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Trump’s Republican Party Is Erasing Reagan’s Memory

His demand for total idolatry requires the GOP rank and file to banish the 40th president from their history.

Illustration by The New Republic (x1) Getty

From 1964, when he first took the political stage as a supporter of Barry Goldwater, until some point during the last four years, Ronald Reagan was among the most dominant figures in the Republican Party. His ideas, accomplishments, and followers could be counted upon to be well represented at every Republican convention. No more: Reagan has virtually disappeared, replaced by Donald Trump as the object of all Republican adulation and reverence. So pervasive is the focus on Trump and only Trump, one would think that the Republican Party wasn’t established until 2016; judging by its convention last week, nothing that happened pre-Trump seems to be a matter of any interest to the party. Its organizers didn’t even ask George W. Bush to speak.

Part of this is the cultlike fealty Trump demands from his followers, Cabinet, and every GOP elected official. No disagreement with the Dear Leader is permitted, and every order he gives must be obeyed without question—wearing a mask to prevent catching or spreading a deadly disease became a rebuke to the Leader that is not permitted; those suffering must use only medicines prescribed by the Leader, even though they are ineffective; and only those related to the Leader by blood, marriage, or girlfriend status are trusted to speak for him in prime time.

Trump wouldn’t even allow his party to write a platform of its views, normally an important way to craft an ecumenical set of beliefs and policies that unites the universe of Republicans. This is just one way the Republican Party of the United States is morphing into the Communist Party of North Korea—no wonder Trump is so obsessed with Kim Jong Un: He has been emulating his leadership style for years. And one part of the transformation is that as history is deemed to begin with the Dear Leader, previous leaders must be downgraded, lest they dim the light that must shine only on the one true Leader.

The exclusive focus on Trump has caused the memory of Reagan to be pushed aside, filed away for occasions when Trump can milk it for political gain. Flushing Reagan down the memory hole also avoids inconvenient comparisons between Reagan’s sane, effective conservative policies and the insanity and incompetence of Trump’s.

Immigration is the most obvious area where Trump’s and Reagan’s policies are polar opposites. Reagan was from California, where the state’s Spanish roots go deep and where a large segment of the state’s population has always shared a heritage that reaches down to Mexico. Reagan understood the symbiotic relationship between Mexico and the U.S.—as well as the foolishness of pursuing a harsh anti–illegal immigrant policy.

Reagan thought that the best way to control immigration was to discourage employers from hiring those who lacked citizenship or legal status. Without jobs, the incentive to cross the border illegally would simply evaporate. Sealing the border was practically impossible and could not be done without creating severe problems for Americans, such as seizing private property and cutting off access to the Rio Grande River.

Most important, Reagan knew that the nation had to deal with the vast number of people already in the U.S. without legal status. As a matter of both humanity and practicality, he offered them amnesty. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though some time back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in a debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. Today, amnesty is abhorrent to the GOP, and no Republican would dare to endorse such a policy.

Although Reagan was known for helping enact a huge tax cut at the beginning of his presidency, tax cuts were never the be-all and end-all of his tax policy, as is the case with Trump. When confronted with budget deficits that threatened fiscal stability, Reagan supported 11 major tax increases between 1982 and 1988. (See the table on p. 4-4 in Reagan’s last budget.) By the end of his presidency, Reagan took back half of the 1981 tax cut with tax increases. And he was not shy about taxing the rich when necessary, such as by eliminating the preference for capital gains in 1986. As Reagan said:

We’re going to close the unproductive tax loopholes that have allowed some of the truly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share. In theory, some of those loopholes were understandable, but in practice they sometimes made it possible for millionaires to pay nothing, while a bus driver was paying 10 percent of his salary, and that’s crazy. It’s time we stopped it….

What we’re trying to move against is institutionalized unfairness. We want to see that everyone pays their fair share, and no one gets a free ride. Our reasons? It’s good for society when we all know that no one is manipulating the system to their advantage because they’re rich and powerful. But it’s also good for society when everyone pays something, that everyone makes a contribution.

It’s also worth remembering that Reagan enacted the largest tax increase in California state history when he was governor. His policy was always to keep taxes as low as possible, but he didn’t cut them willy-nilly as Republicans are wont to do under Trump. Today, the Trump-dominated GOP acts as if tax-cutting is an end in itself, rather than a means toward an end: the end being a tax system that pays for government’s legitimate functions as fairly as possible with the least negative impact on economic incentives.

Reagan was also far more enlightened on the environment than today’s left gives him credit for. Early in his administration, he made clear his belief that the living had a responsibility to future generations to safeguard and protect the environment. As he said in 1984:

We want to protect and conserve the idea that is at the heart of our national experience, an idea that can be reduced to one word: freedom. And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live—our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.

Reagan was proud about his role in negotiating the Montreal Protocol, an early effort to address the climate crisis. “The Montreal Protocol is a model of cooperation. It is a product of the recognition and international consensus that ozone depletion is a global problem, both in terms of its causes and its effects,” he said at the signing ceremony. “The Protocol is the result of an extraordinary process of scientific study, negotiations among representatives of the business and environmental communities, and international diplomacy. It is a monumental achievement.”

Cass Sunstein, who served as Obama’s regulation czar, was impressed by Reagan’s environmental sanity even before Trump came along. Said Sunstein in 2012: “The Reagan administration was generally skeptical about costly environmental rules, but with respect to protection of the ozone layer, Reagan was an environmentalist hero [emphasis added]. Under his leadership, the United States became the prime mover behind the Montreal Protocol, which required the phasing out of ozone-depleting chemicals.”

Trump, by contrast, has nothing but disdain for scientific expertise on any subject, taking his cues entirely from industry lobbyists only concerned about short-term profits.

Perhaps Reagan’s greatest heresy from a Trumpist point of view was his support for responsible gun control. He backed the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, which banned the ownership of any fully automatic firearm not registered on May 19, 1986. In a 1991 article for The New York Times, Reagan endorsed the Brady Bill in unambiguous terms that are less surprising when one remembers that Reagan himself was a victim of gun violence and his press secretary, Jim Brady, was crippled in the same assassination attempt. Said Reagan:

Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns, according to Department of Justice statistics. This does not include suicides or the tens of thousands of robberies, rapes and assaults committed with handguns.

This level of violence must be stopped. Sarah and Jim Brady are working hard to do that, and I say more power to them. If the passage of the Brady bill were to result in a reduction of only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it would be well worth making it the law of the land.

There are many other areas where Reagan stood to the left of Trump and even his own party at the time. He pushed for substantial nuclear disarmament that was so radical his own national security advisers were shocked. Reagan also resisted intervention in the Middle East, pulling all U.S. troops out of Lebanon after 241 military personnel were killed in a bombing. Under George W. Bush, this undoubtedly would have been the pretext for an invasion. As Peter Beinart concluded, while Reagan used aggressive bluster in his speeches and spent a lot of money on defense, he was remarkably pacific when it came to risking the lives of American soldiers and was more of a dove than he gets credit for.

Consequently, many Republicans have admitted that Reagan’s relative moderation made him something of a pariah in the GOP even before the Trump interregnum.

  • Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina in 2010: “Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”
  • Fox News host Mike Huckabee in 2011: “Ronald Reagan would have a very difficult, if not impossible, time being nominated in the atmosphere of the Republican Party.”
  • Representative Duncan Hunter of California in 2011: Reagan was a “moderate former liberal … who would never be elected today in my opinion.”
  • Representative David Drier of California in 2013: “I’ve said for the past four years, I’m a Reagan Republican, which makes me left of center in my party.”
  • Former House Speaker John Boehner in 2016: “I love all these knuckleheads talking about the party of Reagan. He would be the most moderate Republican elected today.”

Even more damning, perhaps, is the praise Reagan has gotten from Democrats in recent years. In 2007, then-Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois said, “I never thought I would say this, but I long for the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan.” During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama compared himself to Reagan:

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. They felt like with all the excesses of the 60s and the 70s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

“I’ve said this, and I meant it: Ronald Reagan could not get through a Republican primary in this election cycle, could not get through it,” said Obama during the 2012 campaign. “Here’s a guy who raised taxes. That in and of itself would have rendered him unelectable in a Republican primary.”

That same year, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that the primary goal of Republicans was to drag down the economy and defeat Obama. But for Reagan “the country came first, not elections.”

Perhaps the Trumpists are right to erase Reagan from the party’s past. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Reagan was a virtual Commie by the standards of today’s uber-right GOP. Indeed, his policies put him well to the left of his own party on many issues even during his presidency.

I don’t expect that Reagan will ever be embraced by the left, but at least the remnant of sane Republicans who make up the Never Trump resistance can confidently build on Reagan’s record and philosophy to roll back Trumpian insanity and stupidity.