Trump is the culmination of the Reagan revolution
It’s quite the rage right now for liberals to look back fondly on the two Bush and the Reagan Presidencies. The line goes something like “Reagan would be outraged over Trump’s latest behavior.” This narrative has been fueled, in part, by George W. Bush’s full-throated disdain of our current President.
But memories tend to sugar-coat the past, forgetting our disappointments, anger and frustration of the time and replacing them with nostalgia. As so many people ask on Quora, were the good old days really that good?
The George W. Bush Presidency should be recent enough in our memory to realize that things weren’t so great then. After all, it was his administration that launched us into two unending wars, one of which was started based upon a lie because Iraq’s leader “tried to kill my dad.” He lowered taxes for the rich, exacerbating income inequality, and he left the economy in its worst recession since the Great Depression. These are just a few of the highlights.
Even that conservative lion Ronald Reagan has come to see his reputation among liberals restored, especially in comparison to Trump. But is this just false nostalgia again? One wonders considering the fact that the hardest of hard-line conservatives today revere him.
And revere him they should. After all, Reagan set the path that led inexorably toward Trump today.
We have to remember that Reagan first challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976 because Ford was not conservative enough. Truly, Ford and Reagan were a study in contrasts. Ford was a relative moderate, pro-choice and pro-government. Not a great speaker though. Reagan was an actor who despised government and promised the world to evangelicals. This was a fight over the soul of a party. Ultimately, in 1980, Reagan would win that fight.
What Reagan in fact ushered in was nothing short of a revolution. All the trends that concern the progressives of today find their genesis in his Presidency.
What’s more is how Reagan’s agenda was focused like a laser-beam upon destroying the institutions that had underpinned liberal America. Consider the following:
- Reagan was an actor, proudly not a politician. His election led to the acceptance of non-politicians as President, something Trump capitalized upon.
- Reagan started the long decline of unions. As can be seen from the graphic above, there has been a precipitous decline in union membership starting almost from the election of Reagan. This has not been accidental. Right at the start of his presidency, he fired unionized air traffic controllers in response to their strike. This single event arguably gave permission to employers to take a more bare-knuckled approach to unions. It’s worthy of note that union members consistently earn higher wages than non-union workers, as shown in the chart to the left, and they also tend to vote more Democratic.
- In 1980, the top marginal tax rate paid by the richest Americans was 70%. Now it is 37%. This steady decline started with the Reagan tax cuts of 1981. Combined with Reagan’s attacks upon unions, these factors led almost directly to the high inequality we experience today.
- Reagan started the right’s devil’s bargain with evangelical conservatives that has become the basis of their political power despite the unpopularity of their economic policies. Remember that Carter almost won the evangelical vote in 1976. He would be the last Democrat to come close, thanks to Reagan’s courting of the group.
- Reagan’s rhetoric was at best anti-government, at worst race-baiting. Consider his “welfare queen” story that became the basis for him to attack government spending. This rhetoric is the ancestor of Trump’s attacks on African-Americans and immigrants.
- Reagan, both by administrative policy changes and by legislative veto, eliminated the long-standing fairness doctrine, that required broadcasters to grant equal time to opposing viewpoints. This change in policy is singularly responsible for the “dumbing down” of American political discourse. Recent research has shown, by the way, that a dumbed-down media leads to the rise of extremist populist politics.
These are just a few examples.
Our era is certainly unique. But its characteristics go back to the changes wrought by Ronald Reagan. To ultimately undo the damage made by Trump, then, we need to undo the damage done by Reagan.
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