Ronald Reagan rehabilitation fails to see how his politics gave us Trump

As Donald Trump continues to helm the Republican Party toward fascism/Christian nationalism, Ronald Reagan is getting a break, sort of, from some on the left.

It goes like this: The Gipper wasn’t so bad compared to The Donald.

Historian and author John Hennen’s politics tack toward the port side. So do mine. But he’s not among the Reagan revisionists. Neither am I.

Hennen doesn’t pull punches. “Today’s fetishizing of racism, mob violence, and ‘local control,’ which has turned Reagan’s party into a refuge for the absolute worst elements of America’s malcontents, was given momentum by the avuncular Great Communicator,” said the retired Morehead, Ky., State University history professor.

“He okayed white supremacy as an acceptable ‘opinion,’ turning Richard Nixon’s earlier Southern Strategy into something understandable for the angry grievants who became Donald Trump’s base.”

In other words, Reaganism begat Trumpism.

“When Ronald Reagan delivered his famous ‘A Time for Choosing’ speech in 1964, he instantly emerged as the leading voice for the rightward extremism that was taking over the party. Reagan presented a more congenial front for the GOP’s creeping anti-democratic norms than did the presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater,” Hennen said.

“The Great Communicator refined his mean-spirited messaging by demonizing welfare recipients and antiwar and civil rights activists on California’s campuses during his two terms as governor—1967-1975. He resurrected the states’ rights mantra of Southern segregationists in a 1980 campaign speech a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, Miss., the site of Klan murders of three civil rights volunteers in 1964.”

(At the Neshoba County fairgrounds, Reagan told the white rally-goers that he was “for states’ rights,” the old Southern code words for slavery and Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchising African Americans.)

Hennen quoted First Lady Rosalynn Carter on Reagan after he defeated her husband in 1980: “I think the president makes us comfortable with our prejudices.” Four decades later, Hennen said, “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans have made their cult-followers not only comfortable with their prejudices but proud of them.”

Between Reaganism and Trumpism came the Tea Party. It’s no coincidence that the nearly all-white, far-right movement arose after the election of Obama, the first Black president. Obama “enflamed the ravings of the Tea Partiers—remember birtherism the death panels?—and amused ‘establishment’ Republicans who in 2011 welcomed the Tea Party neo-fascists into Congress, thinking they would be a controllable—and helpful—fringe caucus.”

The best-laid plans…

“Turns out the genial Reagan was succeeded as ideologue-in-chief by the loathsome bomb-thrower Newt Gingrich, who with PR master Frank Luntz—now allegedly contrite—had long been crafting a new organizing principle for young Republicans, which bore full fruit in the 2010 elections–don’t only disagree with your opponents, but hate and destroy them,” Hennen said.

“Gingrich and Luntz even devised a model vocabulary to dehumanize Democrats. Even before the 1994 Contract with America, Newt’s young guns in GOPAC issued marching orders for GOP zealots never to refer to Democrats as loyal adversaries, but only in buzzwords such as anti-child, anti-flag, disgrace, shame, radical, pathetic, destroy, devour, traitors, and sick.”

Hennen acknowledged that Gingrich-style demagoguery is as old as our republic. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in a 1964—the year Goldwater ran for president—Harper’s essay titled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

“In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”

Goldwater lost in a landslide. But Reagan won the presidency in 1980 and again in 1984 promising to “make America great again” and laying the foundation for what Hennen called “the crazy MAGA-Trump cult.”

Concluded Hennen: “Even the current shock troops of Trumpism—Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three-Percenters—have troubling historical precedents. The 1930s America First movement provided cover for racist, anti-Semitic street gangs organized as the Black Legion and the Silver Shirts and, most famously, fascist thugs under orders from the far-right radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin.

“As a reminder of those dark times, the recent creepy proto-Nazi salute to Trump by crazed Q-Anoners at a rally in Ohio is just the latest proof that Trumpism has gone full fascist. We must be on guard, for the nut-cases are convinced ‘The Storm is Coming’ and will not be appeased. Let us hope that the Justice Department will not let a few thousand armed bullies block the justified prosecutions that should be brought against Trump and his flunkies.”

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.