Ron's Reviews > Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
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's review
Jan 02, 2012

really liked it

I just finished “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein. It is a sweeping history of the United States between the years 1965-1972. Nixon himself is the central character, but the book is not really about Nixon. Rather, it is about the political conditions that allowed a seemingly dull, washed-up ex-Vice President to recover from defeats at runs for the Presidency and Governorship of CA to become a twice-elected President of the US.

Those political conditions are indeed harsh. Although the country has elected a Democratic government in a sweeping fashion in 1964, merely one year removed from theat election it seems to be falling apart. The book opens with the Watts riots in 1965. The country had not seen inward-pointing violence like this in 100 years. The African-American community of Watts was self-destructing; worse, the instigators of the riot threatened to take the violence to the “quiet” communities.

Nixonland tells the story of the split in America that followed the debate about what to do to pacify the riots, and how it was Nixon who figured out how to exploit that split for political advantage. Perlstein calls one group the Franklins; these are the élites, the liberals, who insist that the riots were caused by lack of resources and opportunities. The other group, the Orthogonians, the “Silent Majority” as Nixon would call them, were the ones who saw lawlessness and chaos and wanted hellfire punishment for and protection from the mobs.

Anger and frustration turned into outrage as the Franklins, who controlled the government at the time, passed and attempted to enforce civil rights legislation. And it seemed that with each new advantage given to the rioters’ communities, more riots occurred. Detroit and Newark followed Watts in going up in flames. More aid to the cities, in the form of a War on Poverty, gave more resources to the poor at a time when they were asked to fight an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam.

It was Nixon who saw that the Orthogonians supported the war and wanted the riots to stop at any cost. They also did not want racial integration or their taxes raised to fight poverty. And they didn’t appreciate looking like fools in the Franklins’ press.

Sound familiar? For whom was Sarah Palin introduced into this year’s Presidential race? Palin is the ultimate Orthogonian, and is playing the part for her fellow Orthogonians. Do I even need to draw the analogies?

More than anyone, Nixon understood the Orthogonians; hell, he was one. He was a master of stoking and exploiting the differences between the Franklins and Orthogonians while appearing to unite the country. This was possible because this division was not equivalent to the division between Democrat and Republican. Nixon cared little for party lines, as his appointment of Democrat John Connally as Treasury Secretary shows. Rather, it was the desire to beat the Franklins into the ground, at any cost, was what motivated Nixon and his circle.

Nixon of course didn’t invent these divisons. It’s really not clear when they formed: they could be a legacy of the North-South divisions. But the fact is, voting patterns in 1966 became apparent to Nixon and dictated how he would prosecute his path to the Presidency. Democrats swept in 1964, taking many Republican seats. After the riots of 1965 and 1966, however, those seats lost to the Democrats in 1964 were regained in 1966, and then some.

These Orthogonians played by the rules. They worked, married, raised kids, bought a house, paid taxes and their bills, and lived the American dream. Suddenly, the law and order they inherently understood was breaking down around them. Worse, there were Franklins on the TV set, in the newspapers, telling them that they were at fault. Telling them that the system favored them over the negro. Telling them that the war in Vietnam against evil Comunism was itself evil. Telling them that it was the smelly long-haired hippies with the foul mouths and disgusting sexual practices that were good and cool and better than them.

These people didn’t see themselves as racist, but they saw what happened to Watts, and Newark, and Detroit, and they didn’t want that to happen to them. The whites got away and were able to gate themselves off. But then the courts established that the schools had becomes segregated, especially in the North where such things just didn’t exist, and busing ensued. Control was being lost.

Nixon was able to seize on the anxiety and fear of this environment and exploit the divisiveness that such feelings encouraged. The Republicans were also a more disciplined party, so the more liberal members would still support Nixon as the candidate, while the Democrats were literally in higgledy-piggledy in 1968. Although Nixon was not able to bring in many new Republicans in 1970, the Democrats proved themselves in even more disarray in 1972 with the McGovern candidacy.

I think Perlstein’s point is that this division exists today. Call it what you will: Red State/Blue State, liberal/conservative, etc. But it’s there. Reagan may have been a great president, but the resurgence of the Republican party as it exists today is not his doing, it is Nixon’s. Nixon may be seen as an effective liberal by his party today, but his uniting of the Orthogonians against the Franklins is his enduring legacy. And one that must be understood to understand what drives opposition to Barack Obama, and the methods behind the prosecution of that opposition.

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