The future of America is up to us, and we’ve got work to do, according to historian and Wisconsin native Rick Perlstein.
Perlstein has written several bestselling books chronicling of the rise of the American right. He was granted the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for his first book, “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.” Having grown up in the Milwaukee area’s North Shore, Perlstein now lives in Chicago.
Responding to darkness with hard work
“One of themes of this work I’ve been doing, which I’ve been working on pretty much since 1997, is that America can be sort of a darker and frenzied and more violent place than we tend to give it credit for … we can go to some pretty frenzied, awful places,” he said in an interview with the Chronicle. “The America of the Civil War era looks a lot more familiar to us now than it did when most of us were growing up.”
He said that we are now in one of those dark and frenzied times.
“I like to say it’s up to us. We’re all citizens,” he said. “We have to be alive and open to a lot of different possibilities.”
He said he often gets asked in interviews to “tell me something hopeful.” His response is that “we have some hard work ahead of us.”
Chronicler of the rise of the right
Perlstein’s most recent bestseller, “Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980,” is a political and social history of the ascending right in the late 1970s. Other prior works also chronicle the rise of the right, including “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
“I was very fortunate when I chose this subject when I was 27 years old, 28 years old, I just kind of conceived of a history of the rise of the right in America since the late 1950s,” he said. “It turned out to have enormous resonance with people who were trying to understand what was going on in America in the period when I was writing and publishing it. It gave people instruction, comfort for making sense of people like Newt Gingrich, George E. Bush and then Donald Trump.”
For Perlstein and his readers, those figures, that history, it’s all a road map to the present. Yet he concedes, “I did not know I was writing a road map for the people of the future.”
Surprised by Trump? Yes and no
Today, Perlstein remembers seeing in person the area where Trump, as a candidate, famously rode down an escalator to announce he was running for president. Perlstein was a teenager, visiting New York from the Milwaukee area, looking with his family at the inside of a new, impressive building.
Perlstein said that in the months before the 2016 election, he thought Trump would lose because he trusted the polls.
“I never thought he would lose because he was too extreme …. or his followers were too frenzied, because of the work I’ve been doing,” he said.
Thus, when asked if he was surprised by Trump’s success, his answer was, “yes and no.”
Memories of Milwaukee
Perlstein lives in Chicago and describes himself as a proud Midwesterner.
“I think that informs my values,” he said. “I try to not be so enticed by the glamor of the coasts.”
A couple years ago, Perlstein and other family visited his old home, near Maple Dale Elementary School on the North Shore of Milwaukee.
“It was just really, really lovely to see another Jewish family there,” he said. “Just to see that kind of continuity was very cool.”