The Invisible Bridge charts the rise of Reagan to the top of the Republican Party in 1976, overshadowing Gerald Ford’s nomination of that year. Comprising a cultural history of the mid-’70s, the Watergate Scandal, Ford’s presidency, and political-junkie detail, this book dovetails nicely with Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s second book. In fact, The Invisible Bridge simply takes up where Nixonland left off.
The “invisible bridge” refers to the survival – the changing of the guard – of conservative politics from the disgraced Nixon to smiling, metal-rowboat-dragged-across-gravel shallowness of Reagan. And it is fascinating. And necessary. Perlstein’s books are required reading if you want to understand contemporary American politics.
Reagan – his appeal, his outlook, his legacy – are extremely important. You can’t have Trump without Reagan. Think of it like this: our Presidents are a bit like Roman Emperors and their dynasties. While our Presidents are determined by birth, I think you can group them ideologically, akin to the dynasties of the ancients. For example: the Emperors Augustus and Tiberius preside over a very different situation than, say, the Emperor Diocletian, who stabilises the Empire, but only at the cost of orientalizing and splitting the Empire. I think similar groupings can be made with Presidents: Grant to Roosevelt, Wilson to Harding, FDR to Ford, and Reagan to Obama. Trump is a key transitional figure, akin to a Diocletian or a Lincoln (only in the sense of a major transitional, paradigm-shift kinda of way.
Reagan is critical because his presidency establishes the “neoliberal dynasty” if you will. You know: privatisation for privatisation’s sake, profit is freedom, any sort of regulation or government policy is un-American. It’s this ideology which caused the decline of the American middle class, the stripping away of our democracy and society in the name of ever-more profit. To understand this, we have to understand Reagan’s appeal.
And this is where Perlstein comes in: he is the absolute master at taking a given individual’s background and childhood and then applying these formative experiences into a prism for the reader to understand that person and his/her actions through. Reagan – never very bright (ask anyone) – was a natural actor; he played a Hollywood hero since he was ten years old. Perlstein paints the picture of a third child, son to an alcoholic who sold ladies shoes and a vivacious do-gooder who could fix anyone except her own husband. Psychologically speaking, little Reagan was becoming the “child that disappears” until he discovered adventure books, apparently The Jungle Book and the Horatio Alger stories.
Reagan chose to be the hero in his own story and lived it until the day he died. And it explains so much. Reagan was the president that really nailed down much of the conservative/tea party/GOP rhetoric that you hear; conservative radio and Fox News is properly speaking Reagan’s true legacy. Where Nixon relied on (class) resentment and dog whistle racism, Reagan’s message was one of folksy, innocent, anti-tax fantasy where there was clear and comforting Good Guys and clear Bad Guys. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, it’s really no wonder that filled a deep psychological need.
I could go on for ages about America’s “pilgrims,” my label for Americans who cannot fathom, for one reason or another (but primarily psychological and emotional factors) that the world is a messy, complicated place. They swallow conservative propaganda because they want to believe. They need to believe. It’s a craving for an innocence that we never really had.
One last remark: Reagan was a B-list actor until he was essentially groomed as a conservative pundit. Did the right-wing ideology fit his personality? Absolutely, yes. But we often forget “where the money comes from.” Every step in Reagan’s journey Hollywood pretty-boy to President is created by rich conservatives who step in with prodigious amounts of money or stupendous opportunities at the right moment.
These two messages – the essential shallowness of Reagan and his “message” and the role of rich men who choose to spend their wealth on politics is probably the most important take aways of this book.
Not as focused as Nixonland, it is still an excellent work in American political history.