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December 21, 2014

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Conservative rise: It came from the ’60s

The liberal historian Rick Perlstein has just published his second book on the rise of the conservative movement, and if he isn’t exactly like the fox guarding the henhouse, he’s the fox who’s been invited in, shown a plush sofa and bathed in effusive praise.

William F. Buckley called Rick Perlstein’s first book “engrossing” and referred to Perlstein as a “skilled writer with an eye for detail.” Given the subject of “Before the Storm” — Barry Goldwater’s insurgent 1964 campaign for the Republican nomination — it’s hard to imagine a more telling or important compliment.

Perlstein’s second book, “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” is winning similar praise on the right. A youngish historian, Perlstein has become a chronicler extraordinaire of modern conservatism, this time taking up Richard Nixon as the central figure of a long period of presidential electoral successes.

Nixon, Perlstein posits, understood the “inchoate longings” of the American public for law, order and some respect and decency for the little guy, or, in today’s parlance, “white working-class voters.”

Meanwhile, on his blog, Perlstein gives out a mock award called “The Big Con of the Week” to his favorite conservative charlatan, liar or thief, and he refers to the late Buckley’s brothers-in-arms as “E. Coli Conservatives,” blaming conservative policies for the latest mass food poisonings.

Are you experiencing cognitive dissonance?

In today’s political tribalism of red and blue, one would think the plaudits for Perlstein would place him at the Heritage Foundation or make him a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

So what is going on here?

The answer, Perlstein says, lies with Buckley himself. The pair developed a warm relationship at the end of Buckley’s life, and Perlstein said in an interview that the godfather of American conservatives is his model: rigorous intellectual inquiry, but with a point of view.

Liberals who came of age in the ’60s were long baffled by conservatism’s ascendency: They ignored it, mocked it and willfully misunderstood it, all while conservatives slowly built institutions, won elections and then took over the machinery of government.

Perlstein’s passion is seeing and understanding this development clearly, and “Nixonland,” which is part two of a trilogy, is another achievement in understanding and empathy, say those who know the movement.

“He has a warrior’s respect for the enemy,” said Ross Douthat, a conservative senior editor at The Atlantic who recently praised “Nixonland” in a review.

Like its predecessor, “Before the Storm,” “Nixonland” is part of an important revisioning of the 1960s, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. The history of the 1960s has always been told through the narrative lens of liberalism and civil rights, but now historians are seeing that the hidden power of the ’60s, for all the countercultural overtones, lies on the right.

That so many millions of conservatives would arise out of the 1960s will come as no surprise to readers of “Nixonland,” which offers immense historical detail, all gracefully woven together into a clear narrative. (Perlstein half-jokingly attributes his fluid writing to his hobby as a jazz pianist.)

When it comes to the archives, Perlstein is the historian’s equivalent of the gym rat, always the first one there and the last to leave. One of his insights is that America was living and perceiving the world through a mediated lens, and so he tries to understand the era, to feel it, see it and hear it, as it was by those who lived it. This means a lot of TV and popular magazine clippings.

In the archives, Perlstein finds astonishing things. Here, upon the death of Martin Luther King Jr., is an excerpt from an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune: “ ‘Yes, this nation and people need a day of mourning.’

“America should mourn, but not for King. They should mourn because ‘moral values are at their lowest levels since the decadence of Rome.’ ”

Perlstein describes in memorable detail a society coming apart at the seams, with crime rising astronomically, cities destroyed by rampant rioting, black nationalists arming themselves, kids taking over colleges and rooting for the enemy.

Then there was the whole tone of the liberal intelligentsia. Listen to the language of the Kerner Commission, which was created to investigate the causes of race riots: “What white Americans have never understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

True or not, the condescending lecture blaming white America for problems average people likely felt no connection to drove millions into the arms of the party of authority and law and order.

And Nixon was there to bring them into his loving embrace.

As Perlstein points out, there’s great irony here, as long-forgotten right-wing violence was also common during this period. Here, for instance, he describes a spontaneous riot of construction workers who mobbed a group of hippies in New York City: “The riot began. Workers singled out for beating boys with the longest hair. The weapons of choice were their orange and yellow hard hats.”

Nixon, Perlstein says, had a “subterranean political sense” and understood the potential power of backlash. He ordered the Labor Department to study the mood of the white working class.

Though it had been tried before, Perlstein writes, Nixon was the first to successfully exploit a devastating new narrative: the Democratic Party as enemy of the working man.

Perlstein says Nixon understood the anger and frustration of working-class people, the humiliation of being looked down upon by elitist, liberal betters. Why did Nixon understand this “deeply sedimented cultural narrative,” as Perlstein calls it? Because he’d faced it all his life.

In describing his dual roles — unbiased historian of the rise of conservatives, brutal lefty polemicist — Perlstein offers a hint of how interesting the political and intellectual dialogue might be if he could attract some mimics: “I’m riveted by the fact that there’s people who live among us but think differently than me, who live differently than me, who experience different things than me.”

The love affair may soon end, Douthat noted. “The closer he gets to the present, the more there’ll be to argue with. He likes conservatives more when they’re out of power.”

The preceding commentary originally appeared in Politico. The Sun and Politico are sharing content for the 2008 presidential campaign.

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