Five books to understand U.S. unrest
Today's era of bad feelings rhymes with the 60s and 70s
These are troubled times in America. Coup attempts, riots, mass protests, surging violent crime, institutional distrust, and the normalization of apocalyptic political talk. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t the first era of unrest we’ve experienced. And remembering the previous era can help give us insights about how to get out of the current one.
That era began in the mid-1960s, began to wane in the early 1970s, and petered out by the end of that decade. There’s no universally agreed-upon way to measure unrest, but here’s a useful graph from Peter Turchin’s dataset showing certain kinds of political violence:
By these measures, it looks like we’re headed past the peak of the 60s/70s (in fact, we almost certainly exceeded it in 2020). And Turchin’s data doesn’t even account for assassinations, coup attempts, or overall violent crime. But nevertheless, the 60s/70s is the most recent peak of unrest before the current one, and so it probably has some lessons to teach us.
That’s why around 2017 I started reading books about that era in American politics. Here are some reviews of the five that gave me the strongest sense that “this has all happened before”. Of course there’s no guarantee that anything will turn out the same as it did back then, so we should resist the temptation to be too confident in forecasts based on historical pattern-matching. But reading these books, and understanding that the basic forces and processes they describe are still at work in American politics, has made me feel like I understand our current era of unrest much more deeply.
1. “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America”, by Rick Perlstein
This is as authoritative a volume as you’re likely to find on the history of how the unrest of the 60s began, and how America reacted to it. Perlstein leaves no ambiguity about what touched off the unrest: It was the Watts Riot of August 1965. That event set the stage for the big explosions of rioting in the summer of 1967 and after MLK’s assassination in 1968, both of which saw over a hundred American cities burn.
But the riots didn’t cause the 60s. Instead, Perlstein’s tale makes it clear that the unrest resulted from the confluence of several interrelated trends:
Black anger over ghetto conditions in American cities, liberal politicians’ attempts to solve the problem, and rightist backlash against those solutions
Cultural liberalization, especially the sexual revolution, among the middle class
The Vietnam War and the protests against it
The parallels between then and now are striking and immediately apparent. The widespread hope that the Kennedy/Johnson administration heralded a new era of liberalism in America outpaced reality, much like hope that Obama heralded a post-racial era outpaced reality — even though LBJ pushed through more substantive liberal policy than anyone except FDR, there was just no way even the famed “master of the Senate” could keep up with the wild expectations of the early 60s. And those dashed expectations turned to anger — anger over Vietnam, anger at the police, anger over ghetto conditions, anger at the dominant culture. Much as in the 2010s, dashed liberal expectations turned to anger in the form of BLM protests and riots. 2014 was our 1965, and 2020 was our 1968.
And what’s even more striking is how much the conservative reaction to 1960s liberal rage resembled the Trump era. Conservatives rallied around a leader they felt was reactionary, who would clamp down on urban Black unrest and antiwar hippies alike. Especially striking are Perlstein’s anecdotes about how right-wing counter-protesters felt they were standing up for Nixon personally — similar to the protectiveness MAGA people developed around Trump. (The irony, of course, is that in many regards Nixon governed as a liberal president, creating the EPA and OSHA and proposing universal health care and basic income! The only real similarity with Trump was in his authoritarian, paranoid personality.)
Nixon is, of course, the narrative throughline of this book, but in many ways he was just a symbol for a broader reactionary outpouring that eventually became the conservative movement of the 70s and 80s. That counterrevolution, which Perlstein has made it his life’s work to study, was far more violent, passionate, and downright scary than people realize. Americans were rightfully aghast when they saw Nazi symbols displayed openly at Charlottesville, but few realize how common those same symbols were at right-wing demonstrations in the 60s. People know about the MLK assassination riots, but few today have heard of the Hard Hat Riot. The counterrevolution was not televised.
And of course the culture war that started in the 60s is still with us today. That’s the thesis of Nixonland — which makes it all the more remarkable that the book was published in 2008, before Obama was even elected or Trump was on anyone’s radar.
Anyway, if you read just one book to understand modern American politics and social divisions, this is the one.
2. “Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence”, by Bryan Burrough
This book doesn’t have the broad national scope of Nixonland — it’s not about all of American society, just one weird and wacky subculture. The subculture of leftist domestic terrorism.
One of the most commonly repeated and startling facts about the craziness of the late 60s and early 70s was that domestic terrorism became utterly normalized. Here’s a graph from the website War on the Rocks:
As you can see — and as Days of Rage chronicles — these terrorist attacks of the 70s didn’t really kill many people. Most were just people grabbing dynamite from quarries and blowing up bathrooms at night when buildings were empty. What’s crazy is how commonplace this behavior became, and how it became essentially normalized.
Days of Rage narrates the stories of many of the protagonists of this leftist terrorist movement — the largely ineffectual Weathermen (including Chesa Boudin’s parents and adoptive parents!), the cultish and insane Symbionese Liberation Army, the violent but futile Puerto Rican independence movement, the New York cop-killer group who broke off from the Black Panthers, and so on. Ultimately, their only real victory was to force the FBI to reform itself, after the FBI got caught using illegal tactics to try to hunt the (equally incompetent) terrorists down.
The most important lesson I took away from Days of Rage is that even as social unrest calms down, the crazy fringe becomes even more insane. It’s basically a process of evaporative cooling — as the normies walk away, the remaining revolutionaries are nuttier on average but fewer and fewer in number. That’s an important thing to remember as we watch ever-crazier events unfold on our screens over the next few years.
3. “Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968”, by Norman Mailer
This book is a chronicle of two political conventions in 1968 — the GOP convention that picked Nixon, and the Democratic convention that picked Hubert Humphrey. The former is a rather dullish portrait of a cheesy parade of 50s nostalgia and proto-Reaganite tropes, kept interesting only by Mailer’s incomparable writing talent. It’s the second convention where all the action happens.
The 1968 Democratic convention featured a moderate candidate (Hubert Humphrey) supported by the Democratic party establishment, who was challenged by an impromptu leftist insurgent candidate (Eugene McCarthy). McCarthy’s staunch opposition to the Vietnam War won him the adulation of a generation of angry lefty youth, but he failed to connect with older Democratic voters, and ultimately lost the primary. His young supporters, angry with this result, showed up at the Democratic convention in Chicago and protested loudly, prompting Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (a bastion of Democratic machine politics) to send in the cops to crack some hippie heads. Much of Mailer’s chronicle is a narration of this violence, and a meditation on the relationship between police and society.
If that story sounds familiar, well, it should. The Bernie revolt against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the jilted young Bernie supporters’ protest at the Democratic convention, were a (far more peaceful) echo of the McCarthy movement of 1968. The Democratic establishment didn’t crack heads this time, but the hippies failed nonetheless. And then the boring establishment Democrat went on to lose the general election against a popular reactionary.
4. “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72”, by Hunter S. Thompson
In some ways, this is the sequel to Miami and the Siege of Chicago. The same young hippies whose impromptu crusade fell short in 1968 got organized and came back in 1972 ready to seize the levers of power in the Democratic party. Eugene McCarthy refused to run again, so the progressives coalesced around another staunch antiwar politician, George McGovern. This time, instead of protesting, the hippies got organized. They learned the procedural rules that would allow them to run circles around the besieged establishment Dems, and at the convention they used this knowledge to grind out a primary victory. This is very similar to what Bernie and his movement attempted to do in 2020, but they failed to replicate McGovern’s popular appeal.
After triumphantly overcoming the Democratic establishment, McGovern went on to get his ass kicked by Nixon in one of the greatest landslides of all time (though Nixon was scared enough that he resorted to the criminal activity that eventually brought him down). The country was simply not buying what McGovern was selling. Though he was essentially an antiwar moderate, McGovern’s opponents painted him as the symbol of everything that conservatives didn’t like about the 60s — sex, drugs, riots, and so on. And it worked.
Hunter S. Thompson narrates all of this in his inimitable “gonzo” style. It’s impossible to tell where he’s inserted fabrications in order to make reality seem more like his own vision of essential truth (I’m especially suspicious of the part where Thompson essentially destroys the campaign of McGovern’s rival Ed Muskie by giving his press credentials to a drug-addled maniac who disrupts Muskie’s campaign train). But it doesn’t really matter. Thompson’s brief asides and short anecdotes paint the picture of a country that by 1972 was already becoming exhausted — by war, by racial conflict, by crime, by social change, by politics itself. Musing on why McGovern was crushed so soundly by Nixon, Thompson muses that perhaps America is simply a nation of racists and used car salesmen — a characterization eerily similar to the way many on the Left think of our society today. But really, the culprit was exhaustion.
5. “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan”, by Rick Perlstein
This is the sequel to Nixonland; where Nixonland roughly covered 1964-1972, The Invisible Bridge covers 1973-1976. It starts with Watergate, progresses through the bumbling missteps of the Ford administration, and ends with Ford’s narrow defeat of a right-wing insurgency by Ronald Reagan in the 1976 GOP primary.
There’s no throughline at all to this book — no coherent plot. Where Nixonland was a tight, coherent story about liberal rage and right-wing reaction, The Invisible Bridge is a chaotic, meandering tale of exhaustion, confusion, oddity and pointlessness. Which means it’s a book about the 70s. It’s a portrait of a grumpy, bitter country traumatized by social conflict but not yet ready to heal. And as such, it reminds me very much of 2021 and 2022.
Did you know that in 1976, there were two separate assassination attempts against President Gerald Ford in the space of three weeks, both by leftist radicals in northern California? I think I had heard that, but the bizarre reality of those episodes really stands out as the centerpiece of the book. Two wacky lefties tried to kill the President, one after another, and the country basically just shrugged and went on.
Anyway, as in Nixonland, the parallels to the modern day are not exact, but eerie nonetheless. Watergate feels a lot like the coup attempt of January 6, 2021 — an event that horrified people, and kept them glued to their screens for weeks, but where all the action ultimately remained confined to the ranks of the elite. The President being revealed as a crook — and then trying to cover up his criminality by claiming quasi-dictatorial powers, only to be rebuffed by resilient institutions — produced no riots, no mass wave of unrest, no repeat of 1968. Exhaustion had set in by 1973, and people were just kind of relieved to see Nixon go.
Reading this book, it’s possible to see the bumbling, nonthreatening Ford administration as the beginning of a sort of healing process. With a friendly old man in the White House, people could finally afford to tune out politics a little. The lefty radicals were still doing their thing, but they were getting fewer in number and their increasing extremism was turning off more and more Americans. Liberal Dems cruised to a huge midterm victory in 1974 off of Watergate backlash, but managed few legislative victories and ultimately saw their moment pass. Meanwhile, the angry White backlash that had powered Nixon to victory was also losing some of its energy, as White Americans fled the cities for burgeoning suburbs.
There was one group of Americans, however, who felt no exhaustion, and whose activism was just getting started — social conservatives. They wove together a slow-building backlash against libertine sex culture with the remnants of racial resentment, and turned it against abortion and gays. This story really reaches its apotheosis in Perlstein’s next book, Reaganland, but you can see it get its start in The Invisible Bridge. And the Reagan of this book is far from the cuddly, pro-immigration Reagan of the 80s — he’s seen as a genuinely dangerous right-wing radical.
The Invisible Bridge doesn’t tell a coherent story, but it teaches some important lessons about American politics. It suggests that episodes of lefty rage — where progressives expect a better world, don’t get it, and resolve to tear everything down — burn bright and hot but burn out fast. It was only 11 years from the Watts riots to Squeaky Fromme. Meanwhile, conservative America is slower to rouse, but has the stamina to secure gains when everyone else is exhausted.
The America of the 2020s is not the America of the 1970s; much will be different this time around. But many of the fundamental processes at work in that era are still at work today, and understanding them can help shine light on the stuff we see in the news.