The false memory of an immaculate Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Is Donald Trump a continuation of the postwar conservative movement — or its executioner? A year after his electoral defeat, scholars, journalists, and pundits continue to debate the former president's place in a lineage that extends back to Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and beyond.

In a recent essay for The Atlantic, David Brooks makes the case that Trump broke the conservative mold. Reporting from the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Brooks argues Trump "destroyed the Reagan Republican paradigm in 2016." He doesn't define the phrase, but "Reagan Republican" seems to mean the combination of avuncular manners, optimistic rhetoric, and free-market policy with which Reagan is associated.

Brooks deplores that break but shares his interpretation of Reagan with many who celebrate it. Yet Reagan nostalgics would do well to remember that he was a far more complicated politician than his popular reputation today might have you believe.

In recent years, nationalists, populists, and other dissidents on the right have attacked Reagan as, at best, a temporizer who failed to halt the country's lurch toward the left. Where Brooks sees optimistic patriotism, these critics see a soulless indifference to tradition and virtue that was unable to sustain conservative influence on the economy and culture.

But despite his reputation for laissez-faire, Reagan imposed tariffs on Japanese imports. Far from embracing moral neutrality, he made opposition to abortion a job requirement for national Republicans and directed his Justice Department to crack down on pornography. In foreign policy, Reagan deployed the Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force, then removed them after a car bomb killed 241 U.S. personnel. Whatever their specific merits, these decisions reflect a more politically and economically flexible approach than accounts of libertarian-dominated "fusionism" admit.

The coalition that brought Reagan to power was also more diverse than its caricature as the revenge of Goldwater. Composed partly of movement veterans, it also drew on the post-Nixon "New Right." Figures like Jerry Falwell and Richard Viguerie were more religious, demotic, and media-savvy than most Goldwater-era conservatives. As a result, they were to mobilize larger cohorts of voters, including many who hadn't previously supported Republicans.

The replacement of the real Reagan with a two-dimensional caricature isn't a recent development. For years, conservative institutions promoted a kind of hero-worship that obscured Reagan's contradictions and reduced his agenda to tax cuts and deregulation. Lacking personal memories of the period and reared on social media polemics rather than more judicious assessments, a new generation of conservatives is reacting against that caricature. As Brooks notes, the audience at the conference skewed very young and very online.

History doesn't repeat itself, and there are differences as well as similarities between Trump and his predecessors. But the "Reagan paradigm" that disillusioned ex-Republicans like Brooks lament and national conservatives reject is more of a retrospective construction than either want to admit. For admirers, the false memory of an immaculate Reagan is a way of ignoring currents of populist rage that have been necessary to carry conservative mandarins into positions of influence. At the same time, the myth of libertarian indifference allows critics to avoid thinking about why Reagan's legions lost many of the culture wars they fought.

Conservatives will finally be past Reagan when both factions can recognize the successes as well as the failures of his career.

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