Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)

Author: Rick Perlstein

Title: Nixonland:The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

Format: hardcover

Pages: 881

Series: –

Something a bit different today. I know, I know, except for Pokemon there hasn’t been much fantasy/SF on our blog lately 😉 I promise that’ll change… at some point, certainly. There will be new Marlon James book review coming soon, at least ;). But for now, a totally non-fiction, modern history book.

We live in interesting times, that’s for sure. Wars, pandemics, economic crises, global warming… The list goes on and on. But because we are so deeply enmeshed in our everyday life, we tend to forget that this uniqueness, this craziness, is in fact nothing new. That not long ago, the world was an even crazier place, at least in some localities ;). That, compared to those not so olden times, our present time is actually quite tame. If you thought Trump was something else, a new phenomenon, think again. Or even better, read Nixonland.

Nixonland deals with the fraught period in American history between the Watts riots (1965) and Watergate (1972). It tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, but perhaps even more, it tells the story of American society’s total, infinite craziness in that period. Oh, it was bonkers. It was even more bonkers than I thought, and I have read plenty of source material about that time. But Perlstein’s book has one unquestionable strength, and that’s his storytelling skill which compresses the events while maintaining their unique character. Perlstein does a great job in infusing some semblance of logic into the avalanche of chaotic happenings of the time. He depicts the events in a chronological order, but he also tries to compile them by theme. By focusing on Nixon as the catalyst and the product of those violent changes in American society, Perlstein manages to create a cohesive picture of this time. 

Is Perlstein’s vision true? Is it fully reliable? That’s for the readers to judge. I admit I was a bit dismayed that the author has not even tried to remain objective. Oh, I know objectivity is an impossible goal, particularly in social sciences and humanities, but it is one I feel we should all strive for. From history books I expect at least that – some effort, some endeavor for objective assessment, at least an attempt at balanced depiction of events and people. In this regard, Perlstein unfortunately fails, big time – and it looks as if he wasn’t ever considering trying not to fail. He approaches his subject with an emotionally charged opinion, and he portrays different aspects of the times with that opinion foremost in his mind. And because he hates Nixon’s guts, his book is quite amusing. It’s more a case of a laughter through tears, to be fair, but nevertheless makes for an entertaining (like horror can be entertaining) read.

And I freely admit, my opinion about Nixon is not that different from Perlstein, because Nixon was one crazy, ruthless, absurdly ambitious and controlling … (your choice of expletive here). He tried to sabotage the Vietnam War peace talks in his bid for presidency, he led an amazingly complicated and illegal effort to compromise Democratic candidates in the next elections, he made so many unethical, destructive decisions just to get to power and stay in power. He exploited fault lines and divisions existing within the society of the United States, enhancing them in the process. You could say that Tricky Dick was at once the godfather and the midwife of American culture wars. But he did not create them; he just dug out the embers and poured gasoline on them, gleefully watching the fires explode everywhere. At the same time, however, he made the Cold War even colder, deftly exploited growing differences between China and USSR in the Communist bloc, reopened China-US relations, signed the SALT treaty, and generally did a lot to improve the state of global security. It looks like many of his decisions in foreign affairs actually laid the foundation for the collapse of the bilateral post-WWII order. A deeply conflicted heritage left by a tragically destructive and horrifyingly ambitious person. If there’s one word that would perfectly describe Nixon for me, it’s hubris.

Perlstein sketches a compelling depiction of Nixon as a deeply flawed if brilliant man. It is, however, tainted with the author’s obvious dislike for the subject, which ultimately leads to enhancing Nixon’s faults and failures and diminishing his successes. And the worst part is that Perlstein really didn’t need to do it. It’s like kicking a man who’s already down. Nixon truly doesn’t need any snide comments from historians. He had already compromised himself, without any outside help; his arc couldn’t have been imagined any better than what life brought him: from the utmost bottom to the very top, and then back down in a fiery, all-consuming fall. 

As a portrait of Nixon, then, Perlstein’s book falls short. But the true value of Nixonland lies in the portrayal of the social and political background of Nixon – in the depiction of the US society of the time, conflicted, violent, self-destructive and almost hysterical in its moral outrage and all-out culture war. It’s absolutely fascinating, riveting, and almost unbelievable. Just a few facts, as an example: 

In two years, between 1970 and 1971, the number of terrorist and violent extremist attacks that took place in the United States reached seven hundred and fifteen. Yes, 715 domestic terrorist attacks. 

There were multiple bombings and shootings, done both by the radical left and right. Police brutality was a fact of everyday life. Police officers were being killed in the line of duty, and they in turn were killing suspects and innocent civilians. The violent movies from the ‘70s? That wasn’t some dystopian vision of the future – it was everyday life.

There was even a trial of a group of Catholic priests and nuns, plus one Pakistani political science professor, who were charged with the conspiracy to kidnap Kissinger! (Harrisburg Seven, for those who want to learn more. What a story! Even a librarian was jailed, for defending academic freedoms ;)). 

All in all, while Perlstein’s book is far from faultless, it makes for a fascinating read. If you can separate the author’s dislike for Nixon from the facts he so assiduously gathered and described with vivid detail and impressive storytelling skill, you’re in for a wild ride. Put your discerning glasses on and buckle up. Worth it.

Score: 8/10

29 thoughts on “Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)

    1. Right? All that violence and hatred and sheer stupidity, and yet progress was born from it. There is some comfort in that, even if slighter than we’d like, particularly at the moment… Those pendulum swings in the States are always so violent it seems there’s never a time for balance and common sense. I still have hope, though!

      Thanks for reading, Lizzie!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I get the sentiment, but we shouldn´t assume they got out of it back then, we will now. For starters: they didn´t really get out if it to begin with, or otherwise wouldn´t be in the mess we are in now, with much higher stakes.

        Anyhow, good review, you got me interested.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m more of an optimist 😉 But, as I wrote to Maddalena, I think the most important takeaway is that every rapid change brings backlash, and the more rapid and deep it is, the more violent the backlash. We see it everywhere now, even with regards to things that are indisputable facts, like global warming. Denial is an incredibly strong emotion/motivation, and is very often accompanied by anger and resentment, and fear of losing out. These are emotions that are easy to manipulate and exploit.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The backlash will be big. Worldwide inflation of 8% atm + hunger in Africa & Asia because of Ukraine + more graft because officials try to compensate wages like that + hunger refugees in the West and elsewhere. Add to that climate, the threat of nuclear war, etc. and the fact that lots of regimes right now are already on the brink of authoritarianism (also in Europe), still increasing polaristation in the USA, and it’s not a pretty picture.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes; but remember that backlash after WWII had given us EU and decades of prosperity and democratic progress around the world. What we see now, what you describe, is at least in part the backlash to this. Obviously, economic/food/water crises play a particularly large part in it as they directly affect people’s security. But there’s also a psychological mechanism of action-reaction at play, fueled in large part by resentment and feelings of underrepresentation/victimisation, and it’s basically universal (as in not particular to our times) e.g. earlier reformation-contrreformation or recurring liberal-conservative seesaws we’ve seen.

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                1. I’m still hopeful. I know there aren’t too many reasons for being hopeful, but, on the other hand, the context had changed so many times before that we may still be pleasantly surprised. Remember the predictions that London would be buried under a heap of manure by the mid-20th century?

                  Liked by 1 person

  1. I can’t believe you made it through this doorstop let alone liked it so much. But then, I didn’t think Trump was particularly new or interesting. Well… perhaps interesting, but 😉

    That said… well, I’m happy you liked it Ola! It was probably so true it read a bit like fiction. Nixon was great that way 😁

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yup, it was even better than fiction! No sane person could’ve invented this. And not just Nixon – the whole America was absolutely bonkers. This book just gathers all this insanity in one place 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It is certainly fascinating and worth learning more about. But then, I read this all because this is the area of my professional as much as personal interest. I know next to nothing about history of Netherlands, for example – not that I wouldn’t want to know more, but you know – time 😉

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Noted! I have read a bit about the tulip bubble, for comparisons with other economic bubbles, and also read some general history/anthropology pieces about how Dutch culture was impacted by the necessities of collective action (maintenance of polders etc.). I’d love to learn more, though!

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          1. Another nice one is The Island in the Center of the World. It’s about the wild Dutch colony of New Amsterdam that later would grow into New York. It goes deep into how aspects of Dutch culture ultimately grew into parts of American culture. How Dutch “tolerance” morphed into American ideals of “freedom”.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know if I should feel comforted or worried by the realization this books offers that a nation can periodically go through its own Age of Madness and that it’s something that ultimately can end… Given the current political situation, I’m more inclined toward pessimism. Still, this might make for an interesting read: thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess it’s a mixed blessing. I think it offers a bit of hope to those so inclined, but at the same time it shows that human nature is not easily changed, and that aggressive and tribal impulses are still very much at the forefront of political life, despite our best efforts. I think the main takeaway is that there always is backlash to rapid changes, and that’s something we should work on – how to get everybody on board.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember rewatching old presidential debates right after the last Biden v. Trump one and was incredibly stunned by how ridiculous politics has become today. Of course, one can debate that it wasn’t much different back then but the debate I rewatched in black and white had actual serious content! 😛 Awesome review, Ola. Definitely sounds like you had a blast reading through this behemoth. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, yeah, there is that, too: growing lack of substance in politics, substituted with mostly negative emotions dialed up to 100. Yes, you can put that to Nixon, too 😉
      Thanks, Lashaan! It was fun, in a horrible train wreck way: you don’t want to look, but can’t take your eyes off it 😛

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Paul Connelly

    Nixon tried to present himself as a “moderate” and managed to not seem all that scary (at least to me) before his election, but without question his election was a catastrophe for the nation. Breaking the post-WWII international financial system caused almost insoluble problems for the US that each succeeding administration has kept kicking down the road. And almost all of the current generation of pro-war (any war) addicts got their start (or are children of those who got their start) at the tail end of Nixon’s time in office. The left was its usual ineffectual cat herd consumed in dramatic gestures and infighting, and the right picked up a new rhetoric of pseudo-anti-elitism that has persisted to this day. The level of virulence and rudeness has only continued to escalate between them ever since, to the point that the way members of Congress publicly belittle each other now would have been totally unthinkable 55 years ago, even in private remarks that someone eavesdropped on. I don’t know much about Humphrey, although he seemed like a decent person hemmed in by LBJ and the Democratic right, but it’s hard to imagine that he could have been even half as awful as Nixon was. That Nixon’s administration did enact some very worthwhile programs was mainly down to the large majorities of the opposition party in both houses of Congress and the inertia of the Eisenhower-endorsed remnants of the New Deal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul! Oh yes, I agree. The decision to choose Nixon was historic, in all wrong ways. Although IMO his biggest responsibility lies in the fact that he encouraged people and even emotionally pushed them to be the worst versions of themselves. There exists a strong current of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism in the US that’s been there since Adams’s times at least – but Nixon was the first to use it in such an organized, structural and symbolic way to get and maintain power. And by using that he signalled to people it’s okay to be uneducated, prejudiced and resentful, and that it’s easier to take others down to your level than to aspire to level up to them.

      Humphrey was hamstrung not only by Nixon but also by LBJ himself – apparently HH was much more anti-war than LBJ and wanted out of Vietnam unconditionally, and the US presidents (like all others, I guess) have a penchant for doing everything, legal or not, not to lose a war 😉
      To be fair, though, China and SALT and, as a consequence, the weakening of Cold War order were all Nixon, too. Opposition didn’t even know about these plans. Nixon admittedly averted his eyes from genocide in Pakistan to get his China deal, but he wasn’t the first or the last to endorse authoritarian regimes 😉

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  5. Since the murders of the Kennedy brothers (remember, JFK was the first one who wanted to bail out of Vietnam), US politics have known a steady decline that even Obama couldn’t reverse because he had to work with a hostile congress. Politicians and citizens alike are increasingly turning to the judiciary to solve their issues, so right now the judges are the real power brokers in the US. It looks like a two party system can’t really pass the threshold of what is world wide considered to be a democracy. With its division in blue and red states, it became a fractured country with power flowing from the federal level back to the regional or state levels. I believe a break up a la Soviet Union might be imminent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually it was JFK who put Americans in Vietnam – in thousands. He was also the one who approved the coup in Vietnam as a result of which Diem was assassinated.
      Judges in the US are politicized, too – look at the Supreme Court. But I don’t see parallels between USSR and USA, tbh – USSR was a forced coalition of countries many of which had been independent for centuries, while in the US only Texas (and Hawaii) could’ve been said to be an independent country at some point.

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      1. It is reasonable to assume that when in the early summer of 1965 General William Westmoreland called for the deployment of a huge US military force in South Vietnam, Kennedy would have been more prepared than Johnson to reject that advice. And the US Civil War was about some states who wanted to split off and create their own confederation because of differing views on a multitude of issues. If history teaches us one thing, it is its tendency to repeat itself.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I am rather of the opinion that it’s the myth of Kennedy created by his apologists (his brother with presidential ambitions included) that makes everybody think this war would have been better under his command than LBJ’s.

          As for the US civil war, I think that paradoxically USA learned something from this experience. The divisions are somewhat less localized and none of the states even mention the possibility of secession.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The US is on the verge of implosion with all that entropy floating around. Too many guns, bible thumping Taliban on one side and entitled liberals on the other, a government that has to borrow money to pay off the interests on their existing debt (not to mention that Trillions of debt are even not accounted for since the federal reserve, in the middle of the 2011 recession, credited the banks with them), an army and foreign policy that isn’t up to consolidate their gains on the battlefield, …. Big was beautiful during industrial times, in the becoming knowledge societies, small will be great. Most of the world population have got it with their preaching of Jesus and democracy while their foreign policy is not walking their talking.

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