As Americans prepare for their election, a look back at Nixon

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein. Scribner. 2008. 896 pages.

It is election year and one candidate divides Americans like nobody else.

Reviled with an intense fury by many, he is adored as a protector by many others aghast at developments being pushed by social radicals.

His previous — and graceless — fall from power was accompanied by assurances from the great and good that his career was over and that he could never return.

Now, thanks to his extraordinary political skills, he has recaptured and remade the Republican Party.

In so doing, he has broadened its base by attracting voters from groups that were long part of the Democratic coalition, thus redrawing America’s political map.

On the Democratic side, an incumbent president who achieved major legislative victories early on still finds himself out of touch with a new generation of cultural revolutionaries.

College campuses are in a state of uproar, as the social radicals protest wars in distant lands, and a nervous Democratic Party prepares for a Chicago convention which could turn ugly.

This election will be knife-edge close, and the possibility of a popular third-party wildcard candidate makes the outcome impossible to call.

Donald Trump and Richard Nixon were not similar men. Yet there are eerie similarities between the 2024 and 1968 presidential elections.

The best way of understanding that era is by reading Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which Newsweek declared to be the “best book written about the 1960s”.

Nixonland is one part of Perlstein’s magisterial four-part history of modern American conservatism, roughly covering a period between 1960-1980, culminating in the landslide election victory of Ronald Reagan.

Although Perlstein is well to the Left politically, the fact that his books have mostly been well-received by conservatives attests to their quality.

His writing style differs from most historians. Like his other books, Nixonland is long and extremely detailed, as the author describes the political and cultural context of the Sixties in painstaking detail, often drawing up newspaper reports and television coverage as primary sources.


What set this decade apart, according to the author, was the heightened partisanship and the breakdown of the consensus which had existed in America in the decades leading up to this.

Nixonland, Perlstein wrote, “is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.”

He adds that during Nixon’s quest for election and his subsequent presidency, this divisiveness “came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States.”

The obvious parallels with the current moment and the aforementioned similarities between the Republican candidates should not be exaggerated.

Where Trump is a fundamentally unserious human being, Richard was the exact opposite.

He was always slightly uncomfortable in campaign mode, and in his element when dealing with complex domestic public policy or considering the multi-faceted nuances of international affairs.


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Perlstein observes that Nixon’s interest in foreign policy and his sincere wish to create a lasting peace in the world was “the deepest thing Nixon possessed,” writing that this was why he remained in the profession of politics to which he was in many ways badly unsuited.

Nixon was extremely bright and his introversion and self-discipline allowed him to cultivate that intellect through careful reading throughout his life.

His years out of office after the painful defeat to John F. Kennedy in 1960 were tough, but he used this time to consider global developments in greater detail: particularly the tensions between the Soviet Union and China which would later allow him to skilfully balance one off the other in order to achieve greater stability and reduce the risk of nuclear war.

Perlstein’s obvious dislike of Nixon the man and his occasional lapses into leftist sniping are a blight on an otherwise absorbing book.

Yet it is impossible to disagree with the author’s conclusions about how Nixon’s resentments and paranoia clouded his judgement and paved the way for the Watergate scandal that ruined him.


Nixonland is ultimately about the nation rather than the man who eventually led it. The lessons contained in these pages are of the greatest relevance to the current era.

The swing to the right would not have occurred in America in the 1968 and 1972 elections had a broad portion of the population not been repulsed by the Democratic Party’s embrace of the worst parts of the Sixties social revolution.

Speaking off the record, one Democratic Senator would label the party’s 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern as being for “amnesty, acid and abortion” — meaning amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers coupled with the legalisation of drugs and abortion.

Nixon’s 49-state drubbing of McGovern showed conclusively where ordinary Americans stood at the time, much to the horror of the liberal elite.

Even centrists and progressives were concerned about the societal breakdown around them, though. Perlstein quotes the novelist John Steinbeck, who was disgusted by “the mistrust and revolt against all authority” which many young people were engaged in, and who lamented the ending of a more peaceful era where “the rules were understood and accepted by everyone.”

Again, parallels can be drawn. However, societal decay (as measured by family structure, religious belief, church attendance and so forth) has grown much worse over the last half-century.

Traditional values and norms are not nearly as popular, as many people in today’s world have not experienced them to the same degree.

Moreover, Donald Trump lacks the ability to finesse his message in the way that the infinitely more measured Richard Nixon did. This gives the Democrats more reason to hope than they should have, given Joe Biden’s record.

The fact that Trump remains popular, especially with lower-income and non-college-educated voters, is a key reason why modern liberals are adopting an elitist language and policy approach, which Perlstein first identifies in the 1960s.

“Liberal intellectuals were betraying themselves in a moment of crisis for liberal ideology. They saw themselves as tribunes of the people, Republicans as the people’s traducers,” Perlstein writes, adding that prominent liberals began to develop a “distaste” for those voters who thought differently, including when it came to the merits or demerits of Richard Nixon.

We are much further down that path now, as the “basket of deplorables” threatens to elect Donald Trump a second time.

Fifteen years after Nixonland was published, Perlstein’s assertion about the “rise of two American identities” has never seemed more accurate.

His previously startling question to readers — “Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasise about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements?” — is far less shocking, not least given that the popular new movie Civil War presents this exact scenario.

For anyone who wants to understand the political dynamics at play in today’s America, Nixonland is essential reading.

What do you think about the current condition of the United States? Leave a comment below. 

James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Showing 4 reactions

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  • Susan Rohrbach
    commented 2024-05-14 21:05:39 +1000
    Trojan horses for Rockefeller, the both of them..
  • mrscracker
    “Traditional values and norms are not nearly as popular, as many people in today’s world have not experienced them to the same degree.”
    Having traditional values today makes one counter cultural.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-13 09:34:11 +1000
    American politics, for the last 50 years, has been a reaction to the civil rights movement. Race, and privilege, still permeates America. You can shine that anyway you like, but race is the core of American conservatism.
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-13 08:29:29 +1000