The idea that Trump's GOP is nothing like Reagan's is getting a lot of buzz these days. It's a good opportunity to show how the left/right spectrum metaphor of politics makes people wrong.
If you start with the left/right spectrum metaphor and think about Ronald Reagan, you come up with an idea of "the right": small government, pro-business, big military, anti-Russian. That means the Democrats are "the left" and they are: big government, anti-business, small military, and pro-Communist.
If you read Reagan's First Inaugural with this framework, it is a right-wing conservative speech: the first half is about small government, and the second half is anti-Communist.
So when Donald Trump rides his golf-cart around Europe talking "America First, Russia a close second, Europe last" everyone agrees: this is not Reagan's GOP.
And when he talks about preserving entitlements like Social Security and Medicare or spending big on infrastructure, people say Trump is no Reagan.
Finally, when he's appealing to white supremacists with racist descriptions of Muslims and Mexicans, folks argue that that's not the tolerance of Ronald Reagan.
1. American foreign policy has never been a left/right spectrum. Read the obituaries of Zbigniew Brzezinski. There have been no significant foreign policy differences between the parties since WWII. The public cares about wars, so if one side starts a war, the other side sometimes opposes it, but the rest stays the same: Project power, militarily and diplomatically, to advance our interests. Yes, Trump departs from this. "America First" isn't Reagan. But it's not Democrats either. Donald Trump departs from the foreign policy establishment of both parties. It's neither here nor there on the question of whether he's transforming the GOP.
2. Ronald Reagan's "small government" conservatism is not about an abstract spectrum between Marxist communism and Adam Smith's empirical conclusions about unintended consequences of government action. "Small government" in the United States has always gone hand in hand with "States Rights". Ronald Reagan was elected thanks to former Democrats in the South coming along with the Southern Strategy. Those Neo-Confederate white people listened to Reagan talk and they heard a clear endorsement of white nationalism. If you whip up the racists the way Reagan did, but also talk "tolerance", you're still a racist.
Look no further than that first inaugural address. Get rid of the right/left metaphor. Read it with Trumpian ears. Yes, the second half is all about kicking Communist ass. But the first half is a white nationalist vision of government that attacks the Feds with words, phrases, and ideas lifted directly from John C. Calhoun and George Wallace.
Selections from Ronald Reagan's First Inaugural Address
Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O'Neill, Reverend Moomaw, and my fellow citizens:
The business of our nation goes forward. These United States are confronted with an economic affliction of great proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.
Why does Reagan say "These" instead of "The?" To harken back to the days before the Civil War.
There was a time a few years ago when the United States was spoken of in the plural number. Men said "the United States are" — "the United States have" — "the United States were." But the war changed all that. Along the line of fire from the Chesapeake to Sabine Pass was settled forever the question of grammar. Not Wells, or Green, or Lindley Murray decided it, but the sabers of Sheridan, the muskets of Sherman, the artillery of Grant. ... The surrender of Mr. Davis and Gen. Lee meant a transition from the plural to the singular.
—The Washington Post, Apr. 24, 1887, p. 4
Here's a graph of the use of the two words that io9 pulled off of Reddit:
So we're off to a good start with a subtle hint that the best America is the one before the Civil War.
A few paragraphs on:
But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.
Reagan doesn't just say deficits are unaffordable. Reagan asserts that deficit spending will cause riots, possibly race riots, if left unchecked. Otherwise, it would be just economic upheaval. Ten short years after the 1960s, "social, cultural, [and] political" upheaval is about race.
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we as Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
This, of course, is the heart and soul of Reaganism:
- Freedom is economic.
- Economic difficulties are caused by government and
- Taxing the rich is morally wrong.
Number 2 is just a false claim about how the world works, while 1 and 3 are not recognizable parts of any genuine political philosophy this side of Ayn Rand. For our purposes here, focus on the bit in the middle. It's a little strange, really: "From time to time we've been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people."
"From time to time" means when, exactly? Now. But what other time? And who was supposed to believe such things? The peanut farmer he'd just defeated? College footballer Gerald Ford? True, Reagan didn't invent the idea of criticizing East Coast elites, but where does this strange phrase "government by an elite group" come from? What changed to make Abraham Lincoln's revolutionary formulation of American government untrue? It doesn't really make sense...
The reason it doesn't make sense is it is lifted from the time before Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address forever changed our conception of American Democracy. Reagan's "elite group" inside the government is echoing the complaint of John C. Calhoun, about a "power" in the government, saying:
A power has risen up in the government greater than the people themselves, consisting of many and various and powerful interests, combined into one mass, and held together by the cohesive power of the vast surplus in the banks.
Make no mistake about who John C. Calhoun is. In the Speeches of John C. Calhoun published in 1843 by Harper & Brothers, Calhoun speaks on the subject of slavery and abolition:
But I take higher ground. I hold that, in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by colour, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding states between the two is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. I feel myself called upon to speak freely upon the subject, where the honour and interests of those I represent are involved. I hold, then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labour of the other. Broad and general as is this assertion, it is fully borne out by history.
Others have seen the influence of Calhoun on Reagan in the attacks on affirmative action during his administration. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that the present day legacy of Calhoun is straight-up racial hate.
But the Calhoun speech quoted by Reagan was addressed to the Senate not on the issue of slavery, but on the question of what should be done with the Federal surplus. For a brief moment in history, Andrew Jackson had given the Feds more money than they could spend by selling off Native American land. Reagan borrows from Calhoun where the latter addressed the question of what to do with all that money. Elsewhere in the speech, Calhoun sounds just like Reagan:
The surplus money in the treasury is not ours. It properly belongs to those who made it, and from whom it has been unjustly taken. I hold it an unquestionable principle, that the government has no right to take a cent from the people beyond what is necessary to meet its legitimate and constitutional wants. To take more intentionally would be robbery; and, if the government has not incurred the guilt in the present case, its exemption can only be found in its folly—the folly of not seeing and guarding against a vast excess of revenue, which the most ordinary understanding ought to have foreseen and prevented.
This Reagan-Calhoun connection is not directly about slavery, is it? It's just about returning money to the people, right?
Wrong. The issue is keeping the money out of the hands of the people Calhoun calls "various and powerful interests." For Calhoun, those interests were Northeastern bankers supportive of abolition. What's an interest for Reagan? Ronnie won't leave us hanging for long.
Returning to the First Inaugural:
We hear much of special interest groups. Well, our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we're sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, "We the people," this breed called Americans.
Reagan asserts an upside down world where he lists a bunch major special interest lobbies--farmers, industrialists, small business owners--and says "these things are not special interests." Instead, Reagan's special interests are the same as Calhoun's: ethnic and racial groups, i.e., black people. They say George W. Bush started "up is down and black is white" politics? Ronald Reagan said black people are a special interest but the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are not.
Then, moments after seeming to disqualify racial categories of Americans, Reagan reaffirms the use of racial language by identifying Americans as "a breed." There's only one way to make sense of the idea that Americans are "a breed" while maintaining that racial and ethnic categories are special interests: normal Americans are white, other types are special, i.e., not normal.
This idea that "American" implies "white American" in most situations is what makes Reagan's language so different from the superficially similar passage in the speech Barack Obama made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004:
A belief that we’re all connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, and yet still come together as one American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many, one.
Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
For Obama it's "out of many, one," where the one doesn't override the all the different identities of the many. Reagan also says "we are one," but it's because we can ignore the exceptions who think they're special.
Back to Reagan:
Well, this administration's objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans from the terror of runaway living costs.
Rush Limbaugh did not invent "Democrats are the real racists." Ronald Reagan offers that exact idea as he combines the fight against inflation with the fight to stop the bigotry of affirmative action into one noble goal.
Skipping forward a bit:
So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government—not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.
Reagan here borrows a phrase from The Declaration of Independence: "beyond the consent of the governed." The Declaration, of course, asserts the the remedy to such a situation is ultimately the right of violent armed revolution. Reagan is explicitly saying what Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle said 30 years later: we might need some "second amendment remedies" to solve our problems. There can be no debate: in 1981 Ronald Reagan called the Federal Government "tyrannical" as surely as John Wilkes Booth in 1865. The difference between "Sic semper tyrannis" and "grown beyond the consent of the governed" is one of degree, not kind.
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.
This is undiluted Confederate treason. John C. Calhoun could not have said it any better. Another Confederate, George Wallace, said it only slightly differently:
The people and their local self-governments formed a Central Government and conferred upon it certain stated and limited powers. All other powers were reserved to the states and to the people.
That, of course, was on June 11, 1963, when Wallace blocked the door to prevent black students from registering for class at the University of Alabama. Then, as now, it was rendered 100% false by the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution.
A few paragraphs later, Reagan is still channeling Wallace:
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.
The choice of words is significant. "Federal intervention" is a legal term describing what happens when a school district or police department systematically violates the Civil Rights of citizens, forcing the Federal government to act to protect those rights. Meanwhile, "intrusion" is George Wallace's favorite word for the situation. Return to the schoolhouse door:
The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government. This intrusion results solely from force, or threat of force, undignified by any reasonable application of the principle of law, reason and justice. It is important that the people of this State and nation understand that this action is in violation of rights reserved to the State by the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Alabama. While some few may applaud these acts, millions of Americans will gaze in sorrow upon the situation existing at this great institution of learning.
Only the Congress makes the law of the United States. To this date no statutory authority can be cited to the people of this Country which authorizes the Central Government to ignore the sovereignty of this State in an attempt to subordinate the rights of Alabama and millions of Americans. There has been no legislative action by Congress justifying this intrusion.
If you believe in the reality of the left/right spectrum, all of this is just another way to say "small government." In that case, Donald Trump seems like a totally different Republican. This is especially easy to conclude if you keep reading Reagan's speech as he announces foreign policy aspirations about as different from the Putin-loving Trump as you can imagine.
But where it really matters, on the issue of domestic policy, and non-college white voters in the South, Donald Trump advocates the exact same race hate that Ronald Reagan echoed in his first inaugural and in his first campaign stop of 1980 as the Republican nominee.
During the "Freedom Summer" of 1964, young people from across the country flocked to Mississippi to register black people to vote. On June 21st, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Department and the KKK conspired to ambush and murder three young civil rights workers. The Federal Investigation ("intervention and intrusion") into the matter was called MIBURN and the fictional novel that came out of it was call "Mississippi Burning."
In his first event after being nominated at the 1980 Republican National Convention, Ronald Reagan stood up at the Neshoba County Fair and declared "I believe in States Rights." Everyone knew exactly what he meant.