Q&A: Historian Rick Perlstein on media ‘bothsidesism,’ and why 2020 definitely isn’t 1968

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.”

Nixonland, which came out in 2008, was not Perlstein’s first book about the history of American conservatism. He’d already published Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater and sixties conservatism, and has since written two more books: The Invisible Bridge (2015), exploring the period between Watergate and Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1976, and Reaganland, which came out this summer, weighs in at 914 pages (plus notes), and focuses on the growth of the conservative movement during the presidency of the Democrat Jimmy Carter, who lost to Reagan in 1980.

I read The Invisible Bridge in 2017, shortly before I started working for CJR, and was struck that, while the news media was not explicitly the subject of the book, it lurked beneath the surface—a key factor in structuring the politics of the seventies, much as it has been a key factor in structuring the politics of the Trump era. I recently read Reaganland, and had a similar reaction. Problems with media framing that I write about regularly in CJR’s newsletter, The Media Today—false equivalency, sensationalization, the obsession with optics—are all present in coverage that Perlstein references, from TV segments about the Iran hostage crisis to an overhyped scandal involving Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy Carter. Perlstein’s present-day media criticism, indeed, finds clear echo in his pages.

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.

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I think the fact that these same patterns repeat themselves is built into the structure of how American campaign coverage and political coverage works, and it’s hard to be recognized as doing your job as a political reporter without reproducing some of these patterns.

 

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.

 

You say that ideological assumptions shape the role of the media. How do you identify those?

I think it’s an ideology of consensus: that Americans are united and fundamentally at peace with themselves, and that it’s [journalists’] job to elide the structural tensions that are kind of built into the American project. That’s how you rise to the empyrean heights. That’s how you become host of Meet the Press, as opposed to a beat reporter in Cleveland: your success in telling a story about conflict in America being epiphenomenal. 

When it comes to political media, there are themes that are more or less related to that. In the beginning of Reaganland, I talk a lot about how the coverage of the 1976 presidential election introduced a new kind of triviality, and elevated pseudo-scandals to exaggerated force as an entailment of the experience of Watergate. Then, in the last few chapters of Reaganland, I work out an even bigger theme, which is the broader dynamic of “bothsidesism,” and, I think more than anywhere else in any other of my books, talk about what happens when the media internalizes the right-wing’s critique that it’s structured by liberal bias. It’s there in the other books: I talk about how the Washington Post, whenever they did a Watergate story in 1972, would elevate some trivial supposed sin of the [George] McGovern campaign onto the front page, too. But it really, in my work, reaches its apotheosis with the coverage of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

 

Media framing errors depicted in Reaganland resonated with me as being similar to ones we see today, including bothsidesism. Do you think the mainstream political press is doomed to repeat these same mistakes over and over? 

I wouldn’t say “doomed,” because I’d like to be part of the solution, not just someone recording this stuff for the record. But I think the fact that these same patterns repeat themselves is built into the structure of how American campaign coverage and political coverage works, and it’s hard to be recognized as doing your job as a political reporter without reproducing some of these patterns. And I think that the media needs to be much more self-critical and self-aware about how this stuff works. Unfortunately, I don’t see any signs of this happening. 

Part of the pattern is that the right wing weaponizes these instincts in the media for its own advantage. One way to do it is to introduce scandals into the public record that then have to be covered because they’re being talked about. As we speak, an extremely dubiously-sourced “scandal” involving Hunter Biden and his computer was retweeted by Maggie Haberman [a reporter at the Times], in the same way that extremely dubiously-sourced claims about Billy Carter—the scandal of him taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Libyan government—was tied to the Jimmy Carter White House, without any evidence, by Republican operatives. That became a dominant keynote of the New York Times coverage of Jimmy Carter in 1980—even as a much more salient scandal involving Reagan’s national security adviser, Richard Allen, didn’t get nearly the coverage. 

That kind of asymmetry is part of the pattern we’re talking about. One of the most important watersheds in it is in the media’s response to being blamed for the violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, in 1968, which caused this dark night of soul-searching—that the media, being based in the North East and in these liberal institutions and educational institutions, somehow was alienated from conservative Middle America.

 

It makes more sense to think of history in terms of process than parallels. What happens in the past conditions what happens in the present, it doesn’t somehow follow these sorts of flat-circle eternal returns, or waves, or cycles.

 

This year has been compared often to 1968 in media coverage. My lazy assumption for a long time has been that the more you can root journalism in historical context, the better. But you have a slightly different perspective. What do you think the limits of that approach are at a time like this?

I think that, quite frequently, journalism in the present that pretends to root itself in historical insights is just another way of reproducing clichés. Nineteen-sixty-eight is a great example: for some reason—maybe it’s just the sheer melodrama of it—it looms large in every discussion of the 2020 presidential race, as a year in which profound civil discord resulted in a Republican winning by making an argument about Democratic and liberal responsibility for that civil discord. Okay. But what about 1963-1964, which was another period of profound civil discord, in which the electorate reacted by giving the liberal Democrat [President Lyndon B. Johnson] a landslide victory? 

The formulation I’ve been asking journalists to consider is that it makes more sense to think of history in terms of process than parallels. What happens in the past conditions what happens in the present, it doesn’t somehow follow these sorts of flat-circle eternal returns, or waves, or cycles. Nineteen-sixty-eight has a lot more to do with conditioning the kind of clichéd questions we ask than the dynamic we’re seeing in the 2020 presidential election. So I called a moratorium, in my own media commentary, on answering questions about 1968, because it was only taking us further away from an understanding, and it was becoming an alibi for not reporting. People were just reverting to this supposed ironclad pattern, which was not in fact an ironclad pattern at all—and they were doing so almost at the request of Donald Trump. He was the one who started using Nixon tropes in describing what he was trying to accomplish in the 2020 election. So history is great, but it has to be good history. It has to be smart history.

Almost every day, I get some request to say, How does this debate that we’re having compare to the debates between Reagan and Carter in 1980, and Reagan and [Walter] Mondale in 1984? Well, maybe instead we should be thinking about how this election is unlike any other election because its most important variable might be the fact that the incumbent president doesn’t see it as an election but as an attempt to retain power by any means necessary. Popular votes and electoral votes might be like, fourth or fifth down the list of things we should be thinking about.

 

There’s been some great reporting on the threat to the election, but a disconnect whereby that reporting isn’t really paired with the horserace coverage, much of which is treating this as a normal election.

Yeah. Who’s gonna win the horserace if someone bombs the track?

 

You write in your books about key organizational drivers of right-wing politics in the period you study, including the religious right and the big-business lobby. It looks familiar from a present-day point of view—but the absence of today’s right-wing media ecosystem, with Fox News at the center, looms large for me. Do you think that media ecosystem has changed the texture of right-wing movement politics since the seventies?

It really is a story of continuity and change. We’ve never had a twenty-four-hour news channel that seems to be exclusively devoted to advancing the fortunes of a particular presidential candidate and his ideology; we’ve never had this twenty-four-hour news environment dedicated to creating a bubble around reality that doesn’t correspond to facts. But we have had, say, a newspaper, like the Chicago Tribune, that, in the thirties and forties, could frequently resemble the kind of thing you see on Fox News. You had a discourse concerning liberal-democratic perfidy that sounds exactly like Fox News playing itself out quite frequently in the letters’ pages of ordinary newspapers. The kind of discourse we see on Fox News was always present in American politics.

 

In Reaganland, you have a description of the anti-gay-rights movement in the late seventies where they’re talking about saving the children…

It’s QAnon.

 

Exactly! My first thought was QAnon. These narratives are really persistent…

You’ve got to go back thousands of years for that one.

 

Is the internet just a new way of channeling those views that have always been around? Or is it shaping that conversation on the right and taking it in new directions? Or is it both?

Well I think that’s where you need to get quite specifically into technology and the question of the algorithm: that platforms were specifically designed in order to glue more eyeballs to their screen for longer periods of time, to privilege conflict over consensus, to privilege sensation over information. And it’s not just that this is available twenty-four hours and anyone can contribute to it, but that certain messages are privileged over other messages.

 

You write about right-wing letter-writing campaigns in the seventies that strike me as having a similar organizational function to a lot of what you see online today.

Well, the fascinating thing about the direct-mail campaigns of the 1970s that I write about is that they happened underneath the radar. The parallel there is the way the psychographically-targeted campaign messages in 2016 on Facebook existed under the radar. No one knew—until we did—that African-Americans were being bombarded with messages about Hillary Clinton once saying that Black youth were “superpredators.” Now, that strategy is certainly not new. So, similarities, differences; differences, similarities. This is why journalists should take history courses, read serious history—not just popular history but academic history. 

 

The way you write history—stitching together contemporaneous media coverage into a narrative—reminds me of the sensation of consuming news in the present for the newsletter that I write. Why do you write like that?

I think it’s because it’s how people experience the world. People do not experience the world with these neat divisions between politics and culture and economics and family relations and art. All these things are mixed up together in our lives, and each of them helps determine the other: Elvis’s role in creating a desegregated society; will.i.am’s role in electing Barack Obama; the role of the 2007-8 economic collapse in creating the conditions of alienation that made it possible for an anti-establishment candidate like Donald Trump to make sense.

 

And you think showing the reader the contemporaneous media coverage holds the key to understanding that? Does it bring that kind of… messiness to the fore?

Yeah. ‘Messiness’ is a good word. But the messiness has a shape. It’s not just a pile of randomness. All these things are determining the flow of the story—the story that we live.

 

What’s your advice to reporters covering the 2020 campaign in these final weeks, assuming that the really entrenched problems of campaign journalism aren’t going to change overnight?

My advice to reporters would be to not allow themselves to be manipulated: to study the history of how right-wing politicians have weaponized the anxieties of culturally-elite journalists in order to deliver more power to themselves. Revealing the strategies of the powerful without fear or favor is the highest calling of journalists. I know it’s hard: we all have lives and careers and bosses and readerships. But our highest duty has to always be to the truth. I think a certain kind of self-possession, a certain kind of self-respect vis-à-vis those who would use us for their own agendas, has to be the starting point and the ending point. 

 

It strikes me that a lot of the stuff I end up writing about in the newsletter these days involves the media stoking conflict—on debate nights, for example. I think a lot of journalists would say that conflict makes for a good story. You mentioned conflict being hardwired into social-media algorithms these days, too. Do you think there’s been a shift, from an ideology of consensus in the period you’ve been writing about to more of an ideology of conflict today?

No. There’s conflict that’s merely trivial: the horserace has conflict, but it’s not conflict of any particular consequence. Who wins the horserace obviously has consequence, but the conflicts about who is ahead in the rear stretch by a nose is not necessarily the most important thing for understanding how the race is shaping our reality. 

When I say that journalists fetishize consensus and avoid conflict, I mean the big questions that structure American life, which are very scary and more resemble the metaphor of what happens when you open Pandora’s Box than describing a horserace. That’s the kind of conflict we tend to avoid. What would happen if we talked frankly in our journalism about who benefits when Republicans win compared to who benefits when Democrats win? Or the extent to which America holds together because of a series of dirty bargains that disenfranchise and dispossess the vulnerable? Those are deep conflicts, not trivial conflicts, and I don’t think those are the kinds of thing you hear when you flip on a Sunday show, even if people are shouting at each other.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Rick Perlstein. Photo by Meg Handler.