Historian Rick Perlstein has been writing about the rise of post-war American conservatism for two decades, chronicled across four books, Before the Storm (2001), Nixonland (2008), The Invisible Bridge (2014), and now Reaganland, released this week. The books are an epic examination of the political, societal, and cultural tides that have brought us to today’s political shores.
A compelling part of Perlstein’s storytelling is how he uses pop culture to explain and put into context the trends and shifts in popular politics. Like how in a 1976 episode of All in the Family, Archie Bunker predicted Ronald Reagan would one day be president. And how after almost a decade of gritty, artistic, and often morally ambiguous American filmmaking, what the emergence of the blockbuster era with Star Wars and Superman signaled for the future.
Fast Company spoke to Perlstein about the role pop culture plays in historical narrative, the movies and TV shows that helped usher in Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, and more.
Fast Company: While this is obviously a political history, you expertly weave in both pop-cultural context and references to help anchor that politics to what was happening in overall culture. In terms of navigating that pop culture, how do you decide, as a historian, what merits a mention in the narrative?
Rick Perlstein: What I’m trying to do is capture the experience of what it was like to live in those times. So whether it’s political media or popular media, it’s basically the stuff an ordinary American would be absorbing as these events were happening. Popularity is important but it’s not just a plebiscite. I’m not running down the top-10 movies or albums; there also has to be some sense of importance. It has to make an impression on someone. Captain & Tennille, this kind of garden-variety soft rock, doesn’t likely do too much to shift someone’s consciousness of how the world works.
FC: Speaking of that, you have an entire chapter called “Superman.” You also talk about how the moral clarity and hero stories in movies like Star Wars and Rocky helped lay at least a cultural foundation in the late 1970s for the kind of America Ronald Reagan was selling in the 1980 presidential election. Was this just a matter of the zeitgeist syncing up with the political culture? Or did culture drive us toward the embrace of a political superman in Reagan who offered the hero’s narrative, both for himself and America?
RP: That’s one of the biggest debates in social theory, right? Steve Bannon had this riff that politics was downstream of culture, so you work on changing the culture first. But it’s definitely a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. My evidence seems to suggest that Ronald Reagan lost in 1976, won in 1980, [but] people were voting with their eyeballs for a Reagan-like narrative long before they were willing to vote for Reagan or a Reagan-like candidate.
FC: [Superman director] Richard Donner wasn’t a right-wing filmmaker, but as you write, he did talk about respecting the conservative attitudes Superman stood for—truth, justice, and the American way.
RP: Rocky winning the Oscars in 1977, Star Wars was the biggest movie ever, and Superman in 1978 was one of that year’s biggest hits. You can see the striking contrast between them and some of the other movies getting the most attention immediately prior to that. Movies like The Last Tango in Paris, which not only were artistic accomplishments but actually did really well popularly. A movie like Taxi Driver (1976) is a perfect example—very adult themes—whereas in the case of Star Wars, George Lucas was clear that he was making a kids movie, with black-and-white morality. He brags about it.
That shows up on my radar because it says something about the formation of popular consciousness, political consciousness, what kind of longing is informing the subliminal minds of the people whom politics are appealing, and we have to make our common life together politically.
What’s going on in Superman is this idea that we’re going to be delivered from, to use a metaphor I used for my first book, the time before the storm. So movies, whether they’re a kind of bucolic, good-versus-evil idyll or an apocalyptic narrative in which evil is redeemed, they’re basically telling the same story: This terrible thing happened, but we can find comfort in a more innocent path. And you can’t miss the Reagan connection in that sort of stuff.
The big theme of [Perlstein’s third book], The Invisible Bridge, is basically how we were becoming more adult as a nation and more comfortable with moral ambiguity, more comfortable with the United States as one nation among other nations with its own flaws, a nation that needed to reckon with Nixon, Vietnam, and Watergate—and then Reagan kind of comes along and absolves people from that responsibility.
FC: Beyond his overall message, what role did Reagan himself as a pop cultural figure play?
RP: The media never hesitated to mention all the silly movies Reagan was in—like, how can a guy who is in these silly movies earn the respect and trust of the electorate? [But] far more influential than any movie he ever did was the TV show he did, GE Theater. It was an anthology show, it could be a Western or a police procedural, but it always had this sentimental narrative that kind of wraps things up. And 15 minutes in, there were these five-minute commercials, and [Reagan] would show up in his nice suit, this avuncular guy, and he would introduce the show. His persona was this comfortable, trustworthy figure.
There’s a book by Timothy Raphael called The President Electric, where he writes about one type of commercial that was shot as the Reagan family at home, inside the home GE bought for him, and it’s been called TV’s first reality show. He was like the father on Leave It To Beaver, the patriarch of this family, promising plenty, all the values of the American century. This is almost a parallel to The Apprentice, where this guy, using the fast tracks of television, has a character being written for him by TV writers, just like Donald Trump had a character created for him out of very selective editing.
So Reagan had his own image, and that’s what brought him into politics much more than anyone remembering what movies he was in. He was the guy who was going to protect your own bucolic, family suburban home. That’s how he ran [for governor of California] in 1966, and it’s how he ran in 1980.
FC: What pieces of today’s pop culture do you think a historian like yourself will gravitate toward in writing about this era decades from now?
RP: In politics, you never know what cultural document we’ll look back on and say, wow that really heralded this profound shift. Look at Michael Douglas in Falling Down (1993), this movie about an exasperated white male martyr. People probably thought it was pretty ridiculous at the time, but it looks pretty prescient now.
Or look at the Will.I.Am video for Barack Obama, and this narrative of this guy who’s going to bring us all together. You could write a book like this about Obama that would center around this idea that people were longing for this kind of false grace of unity that can’t really be achieved through the means that Obama claimed to be able to achieve them. You look at pop culture and it’s that reconciliation narrative. It’s always deeper when the narrative isn’t obvious in an agitprop way but works as a metaphor.
Open letter to press: I've given my last interview about the '68 election's lessons for 2020's. Given Trump's tweet on postponing it, the political media's determination to bound its discussion within the frame of normal politics is downright dangerous, and I won't be complicit.
— Rick Perlstein (@rickperlstein) July 30, 2020
All my friends are talking about, and we’re watching, A French Village, which is a series from France on Hulu. It was a huge sensation in France about the Nazi occupation. We’re all thinking about resistance. I used to tweet about how I don’t want to do interviews about 1968 anymore; I said I won’t be complicit. Complicity is really huge, you know, so that’s certainly an example of popular culture that speaks to the kind of political energies that we’re all negotiating now.