The Awful Reagan Was Much More Appealing To The Base Than The Not-So-Awful Reagan
February 25, 2016

In a New York Times op-ed, Jacob Weisberg notes that Ronald Reagan was much less doctrinaire than the party that now worships him:

HE supported the biggest amnesty bill in history for illegal immigrants, advocated gun control, used Keynesian stimulus to jump-start the economy, favored personal diplomacy even with the country’s sworn enemies and instituted tax increases in six of the eight years of his presidency.

He was Ronald Reagan.

The core beliefs that got Reagan elected and re-elected were conservative: lower taxes, smaller government and a stronger, more assertive military. But Reagan was also a pragmatist, willing to compromise, able to improvise in pursuit of his goals and, most of all, eager to expand his party’s appeal....

Once in office, Reagan said that anytime he could get 70 percent of what he wanted from a legislature, he’d take it. Today’s congressional Republicans won’t settle even for 99 percent: Their mentality has shifted away from having policies and governing and toward a kind of bitter-end obstructionism.

Weisberg argues that the party has become much more angry, hateful, and dogmatic than Reagan was:

The current field of Republican presidential candidates invokes Reagan as a patron saint, but the characteristics that made him a successful politician seem lost on them. Instead, they’ve turned his party into a swamp of nativism, ideological extremism and pessimism about the country’s future, in direct opposition to Reagan’s example.

But I think Weisberg is looking at this the wrong way. Instead of asking why contemporary Republicans have stopped being like Reagan, he should be asking why they think they're like Reagan, and why they adore a guy with a squishy record like that.

I think it's because they look at Reagan's ability to enrage Democrats and liberals during his eight years in office and find it so profoundly soul-satisfying that they can't see what they would regard as flaws in Reagan's character -- namely, all the moderation and compromise Weisberg describes.

Because they can't bring themselves to notice it, they've never tried to imitate it. They imitate only the things about Reagan they love -- the things that gave the opposition conniption fits.

And they're having the same reaction to Trump now. Trump may be angry and nativist, but he's also skeptical of tax cuts for the rich and wary of certain foreign entanglements. Yet his fans don't seem to see the deviations from orthodoxy. All they see is what excites them -- which is, please note, a Reaganite message reworked for the 21st century (undocumented immigrants as the new welfare freeloaders, ISIS as the new global communism).

Pundits are telling us that Trump's deviations from the GOP script will have a long-term impact on Republican ideology, even if he's not elected president (hell, even if he doesn't win the nomination). I don't buy it. Reagan raised some taxes, negotiated with some evildoers, and legalized some immigrants -- and yet his worshippers never want to do any of those things. Donald Trump will be remembered as the guy who wants to bomb the shit out of ISIS, not the guy who wants to cozy up to Vladimir Putin. He'll be remembered as the guy who wanted a wall, not the guy who wanted a door in that wall. He might be a compromiser and a dealmaker, but he'll be remembered as a guy who drew lines in the sand and never budged, because that's what Republicans want him to be.

The foundation on which modern GOP orthodoxy is built is some of what Ronald Reagan did. The rest of what he did -- the less loathsome stuff -- is ignored. The same will be true for Trump.

(Crossposted from No More Mr. Nice Blog)

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