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If we indulge in the prevailing metaphor of America being an ongoing TV show (“the writers’ room is really on one these days!” chuckles someone on Twitter as federal agents throw American citizens into unmarked vans), the Jimmy Carter administration often seems like a meandering and lethargic later season. In the popular imagination, Carter’s presidency conjures a hazy but overarching sense of dull incompetence: gas lines, stagflation, hostage crises, Billy Beer. The most famous speech of Carter’s presidency was probably his notorious and chronically misremembered “malaise” address of July 1979. (The speech was initially judged a success, and Carter never actually used the word.) The second-most famous is one Carter himself didn’t even give, namely Ted Kennedy’s address at the 1980 Democratic National Convention, delivered on the heels of Kennedy’s unsuccessful primary challenge of his party’s sitting president.
In November of that year, Carter became the first elected incumbent since Herbert Hoover to seek reelection and lose, falling in an electoral rout to union leader–turned–conservative dogmatist Ronald Reagan. The forces that swept Reagan into office—an uneasy coalition of neoconservatives, small-government tax revolters, and evangelical Christians dubbed the “New Right”—would transform American politics.
The Carter years, and Reagan’s place within them, are the subject of historian Rick Perlstein’s latest book, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976–1980. At more than 1,100 pages, Reaganland is the fourth and final volume of Perlstein’s massive, sweeping history of American conservatism in the postwar era, following Before the Storm, Nixonland, and 2014’s The Invisible Bridge, which tracked Reagan’s trajectory from the early 1970s up to his own unsuccessful primary challenge of Gerald Ford in 1976. Reaganland is terrific, a work whose characteristic insight and soaring ambition make it a fitting and resonant conclusion to Perlstein’s astounding achievement. I think most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, would agree that the effects of the Reagan Revolution are still with us and that in many senses Reaganland is still the place we all live.
A hallmark of Perlstein’s work is his blending of political and cultural history, often a tricky balance. Cultural historians (I am one) can sometimes exaggerate the relationship of cultural cause and political effect, while political historians occasionally rely on an overly narrow and deterministic conception of who and what constitutes the “political” sphere. Reaganland chronicles the various tribulations of the Carter presidency while also devoting time to other contemporary events that provide something like a sense of general “vibe.” These include the Son of Sam killings and the Jonestown massacre—inexplicable bursts of violence and death that heightened Americans’ feeling that they were living in a senseless and perilous world—as well as blockbuster films like Star Wars and Superman, triumphalist works that, in Perlstein’s telling, spoke to the same desire for the clear-cut, good-vs.-evil terms that Reagan offered voters.
This approach also works because it is, in many ways, the most honest way of telling the story of the New Right, a movement consolidated on cultural fronts as much as political ones. As Perlstein notes, one of the biggest challenges to Reagan’s rise to the presidency was that most Americans didn’t actually agree with his views on policy. Indeed, one of the most valuable stories that his books tell is how, in a mere 16-year span, American conservatism rose from the landslide 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater to Reagan’s decisive victory in 1980, even though Reagan touted many of the same policy beliefs that had led Goldwater to be dismissed as a crank both before and after his 1964 debacle.
It was on the 1964 campaign trail for Goldwater that Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, burst into national political prominence, delivering his famed “A Time for Choosing” address that now stands as one of the more significant American political speeches of the 20th century. In both The Invisible Bridge and now Reaganland, Perlstein follows Reagan’s dogged quest to remake political ideas born from right-wing fringes into mainstream Republican dogma. Throughout the 1970s, much of the political establishment, both Democrats and Republicans, saw Reagan as a batty if affable wingnut. There was his zealous devotion to supply-side economic theories, derided by his 1980 primary opponent (and future vice president) George H.W. Bush as “voodoo” economics. There was his lustily hawkish approach to foreign policy, including a wholesale rejection of the Cold War “détente” strategy crafted by noted dove Henry Kissinger. And of course there was his open disdain for government itself, an implicit rejection of the entire post–New Deal American social project.
But Reagan was also a brilliant politician. He had a performer’s grasp of character and humor as well as an instinctive sense of when to micromanage. Several times in the book, Perlstein reproduces Reagan’s own painstaking revisions to the work of his speechwriters, rewrites that often had little to do with content and everything to do with rhythm, cadence, rhetorical inflection. Even more than 40 years later, the folksy charm drips from the page. Reagan’s acting career is often referenced through middlebrow fare like Knute Rockne, All American and kitsch like Bedtime for Bonzo, but his longest-running role was as the host of General Electric Theater. He was a pitchman, and it was this skill that he most effectively put to use in his post-acting life.
Reagan the politician was always something of a mythic figure, in at least two senses of that term. The first was that he presented himself as a fulfiller of symbolic yearnings as much as political ones. He promised to be both a restorer and protector of an American “way of life,” one that, in his telling, was constantly imperiled. The second is that he lied, a lot. Some of these were big lies of enormous consequence, like the persistent demonization of poor Black women as “welfare queens” or his statement that “we did not—repeat—did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages.” Other lies were smaller and weirder. As the late Christopher Hitchens recounted in a scathing Slate appraisal after Reagan’s death in 2004, Reagan falsely claimed that the Russian language had no word for freedom and twice told Holocaust survivors that he had personally helped liberate concentration camps in World War II. He was fond of recalling that when he was growing up, America “didn’t even know it had a racial problem.” (The year Reagan turned 14, historians estimate the Ku Klux Klan had as many as 5 million members.) Reagan fabricated the world as he wanted to see it, in ways unprecedented at the time but which have become all too familiar in years since.
Perhaps the most significant development chronicled in Reaganland is the emergence of the so-called religious right, in which a socially conservative, theologically populist Christianity became deeply connected to the right wing of the Republican Party. As Perlstein reminds us, it was Jimmy Carter himself who ran as modern America’s first evangelical president and won enormous support from the evangelical community in the United States in the 1976 election. (This, perhaps even more than his Georgia background, may account for Carter being the last Democratic presidential candidate to dominate the South.) Under the growing influence of media-savvy megastar pastors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and activists like Anita Bryant, however, many evangelical voters quickly grew disillusioned with Carter, now seen as far too permissive on issues of abortion and gay rights.
But Reaganland also focuses on another battleground of evangelical politics in the 1970s: schools. In the aftermath of court-ordered integration, all-white private schools began popping up around the American South, colloquially known as “segregation academies.” In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled in Runyon v. McCrary that private schools were prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race and would lose tax-exempt status for doing so. Since many of the segregation academies identified themselves as “Christian” schools, this federal incursion could be spun as anti-Christian, playing into the same rhetoric of persecution that was so effectively deployed by Falwell and his ilk. It’s in the battle over schools that we see the fullest convergence of the new conservative ethos: the “meddlesome government” laments of Reagan meeting the culture war grievances of the Moral Majority, all fomented in the unreconstructed racism of the post–Jim Crow era.
As might be expected from its massive length, Reaganland occasionally sags, and like any kitchen-sink history, it inherently invites quibbles with points of emphasis and omission. Perlstein’s rapid-fire style of chronological narrative is riveting, like the world’s most exciting microfilm scroll, although it can occasionally blur the lines between correlation and causation. It’s not the best book in Perlstein’s series: That remains Nixonland, his masterful history of America in the 1960s examined through the uniquely turbulent career of Richard Nixon.
Nixon is also a truly fascinating main character, steeped in agony and irony and pathos. He may have been the most purely villainous president in American history, but as a subject, Nixon has depth. Reagan doesn’t, really. He was a conduit of pure ideology, a convincing simulation of humanity. He was everything that people hate about actors and everything that they love about them as well. If anything, Perlstein deserves credit for his ability to wring two huge and immensely readable books out of such a relatively uncompelling person.
About two-thirds of the way through Reaganland, a new character emerges on Perlstein’s scene, a brash young real estate tycoon with a knack for celebrity. Reading this book in 2020, the presidency of Donald Trump can’t help but loom over it, and the dots often connect themselves. Like Trump, Reagan came to politics from the world of entertainment, running on an explicit pledge to “Make America Great Again.” To his credit, Perlstein doesn’t lean too hard on the comparison, perhaps at the expense of selling some more books to Trump-obsessed liberals. Contrary to the cliché, history doesn’t actually repeat itself or follow a neat teleological trajectory, and so much has happened in the past four decades that trying to draw a direct line between Reagan and Trump is a fairly impossible task.
The similarities between the two are certainly there: the ease with mistruth, the weaponization of nostalgia, the constant framing of America as taken advantage of by the world. But there are also significant differences. For starters, Reagan was an ideologue, through and through. His lies were born of a desire to bend the world to his preferred view of it. While he was often caricatured by his critics as stupid, when it came to issues he cared about, Reagan could become so wonkishly long-winded that his aides had to urge him to dial it down. Trump, on the other hand, believes only in himself and thus lies purely out of self-interest. Trump is also a bully who publicly humiliates his opponents and whose meanness is central to his appeal, while Reagan would jiujitsu opponents so that it appeared that they were unreasonably ill-tempered. Perhaps the most famous moment of the 1980 presidential debates was Reagan’s “there you go again” quip after Carter pointed out that Reagan had campaigned against Medicare early in his career. Reagan claimed Carter was misrepresenting his position and, by implication, cruelly defaming him. Reagan was lying about this, too, but it didn’t matter.
It never seemed to. One of my earliest memories as a child growing up in the Boston area was going canvassing with my mother for Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, an election in which Reagan won every state except Minnesota. I remember my parents, who hated Reagan so much that to a little kid it was frankly a little distressing, being beside themselves that Reagan had managed to win even Massachusetts. How were people buying what this guy was selling? As someone whose first time voting was the 2000 presidential election, it’s a feeling I’ve become all too familiar with over the course of my own adulthood. Perlstein’s epic achievement of history has finally come to an end, and I hope that someday Reaganland will, too.
For more of Slate’s culture coverage, listen to writer-producer John Scott Dryden talk about the audio drama on Working.