Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rick Perlstein, _Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America_

THE SECOND VOLUME in Perlstein's superb trilogy on the electoral success of the mainstream right in the second half of the 20th century. The first volume, mainly on Goldwater, is excellent, the third, mainly on Reagan, I have not yet read, but this one, mainly on Nixon, is the key one for the summer of 2016, when Trump seems to be borrowing handfuls of pages from Nixon's playbook: fear of the other, jacked-up pride in an imaginary national past, anxiety about losing status, anger at disregard for traditional values, and big cracking barrels of white ressentiment.

Nixon parlayed this hand into one narrow and one overwhelming presidential election victory--tsk, if he had only been confident enough to know he could beat McGovern without resorting to cheating and breaking the law, he might have served out all of that second term.

That lack of confidence--that feeling that the cool kids are going deny him his due, that people have it in for him, that he will only prevail if he uses every trick in the book and invents a few more--is Perlstein's leading theme in analyzing Nixon. His shorthand for it is based on the names of two clubs from Nixon's alma mater, Whittier College: the Franklins, the classic student leader types, relatively well-born and beloved of faculty and administration, and the we-try-harder Orthogonians, the beta males.  Guess which one Nixon was in.  Right. But with him on their team, the Orthogonians took over most of student government by his senior year.

This is why Nixon played the ressentiment tactic so well.  He got it. He knew it.  He felt it. It was in his bones.

Trump, however, is obviously faking it. He knows it's powerful, he know the words and a bit of the tune, he knows how to perform it, but he doesn't feel it. The man radiates entitlement. He exudes privilege. You, sir, are no Orthogonian. You have to be Nixon to make Nixon work.  Or Ted Cruz. Cruz has got the Nixon thing, in spades.

For my money, the great Nixon book will always be Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes, a blend of on-the-spot and in-the-moment reporting, research, historical and philosophical acumen, psychological insight, and brilliant style--and throw in the drama of the Wills's own evolution, in the mid-1960s, from National Review wunderkind to liberal stalwart. But Perlstein has the advantage of knowing how the story turned out, so you should read them both, and there's room for at least three great books on Nixon, so let's throw in as well Robert Coover's The Public Burning.

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