In recent months, the media have pointed to certain political moments and figures to explain the rise of Donald Trump -- sometimes as a sign that history repeats itself, and other times as a sign that the current moment is truly unprecedented. Historian Rick Perlstein, author of several books on American political history and a frequent guest on news shows in the last year, argues in a recent piece in The Baffler that historical parallels are often drawn in a way that does a disservice to the complexity of history. He talks to Bob about how the media and its consumers can think about history in a more nuanced way, without rendering the present either "just like" the past or wholly unique.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thanksgiving is a time we set aside to remember and acknowledge the good in our lives. Let's face it, acknowledgment is harder in some years than others, but remembering is always hard. That's why we're devoting this hour to the quirks and quiddities of memory, especially historical memory.
BOB GARFIELD: One thing we've been told about Donald Trump's rise to power is that it is an unprecedented event in American political history. Another thing we’ve been told relentlessly is that we’re just reliving a previous fraught and damaging historical episode.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: And like Nixon, Trump is evoking this image of, you know, I’m going to be the law and order candidate.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Sort of like Goldwater in 1964.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Is George Wallace a good template?
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, I mean, Wallace is the best comparison, in my mind…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Also, Donald Trump isn’t the first celebrity to become president. Questions surrounded Ronald Reagan, too.
BOB GARFIELD: If only we can understand the past, we can avoid its mistakes, or, at least chastise ourselves for being so blind. And the reluctant star of that narrative is author Rick Perlstein, chronicler of the Nixon times, the Goldwater times, the Reagan times and other conflict-filled ideological struggles of the 20th century. In recent months, he's been to TV bookers a sort of “Rosetta Stone” of understanding.
MALE HOST: Joining me now, from Chicago, is Rick Perlstein.
FEMALE HOST: We’ll speak with Rick Perlstein.
MALE HOST: Our guest is Rick Perlstein.
MALE HOST: Rick Perlstein, thanks for joining us tonight. We’ll be right back…
BOB GARFIELD: The thing is, Perlstein himself rejects the premise. Nothing of the Trump phenomenon, he says, is an exact replay of the past and, equally, the supposedly unprecedented political moment has many precursors. Rick, welcome back to OTM.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Hi, Bob, great to be here again.
BOB GARFIELD: So you wrote a piece for The Baffler citing chapter and verse and [LAUGHS] naming names about your growing status as oracle of the Trump age. And I'm sure it was very flattering, all of it, but you're having none of it. Well, I'm glad to dive into the deep end and try and do what I can to make sense of what's happening in this very fraught civic moment. What I do reject is the idea that history can provide any easy answers. And, unfortunately, within the media easy answers are the coin of the realm. So I find myself a little bit at loggerheads.
BOB GARFIELD: As you go through the moments in history that you’ve written about, which ones are most often selected by cable [LAUGHS] TV bookers as the ones that supposedly best predict our current circumstances? Is it Nixon, is it Reagan, is it the John Birch Society? What is it?
RICK PERLSTEIN: Oh, all of the above. [LAUGHS] That’s the striking thing. Someone will show up in social media and say, oh my God, Rick Perlstein's book on Nixon explains us exactly and then the next person will say it with equal confidence that Rick Perlstein's book on Reagan explains it perfectly.
I think that the most popular parallel that folks have been reaching for is Richard Nixon's campaign in 1968. And, of course, there are parallels. You know, he talked about the silent majority. Trump picked that up quite self-consciously. He talked about law and order. Trump picked that up quite self-consciously. But, but by the same token, you know, one of my pieces in The New Republic was about how Richard Nixon's famous speech at the 1968 nominating convention, which Trump handlers specifically claimed as their model, was also a model of literary grace. It was also quite measured and it talked about what should be our humility in the face of history's challenges.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm obliged to ask you this because some people out there, some irresponsible voices, have been making careless comparisons to Weimar Germany. And one of those irresponsible pundits is me –
RICK PERLSTEIN: Uh-huh. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - [LAUGHS] because the explanations of Trump’s support, to me, absolutely paralleled the concerns of those who brought Hitler to power.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Yes, I absolutely think that Weimar Germany has to be part of the mix in which we try and understand this. A good example is, you know, The New York Times in 1922 said of Hitler, well, no one really takes this anti-Semitism stuff seriously. You know, so not taking a demagogue seriously, that's a definite parallel. You don’t have to say Trump is Hitler to believe in that.
But we also have to go to, say, a place like 1930s Texas, in which a guy named Pappy Daniels, you know, won the governorship by traveling around with a corn pone, you know, hillbilly country band and would offer the same kind of hyper-populist, lowest-common denominator stuff that Trump does now. The fact of the matter is Trump isn't Nixon, Trump isn’t Reagan, Trump isn’t George Wallace, Trump isn’t Pappy Daniels; Trump is all of these things. And understanding him is going to take the kind of work that we’re only beginning to embark upon.
BOB GARFIELD: If we can agree that nothing in the past is exactly a predictor of what is taking place now and that many things in the past are predictors of what [LAUGHS] we're experiencing now. How do we process history smartly to figure out how to deal with this and normalize this as just the latest expression of the people's will?
RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, we don't normalize it. [LAUGHS] I would be the last person to argue for that. But I think that there’s ground to my explanations of history which I think we really need to understand. One of the reasons we have a hard time understanding Trump is that American political culture, American media culture is very much grounded in a sense that America is a nation that's united and at peace with itself. We really, really want to believe that.
BOB GARFIELD: We all seem to have bought into Walter Lippmann's idea that democracy is, is almost perfected, we’re just working out a few remaining kinks.
RICK PERLSTEIN: But a more mature consideration of the broad sweep of American history, which, of course, was built upon papering over the fissure between slave states and free states, is that it's a much stranger, more violent, passionate, angry place then we give it credit for. I mean, whether it's the very violent nationwide railroad strikes in 1877 or the Dustbowl or almost a thousand college campuses going out on strike in 1970 or the kind of rage that exiles and refugees from Southeast Asia faced when they came to this country in 1975, or whether it's Oklahoma City, we always see these violent, passionate incidents and we always see them swept under the rug when it comes to this longing we have to believe that Americans can just come together and unite.
Ultimately, what I'm trying to do with my work and if I can make any contribution to this awesome, you know, awesome in the sense of terrifying moment that we’re living through, it’s that America is a messy place and we all have to kind of open ourselves up to the possibility that we don't understand before we can really begin to understand.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned in your piece that the tendency to imagine any particular political moment as unprecedented makes us ignore a lot of nasty stuff from the past and to idealize it in a dangerous way. You call it historical narcissism. Is that what's going on now or just some very scary clash of triumphalism and abject fear?
RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, what I said in the piece was that our historical narcissism indicts us. People were saying, oh my God, this is just like the scary riots in the 1960s, you know, the, the scary violence against police in the 1970s. And I came back with the point that my hometown of Chicago, in the riots after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, literally two entire miles of Madison Street were laid to waste. They were gone. In the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, one CVS was burned down. So this temptation we have to believe that we live in the most dramatic, unique, interesting times, it's not history; it's the opposite of history. We have to kind of attend to the particularity of each movement, but we also have to understand how each movement is determined by the past. I think we have a problem doing that when we think about biographies of people. We understand that each person is unique, but we also understand that each person is influenced by their parents, and we don't say they're just like their parents, but we don't say that they're completely independent of their parents. We kind of balance the two. We have to do the same thing with history.
BOB GARFIELD: So here's the axiom: Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it. Is that even true?
RICK PERLSTEIN: No, not really. I don't think history repeats itself. But, you know, as a wise man once said, it rhymes. There’s always a good reason to understand history better but, once again, it's not to make the world simpler, it's to make the world richer and more complex.
BOB GARFIELD: Rick, thank you so much.
RICK PERLSTEIN: My pleasure.
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BOB GARFIELD: Rick Perlstein is a journalist, historian and author, most recently of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up next, how the modern-day marketing of the Blitz-era slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” trades on nostalgia to promote a very different approach to hard times.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.