IN LATE AUGUST, Sam Dolnick, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times, tweeted a link to an episode of The Daily, his paper’s flagship podcast, about President Trump’s “law and order” messaging, the suburban vote, and the supposed parallel of the 2020 election and Richard Nixon’s victory, in 1968, unfolding against backdrops of social unrest. To “complement” the episode, Dolnick recommended that listeners also read Nixonland by Rick Perlstein, a prominent historian of the conservative movement. “I am reading [it] now,” Dolnick wrote, “and highlighting every page.”
The next day, Perlstein published an op-ed, also in the Times. He noted that a “parade of reporters, podcasters, and editors” had recently asked him about the 1968/2020 parallel. The two years, Perlstein told them, aren’t very similar at all: the dynamics of this summer’s protests were very different to those at play in 1968. After giving a number of interviews along the same lines, Perlstein reached what he described as “an unusual conclusion” for a historian: that “it was time to stop talking about history,” because “it was only taking us further from understanding the present.” He began declining further media requests.
Perlstein shared a link to his op-ed in a reply to Dolnick’s tweet. “Stop reading Nixonland,” Perlstein wrote, “and start assigning reporters to explain what’s happening now, because we don’t yet have any idea.”
I recently spoke with Perlstein over Zoom to get his thoughts on the media themes in his books, campaign coverage past and present, and 1968. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I told you of my sense that there are a lot of media stories running below the surface in your books, you replied that I’d put my finger on a key theme. What do you mean by that?
The secret is I’ve really produced a three-thousand-page exercise in media criticism, with some politics thrown in for good measure. I think that if we listed a catalogue of important variables for how American political culture got to be the way it is now, the media—as an institution that contains within it certain implicit ideological assumptions, certain routines and practices—has done a lot more than historians generally appreciate to shape our own political world. I don’t often talk explicitly about that, but it’s a thread that ties together the entire story. It starts, really, with the political media—which I summarize under the figure of the pundit—declaring conservatism a dead letter in American politics, and works through the irony of this supposed corpse arising from the dead again and again, and being declared dead again and again. And yet the media still repeated this ritual of pronouncing America a center-left country.
One of the reasons I think my books have resonated so much with people trying to understand contemporary politics is the way this keeps on happening in the present. The civil war between progress and reaction in American politics always being dead and buried happens over and over again, generally whenever a liberal wins. And that’s a story about the political media, fundamentally.