‘Evil Geniuses’ traces the 50-year march of the American right

Kurt Andersen’s newest book, “Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History,” tells the story of our political culture’s long march to the right, from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign to Donald Trump.

I finished the audio version of it earlier this week — read by Andersen, a welcome touch. You can’t properly review an audio book, of course. You’re not bookmarking pages or making notes. So my observations here are impressionistic, and I’m sure I’m leaving stuff out that struck me as important at the time but that I’ve since forgotten.

First, Andersen deals a blow to my Richard Nixon Unified Theory of Everything. Andersen rightly points out that Nixon governed as a liberal on domestic policy, even embracing the left-wing notion of wage-and-price controls. Nixon wasn’t as liberal as the Northern Democrats of his era, but as someone who didn’t really care about anything except Richard Nixon, he was willing to go with the flow as long as it helped him maintain power.

I’m not sure that Andersen assigns Nixon enough blame, though, for his vicious prosecution of the war in Vietnam and Cambodia, a prelude of what was to come, or of beginning the transformation of the Republican Party into an amoral force for destruction, as it clearly is today. Ideologically, however, he is right that you can trace a direct line from Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush to Trump. Nixon was an outlier; George H.W. Bush was only a partial outlier given the role of Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, in fostering climate denialism, something I didn’t know about until I heard Andersen describe it.

Second, this move to the right has had important intellectual underpinnings, starting in 1970 with an essay by the economist Milton Friedman in The New York Times Magazine arguing — as Andersen puts it — that it was actually Mr. Potter, not George Bailey, who was the hero of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Another important contribution to the movement was made by Lewis Powell in his pre-Supreme Court days. All of this has been extremely well funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, thus moving fringe right-wing ideas into the mainstream.

Third, and to my mind most controversially, this long move back to the past has been accompanied by a cultural embrace of nostalgia, starting in the 1970s with the ’50s revival and continuing to the present. The idea is that we’ve turned to the political and economic norms of pre-New Deal America as a wistful yearning for old values, just as we have with music and fashion, and are only now beginning to realize just how toxic those times really were. There’s something to this, but I think Andersen pushes it too hard.

I can’t say that Andersen offers much in the way of solutions except that we need to re-energize ourselves and start electing left-leaning politicians. (He tells us repeatedly that Bernie Sanders nearly defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, but saying it over and over doesn’t make it so.) He also favors a universal basic income as a counterbalance to the decline of decent full-time work fueled by artificial intelligence.

“Evil Geniuses” provides an exhaustive — and, at times, exhausting — overview of what’s gone wrong in these United States over the past 50 years. If Andersen’s ideas on how to get out of this mess are inadequate, it may be because the challenges are so daunting.

As I write this, Joe Biden seems likely to be elected president and the Senate to flip to the Democrats. That may staunch the Trump-induced bleeding of the past four years. But it’s going to take a lot more than that to solve political polarization, economic inequality, climate change, racial injustice and all the rest.

We can’t begin that work until we understand how we got here, though. Andersen has provided a useful guide.

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