The central thesis of Nixonland, a sprawling look at the origin, rise, and decline of the Nixon administration, is that there was simmering white resentment underneath the optimism and change of the Kennedy Administration. Hidden behind the civil rights movement was a mass of unhappy middle-class white people. Nixon wasn’t the first politician to exploit white rage, that honor would go to Ronald Reagan. Nixon merely copied it, perfected it, and fractured the nation into Nixonland. Richard Nixon, Ron Perlstein writes, “so brilliantly co-opted the liberals’ populism.” Re-directing well-meaning reforms, “into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticated, the wellborn, the “best circles” — all those who looked down their noses at “you and me”…that sneered imperiously at the simple faiths of ordinary folk, their simple patriotism, their simple pleasures.”
In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson won 61.05 percent of the popular vote on a platform of expanding FDR’s New Deal to non-white Americans. Its sole goal was to eradicate poverty and racial injustice. He coined it the “Great Society.” When lighting the national Christmas Tree, President Lyndon Johnson described it as “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Eight years later Richard Nixon won 60.67 percent of the vote on a platform of “Law and Order”; an ideological repudiation of the Great Society. Nixonland is fundamentally about this uniquely American transformation. How America went from believing civil rights law leveled the playing field to one that held it caused race riots. How it went from viewing welfare as help for the weakest to help for the laziest. How political dissent became tantamount to treason. Nixon was at the center of it all, weaponizing a white populace’s fears into an “us versus them” political revolution. “Far from becoming a great society,” Nixon wrote in Reader’s Digest leading up to his Presidential election, “ours is becoming a lawless society.” The underlying context was that only Richard Nixon, and people like him, could protect society from the hordes of others.