I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.
It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here.
“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes.
There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows.
“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.
What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.
America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though.