Thursday, November 9, 2023

The direct line from Ronald Reagan to MAGA Republicans

I readily welcome the Republican NeverTrumpers into the ranks of those of us who are determined to protect our democracy from the MAGA Republicans. We need every vote we can get and I actually admire the courage it takes to put country over party.

But every now and then I see one of them harkening back to "the good old days" when Ronald Reagan led the GOP. As long as they do that, they'll never really understand what happened to their party - assuming it was simply Trump who came along and ruined a good thing.

The truth is that there is a direct line from Ronald Reagan to most of the politics that birthed the MAGA movement and put Trump in the White House. If a healthy Republican Party is ever going to emerge out of the ashes (I'm still pretty skeptical), they are going to have to grapple with the fact that these four issues from the Reagan presidency are what led to the GOP becoming the MAGA party.


In contrast to the bombastic racism of Trump, Reagan employed a more subtle (i.e. dogwhistle) approach. For example:

He kicked off his run as 1980’s Republican presidential nominee with an appearance at the Neshoba, Mississippi county fair, where he professed his commitment to states’ rights...Neshoba county was infamous for the 1964 Freedom Summer murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and appeals to states’ rights have long been used to justify southern states’ refusal to enact civil rights measures. By touting himself as a states’ rights candidate near the site of one of the nation’s most famous hate crimes, Reagan offered voters a racism that was both obvious and unspoken.

Other dogwhistles included constant references to things like "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks using food stamps to buy steaks."

Similar to Nixon's "Southern Strategy," the purpose of Reagan's dogwhistles was to send a signal to racist white people that the GOP had their backs. Thus, Reagan continued the policy of marrying the Republican Party to racists - paving the way for Trump.

Christian Nationalists

Prior to the late 1970's, white evangelical Christians had pretty much stayed out of politics - at least in any organized way. But in 1979, Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich founded the Moral Majority. The kick-off event was a conference for religious leaders in August 1980 - less than three months before the presidential election. Speakers at the Dallas event included Pat Robertson, James Robison, Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, Phyllis Schlafly, and Tim LaHaye. 

The keynote address was given by Reagan, who began his remarks by saying "I know this is non-partisan, so you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you." He sounded a lot like the new House Speaker Mike Johnson when he said that if he were shipwrecked and could read only one book the rest of his life, he would choose the Bible because “all the complex questions facing us at home and abroad have their answer in that single book.”

Observers referred to this event as a "marriage ceremony between Southern Baptists and the Republican Party." Eventually that evolved into a marriage between Christian nationalists and the GOP.

Democratic Policies are Socialist

In 1961, before beginning his political career, Reagan gave a speech suggesting that Medicare was socialized medicine that would lead to a dictatorship.  That one goes way back to the days after the Civil War.

White southerners did not want Black men voting, they said, because formerly enslaved people were poor, and they would vote for leaders who promised to build things such as roads and hospitals. Those public investments could be paid for only with tax levies, and most of the people in the South with property after the war were white. Thus, although the infrastructure in which the southern legislatures were investing would help everyone, reactionaries claimed that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth [ie, socialism] from white men to Black people, who wanted something for nothing.

In the name of preventing socialism, Reagan cut taxes, reduced regulations, and slashed spending on social programs.

In 2018, Trump's White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a report dubbed "Congressional Democrats Want to Take Money From Hardworking Americans to Fund Failed Socialist Policies.” The 72-page report used the word "socialism" 144 times.

Government is the Problem

Perhaps the most insidious Reagan legacy is his insistence that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Of course, he used that idea as justification to cut taxes, spending, and regulations - making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republicans have been banking on that one for decades. Way back in 2011, Mike Lofgren told us how this works for them.

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

We've recently witnessed massive disruption by MAGA Republicans in the House, as well as attempts to sabotage institutions like the courts and the Department of Justice. All a MAGA politician has to do is utter the words "deep state" and their supporters salivate at the idea of our "evil government." 

But take a moment to think about what it means for the people to view government as a "them," not "us." It makes us victims of government rather than citizens in a democratic republic. As Barack Obama said in 2012: "As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government." One of the more powerful ways that Republicans undermine our democracy is by insisting that government is "them," not "us."

There you have it - four ways that Reagan prepared the way for MAGA Republicans. I will continue to be pessimistic about our politics until the GOP starts to wrestle with freeing themselves from this legacy.

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