With Nancy Reagan’s death, many pundits have lamented the loss of the party of Reagan, as if that party is dead, never to arise again. As with most things, memories of the Good Old Days™ are largely dependent on your own recollections.
I remember Reagan’s election, because I was a teenager and the day after election day, 1980, I was scheduled for minor surgery. I had just turned sixteen. I remember riding the school bus and hearing about him being shot on the bus radio. I grew up with Reagan as president like the kids born in 1993 grew up with Obama. I vaguely remember Jimmy Carter, along with disco, leisure suits, and Ford Pintos.
By the time George H.W. Bush was running for president, I had graduated college. Back then I was rather broad-minded in my politics, if I had any politics at all (unless you consider cars, beer and associated revelry to be political). So those Good Old Days™ of Reagan went by for me without much nostalgia.
But those days weren’t as unshackling as many who yearn for them remember. Peter Wehner wrote in the March 10th issue of TIME that “the party of Reagan is no more.” Of course, in his mind, it is no more, because those days were certainly remembered differently for him. In terms of Donald Trump, who, as my elder, lived those Reagan days in his thirties, I can imagine Trump was thinking that he could do it better.
Reagan had his share of scandals: Iran/Contra, HUD grants, Michael Deaver, and the S&L crisis being a few. Decades later, the New England Patriots took a cue from Reagan’s debate prep team in how to get the other side’s playbook.
Wehner lamented of the Reagans (and their party’s) passing:
The most obvious evidence of this is the rise of Donald Trump, a man who is the antithesis of so much that Ronald Reagan stood for: intellectual depth and philosophical consistency, respect for ideas and elevated rhetoric, civility and personal grace. The fact that Trump is the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination shows how far the GOP has drifted from the animating spirit of the most consequential and revered Republican since Abraham Lincoln.
Reagan may have been philosophically consistent in the security of the Oval Office, but he was very much a realist, pragmatist and opportunist dealing with the rest of the world. Things that presidents want (tax plans, foreign policy, deregulation) do not happen by themselves. I would say that the true antithesis to Reagan is actually the Oval Office’s current occupant, not Trump.
In short, Reagan knew how to make deals too.
And the party of Reagan, in the Good Old Days™, was a product of those days. Wehner wrote about “apocalpytic rhetoric” and comparisons to Nazi Germany being one driver behind Trumpism. He wrote that another was a growing trend to equate compromise with capitulation. “What many modern Republicans are looking for is conflict, confrontation, the politics of the cage match,” Wehner wrote.
At some point along the way, it became fashionable in the Republican Party–in some quarters, anyway–to replace reason with rage, to deny science when it was at odds with ideology and to cheer mindless stunts like shutting down the federal government rather than responsibly managing and relimiting it.
Voters are complicit in this too; many of them have come to confuse cruelty, vulgarity and bluster with strength and straight talk. And Republican lawmakers compounded a problem they had promised to solve, promoting rather than ending corporate welfare and crony capitalism.
But this is like writing about the Super Bowl between the Panthers and the Broncos, only focusing on the Panthers offense. It’s half the story, and half of the half, at that. Two teams played, and they both had strong defenses.
The party of Reagan lives on. It never passed away. Other things grew around it–the Internet being chief among them. Can we imagine the rise of Trump without Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section on Reason.com? Can we imagine the huge rallies with just a few days’ notice without blast emails, 24 hour cable news, and wall-to-wall coverage of Trump?
I can’t. The age of the flash mob and the reality TV star is what produced Trump. He is a product of the Zeitgeist. Stealing the Republican brand is only incidental to his rise. Back in 1990, Trump said:
Well, if I ever ran for office, I’d do better as a Democrat than as a Republican-and that’s not because I’d be more Republican-and that’s not because I’d be more liberal, because I’m conservative. But the working guy would elect me. He likes me. When I walk down the street, those cabbies start yelling out their windows.
That doesn’t sound like a principled stand for a party. It sounds like picking the best horse to use in a train robbery.
As for where the GOP went since Reagan, that has been largely shaped by the Democrats, who have moved faster and further to the left than the GOP ever moved to the right. The Democrats have moved so far left that they tugged the Republicans along for the ride, leaving people like Ted Cruz (who would have fit in well in the 1980’s, or 70’s, or 60’s) to claw his way back in through the Tea Party.
The Tea Party was a reaction to Democrats believing they could move the entire country using a combination of social engineering, Ailinsky tactics, mocking, shaming, and using the longstanding rules of the House and Senate against their GOP colleagues. In fact, when the GOP tried to be collegial, the Democrats would sucker them every time. This is what led to the Republican “contract with America” revolt by Speaker Newt Gingrich (which was, by the way, largely successful and responsible for every good thing that came out of the Clinton years).
Then Bush took office, and we became consumed with terror and fighting terror, and, oh yes, wars. The polarization was reminiscent of the 1960’s and Vietnam, without the draft, flower power, and John Kerry. Daily body counts, images of war, and Cindy Sheehan camped out in Midland, Texas dominated the press. The Vietnam-era media tried to discredit Bush, and the Democrats in the House and Senate fine-tuned obstructionism like a Swiss Rolex movement.
The GOP became by turns defensive, self-obsessed, and vindictive to enemies. All the things Trump is really good at. But just because the Oval Office isn’t occupied by a communicator like Reagan, or someone who agrees with his policies (Bush 43 in many ways didn’t), doesn’t mean that Reagan’s party is no more. It has simply changed its mode of expression.
The party of Reagan is now expressed in new media sites like National Review (expanded from a wonky magazine to a wonky magazine with a cool website), The Federalist, RedState, Popehat, and others. It’s expressed in movements like the Tea Party that got candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz elected to the Senate. And some of it is expressed by people who ardently support Donald Trump.
Those are the truly disappointed, disaffect, fed-up, frustrated, angry and despondent. They would rather put their trust in a man than an idea, and they’re being played for all they’re worth by the demagogue grifter who only wants to play president for his own grandeur.
I can’t agree that the Good Old Days™ were as good as Wehner spins it, full of “the grace and joie de vivre of Reagan.” Vindictiveness, crassness, cruelty, insults and self-obsession are human faults that don’t select by political party. Yearning for the days before Twitter rants and reality television won’t revive the spirit of Reagan.
The party of Reagan lives on–even if we lose the Republican Party to a pretender. On that point, I agree with Wehner.
Trump still has a ways to go before securing the nomination. (To date, roughly two-thirds of Republican primary voters are voting against him.) Yet even if he succeeds, many of us who are children of the Reagan revolution will not go gently into the good night. We will not vote for Trump under any circumstances, even if he is the nominee; what’s more, we will do everything in our power to reclaim the Republican Party from this demagogic and authoritarian figure.
But even if we cannot reclaim the party, we will still fight as a new party dedicated to Constitutional ideals and limited government, because Reagan would have done that too.