This follow up (or distinct from book) to Rick Perlstein’s previous contemporary history The Coming Storm, takes on the Richard Nixon’s role in the creation of the modern GOP, and as Perlstein frames it in this series, the “end of American consensus.” His argument throughout these first two books is that the conservative wing of the Republican party worked tirelessly to gain control of the Republican party. If you’ve read The Coming Storm, you know that that book was a mini-biography of Barry Goldwater that takes us through the 1964 election. That book ends with the premise that while the conservatives lost the 1964 election, they won in being able to take control of the party moving forward. If you add into that what Richard Hofstadter discusses in the re-released edition of The Paranoid Style in American Politics, you see how they also began coupling conservatism with evangelical fundamentalism.
This book also gives us the background of Nixon through childhood, college, and his first forays into politics in order to show us how his personal biography led him through to the 1960s. While what he did in 1940s and 1950s were essential to making sense of the 1960s, its the 1960s that best explains where we are today. His absolute crookedness and realpolitik style, while also maximizing the influence of conservatism and evangelicalism (he was not exactly either) helped propel him to victory in 1968, (it also helps if your number one contender is murdered) and coast to victory in 1972 (it also helps if your number one contender is completely inept at campaigning). Watergate seems relatively small potatoes and small price to pay for the next 20 years or so of absolutely dominance with future dominance in the early 2000s and today. It’s a frustrating book to be sure because the history is relatively disgusting, but it’s also a little cold comfort in the face of what it feels unnamable about American politics today. It turns that perhaps very little actually ever changes.