The Road to Destruction: The Reagan Revolution Reconsidered

Last week, Jacobin and the New York Times published reviews of Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary The Reagans. Both focus on a key factor enabling the Reagan Revolution, the capitulation and in many cases active complicity of the Democratic opposition. Neither, however, mentions what is perhaps the most revealing and consequential instance, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 which radically cut rates on corporations and upper income individuals.

It has by now been mostly forgotten that “the real hero of tax reform,” according to the Washington Post,  was a Democrat, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley.

Dollar Bill and Neoliberalism 1.0

Widely seen as representing the liberal center of the party and a likely nominee for president, it should now be apparent that Bradley was not at at all a liberal. Rather, he and other centrist Democrats of the time referred to themselves as *neo* liberals committed, like Reagan, to undermining the social welfare programs of the New Deal and Great Society.

Seven years later, Bill Clinton would declare “the era of big government is over” in his inaugural address and end his first term by signing of the The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 “ending welfare as we knew it.” A few liberals protested.  But none should have been surprised given the impunity which Democrats had provided Reagan allowing him to advance a right wing agenda only a few years before.


The Liberal Defense: Reagan and The Intellectuals

But the story doesn’t end there. For, as Adam Nagourney’s Times review mentions, complementing the failure of the opposition party to oppose was a closely related capitulation to Reaganism, that of the press and the intellectual class generally.

The comments of two of Reagan’s biographers are revealing on this score. Asked by Nagourney for their views on one of the most conspicuously toxic components of the Reagan legacy, his playing of the race card during his 1980 campaign, neither finds grounds for concern. For Lou Cannon “Reagan is the anti-Trump. . . If you look at Reagan’s presidency, you did not see a career of racial incitement. It’s not a fair rap.”

Historian Rick Perlstein caution(s) against “Liberals, always looking for smoking guns to prove that conservatives are racist, such as Reagan’s speech in (Philadelphia) Mississippi” where civil rights activists had been murdered twenty years prior. We shouldn’t “read too much significance into this,” according to the “proud liberal” Perlstein. Doing so, “oversimplifie(s) Reagan’s complicated relationship with race.”

This is nonsense.  Anyone who lived through the period will remember Reagan’s dog whistled evocation of “Welfare Queens”, whose consumption of T bone steak and Cadillacs were financed by the tax dollars of hardworking Americans.

And everyone knew it was a racist canard then. If we had forgotten, recently released tapes from the Nixon archives of Reagan referring to African leaders as “those monkeys. . . still uncomfortable wearing shoes” should remind us of the sewer it emanated from.

Cannon and Perlstein’s inability to register what is in front of their noses attests to another key figure of the Reagan era: a quid pro quo relationship in which the reactionary characteristics of the Republican right were airbrushed out of existence by those whose job it was to tell the truth about them. Too many were, and apparently still are, willing to oblige. One of the legacies of the Reagan era was the corruption of the sources of information through which the public was informed.

How Reagan Paved the Way for Trump

That “Reagan Paved the Way for Donald Trump”, as the Jacobin review is titled, is by this point largely understood. But its significance has not, in my view, been sufficiently recognized. Everyone remembers the dull pain in the pit of their stomach beginning on November 8, 2016. The election of Reagan while less surprising than the election of Trump. But it was just as alarming-even terrifying-for those able to recognize that it opened the door to forms of ugliness, ignorance and aggressive stupidity long thought to be eradicated from the political mainstream.

A good indication of what we thought we had left behind occurred during the 1980 presidential debates when George H.W. Bush, the likely Republican nominee, derided supply side tax cuts as “voodoo economics”. Right wing groups like the John Birch society had been around for years pitching similarly discredited notions. While familiar enough, they were easily ignored: Eisenhower in a letter to his brother expressed the prevailing view that “their numbers were negligible and they are stupid”. Goldwater’s epic loss to LBJ was thought to have dispensed with them permanently.

But Carter’s austerity regime created a crisis and with it the demand much like today for an outsider messiah to Make America Great Again. That the slogan originated with the Reagan campaign is one of many indications of Trump’s trajectory to the White House recapitulating Reagan’s albeit as a greater tragedy and farce.

Reagan’s White House: Legitimizing Illegitimacy 

Once in office, Reagan’s consolidation of the Reagan Revolution took the form of his staffing his administration with fringe ideologues previously regarded as entirely unsuitable for public office. One of these was Alan Greenspan, an acolyte of objectivist loon Ayn Rand appointed as the chairman of the federal reserve system. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a crazed anti-communist referred to by  Noam Chomsky as Reagan’s “resident sadist in chief” would become U.N. ambassador. James Watt, a fundamentalist zealot installed as the Secretary of Interior, would find a biblical justification for the mining and fossil fuel companies’ pillaging of federal lands. As Reagan’s communication director, Pat Buchanan’s exploitation of hot button culture war issues established a template adopted by all subsequent generations of right wing media.

Trump’s appointments of white supremacists Steve Bannon and Steven Miller, Pro Wrestling magnate Linda McMahon and Christian identity stalwart  Betsy Devos pushed the envelope in the same direction. Many Reagan veterans expressed shock, but they should know better than anyone that these are the logical conclusion of the revolution they themselves initiated.

The right wing should never have been normalized. It should have been opposed at every step by the so-called opposition party, the lies and deceptions exposed by the mainstream media just as decisively as they are now finally doing with those of Donald Trump.

The Trump era should provide a long overdue recognition of how far off the rails we have gone ever since. That in itself will not reverse course away from the precipice we are hurtling towards. But it’s hard to see how we will do so if we don’t understand what got us on the path.

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