Sunday, April 10, 2016

America is still "Nixonland" (book recommendation)

A kindly old lady from Whittier CA had this to say about a Republican candidate. "I know it's against religion to hate anybody, but I just can't help hating that man." To whom was she referring? Not Donald Trump, not Ted Cruz, but... wait for it... Richard Nixon. The quote is taken from the opening pages of Rick Perlstein's monumental book Nixonland (Scribner, 2008), which Walt commends to anyone trying to make sense of this year's campaign.

Mr. Perlstein chose to write about Nixon and his times in 2008, 40 years after he was elected President, because (as the cliché goes) history repeats itself. Over and over again. The book, you see, is not really about Mr. Nixon so much as the disintegration of the liberal consensus of the Kennedy-Johnson years and the polarization of American politics. The 1968 election pitted the friends of Nixon against the enemies of Nixon. The author writes: the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon, are the spiritual heirs of [Adlai] Stevenson and [John Kenneth] Galbraith. They take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end.

The second group are the people who...believe, as did Nixon [himself] that if the enemies of Nixon triumph -- the Alger Hisses and Helen Gahagan Douglases, the Herblocks and hippies, the George McGoverns and all the rest -- America might end.

The [Democratic National Committee] was right: an amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. "Nixonland> is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years.

Let's see. 1968 plus 50 years brings us to... 2018. Who will be POTUS and Leader of the Free World then? Whether the Republicans pick Mr Trump or Senator Cruz, or the Democrats pick Senator Sanders or Secretary Clinton, is immaterial. In November supporters of both candidates, red and blue, will be utterly convinced that if their enemies win, America will end.

Talk of uniting the nation is rubbish. The cracks in American society and politics which appeared with the Watts race riots of 1965, have grown wider and deeper. The nation needs a catharsis. But will it get one? That's up to the voters, who, Mr. Perlstein says, are the real heroes of his book. Read it.

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