In “When the Clock Broke,” John Ganz shows how a decade remembered as one of placid consensus was roiled by resentment, unrest and the rise of the radical right. {read}

Some truly strange stuff was afoot in the 1990s. Yes, the early part of the decade marked the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Clintonian “triangulation,” giving the impression of a bland consensus coalescing around a political middle. This smooth hum of stability stands in obvious contrast to our current plight of fracture and chaos.

But as John Ganz shows in his terrific new book, “When the Clock Broke,” the early 1990s were also a time of social unrest and roiling resentments, of growing alienation and festering anguish. The debt-fueled growth of the ’80s had created a “glitzy veneer of great wealth” atop a wreckage of junk bonds, bank failures and vacant skyscrapers. Outside cities, farmers struggled with tanking commodity prices and increasing isolation.

Even though Reaganite policies of financial deregulation and trade liberalization were largely to blame, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 showed how the ensuing sense of precariousness could eventually redound to the benefit of the Republican Party. America’s troubles didn’t generate a victory for solidarity and egalitarianism. Instead the far right built a movement from the “politics of national despair.”

There have been several books about the 1990s in recent years, connecting the dots between the radical right’s failed bid for power then and its takeover of the Republican Party now. “When the Clock Broke” is a vibrant addition to the genre. Ganz writes a newsletter on Substack called “Unpopular Front” and co-hosts a podcast (with the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie) about post-Cold War action movies; previously, Ganz was an editor at Genius, a website for annotating music lyrics. He puts his full range of interests into this book, braiding together history, theory and cultural criticism. “When the Clock Broke” captures the sweep of the early ’90s in all its weirdness and vainglory.

Ganz gets his title from the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who wrote a speech in 1992 titled “Right-Wing Populism” that pledged to “break the clock of social democracy.” Rothbard was thrilled by the presidential run that year of the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, finding in Buchanan’s explicit appeals to white grievance something “exciting, dynamic, tough and confrontational.” The Republican establishment, led by the incumbent candidate George H.W. Bush, was too timid and polite, Rothbard wrote, too committed to a “measured, judicious, mushy tone.” The pugnacious Rothbard had developed a taste for conflict early. Growing up in the Bronx, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, a young Rothbard would shock his Communist aunts and uncles by asking, “What’s wrong with Franco anyway?”

Among the many things to commend this book is that it isn’t populated just by the likes of the presidential candidates Buchanan, David Duke and Ross Perot — the most visible figures of the political fringe. Ganz also includes miniature portraits of far-right intellectuals like Rothbard and Sam Francis, whose musings about “Middle American Radicals” harboring “a sense of resentment and exploitation” that was “directed upward as well as downward” would turn out to be an accurate assessment of where right-wing energies were headed. Francis was a proud extremist. He cheerfully referred to himself as a fascist, “pronounced the Italian way.”

The conservative establishment, meanwhile, was floundering. Ganz includes several scenes of a hapless Bush, “representative of a class bred to govern, not to lead.” In May 1992, on a visit to an injured firefighter in Los Angeles — a city smoldering from riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers who brutally beat Rodney King — Bush complained of needing repairs to his storm-damaged vacation home in Kennebunkport. Even his efforts to seem relatable made him look hopelessly out of touch. In a strenuous attempt to boost his regular-guy credentials, Bush made a journey to J.C. Penney to buy socks.

Ganz recounts all of this with a formidable command of the history. But he also has the skills of a gifted storyteller — one with excellent comedic timing, too — slipping in the most absurd and telling details. He shows Bush at a town hall reciting directly from a notecard intended to remind him of his talking points. “It read ‘Message: I care.’” Perot, who lost his independent presidential bid in 1992 with an impressive share of the vote, is the wildest of wild cards. Withdrawing from the race only to re-enter it, the famously paranoid Perot went on “60 Minutes” to say he had gotten wind that Republican operatives had been scheming to wiretap his office and to “smear” his daughter with a doctored photograph. He hoped the “interview would help expose the Bush campaign’s skulduggery,” Ganz writes, “but it just made him look a little nuts again.”

As hard as it is to remember now, Perot’s supporters were fervently committed to their candidate, with one staffer comparing the shutdown of his campaign to “boarding the buses for Buchenwald.” But underneath all the election-cycle buffoonery coursed something more sinister. Although this book doesn’t get trapped in the endless debates over Trumpism and fascism, Ganz quietly dedicates it to Gottfried Ballin, a relative who was murdered at Auschwitz. “When the Clock Broke” effectively conveys the emergence in the 1990s of a “structure of feeling,” the term that the critic Raymond Williams gave to incipient ways of seeing the world that compete with the dominant order. Whatever you want to call the structure of feeling that Ganz describes in his book, it was certainly ugly.

Fueled by humiliation, indignation and wounded pride, this combustible political formation pitted both ends against the middle. Egghead intellectuals on the far right found common cause with the masses. Ganz consequently pays considerable attention to the pop culture of the early ’90s, along with what was happening in the tabloids. The mob boss John Gotti, who was sentenced to prison after avoiding conviction three times, became a folk hero. People were seeing right through all the chipper, good-government platitudes peddled by the institutions that had failed them; feeling betrayed and abandoned, they “wanted protection, a godfather, a boss.”

Toward the end of the book, Ganz discusses an analysis by Francis of “The Godfather,” in which he connected the film to the sociological concepts of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — a traditional community based on kinship ties doing battle with modern legalistic forces. It’s a measure of how good Ganz’s writing is that such passages come across as urgent and illuminating, instead of stilted and pretentious. Like the cultural moment he covers, Ganz gets energized by mixing high and low. “When the Clock Broke” is one of those rarest of books: unflaggingly entertaining while never losing sight of its moral core.

WHEN THE CLOCK BROKE: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s | By John Ganz | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | 420 pp. | $30