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Time Bandits

Why our political past is rarely prologue

I love my readers. But not unconditionally.

You may know my work: over the last two decades I have written a series of books on the history of American conservatism since the 1950s. The tale begins with every sensible political expert at the time confident that America was fundamentally a liberal country, on a glide path to social democracy—a society, as the marquee pundit Walter Lippmann said, that was “far more united and at peace with itself, except over the issue of Negro rights, than it has been for a long time.” And even so, Lippmann and his peers agreed, the South’s racial feudalism was obviously a vestige melting away before our eyes as it succumbed to the healing solvents of modernity. Over some 2,480 pages in three books, with one more on the way, I endeavor to explain how and why things didn’t quite turn out that way—a complicated story, or so I’ve always thought.

So it’s a little frustrating to realize how many of my dearly beloved readers, in this season of the Orange-Haired Monster’s apotheosis, do not see it as all that complicated after all. Rather, as one of the dearest among them put it, my latest book is “a Rosetta stone for reading America and its politics today.” Frank Rich wrote that in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. The fact is, I believe I have written no Rosetta stones, no skeleton keys, no guidebooks, no templates. But people keep on saying I have—in wave after wave of tweets, Facebook mentions, and appreciative emails thanking me for helping them see how this presidential election is “just like” 1968. Or 1972. Or 1964. Or 1976. (Though it can’t be “just like” all of them, can it?)

Some thank me for the comfort my work offers, the assurance that if we got through all of that, which was so much worse, we can certainly get through this. Others just as confidently point at books with my name on the cover in support of the self-evident conclusion that America is on the brink of possibly terminal civil chaos. Still others, confoundingly, anoint me a prophet of eternal return. “I enjoy Rick Perlstein’s books about the period but I sure never wanted to live them,” wrote one. “This is Nixonland without any of the good music,” wrote another. During a Republican debate: “This is . . . I mean . . . holy SHIT. Is @rickperlstein watching this? This is NIXONLAND in real-time.” And after potential violence canceled a Trump rally in Chicago: “So that’s what it’s like to live in a Rick Perlstein book.”

Return of the Repressive

So it is that I find myself this campaign season in a guilty state of ingratitude: gritting my teeth before reading fan mail, letting an exponentially increasing number of media requests languish in my inbox for days, wrestling with the uncanny and frustrating experience of watching everyone insist that I’ve explained what it all means. I want to scream, like some cosmic Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall: Your praise just proves you don’t understand my work at all!

The ignorant are easiest to write about—people like pundit John Heilemann, who cohosts With All Due Respect, a nightly news roundup on Bloomberg TV, reportedly for a seven-figure salary. (If your gift is reducing America’s rich pageant to a cartoon fit for ten-year-olds, of course you’ll be lavishly rewarded.) In December, after Donald Trump had begun deploying the phrase “silent majority,” one of Heilemann’s producers invited me on the show to discuss the parallels between Trump’s rise and the elections I wrote about in my second book, Nixonland, which covers the years 1965 through 1972.

I peered into the blackness in my remote studio in Chicago as Heilemann asked me in my earpiece, “What parallels do you see between Trump as a candidate and the way Nixon ran in ’68 and ’72?” I said there were some, but the demagoguery that marked Trump should more accurately be traced to the broader context of Republican electioneering going back to Joseph McCarthy. I suggested that the genealogy of Trumpism runs not just through Nixon but also through Reagan and Newt Gingrich’s revolution of 1994, and really through all previous Republican campaigns. I also cautioned that, in important respects, the dunderheaded Trump was a very poor heir indeed to an experienced and subtle political and geostrategic actor like Nixon. I noted that “the candidate in 1968 who really defined the Trump position was this guy George Wallace,” and suggested that we need to begin broadening the discussion to encompass Europe’s experience with fascism if we really want to understand Trump. What’s more, I said, considering that the ur-establishment candidate Jeb Bush announced that he, too, would consider a ban on Muslim immigration, we need to think more about the Republican Party as an institution and less about Trump as an individual. And, and, and; but, but, but . . .

I want to scream, like an imaginary Marshall McLuhan, “Your praise just proves you don’t understand my work at all!”

Wrong answer. The next day I watched the segment online. Behind me on a massive digital screen was a photoshopped collage of Nixon shaking hands with Donald Trump, a mélange of Nixon images from different points in his career dancing onscreen in rhythm, undercutting my long litany of disclaimers and counterarguments to Heilemann about the limited utility of the comparison.

It’s fair to say that I haven’t made much headway since. In July, Trump began calling himself the “law and order” candidate. “Trump Is Tricky Dick Nixon,” thundered one commentator, citing, of course, me. And this particular line of “just like” is one of those that ends in apocalypse; for did you know that Richard Nixon rode the law-and-order message to presidential victory not once, but twice? Tweeted a reader: “Trump going full Nixon – read @rickperlstein Nixonland to understand why it worked back then.”

Yes. Please do read it (and my other books too). Back in March, after the canceled Trump rally in Chicago, and then again in June, when violence against Trump supporters at a couple of rallies became the story, the tweeters again began taking my name in vain: “Belatedly reading @rickperlstein’s incredible ‘NixonLand’ and getting more and more anxious about this election.” “#Dems need to read @rickperlstein’s #Nixonland. (#Liberalism gone amok leads to riots, causing #conservative backlash.)” I wrote an article in response: no it doesn’t, or not always—in fact, in 1964 and again in 1970, melees in the nation’s streets ended up redounding to Democrats’ benefit, because the public seemed to attach responsibility for the chaos to Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.

Oh well, forget Nixon. Trump is just like Reagan.

“@rickperlstein isn’t Trump an awful lot like Reagan? Morning in America/MAGA, both blithely reading lines & using Hollywood glamour?”

“@rickperlstein yes! Before Trump there was Reagan who did THE SAME THING. . . .”

Or maybe the anti-Reagan? “@rickperlstein sees the GOP mess as the downfall of Reagan and the rise of Trump. The degradation began in 1980, Trump is latest example.”


The Not-So-Eternal Now

No, not the Same Thing. History does not repeat itself. “The country is disintegrating,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook after the massacre of five policemen by black militant Micah Johnson in Dallas. But during most of the years I write about in Nixonland and its sequel covering 1973 through 1976, The Invisible Bridge, the Dallas shootings might have registered as little more than a ripple. On New Year’s Eve in 1972, a New Orleans television station received this message: “Africa greets you. On Dec. 31, 1972, aprx. 11 pm, the downtown New Orleans Police Department will be attacked. Reason—many, but the death of two innocent brothers will be avenged.” Its author was a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran named Mark James Essex. (In the 1960s, the media had begun referring to killers using middle names, lest any random “James Ray” or “John Gacy” suffer unfairly from the association.) Essex shot three policemen to death, evading arrest. The story got hardly a line of national attention until the following week, when he began cutting down white people at random and held hundreds of officers at bay from a hotel rooftop. Finally, he was cornered and shot from a Marine helicopter on live TV, which also accidentally wounded nine more policemen. The New York Times only found space for that three days later.

Stories like these were routine in the 1970s. Three weeks later, four men identifying themselves as “servants of Allah” holed up in a Brooklyn sporting goods store with nine hostages. One cop died in two days of blazing gun battles before the hostages made a daring rooftop escape. The same week, Richard Nixon gave his second inaugural address, taking credit for quieting an era of “destructive conflict at home.” As usual, Nixon was lying, but this time not all that much. Incidents of Americans turning terrorist and killing other Americans had indeed ticked down a bit over the previous few years—even counting the rise of the Black Liberation Army, which specialized in ambushing police and killed five of them between 1971 and 1972.

In Nixon’s second term, however, they began ticking upward again. There were the “Zebra” murders from October 1973 through April 1974 in San Francisco, in which a group of Black Muslims killed at least fifteen Caucasians at random and wounded many others; other estimates hold them responsible for as many as seventy deaths. There was also the murder of Oakland’s black school superintendent by a new group called the Symbionese Liberation Army, who proceeded to seal their militant renown by kidnapping Patty Hearst in February 1974. Then, in May, after Hearst joined up with her revolutionary captors, law enforcement officials decimated their safe house with more than nine thousand rounds of live ammunition, killing six, also on live TV. Between 1972 and 1974 the FBI counted more than six thousand bombings or attempted bombings in the United States, with a combined death toll of ninety-one. In 1975 there were two presidential assassination attempts in one month.

Not to mention a little thing called Watergate. Or the discovery by Congressional investigators that the CIA had participated in plots to kill foreign leaders and spied on tens of thousands of innocent protesters, as well as the revelation that the FBI had tried to spur Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide. Or the humiliating collapse of South Vietnam, as the nation we had propped up with billions in treasure and 58,220 American lives was revealed to be little more than a Potemkin village.

And now? We’re drama queens. The week after Dallas, the host of the excellent public radio show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, invoked the Manson murders: “America’s perilous dance with Helter Skelter . . . Individual feelings of fear and revenge do not ignite a race war—yet . . .” Yet.

There followed a news report about the civil war in South Sudan, one side loyal to the president, the other to the former vice president. Now that’s a disintegrating society. The Baffler is a print publication, and perhaps between this writing and its arrival in mailboxes we’ll start seeing, say, armed black militants in a major American city randomly killing scores of innocent white people, as in an earlier age—following which, I want to add, American society, no, did not disintegrate.

Our historical narcissism indicts us. Please don’t drag my name into it.

No Consensus, No Peace

On Twitter, beginning in December and at regular intervals since, a phenomenon began to take hold that should have delighted me but actually baffles me—though apparently not anyone else.

A typical one: “The past year+ of politics has felt like the first half of a @rickperlstein book.”

Another: “When @POTUS ridiculed @realDonaldTrump 2 gales of laughter. Like Chapter 1 of a @rickperlstein book.”

Yet another: “I feel like I’m *inside* the first sentence of a Rick Perlstein book c. 2042.”

One reader linked to Trump’s February comment that the Pope had no business criticizing his proposed wall on the Mexican border because, after all, Vatican City is surrounded by walls: “Really looking forward to this section of Rick Perlstein’s book in like 20 years.” Ezra Klein wrote, “I’m really looking forward to reading Rick Perlstien’s 2025 book on this era in politics.” Charitably, Andrei Cherny gave me more time: “I can’t wait to read the @rickperlstein book about all this in 50 years.”

Then there was a touching concern for my survival.

“Still think we need to put rick perlstein into cryo-freeze just to be on the safe side.”

“I am starting a petition at @WhenWeAll to keep @rickperlstein alive forever to write the Trump Quadrilogy. You all should sign it.”

“I need to live at least 30–40 more years to read the @rickperlstein books on the GW Bush era and 2016–beyond. But I also love bacon. Rough.”

There even is a “@futurerickperlstein” Twitter account, which collects links to the strangest Trump sayings and doings in real time.

This all comes, obviously, from a place of praise, generosity, even love—“The Rick Perlstein book on this all is going to be spectacular,” one sanguine future reader enthused. What writer wouldn’t appreciate that? There’s also some sound historical logic behind it: sharp analysis demands perspective, and historical perspective comes only with time. So why do I get the willies whenever I read these paeans to my far-seeing power?

History, when done right, invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar.

I think it’s because I can’t shake the feeling that they feed into precisely the attitude toward America and its political culture that I write my books to oppose. It’s unquestionably true that what is happening now in our politics is surreal, dangerous, violent, disorienting, and terrifyingly conflictual. The feeling that 2016 has been a break from politics past cannot be denied. I certainly don’t deny it—in fact, when I began embarking on my own writing about the Trump phenomenon, I felt like I had to reconsider everything I thought I knew about conservatism and the Republican Party in order to responsibly handle the job. Please note that well, all of you writing me all those just like, just like, just like messages.

But what I want my readers to grasp most deeply is that all of American history is more surreal, more dangerous, more disorienting, and more terrifyingly conflictual than we typically want to believe. Focus on all the parts in my books where I dwell on the pundits, political leaders, and other gatekeepers of polite opinion and their willful insistence that America is fundamentally a society of consensus. Recall that they’re never more insistent on the point than when signs of chaos are all around them: Walter Lippmann was pronouncing his “united and at peace with itself” celebration not long after Bull Connor’s fire hoses and police dogs ushered in the most violent phase yet of the civil rights revolution.

My first book, covering the years 1958 through 1964, was entitled Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The “consensus” in my subtitle referred both to historians’ common belief that in the period between World War II and “the sixties” America was a remarkably placid place and to the deluded national self-perception advanced at the time by people like Lippmann, heedlessly projecting the present into the past. In this view of things, America had always been a remarkably placid place. When violence began breaking out on the 1964 campaign trail, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorialized that “presidential elections have been waged without untoward incident until this year”—what??—and the historian Richard Hofstadter preposterously proposed that “our sagacity and our passion for the peaceful enjoyment of our national life” were the essence of American politics. My subtitle, in other words, is tinged ironically—because the supposed “consensus” was but an epiphenomenon, a brief idyll, an illusion, as well as an ideological construct. It papered over the reality of a society that has never been united and at peace with itself. It also papers over the reality that millions of Americans have harbored dark reactionary rage during every period of our history—and yet pundits are always surprised every time it bursts into the political foreground.

America: What Happened?

I write all this and feel dirty. The longing to assimilate the strange to the familiar is only human; who am I to hold myself aloof from it? But it’s just not a good way to study history, which when done right invites readers to tack between finding the familiar in the strange and the strange in the familiar. History roils. Its waves are cumulative, one rolling into another, amplifying their thunder. Or they become attenuated via energies pushing in orthogonal or opposite directions. Or they swirl into directionless eddies, with the ocean’s surface appearance as often as not obscuring grander currents just below.

It’s dispiritingly reminiscent of the consensus I sought to demythologize in Before the Storm that some see Trump only in the ways he is exceptional to the usual waves, currents, eddies of our history—except for that time Rick Perlstein writes about in his books, when Americans hated each other enough to kill each other. “How Did Our Politics Get So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1968,” was how one recent rumination on the sixties-echo effect in the Trump movement got headlined in the Washington Post. Why not blame 1776, when the nation was born in blood and fire, brother fighting brother? Or 1787, when the Constitution repressed the contradictions between slave and free states, with all the core unresolved tensions slowly simmering until the nation had to be born again, from the blood of the better part of a million Americans slaughtering one another? “How Did Our Politics Become So Harsh and Divisive? Blame 1860.”

Heck, why not blame 1877, when an estimated one hundred people were killed in railroad strikes that involved some one hundred thousand people? Or the “Red Summer” of 1919, which set in motion race riots and lynchings, killing hundreds by 1921, when as many as three hundred died in the Tulsa riot alone? Or 1924, when it took the Democratic Party 103 convention ballots and sixteen days to settle whether the party would be represented by its pro– or anti–Ku Klux Klan factions, while tens of thousands of hooded Klansmen rallied across the river in New Jersey? Or 1945–46, when almost two million Americans went on strike? Or 1995, when a madman blew up a federal building and killed 168, including children in daycare? Why not start at the beginning and blame 1492, or the year the English settled in Massachusetts Bay?

What’s it like to live in a Rick Perlstein book? I hope it at least resembles what it’s like to live in America. Although I fully allow that Donald Trump may end the world as we know it, if he does, it will happen in a way different from any other prospective end of the world as we have known it. History will help us understand that. But not a history that leans on easy intellectual crutches.