Ronald Reagan died in 2004, of course, but it struck me that he’s even deader now than he was then. Today he’s not just physically dead; he’s also dead as a revered and worshiped figure of the American Right.
Reagan used to be adored by the GOP. Of course, Republicans never did admit to themselves that the Reagan they revered, the Reagan of their imaginations, differed considerably from the once corporeal person. Ronald Reagan was a hero in movies, not in real life. His celebrated “sunny optimism” was a thin veneer of affability over a whole lot of bigotry against nonwhites and gays. His popular economic ideas, enshrined in history as “Reaganomics,” contributed mightily to economic inequality, the shrinking of the middle class, and an eroding standard of living among working people. Yes, GOP insiders no doubt considered those features, not bugs.
Most of all, he taught ordinary Americans that it was wrong to look to their government for help. Government, Reagan told them, was wasteful and incompetent, and expecting it to benefit ordinary citizens led to moral decay and, eventually, commujnism. One might have stopped to reflect on what the bleep a government is supposed to be for, but St. Ronald of Blessed Memory was a man of action, not a thinker. Thinking is for Democrats and Europeans. Real Americans put on their shoes (made in China) every morning and march out to do productive things on behalf of Capitalism (blessed be It) without thinking real hard about it. Look to Capitalism and God — in that order — to provide, not government.
The real legacy of Reagan was less American Greatness and more of a big mess. See, for example, Reagan’s Real Legacy by Peter Dreier and How Reaganomics, deregulation and bailouts led to the rise of Trump by John Komlos. Yet there was something about Reagan that resonated deeply in the mystic chords of memory of U.S. conservatives. and they practically worshipped the man. Or, their idea of the man. And in many ways after Reagan left office in 1989 the GOP remained, in its shrunken little heart, the Party of Reagan for about the next twenty-five years. This was so even though Reagan himself seemed to drop out of sight once he was out of office, no doubt because of the Alzheimer’s that was finally disclosed in 1994.
But now the worship of Reagan that sustained the Republican Party through the 1990s and 2000s is really, truly, utterly dead. I’m not sure precisely when it died, but it’s dead now. It must have died before the 2020 Republican National Convention; see No Bushes, Reagans, Cheneys or McCains: Who Is Missing at Trump’s R.N.C. by Adam Nagourney, Aug. 27, 2020.
Today I read about a recent Republican National Committee shindig held for deep pocket donors at — where else? — Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. And it struck me as I read that Reagan is dead.
Former president Donald Trump called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch” as he used a Saturday night speech to Republicans to blame him for not helping overturn the 2020 election and reiterated false assertions that he won the November contest.
“If that were Schumer instead of this dumb son of a bitch Mitch McConnell they would never allow it to happen. They would have fought it,” he said of election certifying on Jan. 6, the day his supporters led an insurrection on the Capitol to block Joe Biden’s formal victory.
Trump spent much of the speech, with many senators in the room, lashing into his former ally in personal terms, often to cheers from the party’s top donors.
In his off-the-cuff remarks Trump also badmouthed Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia and his own former vice president, Mike Pence.
You might remember that Reagan’s 11th Commandment was “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Movement conservatism took off in the late 1970s and kept flying through the 1980, 1990s, and 2000s largely because the many interest groups that signed on to Republicanism, from the Christian activists to the anti-tax zealots to the neoconservative hawks, stuck to that commandment and maintained a uniform front. Meanwhile the Democrats, headline writers assured us, were perpetually in disarray. But now that command is revoked, and the new kids in the party who align with Trump are not at all shy about trashing other Republicans.
Other accounts of Trump’s recent RNC speech say the cheering was more subdued.
“It was horrible, it was long and negative,” one attendee with a donor in the room tells Playbook. “It was dour. He didn’t talk about the positive things that his administration has done.”
Instead, Trump used the final night of the retreat to talk about himself, his grievances and how he plans to enact retribution against those who voted to impeach him — which runs counter to the donors’ main objective of making sure their dollars go toward winning overall.
Yet there they were, at Mar-a-Lago. This past January I predicted that once Trump was out of Washington the old GOP establishment would reassert itself and take the party back from Trump, but that hasn’t happened. The party seems determined to stick with Trump at least through the midterms. (See Republicans at a Crossroads.) The young pups in the party who don’t remember Ronald Reagan — not to mention the old dogs like Lindsey Graham who seem to have just plain surrendered — are determined to follow Trump off a cliff. The donors may not like it, but at the moment they haven’t jumped ship.
Seriously, Josh Hawley was born in 1979. That means he was still in diapers when Reagan was first elected president. Matt Gaetz is even younger. Marjorie Taylor Greene is a bit older; she was in high school when Reagan left office in 1989. Ted Cruz was an undergraduate at Princeton then. The point is that the Reagan Mystique seems to be dying off, literally, with the older members of the party. There’s not much left of Reagan but the obsession with cutting top tax rates, and even that really pre-dates Reagan. Calvin Coolidge pushed multiple tax cuts to help business growth, too. The basic theory behind “trickle down” economics goes back to William McKinley, if not earlier.
Anyway, while Reagan was bad enough, now we’ve devolved to …
As much as I despise Ronnie, he would never have kissed Vladimir Putin’s and Kim Jong Un’s asses. And it says a lot about how much Reagan is dead that Trump did that, multiple times, and his supporters didn’t care. Whatever Republicans believed Reagan stood for is no longer marketable.