Despite Donald Trump being acquitted in his second impeachment trial, his ignominious departure from the White House has left the future of the Republican Party uncertain. Trump’s seditious conduct has not ended his chokehold over the GOP, with 59% of Republican respondents in a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll saying they want him to play a major role in the party. Nevertheless, a handful of Never Trump Republicans such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a presidential hopeful, and former supporters who have turned on Trump, are exhorting the GOP to return to being the party of Ronald Reagan.
But purging Trumpism from the party will require a reckoning with how the 40th president paved the way for the norm-shattering 45th president. For as much as Reagan’s sunny, optimistic brand of conservatism may seem to differ from Trump’s dystopian American carnage, there is a reason the two men both ran on promising to “Make America Great Again.” Overlooking Reagan’s contribution to the four plights plaguing American society — racism, the coronavirus, climate change and misinformation — will doom us to continue fighting them well into the future.
On racial matters, Reagan’s amiable facade belied the fact that he denigrated the civil rights movement at every opportunity, allied with white supremacists and turned the party of Lincoln into an aggrieved faction of Whites anchored in the South and the rural West. In fact, Reagan’s skill in stoking racist resentment for political gain was a key ingredient in his meteoric rise from “B” actor to the presidency.
In his first campaign for governor of California in 1966, for example, Reagan opposed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and appealed to working-class White Democrats who were anxious about the recent Watts uprisings and opposed to California’s divisive Fair Housing Act. The amiable Reagan regularly deployed racially coded dog whistles — terms such as “law and order,” “states’ rights” and “welfare queens” — in his bid to appeal to these disaffected Whites.
He sought the Republican nomination for president in 1968, 1976 and 1980 as a states’ rights conservative, thrilling Southerners and George Wallace voters with his attacks on “Black militants,” “welfare chiselers” and a defense of the South as the bastion of American values. Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980 marked the triumph of this southern strategy and the eclipse of the pro-civil rights wing of the GOP.
And his two-term presidency marked a new nadir in race relations. Reagan’s administration tried — unsuccessfully, because of resistance from Congress — to dilute the Voting Rights Act and vitiated the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He also vowed to abolish affirmative action, arguing that it made White men victims of racism through reverse discrimination. Reagan’s attitude about civil rights was also reflected in his refusal to sanction the apartheid government of South Africa; he even vetoed a 1986 bill imposing sanctions, which Congress overrode in bipartisan fashion. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, was so incensed that he declared Reagan “a racist, pure and simple.”
Most egregiously, Reagan was instrumental in ratcheting up the “war on drugs,” which fueled the current epidemic of mass incarceration of Black and poor people that has decimated communities of color. The genius of Reagan as a politician was his skill in packaging his racism in a facade of fatherly love. Although White America revered him for reinvigorating the country’s spirit after a generation of turmoil, African Americans resented his attempts to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and the fact that he didn’t remedy, let alone acknowledge, the historical scourge of racism.
Reagan also vilified government action more broadly, preaching that “government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem” — a philosophy that has made the country ill-equipped to undertake an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. He helped to raise a generation of Republicans deeply suspicious of government bureaucrats, supportive of deregulation and wary of dictating to private markets, even in a moment of crisis. Reagan’s derision of public institutions has left a legacy of crumbling infrastructure exemplified by the current disaster in Texas, failing public schools, lack of affordable health care and conservative opposition to addressing global warming.
Americans are also grappling with a fourth “virus”: misinformation, culminating in the “Big Lie” that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Of course, the Reagan era preceded the rise of social media and even the current generation of right-wing talk radio didn’t hit the national airwaves until the very end of Reagan’s presidency.
Still, Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission announced in 1987 that it would no longer enforce the Fairness Doctrine, which played in a role in the rise of talk radio, leading eventually to other conservative media. Today those outlets often spew misinformation. Further, Reagan was a serial fabulist who frequently cited falsehoods from his favored right-wing publications such as Readers Digest and Human Events. One of his most famous assertions was, “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” and he maintained, incorrectly, that sulfur dioxide emitted from Mount St. Helens was greater than that emitted by cars over a 10-year period, even after the media corrected this falsehood. Reagan’s prevarications were condoned by the media and the public because they deemed them a charming idiosyncrasy. Yet, in reality, they set a dangerous precedent that has manifested itself in a world where people express entitlement to their own “facts,” whether they are backed by evidence or not.
All of these dangerous legacies came together in the one Reagan policy that conservatives have long celebrated: tax cuts. Reagan’s resistance to facts and expertise fueled his embrace of the fanciful notion that tax cuts for the wealthy would provide benefits that “trickled down” to the lower classes, what his eventual Vice President George H.W. Bush called “voodoo economics.” This policy, which drove Reagan’s massive tax cuts, has inexorably produced deficits and the hollowing out of our infrastructure, both of which are hampering current policymakers’ capacity for addressing the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of structural racism.
In the coming weeks, clamor among establishment Republicans to return the GOP to Reagan may well intensify as more disturbing details of Trump’s complicity in the deadly Capitol insurrection are exposed. And although Reagan certainly differed from Trump on matters such as trade, immigration, and even his overall tone and rhetoric, those seeking to return the GOP to a party grounded in truth, science and reason need to exorcise the GOP from the ghosts of both Donald Trump and Ronald Reagan. While Reagan was a charming, charismatic figure who rekindled a sense of patriotism after the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, he also planted the very seeds that manifested in the carnage of 2020 and early 2021. Well-meaning Republicans such as Hogan won’t be able to fully banish the ghost of Trump until they consider Reagan’s true legacy.
Daniel S. Lucks holds a doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of “Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicans, and the Road to Trump.” He’s an attorney and lives in Los Angeles.