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© US National Archives

interviews

Our "Law and Order" Presidents

by Rick Perlstein
June 18, 2020

This interview with Rick Perlstein, author, historian and journalist, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | What is your background and expertise in? 

Rick Perlstein | I'm a historian and a journalist. I'm best known for a series of books on the history of the conservative takeover over of the Republican Party, and their success in changing the ideological composition of the United States. It started with Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, then Nixonland, and then the Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan came out in 2014. In August my book to complete the series, Reaganland, comes out. 

My passion is informing people for critical citizenship, understanding how big public questions are asked and answered, and how those affect people's everyday lives.

The comparisons between Trump and Nixon as “Law and Order” presidents have never been more apparent. 

I've been very fortunate in choosing the right topic.

You write that prior to Nixon, it wasn't really normal to use some of these tactics of anger and anxiety to garner power amongst your base. Can you talk a bit how Nixon weaponizes that?

I actually have extended my lens to think about these questions in the context of the entirety of American history. 

Nixon set the modern order of battle in American politics, but demagogic campaigning, and politics based on fear, is commonplace across American history.

We see it with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and certainly with the sectional crisis leading up to the Civil War. 

It is important to set the stage to understand Nixon’s role. After World War II and the Depression, the country reset. The New Deal, as a response to The Great Depression, expanded the American state’s influence over people's lives and commerce for the first time. It established the state as a big power. American conservatism really became about stopping the growth of the state. In addition, following World War II, America enjoys some of the greatest prosperity of any society in the history of humanity. It built the first mass middle class. There was an idea that we had solved distribution of wealth, and conflicts between labor and capital, problems that had caused social catastrophes in other societies. Lyndon Johnson, when he signs the Voting Rights Act, basically said, the racial problem in America is over. His quote is, "Today, we strike away the last major shackle of those fierce and ancient bonds." People began to interpret this progress as the end of conflict in American life.

And that is the American consensus that I refer to in the subtitle of my first book, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and The Unmaking of the American Consensus. And those who dissented from that consensus were seen as irrelevant. That's how the Barry Goldwater book ends. People said the Republican party is in trouble, and that it might go away completely, unless it purges the conservatives. 

But, long story short: riots break out in Watts in 1965. With that unrest as the backdrop, Richard Nixon begins his second run for the presidency. He was known as a statesman, a solid manager of the country. But he also had a history that was full of the politics of resentment and rage. He was an early red baiter. In 1968, he committed to the politics of fear, the politics of resentment, and the idea that liberalism causes disorder. Nixon, both in the way he ran in 68, and in the way he governed, promises that he was going to calm things down and lower the temperature. 

What role do protests play in the campaign?

These riots broke out right after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. For the first time in two decades, an American city burns. It's very baffling to people, because again, the thought was that they had solved racial conflict. 

It was huge for Nixon. Nixon said that the students against the Vietnam war, and the African Americans who were violently rioting and committing acts of civil disobedience were a threat to white America. White America needed to be “protected” from these people, and Nixon said that he was the one to do it. By the time the Republican convention rolls around, "law and order" is the big focus of his speech.

Nixon campaigns on the promise that he is going to make the violence stop. 

His galvanizing political commercial had one image of urban anarchy after another, with scary jarring music behind it. He sets the template for the next many decades, leading us to now where Conservatives still appeal to the electorate by saying that they are going to protect them from these fearful disorders. Democrats, with exceptions, become the party of liberalism in response. And both sides believe the other side is an existential threat to the country and the civilization as they understand it.

What about when he takes office?

When he takes office, one of the watershed moments of his presidency is this absolutely astonishing antiwar strike on October 15th, 1969. The Vietnam war was still going on and there was a lot of uproar about it. Enough uproar that two million people, many plain middle-class Americans in small towns, stay home from work or school on a Wednesday to protest the Vietnam war. And this is a terrifying thing because it makes that sort of insurgency a mainstream thing. It is seen as an enormous threat to Nixon. He was a guy who went absolutely apoplectic when he lost control.

Screen Shot 2020 06 18 at 10.28.48 AM

In response, Nixon gave a speech on TV when he said the people who aren't protesting are the “great silent majority” of the country."

That is very emblematic of the law and order appeal—the idea that those protesting were not quite American.  

He was very good at manipulating base emotions, and people’s fear centers, especially on TV. But, the thing is, all of his addresses, both while campaigning and while governmening, remained quite coded. He never sounded uncivil. He never sounded explicitly racist. It used to be the tradition that when you wanted nasty things said, you said them through a surrogate, often a vice president. His VP, Agnew went around the country and gave a series of speeches in which he blamed everything that was going wrong on the liberal media, or on the unelected elitists. 

Between Nixon, Reagan and Trump, there are more moderate republican politicians like Bush, Romney and McCain.

Fascinating transitional figures who navigate the politics of respectability very differently.

With conservatives prior to Donald Trump, there was this sense that lip service must be paid to the values of a liberal tolerant society. The searing lesson of World War II and the Holocaust, was that opening up Pandora's box through demagogic politics could lead to absolutely terrible, uncontrollable consequences. There is intense power to be derived by playing to the base instincts of the electorate, the darkest fear centers of people's minds, and the history of Republican conservatism is full of fascinating examples of this awareness. 

When the first urban race riots broke out in  the summer of 1964, right after the Republican convention, Barry Goldwater went to the White House and made a pact with Lyndon Johnson to not exploit the race riots for political gain. George W. Bush, for all the reactionary parts to his administration, also built a hard and fast wall against anti-Islamic sentiment. He would always say that Islam is a religion of peace. He was not constantly talking about the terror of “Sharia Law.” 

But then, Donald Trump goes down the escalator and says, “Mexico is sending its rapists.” And suddenly we are playing a different game. Immediately afterwards, white supremacists are saying, we have one of our own running for president for the first time.

You see this calculation from Republicans: maybe we didn't have to maintain this firewall. All we need to do is discredit the people who call the fouls. 

After Romney lost in 2012, Republicans – led by Reince Priebus, did an autopsy of sorts and concluded that the party needed to broaden – but the opposite happened. 

Right. Republican electioneering becomes even more savage than it used to be. They have to squeeze out victories with smaller and smaller popular votes. They embraced systematic disenfranchisement, which has been going on since the 1960s, even more. That is when the pretending begins to disappear. They begin to let the demagogic wall fall.

A lot of conservative ire is pointed at liberal media institutions. How do you think a moment like this is effectively covered? Is there a boundary to the “both sides” argument? The Tom Cotton piece in the New York Times feels like a good example of this.

This is the paradox. Pieces like that are done in the name of respecting conservatism, to show conservatives that they're heard, that their way of seeing the world is included. That, in itself, is a liberal value. In a lot of ways, conservative reactionary traditions revile pluralism. If you really respected the way conservatives saw the world, you wouldn't show your weakness by surrendering to them. No matter how much NPR or the New York Times bends over backwards to give so-called fair representation to conservatives, if there's a fascist takeover in America, they are still the first people who are going to be lined up against the wall and shot.

Liberals don't get that scientific procedural neutrality is not a universal value. Conservatives see civilization itself under threat, and the very values that we see as universal — pluralism, tolerance — are often weaponized by conservatives in order to undermine the political power of liberalism.

So, what now? Where do you think we go? 

This seems to be the long-awaited inflection point. Mattis is signaling to generals to not to follow illegal orders. Across all towns in America, there are protests in response to the murder of George Floyd. There was an old slogan, in 1930s Weimar Germany, "socialism or barbarism." We seem to be on a razor's edge between falling into the abyss or saving our republic.

Where you think we are going depends on the person. I tend to be an optimist. I look at how cataclysms like the Depression created the modern American state, and World War II created the international order that has served the world. I see a possibility that this crisis could lead to some redemptive things. 

Certainly this crisis is teaching us that a society that subscribes only to the marketplace, and leaves the technology of life and death to the company that makes the most profit, is absolutely at sea when it comes to an existential crisis. Hopefully at least that lesson takes.