We Still Live in Nixonland: The Nation

“Nixonland” – that’s Rick Perlstein’s term for the political world where candidates win power by mobilizing people’s resentments, anxieties and anger, where politics destroys is victims. Perlstein’s new book is Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

Jon Wiener: Do we still live in Nixonland?

Rick Perlstein: Yes we do. I don’t mean that the political anxieties and passions today are as great as they were in the late sixties. But the way Richard Nixon used the sixties to define the ideological contours of American politics is still with us. On right wing radio today, they keep talking about how snobby and elitist the liberals are — just like Richard Nixon did.

You are suggesting there was a time when the Republican Party did not win power by mobilizing resentment and anger.

In 1960, there was a strange creature called the Liberal Republican. When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1960, his platform wasn’t all that different from Kennedy’s.

A key turning point in the history of Nixonland is the invention of the “hardhat” as a political figure, which coincided with the rise of the flag as a partisan political symbol. We can identify that moment precisely: the riots on Wall Street following the Kent State killings in 1970.

On May 8, 1970, anti-war students rallied at the statue of George Washington in Lower Manhattan to protest the war and the Kent State Killings. Then 200 construction workers from the area marched in on their lunch break, wearing hard hats and carrying the American flags that topped off building sites. They complained to the cops that flags were not flying at Federal Hall. The reason in fact was that it was a drizzly day and the flag is not allowed to be flown in the rain. But they decided that the kids had taken down the flag, and started beating the protesters. Crowds of people from Wall Street cheered them on.
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