Would He, Though?



You hear it a lot today. Ronald Reagan would be ashamed of today's Republican Party (I refuse to call them "GOP," as there is nothing Grand about them, and the Democratic party is Older). Today's party would have no use for Ronald Reagan, they say. Mainly because Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire, and today's Trumpians tout Vladimir Putin, former KGB agent, as a good example of a strong leader who has no time for "wokeness."

This is an argument that misses A LOT of nuance -- today's Republicans still hate "Commies," but only see them in China; Putin, by pretending to nominally be a Christian, doesn't check off that box any more in their minds. But let's focus on Ronnie.

Reagan, so the popular conservative mythmaking goes, built up our nuclear arsenal so terrifyingly, while augmenting it with space lasers, that he stared down the big evil Soviets so badly that they tore down the Berlin wall on his command and disbanded their country. More or less.

But Reagan was just saying the same things as every Republican at the time. He said them better, because he was an actor who had great timing and could deliver a line. The reason he was so beloved by the party intelligentsia is that he could sell every cruel, unpopular idea to the masses as kindly, grandfatherly patriotism that not-coincidentally sucked all the money upwards to the top guys. The vast majority of folks who vote Republicans are not policy wonks, and that's what the party is finding out now, as it splits between the populists who just want to hear that they're the good guys and everyone else is the bad guys, and those who read the Federalist papers and Locke and Friedman for recreation.

Reagan appealed to both at once, as well as to those who believe war is best avoided by being the strongest, scariest, most belligerent player in the block. But his role was to speak those things at that time. Had his role been to say other things, would he not have said them? I suggest to you that indeed, he'd have said whatever the party wanted.

The only time he really went off-script, it seems to me, based on my recollections and readings since was when, after Operation Able Archer and The Day After on TV, it suddenly occurred to him that the Soviets might think we would nuclear-attack them first, something he hadn't considered before. Upon being told by Thatcher that Gorbachev was someone we could do business with, he started seriously talking to him about abolishing all nuclear weapons forever. I know right-wingers think that was a clever bluff, and Gorbachev only promised that because he was terrified of SDI, but I don't buy that. Both, at the end of their tenure, saw a real chance to put the Cold War behind us. One we've sadly squandered, though I mostly blame Putin for that, and Clinton/W to a lesser degree.

If Reagan were around today, he would not only remember his own commandment not to speak ill of a fellow Republican, but he'd still say whatever the party told him to say, I think. That's the main difference between him and Trump, who takes few cues from anybody. It's the difference between a company man and a narcissist. Maybe a much younger Reagan would pull what he did with the Democrats, and say "the party left me." But Old Man Reagan? He knew how to read the script. And I'd bet he still would.