Leaving The Gipper Behind

I usually don’t give up anything for Lent but this year I made an exception. Many of my readers, lately, have complained that I was too negative on Donald Trump - some even accused me of being “unhinged”. To give everyone a respite, I decided to give up criticizing the president for Lent - a much tougher task than I realized. Nevertheless, the self-imposed censorship has turned out to be extremely positive. The fighting with my readers has virtually disappeared. It has forced me to broaden my horizons and that has led me to joining the #YangGang (I will be writing more on this subject). It has also forced me to find positive aspects of the Trump presidency besides saving the country from the Hillary Clinton. One such aspect is ending the Reagan Era in Republican politics.

For nearly three decades after leaving office, Reagan loomed large over Republican politics. Every GOP candidate for public office, no matter how great or small, would claim to be walking in the Gipper’s shoes. Every presidential cycle, Republican primary voters have been treated to the spectacle of every candidate straining to be Reagan’s heir apparent often reaching comical levels. In 2016, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – both were nine years old when Reagan was elected president -  said they were inspired by the Gipper to enter politics. Perhaps they were precocious young men but, more likely, their claims were the result of political consultants advising them that the shortest route to the GOP nomination was to give all glory to Emperor God Reagan.  Had Donald Trump not come along, in a few years Republican candidates would have claimed they were impressed and inspired by Reagan when they were toddlers.

Reagan’s diminished status in GOP politics was noticeable at the most recent annual gathering of conservative grassroots activists known as CPAC. Prio to Donald Trump, every speaker at CPAC would pay homage to Reagan and tribute videos were sprinkled in between sessions. This year, the Gipper got a few honorable mentions probably to appease the older folks in the audience who still live in the 1980s. However, what had become an annual pilgrimage to St. Ronaldus has finally come to an end.

Thanks to Trump, Republican voters no longer have to endure the likes of Scott Walker pretending to be a modern incarnation of Reagan. That Walker - of all Republicans - would appeal to Reagan is rather ironic. The Wisconsin governor gained national attention and was considered a top tier presidential candidate because of his confrontations with labor unions. That’s quite a contrast from Reagan who began his political career as a labor leader serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Walker’s final effort to revive his moribund presidential campaign was to propose a series of measures designed to curtail the power of organized labor including a call to abolish the NLRB. Again, quite a contrast from Reagan who pledged – during his speech launching the 1980 general election campaign - to “consult with representatives of organized labor on those matters concerning the welfare of the working people of this nation.”

In the same speech, Reagan boasted that he was “the only president of a union ever to be a candidate for President of the United States.” And while speaking about striking workers in Poland, he declared that, “They remind us that where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost.” Can anyone imagine any Republican today equating collective bargaining to freedom? Just a small reminder of how much the political landscape has changed.

The most pernicious aspect of Reagan dominating Republican politics was that what the pundits, strategists described as the essence of Reagan was more a caricature or myth than the actual man. Much was made about Reagan's optimism. He was a happy warrior, voters were constantly reminded.  When Kevin McCarthy ran to replace John Boehner as Speaker, he too was promoted as a Reagan clone. Michael Warren wrote in the Weekly Standard, "Like his political hero Ronald Reagan, McCarthy is optimistic and has high energy, a permanent smile planted on his face." 

 “A permanent smile planted on his face”? It made Reagan sound like some silly high school cheerleader. Besides, there was no "permanent smile" on Reagan's face while delivering his famous speech "A Time for Choosing". There was a controlled anger and a sense of urgency.  No "permanent smile" when Reagan demanded that Gorbachev "tear down" the Berlin Wall. Instead, a steely resolve was on Reagan’s face that day at the Brandenburg Gate.

The mythical Reagan only cut taxes. The real Reagan also increased taxes. The mythical Reagan was a social conservative warrior. The real Reagan opposed the Briggs Initiative which would have banned employment of LGTBs in California public schools and appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, thus, ensuring that Roe vs. Wade would continue to be the law of the land. The mythical Reagan was a budget hawk. The real Reagan ran up deficits and debt.

What was more disturbing about Reagan revisionism was the failure to acknowledge the central role that fighting communism played in shaping his political career as opposed his disdain for big government.  He was a Democrat at a time when FDR was expanding the power of the federal government to unprecedented levels. As new federal programs were being implemented by the FDR Administration, Reagan did not recoil in horror. Instead, he described himself as a “near hopeless hemophiliac liberal.” It wasn’t big government that scared Reagan from the Democratic Party. It was communism.

Without the Soviet Union, it is quite probable that Reagan would have never sought the presidency or changed political party. In his book "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism", Paul Kengor makes a strong case that Reagan wanted to become president first and foremost for the purpose of undermining the Soviet Union. Kengor traces Reagan's commitment to defeat communism to 1950 when he joined the groups Crusade for Freedom and the Anti-Communist Christian Crusade. In 1956, Reagan used his position as host of the General Electric Theater to urge Americans to help Hungarians refugees escaping Soviet repression. As early as May 1967, Reagan called for the destruction of the Berlin Wall.

Reagan’s dedication to defeating the Soviet Union not only shaped his foreign policy. It also shaped his policy with respect to illegal immigration. Proponents of immigration reform often point to Reagan's support for a guest worker program and amnesty for illegal immigrants. But Reagan's support for immigration was reform was not due to a belief in free movement of labor or compassion. His support stemmed from a concern that high levels of unemployment and economic distress could provide an opening for communism to spread and turn Mexico into "a very hostile and strange neighbor."

The Soviet Union is long gone. Communism has been discredited (never mind Bernie Sanders). The main drivers of Reagan's politics ceased existing decades ago and yet as late as 2016 the GOP insisted on making Reagan the central figure in every election out of sheer inertia. That is, until Trump came along and finally the party was able to start leaving The Gipper behind. Thank you Donald Trump.