Perlstein charts Republican rise

The state of today’s conservative Republican base can be traced back to Richard Nixon, argued Rick Perlstein in his lecture entitled “Palinland: How the 1960s Influenced Conservative Republicans,” last Thursday. Perlstein is the writer of The Big Con, a blog about the shortcomings of conservative government, as well as the author of The New York Times bestseller Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
Throughout the talk, Perlstein discussed his book, which assesses the political and sociological events that occurred from 1964 to 1972 and drove Nixon to power. It was in the wake of these events, he said, that the conservative Republican base was invigorated and constructed in its current form.
Perlstein’s story began with Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory in the 1964 election, after which the pundits of the time proclaimed America to be a liberal nation. This notion persisted until Nixon won the presidency in 1972 with 60 percent of the popular vote.
“What I write about is what happened in between[these two elections] and why,” Perlstein said. “[My book] is about how Richard Nixon crafted a durable language that allowed Republicans to manipulate people’s fears and come to power.”
Perlstein also discussed the cover art of his book. “My publisher wanted Nixon on the cover. ‘Presidents sell books,’ he said. What I really wanted to have on the cover instead was this,” Perlstein said before unveiling a famous photograph of the anti-war activist Jerry Rubin protesting on the steps of Capitol Hill in 1969. It is the people like Rubin, the extreme left-wing social activists of the 60s and 70s, who Perlstein believes played a pivotal role in creating what he calls “the Nixonland.”
The beginnings of “Nixonland” and the Republican populist message began in 1952 after he delivered his famous “Checkers” speech in response to The New York Post’s accusations that Nixon had illegally obtained from donors a secret cash fund for his personal expenses, Perlstein said.
In his speech, Nixon denied such allegations, portraying himself as a man who still owed money to his parents and describing his wife as someone who “doesn’t have a mink coat” but rather “a respectable Republican cloth coat.” As the vice-presidential nominee at that time, Nixon solidified himself in the minds of conservatives as a man of character, and established the Republican Party’s identity as the party of the common man.
“Liberals now hated him. He hit them where it hurt,” Perlstein said. The new suburban class was able to sympathize and associate with Nixon, who began to create an image where the “rich snobs were really the liberals,” Perlstein said.
This image, coupled with the growing antipathy toward the “hippie” counterculture that emerged during the Vietnam War, tapped into many people’s fear of disorder and thus increased Nixon’s popularity.
“Many people think that Republicans win elections by scaring people,” Perlstein said. “However, I think that most American elections are won by scaring people.”
Despite the decades of social and political change that have occurred since the Nixon years, Perlstein believes that this same ideology – emphasis on populist ideals and rejection of youth counterculture – persists in Republican politics today, as seen in the campaigns of John McCain and Sarah Palin.
Perlstein pointed to McCain’s first campaign commercial, in which he accused Senator Hillary Clinton of funding a museum to commemorate the famous concerts at Woodstock.
In his second commercial, McCain talked about pursuing a different kind of love from “hippie love” that was advocated by so many youth in the 1970s: a love for one’s country.
“Why is this presidential election being contested on the Vietnam War?” Perlstein asked. The answer, he said, is that the Republican Party is attempting to use the same formula that brought it victory in past elections.
“Nixonland: this is where Palin’s and McCain’s constituency is,” Perlstein said. The Republican Party’s need to establish itself as the party of the people explains the surging popularity of “Joe the Plumber,” an archetype of the everyday man to whom Republicans hope to appeal, said Perlstein
Despite their best efforts, Republicans have been less successful in perpetuating the political tactics of Nixon. It is in response to “the idea that Barack Obama dresses like us and is like us” that “Republicans try to paint a picture of Obama as not like us at all,” Perlstein said.
The Democrats are successfully fighting back, according to Perlstein. “It seems to be working,” he said. “Obama is running against a campaign that ran commercials in much the same vein as Nixon.”
To conclude his talk, Perlstein asserted that the values espoused by Nixon are still prevalent. “How did Nixonland end?” he asked. “It has not ended yet.”