Convergence / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

Trump’s Dog, Reagan’s Whistle, and the Republican Party Core

Lola Flash, NIH Demo-ACT UP

Image Credit: Lola Flash, NIH Demo-ACT UP, (1990), 7 x 5. Courtesy of the author.

If the desire to investigate the January 6 assault on the Capitol—to get to the bottom of what happened—has become so controversial that some people dispute whether there is anything to get to the bottom of, perhaps we should start with the bottom-line question: How could anything so prima facie become such a bottomless pit? In that regard, the search for errors, procedural and conspiratorial, might benefit from acknowledging that almost all those involved in the Capitol attack were indoctrinated, throughout their adult lives, by the mantra “government is the problem.” Thus, the January 6 mob—and those among the Capitol’s defenders who facilitated that mob—could easily believe that instead of trying to overthrow the nation, they were actively solving a national problem.

The larger point, therefore, is that Trumpism is not a departure from Reagan Republicanism, but rather its apotheosis, that “Morning in America” signals the re-birth of a nation whose “greatness” is its whiteness. That theme connects Trump, via Reagan, to, among many, many, other things, the Tulsa Race Massacre, Plessy v. Ferguson, the Ku Klux Klan, and the sentimental valorization of the Confederacy as the repository of the most noble American values:

You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best
The night they drove old Dixie down

We must remember that Reagan, announcing his 1980 Presidential campaign just seven miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, did so by proclaiming his belief in “states’ rights.” He was running for President, in other words, as the avatar of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and their predecessors (who were, by then, [if you mean to include these, Wallace died in 1998; Thurmond retained his Senate seat nearly until his death in 2003] ) who believed that what made the United States “the leader of the Free World” was how well it realized “the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race” (a slogan coined in 1845 to encourage the annexation of Texas because racially inferior Mexicans, its logic held, were not destined to manage any part of a continent as important as North America). The Freedom Summer Project, like Reconstruction, Brown v. Bd of Ed., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 all needed to be undone in order to restore American greatness–that is, to manifest once more its Anglo-Saxon destiny.

Reagan’s presidency, performed more congenially if no less dishonestly than Trump’s, thematically united the tentacles of the political philosophy foundational to Trumpism. For example, to defend his support of the Nicaraguan contras, Reagan warned Americans that

Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sea lanes, and ultimately, move against Mexico. Should that happen, desperate Latin peoples by the millions would begin fleeing north into the cities of the southern United States, or to wherever some hope of freedom remained. (emphasis added)

The consequence of allowing a leftwing government to rule Nicaragua, in other words, was the onslaught of non-Anglo-Saxons across the southern border. If Trump shared Reagan’s fear of nonwhites flooding the nation, he conveniently ignored the fact that the current asylum-seekers have been motivated not by the Nicaraguan government Reagan felt impelled to topple, but by the regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala he supported, regimes replete with death squads whose commanders were trained at the U.S. Government’s School of the Americas. Thus, in Guatemala, multiple U.S.-backed dictators were responsible for many thousands of “disappearances” and 200,000 deaths. Children there were not separated from their parents and put in cages; instead, they were reunited with their parents in unmarked graves. In El Salvador, in the 1980s, an array of U.S.-backed leaders oversaw a relentless campaign of death squads that tormented—often tortured or beheaded—civilians and members of the clergy.

More troublingly, Reagan’s Central America policy was of a piece with his general disregard for how nonwhite lives mattered, anywhere. Thus his assault on affirmative action was prolific and multi-pronged. Early in his first term, he attacked the program as a form of discrimination against white people, implicitly promoting the idea that undereducated, marginalized white students, along with disenfranchised, underpaid white workers—the demographic group now seen as constituting Trump’s core—were being replaced by non-whites who were, a priori, less qualified. Equal opportunity and affirmative action programs thus exemplified, for Reagan, one more way in which government was the problem; “reverse discrimination” simply anticipated its kindred slogan, “all lives matter.”

In 1986, Reagan vetoed a bill placing sanctions on apartheid South Africa, because, in prototypically Trumpian gibberish, he considered the sanctions to be “economic welfare.” We should put aside the fact that all “welfare” is economic, since shamelessly uttering nonsense (such as “trees cause more pollution than cars,” or “all the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk”) was a skill mastered by Reagan with an aplomb never matched by Trump. As presidential scholar James David Barber noted, “Ronald Reagan is the first modern president whose contempt for the facts is treated as a charming idiosyncrasy.” Much more important is how the racism in Reagan’s (ir)rationale for the veto trumps its idiosyncratic charm, for in using the word “welfare” to oppose apartheid, Reagan was issuing a dog whistle connecting the South African sanctions to any action perceived to benefit (undeserving) black people by tapping the earnings or efforts of (virtuous) white people. Hadn’t Reagan warned that the American economy was being harmed by “welfare queens,” a phrase that doubles down on its own racist and sexist coding? If “welfare” connoted Reagan’s misconception that most people receiving government benefits were black, then “queens” intimated that welfare offered an aristocratic lifestyle to (chiefly) women who lacked the appropriate bloodlines. Most white people, the phrase’s subsequent iterations today imply, should not need an interview with Meghan Markle to make them aware that a royal title comes with DNA requirements.

Reaganomics, which tripled the national debt, by turning Republicans from the party of fiscal conservatives to the party of deadbeats, in effect engineered a transfer of working-class earnings to lender-class savings. From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, the United States underwent the largest economic expansion in the history of the world (in 1945, the U.S. produced more than one half of the entire world’s goods and services) but nevertheless experienced relatively low inflation because inflation was checked by tax policy rather than monetary policy: high tax brackets removed money from the economy much more efficiently than high interest rates, and it did so by taking money from those whose revenue was high while sparing those who were struggling. Most important, however, every penny received from high taxes went into government coffers, enabling the government to serve national interests—to build universities, subsidize tuition, support public housing, and enable high-paying blue-collar jobs to expand and maintain the most advanced national infrastructure in the world—while prolific government borrowing, which funnels interest to private citizens, private institutions, and foreign countries, puts servicing the national debt above servicing the nation. While it would take a book-length study to detail extensively the sundry impacts of this transfer of wealth to the lender class, it should suffice to point out the obvious: The consequent underfunding of public education and transportation necessitated by this transfer affected racial minorities most egregiously, especially when coupled with the concomitant environmental racism that follows from the undisputed premise that government cannot solve problems.

And it was well known among Reagan conservatives, especially those with a libertarian bent, that institutionalizing deadbeat budgeting—increasing debt while lowering taxes—would gradually but unavoidably gut the social safety net. Public housing programs dissolved, and homelessness skyrocketed. The antitrust division of the DOJ concentrated chiefly on college admission policies, while corporate mergers and acquisitions boomed, virtually unchecked, in the 1980s and thereafter. And in general, the enforcement power of the government was profoundly weakened by sharp employee decreases. The IRS, adhering to what Reagan called his own “drain the swamp” policy, eliminated over 1,500 positions, and unpaid taxes among those in the upper brackets increased radically. The wealthy knew that the IRS was auditing 50% fewer returns and that its understaffed, overworked offices were, in any case, likely to miss many instances of undervalued assets and overvalued deductions. If each of these consequences of Reaganism negatively affected all poor and working-class Americans, racial minorities were additionally burdened by being scapegoated as causing the decline in the standard of living experienced by the bottom half of the country.

Three decades of increased tuition and declining education, of skyrocketing medical costs and deteriorating medical care, of inflated desires and shrinking opportunities, all of which failures were rhetorically linked to the increase of the nation’s nonwhite population, has solidified a cadre of hardcore racists who shun encoding their racism, and another group of equally hardcore fellow travelers who more tactfully embrace coded racism and pant at dog whistles. It is hard to know how many voters fall into this combined group that treats as axiomatic the idea that the fate of the nation depends on its ability to limit and discipline its nonwhite population.

In that context, however, I want to hypothesize three things: one, based on current polling, this combined group of overt and covert hardcore racists represents (at least) fifteen percent of the population; two, Trump’s unfiltered expression of racist attitudes—which a large portion of this combined group had formerly feared would mark them as shameful—has catalyzed the transformation of their resentments into an aggressive pride and blind loyalty; and three, the group’s pride and loyalty has exponentially increased its voter turnout, such that although all Republican voters are not racists, we can safely say almost all racists vote Republican. To be very conservative, therefore, I’m going to posit that these racist voters constitute ten percent of the election turnout, which in their case means ten percent of the Republican turnout. Thus, if we subtract the racists from the vote tallies of all the sitting U.S. senators, ten of the Republican seats (won by less than ten percent) would be Democratic if the Republican senator had failed to secure the racist vote. Similarly, thirty-six Republican House members won by less than ten percent, meaning that without the aid of hardcore racists, there would be seventy-five more Democrats than Republicans in the House.

The sad, if not horrifying consequence of this rough, hypothetical calculation is that if the Republican Party fails to inspire racist voters, it is doomed permanently to be the minority party. In other words, Ronald Reagan’s legacy has been to turn control of the party to the cause of racism, a fact that precludes letting a sentimental attachment to Reagan form the basis for any attempted bipartisan engagement with voter suppression or systemic racism. It means that every time we hear someone claim nostalgically that today’s Republican Party is not the party of Reagan, we must revise President Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can!” to “Yes, it is!”



1The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” 1969.

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