Ben Smithgall

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Bit pusher at Spotify. Previously Interactive News at the New York Times, U.S. Digital Service, and Code for America.






By Rick Perlstein

Finished reading on October 17, 2019

Perlstein’s thesis is relatively simple: Richard Nixon’s superpower was understanding and exploiting the fault lines that lay along the American populace. By doing this, he created two parallel Americas, each of which is convinced that the other will doom their country.

As the famous Marx quote from his essay on the 18th Brumaire goes :

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Of course, it seems as though the repetition goes on and on, almost as if we are stuck in Nixonland.

One funny thing about Nixonland is that it came out in May of 2008, right as Barack Obama was poised to become President. Reviews of the book said that the era of Nixonland was actually over, and the national mood was returning to one of stability and unity, echoing then-candidate Obama’s 2004 DNC address. This of course, was a farce when it was written (see: Tea Party), and continues to be a farce now in the Trump era.

As an author, Perlstein is a master of the parenthetical. He annotates major speeches, advertisements, and newspaper stories throughout the era, giving us a close reading into how the diction used had a major effect in generating the two Americas that elevated Nixon twice to the Presidency. He also has a wonderful eye for illustrative details that give us deep insight into the people of the era, like the story about how at the 1972 RNC, the stage automatically lowered itself to make sure that no one was taller than the President.

Overall, it’s a long book but totally worth it.