It would be easy to trace a direct line from President Reagan to President Trump. Similarity is certainly discernible — the populism, the soundbites, the focus on fear. But Perlstein abhors simple explanation. In fact, as he shows, there’s a lot of Reagan in Joe Biden — the folksy stories, the endearing gaffes and the flimsy platitudes about hope, love and harmony. Reagan managed to combine those two very different political personae in a manner that somehow pleased and united America. But his legacy was division — politics and the nation became Janus-faced.
There’s politics aplenty here, not least Ted Kennedy’s passionate challenge in the 1980 Democratic primaries and the turmoil within Reagan’s own campaign. But Reaganland is essentially sociopolitical history, focusing on the movements and causes that animated public debate so virulently and the impacts of major social changes, such as women’s rights, on American life. Perlstein seems most at home discussing these social movements. The long backgrounders necessary to this telling are integral to the book but contribute significantly to its length.