Alan Zendell, May 4, 2023
Ronald Reagan was inaugurated during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which damaged our national pride and exacerbated an economic crisis that had interest rates approaching twenty percent. As a movie star, Reagan’s signature image was of an urbane, refined gentleman, even when he was sitting atop a horse. With mortgage rates at nearly seventeen percent, when Reagan adopted Grover Norquist’s supply side economic theory as his own, his temperament and skill as an actor made it sound almost reasonable.
As Wikipedia describes it, “The pillars of Reagan’s economic policy included increasing defense spending, balancing the federal budget and slowing the growth of government spending, reducing the federal income tax and capital gains tax, reducing government regulation, and tightening the money supply in order to reduce inflation.” What we didn’t know in the 1980s was that those relatively benign words would become a rallying cry for a reprise of the economic divide that led to the Civil War. Rich against poor, power vs disenfranchisement, equality vs privilege, order vs chaos.
The ensuing struggle ultimately brought us Donald Trump and a breed of politicians for whom winning, power, and greed are everything. They don’t care about the cost in basic values and decency, or their effect on the rights of women, minorities, the poverty-stricken, and those who depend on the government through no fault of their own. Reagan was a decent man who must be turning over in his grave at the spectacle of how his policies have evolved.
The opponents of supply side economics, the theory that says increasing the wealth of billionaires and mega-corporations will ultimately benefit everyone, noted that our national debt tripled during the eight years Reagan was in office because of huge deficits resulting from lowered tax rates and an unprecedented increase in spending on social welfare programs. Yet, somehow, Reagan remains the Republican symbol of modern conservatism. That sounds like a contradiction, a repudiation of what Reaganism was about, but his likability and skill as a salesman made it work.
Reagan also embraced humility, civility, and fallibility. He didn’t resort to name-calling and cheap shots, and he understood that when you make a serious error, even as president, the best course is to admit your error, apologize, and move on, lessons both Clintons could have benefitted from. Caught in lies promulgated by his subordinates, Reagan invoked the Truman doctrine that the buck stops in the White House, taking full responsibility for their actions. We may have disagreed with him, but most Americans viewed the president who coined the term “credible deniability” as an honest man.
How then, did we get here? Over the following decades, it became clear that Reagonomics was better described as his vice president and successor George H. W. Bush referred to it: voodoo economics. The Clinton administration balanced the federal budget but was never able to overcome the huge debt it inherited. And the policies of Bush 43, in large part an extension of Reagan’s, continued to spiral the national debt. Despite all that, during the Obama years, as our population turned browner and the national mood seemed to marginalize right wing extremism, instead of mitigating our divisions, Republican strategists let greed and lust for power dominate their actions, bringing us Trumpism.
I can’t think of a leader who is more of a polar opposite to Reagan than Trump. Reagan would have been horrified at Trump’s open disdain for truth and his willingness to fight every battle in the sewers. He would have been outraged at Trump’s willingness to undermine our Constitution and his apparent adoration of autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un. Most important, he would never have entertained the notion of overturning a presidential election so the forces of greed and corruption could retain control of government. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan rallying thousands of armed insurgents to storm the Capital and take the House Speaker and Vice President prisoner?
We now face the spectacle of defaulting on our nation’s debts which were authorized by both Congress and the White House. Despite warnings by Treasury officials and economists that default would crash America’s, and likely the world’s economy, we find our government held hostage by a ragtag group of extremists and a House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, who lacks both the will and the skill to govern with integrity. The miscreants who are willing to use their sudden power to take us to the brink of disaster would have been shouted down by the Conservatives of the 1980s. The situation is so surreal, it’s almost as if they’re enemy agents, a dirty dozen of Manchurian candidates programmed to bring down our government.
As Reagan asked when he was running for re-election in 1984, are we better off than we were before he was in charge? Ask that same question about Trump and the movement that supports him.