan’s telling of his childhood, his father’s vices did not represent bad memories or complicated feelings. Rather, they served as object lessons in grit.

One night, after stumbling over his “father flat on his back on the front porch,” Reagan did what any plucky young American would have done: he accepted responsibility — he grew up — and “managed to drag him inside and get him to bed.” Perlstein quips: “Good thing his father was passed out drunk, or else Ronald Reagan would not have had the opportunity to come of age.”

For Perlstein, Reagan’s “stout-hearted certainty” was a proxy for the nation’s deepest longings. Perlstein uses Reagan’s finely tuned public image, especially his fictionalized autobiography that matched the desires of Nostalgic Americans, to do his heavy analytical lifting. Reagan’s persona explains the “invisible bridge” from Watergate to the triumph of the conservative movement. Just as Napoleon was to Hegel “the world spirit on horseback,” Reagan is to Perlstein “a man on horseback” sent to “rescue” his fellow Americans from the abyss.

Of course, just as Napoleon’s ambitions led to the Napoleonic Wars, evidence that the world was not as ready as Hegel to embrace Napoleon as its spirit, Reagan’s agenda sowed discord. Hegelian Reagan was a divider, not a unifier.

Reagan works well as a stand-in for the spirit of the nation because he had always been polarizing. Some people who knew Reagan when he was a teenage lifeguard remembered him as a hero who rescued countless drowning children from the clutches of a wild river. Others were so turned off by Reagan’s showboating you would have thought he waited for children to get sucked under by a strong current before saving the day. Likewise, some Californians loved Governor Reagan as the man who finally stood up to spoiled Berkeley protestors. Others loathed him for violating the constitutional rights of young American citizens. And so on.

Reagan’s polarizing persona is Perlstein’s latest explanation for “how Americans divide themselves from each other.” This is what Perlstein has done with all three of his lengthy volumes.

In his groundbreaking first book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, Perlstein is subtler in his analytical reliance on the personality of his primary subject. He carefully documents how multitudes of conservative activists across the country, especially in Orange County and other mushrooming centers of Sunbelt conservatism, were ultimately responsible for the right-wing takeover of the Republican Party that led to the 1964 nomination of the conservative senator from Arizona and the end of national comity.

And he is in fact critical of earlier historians like Richard Hofstadter who relied upon reductionist psychological frameworks in order to dismiss Goldwater and his right-wing supporters as deranged and atavistic. And yet Goldwater’s persona looms large. His portrait of himself as a rugged individualist symbolizes for Perlstein the shifting ideological terrain that led many Americans to reject a welfare state that they imagined was encouraging sloth.

Goldwater liked to say that flying an airplane, which he did while serving in World War II, was “the ultimate extension of individual freedom.” Such a demonstration of willful ignorance highlights one of the many internal contradictions of conservatism that Perlstein delights in: “He neglected to note that a pilot not hemmed in by the intricate regulatory apparatus of the skies may get only as far as the plane he collides with in midair.”

In Perlstein’s second book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, he ratchets up the psychological angle a few notches. Nixon’s existential hatred for the dreaded Kennedys, and the east coast liberal elite more generally, stemmed from his experience as a young college man, when he presided over a club of plebian outcasts (“Orthogonians”) that duked it out for campus supremacy with a rival fraternity of blue-blooded snobs (“Franklins”).

For Perlstein, such a resentful worldview served Nixon well in a nation traumatized by the 1960s, in a nation where the majority opposed the Vietnam War but an even greater majority opposed the antiwar movement. The latter was Nixon’s “silent majority” — his Orthogonians.

Thus we can sum up Perlstein’s contribution to our understanding of the modern American conservative movement: Goldwater’s rugged individualists gave way to Nixon’s Orthogonians who then gave way to Reagan’s Nostalgic Americans. These overlapping groups of conservative Americans, each successively larger, divided the United States, giving birth to the polarized America we now know.

Is this a good way to understand recent American political history?

In order to evaluate whether or not Perlstein’s argument about modern America makes sense, it’s necessary to take a step back and examine why he thinks so many Americans joined forces with Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan. Perlstein’s kaleidoscopic approach to digging up and relating seemingly random bits of sensational news (Perlstein makes creative use of Google’s newspaper archives to weave together chunks of news from large newspapers like the New York Times with bits from small ones like the Toledo Blade), narrated in frenetic prose, implies a historical theory: he thinks an increasingly scary and imponderable world drove Americans bat-shit crazy. This in turn made them ripe pickings for right-wing demagogues.

It took Perlstein over 800 pages to write a history of four years because so many disturbing things happened during those years. The President spied on American citizens for political gain, got caught, and then repeatedly lied to the nation. His successor almost immediately pardoned him. Left-wing extremists kidnapped a beautiful young heiress, who then seemingly joined forces with her abductors in waging guerrilla war against the capitalist war machine.

White conservatives in Boston violently protested busing, and white conservatives in West Virginia violently protested multicultural textbooks. In response to US and European support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, OPEC issued an oil embargo that resulted in skyrocketing gas prices and shortages. The economy suffered from both inflation and a recession, defying the expectations of Keynesian economists everywhere. New York City went bankrupt. And thanks to suspicious journalists and emboldened politicians, Americans discovered that assassinating foreign leaders was a viable option in the CIA playbook. Weird and frightening times.

But were those years in American history uniquely weird and frightening?

Several periods in American history are suitable for the Perlstein treatment. Imagine a Perlstein book on the years immediately following World War I. Coming on the heels of the Great War, which killed millions of people, and the Russian Revolution, which brought communists to power in a nation that spanned nine time zones, European-style unrest seemed to have landed on American shores.

A general strike in Seattle and several bombings set off by anarchists, including one on Wall Street that killed dozens, led to the deportation of over 500 anarchists, socialists, and communists. Which all happened the same year that several members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to fix the World Series, besmirching the beloved national pastime.

In the half-decade that followed, the Ku Klux Klan grew by the hundreds of thousands in urbanizing northern cities, the secretary of the interior was the subject of sensational congressional hearings about how he accepted bribes from oil companies in exchange for cheap leases on land in Wyoming, and the small town of Dayton, Tennessee attracted the gaze of the nation when it put a biology teacher on trial for teaching evolution. Weird and frightening times.

The point is not to claim that things never change. But to rely on weird and frightening events to explain historical change in a weird and frightening nation like the United States — made all the more weird and frightening by the deeply embedded engines of capitalism and evangelical Christianity — is not the most effective way to frame an historical argument. Perlstein needs a better theory.

The years during and after the 1960s were a transformative period in American history because the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American. The radical political mobilizations of the 1960s — civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization — destabilized the America that millions knew.

Add to that the world-changing power of an increasingly deregulated capitalism, and the forces of modernity, long bubbling beneath the surface of American culture, were unleashed. In response, conservative, traditional, normative Americans fought back with a vengeance.

Perlstein hints around the edges of this more encompassing theory of recent American historical transformation. He writes about how the suspicious circles were invested in “unsettling ossified norms.” And yet such analytical clarity gets lost in Perlstein’s manic narrative about Americans collectively losing their minds.

Perhaps this is by design. Perlstein’s unspoken assumption seems to be that sane people would never have elected Ronald Reagan their president. Americans did it twice.