Rick Perlstein’s epic history of “The Age of Malaise”
Rick Perlstein has previously written three massive books charting the rise of the conservative movement in America. With his latest, Reaganland, he brings to a close his epic history of how we got to where we are now. It’s a tale not just of the rise of Ronald Reagan, but of the failure of Jimmy Carter, along with some great insights into how our current situation is replaying and distorting history.
Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980 charts the era when we were supposed to set aside the toxic legacy of Richard Nixon’s corrupt administration and embark on a new era of renewed enthusiasm for the American ideal. Instead, almost from the minute he took office, Jimmy Carter managed to turn the honeymoon phase that incoming administrations usually enjoy into a nightmare of missteps, broken promises, and hurt feelings. Meanwhile, his eventual rival for the 1980 election was reaping unexpected benefits from his 1976 convention challenge to the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford, and laying the groundwork for a campaign in which Ronald Reagan pledged “Let’s Make America Great Again.”
Perlstein, whose previous two books (Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge) captured the rise to power and subsequent fall of Nixon thanks to Watergate, demonstrates a take-no-prisoners approach to history by showing how Carter, who sold himself almost as the “savior” for a post-Vietnam America, was anything but the simple peanut farmer that his campaign had advertised. Mistakes by his administration in messaging and in policy eventually led to the almost Quixotic convention challenge of Ted Kennedy in 1980, in an effort to force the Democratic plank far more leftward than Carter (a moderate at heart) liked.
And with Carter’s reluctant offer of asylum to the deposed shah of Iran, he set in motion the tensions and bloodshed that define the modern Middle East. Reagan, on the other hand, through his radio broadcasts and ghostwritten columns in newspapers, continued to put himself forward as the conservative choice for the GOP, despite challenges from future running mate George H.W. Bush and others less “extreme” in the eyes of the Republican establishment. If you’re thinking to yourself that Perlstein seems to be drawing parallels between those days and the Obama-Trump years, you’re not alone.
Perlstein’s book also reflects the social history of that time, when popular culture retreated from the excesses of the Sixties and the sobering truth-telling of the early Seventies, into feel-good films like Star Wars and revisionist history like The Deer Hunter. Also, he highlights how abortion suddenly became a plank for the Republicans to run on, to the detriment of efforts like the Equal Rights Amendment and the feminist movement in general. And he ties the rise of Reagan to the equal rise of politically involved evangelical preachers, like Jerry Falwell (whose son was a chief endorser of Trump in 2016). Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual crusade, Dan White’s murder of Harvey Milk, and the People’s Temple mass suicide all crop up in the book, evidence that the Carter years were fraught with tensions about “progress” in the Sixties that led to a backlash in the Seventies and Eighties. In examining all these events, Perlstein shows how tied we still are to the past, and how much regression we’ve experienced since then.
Not counting the endnotes, Reaganland runs to over nine hundred pages, but as the blurb from Stephen King says, it reads like an epic novel, hard to stop once you begin and difficult to believe even as you’re reading it. This great work of history challenges our narratives of a time period we think we know. In the end, we’re all still living in Ronald Reagan’s America, with everything that implies.
(Simon & Schuster, August 18, 2020)