Nixonland: How a book about Richard Nixon helps explains Donald Trump

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.

Sound familiar?

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Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential Ticket?

In July 1944, a little over a year before the end of WW2, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked tired and sick. Publicly, he was taking month-long rests under the guise of war planning. Privately, he was diagnosed with severe hypertension, heart disease, cardiac failure and acute bronchitis.

The stress of leading a nation at war, rehabilitating a depressed economy and a two pack a day cigarette habit had turned his heart into a time bomb. It wasn’t a question of “if”, but “when” FDR would succumb to a major stroke. Most insiders knew in the upcoming election, a Democratic vote for President was really a vote for the Vice President. It was under these conditions that FDR made a decision that transformed the next fifty years of American history. He removed Vice President Henry Wallace from the Presidential ticket.

Prior to the rise of Bernie Sanders, Henry Wallace was the last true Progressive leader to wield national power. A scientist farmer, and capable administrator, Wallace revolutionized American farming as the Secretary of Agriculture. He spearheaded the New Deal’s most revolutionary and innovative programs, fought concentrations of power, and transformed the Federal Government into a leading incubator of scientific research. He spoke openly about the need to end racial segregation, the benefits of international cooperation, and the importance of economic development. When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing disease-resistant wheat–it’s estimated that the hybrid grain saved over 1 billion lives—he credited Wallace as his inspiration. He was also popular. At the time of FDR’s decision, a Gallop poll showed Wallace was overwhelming backed by Democratic voters. “Nationwide,” wrote biographers, John Culver and John Hyde, “Wallace’s support equaled the next three (Vice-Presidential) candidates’ combined.” The man who ultimately replaced him, Harry Truman, a generic Democratic Party loyalist, earned 2 percent.

The question is, why? Why did FDR drop Henry Wallace from the 1944 Presidential ticket? Why did FDR want Henry Wallace, the consummate New Dealer, with vast popularity, and support among key voting-blocs removed? It’s one of the greatest “what-ifs” in American history. Critics argue that Wallace’s sympathetic view towards the Soviet Union would have weakened American interests. Supporters argue he would have ended the Cold War before it started. I don’t think there will ever be a clear answer to this question, but I wanted to illuminate 8 key drivers.

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Book Review: The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen

I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s book about the invention of the steam engine, for two reasons, one of which was Bill Gates’ glowing recommendation. In his review, he raved about how Rosen was one of the first people to successfully argue that patent law had a large impact on innovation.

Since I am working on a project that looks at the impact of legal systems on innovation it only seemed natural. But I had a reservation. Not about the time period, I’d read a few books about the industrial revolution this year. It’s the simple fact that most books on innovation suck. They’re filled with bland platitudes and offer generic advice that is obvious to anyone with five years of business experience and a subscription to Harvard Business Review.

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Is Dwight Eisenhower Overrated, Underrated, or Properly Rated?

Eisenhower managed WW2, led an Ivy League University, became a beloved President, oversaw the rise of the American hegemony; all while carrying on an affair. Most historians rank him as one of the top 15 Presidents of all time, but the question remains: Is he Underrated, Overrated, or Properly Rated?

Childhood

David Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas to pacifist Jehovah Witnesses, but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. Abilene is one of those towns that got its first paved street four years before WW1. I’d imagine today they have numerous DVD stores. His family was poor and his college prospects looked grim, but he was lucky enough to be represented by one of a handful of Senators who gave appointments to Military Schools on merit, not political connections. For basically every other state but Kansas, admission to the US Military schools operated like a aristocracy. At nineteen he forged his birth certificate and got an appointment to West Point.

Verdict: UNDERRATED

Time at WestPoint

Eisenhower was an average student, totally laudable. He graduated 61/164, which is less impressive when you realize West Point wasn’t what it is today. “How long are we going to continue preparing for the War of 1812?” General MacArthur asked when he assumed control of the school in 1919. What’s strange about Eisenhower’s college experience is how much of it seemingly revolved around sports. Nearly every biography makes a passing reference to his love for football and baseball. The thing is, he was terrible at them. He was one of those average players who made up for their athletic limitations with grit and intelligence. He couldn’t even make the Varsity team. Basically, the media’s perception of every white WR in NFL history.

Verdict: OVERRATED

Writer

Today, books by politicians are essentially 250 page-marketing campaigns. There’s really little of actual substance. They are just pages of pages of homespun tales vetted by publicists about their America. If the writer is Republican they use a title like Unintimidated or No Apology, which last I checked were previously reserved for movies staring Sylvester Stallone. If the writer is a Democrat they’ll use titles ripped from the self-help aisle like Know Your Power and The Audacity of Hope. For his first publication Ike went with A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe—and then wrote 282 pages on the specific battle strategies used by the American military in WW1.

Verdict: UNDERRATED

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