For months evidence had trickled out suggesting ties between the White House and the botched Watergate burglary, and pollsters found that the public simply didn’t believe President Nixon’s repeated promises to get to the bottom of it. But Ronald Reagan, the aging California governor and former B-movie actor, was so out of step as to be amusing. On May 15, 1973, two days before the Senate Watergate committee began televised hearings, Reagan issued his latest statement dismissing the investigation as a partisan political stunt that was “blown out of proportion.” It was the latest sign that Reagan was becoming a right-wing fringe figure, the type of political lightweight that the press could seek out for an absurd quote to add a little color to their stories. Certainly Reagan had to be at the end of his electoral career.

Yet we know what happened next: the Senate hearings exposed the extent of Richard Nixon’s abuses of power, plunging the nation ever closer toward a constitutional crisis before he finally resigned. In the wake of Watergate, a new wave of politicians—most of them Democrats—stepped forward to demand that the country acknowledge and confront its deep problems. This, the pundits agreed, would be progress.

But Reagan didn’t listen to the pundits. Instead, he spoke of the need to return to an earlier, purer America that was a beacon to the world, before its promise had been attacked by radicals and big-government politicians. The fact that Reagan’s America had never actually existed didn’t keep him from believing in it and selling it. In doing so, Reagan tapped into and then empowered a rightward shift that has dominated the United States to this day.

This is the narrative that Chicago historian and Nation writer Rick Perlstein recounts in fascinating detail in The Invisible Bridge, which follows Before the Storm (2001) and Nixonland (2008) in his ongoing history of the political right. Covering the years 1972 to ’76, the book tells the story of how the downfall of Nixon, the paranoid president, was directly connected to the rise of Reagan, for whom the U.S. was eternally sunny.

It’s ground that’s been covered many times before, but Perlstein’s gift lies in illustrating broad political trends through surprising snapshots of American culture and media. He notes, for example, how the astounding box-office successes of The Exorcist and Death Wish undoubtedly said something about the nation’s growing anxieties about crime and lawlessness. Meanwhile, in baseball, Hank Aaron was greeted with death wishes for chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record—at a time when backlashes were growing against affirmative action and other civil rights policies.

Perlstein covers acts of terrorism, energy crises, environmental disasters, battles for local control of schools, the appearance out of nowhere (Plains, Georgia) of Jimmy Carter, President Ford’s literal stumbles, and the wild 1976 primary campaigns. In fact, in a book that runs more than 800 pages, there are moments when it seems like he didn’t leave out anything.

But it’s also easy to understand why. This is gripping material, and continually raises the question: How could so many people not have seen the Reagan revolution coming? The answer is implied: because then as now, political leaders and voters on the left, and even in the center, were giving in to fear and McCarthyism in its many forms—and because they simply weren’t as skilled at the game of winning elections and public relations battles.