One of my favorite characters on “The Boondocks” is Uncle Ruckus, a hard-working, self-hating, foul-mouthed, delusional black man whose hostility to black people is only matched by his faith in the innate wisdom and goodness of white people. Uncle Ruckus views his blackness as a sort of mark of Cain that he must endure until he can move on to the next life and be greeted at the pearly gates by God’s personal representative – Ronald Reagan, who as a reward for Ruckus’ undying fidelity, will redeem him. He will remove Ruckus’ cursed sin of blackness and make Ruckus a white man. Ruckus is not unique in his views of Reagan. In fact, conservatives cannot seem to agree on much these days, but on the near divinity of Ronald Reagan they seem to be in almost complete accord. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal and lately Marco Rubio have all at one time or another been labeled the ‘next Ronald Reagan’ and thus the obvious choice for leadership of the Republican Party AND the ideal candidate for the Presidency, which is a testament to the resiliency of the Reagan myth.

It’s easy to understand the practical appeal of Ronald Reagan for conservatives. Not only were his electoral victories beyond decisive – 489 Reagan/49 Carter and 525 Reagan/ 13 Mondale, but his conversions were all the more telling. Folks like Eldridge Cleaver, who in the 1970s led radicals and occasionally nuns in chants of ‘Fuck Ronald Reagan!’ became Reaganites. George HW Bush, who labeled Reagan’s economic policies, ‘voodoo economics’ would become a loyal Vice President and promote Reaganomics through the remainder of his own political career.  If a Democrat today wants to raise taxes or in any way expand the scope of government, he must first pledge allegiance to Reaganism. He must, like Bill Clinton, announce that ‘The Era of Big Government is over’ or like President Obama, repeatedly remind the American people that the ‘free market is the greatest engine of prosperity in the history of mankind.’ From the grave the Reagan Revolution shapes our political discourse, and even more strikingly, it does so with little regard for Reagan’s actual presidential record.

Reagan supported raising taxes repeatedly during his presidency. He grew government spending, added government employees to the payroll, and quadrupled the national debt. Reagan was less popular on average than Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, George HW Bush, and Eisenhower, during his two terms. Among minority voters Reagan was almost universally despised during his presidency and remains so to this day. In fact all of the demographics that Mitt Romney lost, educated women, minorities, and young people would likely view a modern Ronald Reagan with similar hostility.

Ronald Reagan spent much of his career identifying and demonizing the ‘other’ while attributing saintly motives to his supporters. He argued that the Watergate felons were “not criminals at heart”, while labeling the investigation a witch hunt, yet during his years as SAG president he had been an FBI informer, ratting out actors who had communist ties. In Reagan’s view the Nicaraguan Contras, a band of ‘freedom fighters’ who staged terror attacks and sold drugs, were the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers, while those on public assistance were ‘welfare queens’ or ‘food stamp bucks’, gorging on t-bone steaks with the money of hardworking taxpayers1. America was a ‘shining city on a hill’ on a divine mission and those who thought to interrupt that agenda with calls for ‘rights’ were agents of evil. Much of the talk we hear today about ‘makers’ and ‘takers’, 47%ers, gift givers and ‘people who want stuff’ is vintage Ronald Reagan, the only difference is that the American demographics were in Reagan’s favor.  That’s not the case anymore.

Reagan hagiography among democrats is mostly tactical, much like Republicans pining for the bygone Clinton era. It’s intended to make the guys in power now appear unreasonable, inept or even corrupt, but Reagan worship on the Right is primarily rooted in insecurity and narcissism. Reagan made his followers feel exceptional, not by asking them to ‘do for their country’ as John F. Kennedy did, but by celebrating them for being who they already were and for doing things most folks have to do anyway: work hard, provide, have faith. Reagan understood the psychic wounds caused by the 1960s: the lost war of Vietnam; the Lost Cause (redux) of Jim Crow; the lost faith brought about by Watergate. And rather than demand that his followers wade into these conflicts and risk sullying themselves with collective or individual guilt, he offered them absolution; to be cleansed; to be made white just like Uncle Ruckus. This was and remains his appeal.

 

Suggested Viewing:

Rick Perlstein’s lecture on his upcoming book on Reagan.

 

  1. From Wallace to Gingrich, D. Carter, p.64 []