Rick Perlstein's final entry in his political trilogy connects the activities and influence of today's conservative movement to a deliberate shift toward right-wing policies that began during the Carter administration and led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
... absorbing ... Perlstein doesn’t point out the irony, but he doesn’t need to. The joy of this book, and the reason it remains fresh for nearly a thousand pages of text, is that personality and character constantly confound the conventional wisdom ... Perlstein is never deterministic, and his sharp insights into human quirks and foibles make all of his books surprising and fun, if a little smart-alecky at times ... a small, redeeming moment in Perlstein’s overspilling narrative, but the glimpse into Reagan’s conscience is characteristic of Perlstein’s storytelling. Reagan is hardly a hero to Perlstein, whose own politics are to the left. But in this description, the former movie actor turned politician is intensely human, and capable of empathy, or at least shame ... full of portents for the current day.
The book concludes the series, providing continuity with the previous entries, but it will also be met by an audience that is living daily in Trumpland, an experience bound to shape their sense of conservatism’s impulses and effects ... Perlstein’s works are less X-rays of the internal structures of the nation at a given time than an MRI of its nervous system, showing when different regions of the brain lit up: here, activated by fear, here by sex, here by joy, here by anger. This is what has made his books grow in size—Reaganland runs to over 1,000 pages—they resemble reading several years of news, with the benefit of hindsight. They succeed when they can make sense of the structure of people’s feelings in a time of significant social division ... One of the values of Perlstein’s heavily narrative and loosely argued approach is that it restores a sense of randomness to outcomes ... Conservative activists remade the country with intensity, opportunism, and persistence through defeat. Those hoping to push back against their influence today might take some strange comfort in the story of their success. Studying the past does not tell you what will be possible in the future, nor promise that hard work will be rewarded. But it seems fair to conclude that the work is necessary, if not sufficient, and that many will not feel the tremors as the ground shifts under their feet.
A hallmark of Perlstein’s work is his blending of political and cultural history, often a tricky balance ... As might be expected from its massive length, Reaganland occasionally sags, and like any kitchen-sink history, it inherently invites quibbles with points of emphasis and omission. Perlstein’s rapid-fire style of chronological narrative is riveting, like the world’s most exciting microfilm scroll, although it can occasionally blur the lines between correlation and causation. It’s not the best book in Perlstein’s series ... If anything, Perlstein deserves credit for his ability to wring two huge and immensely readable books out of such a relatively uncompelling person ... Perlstein’s epic achievement of history has finally come to an end, and I hope that someday Reaganland will, too