How the ghost of Reagan still haunts the Republicans

Mission statements from the GOP candidates point to a political movement haunted by the ghost of Ronald Reagan.

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In October 1964, at the end of a campaign that began with a popular president’s assassination, Ronald Reagan delivered a televised speech in support of the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater. Reagan, a defector from the Democrats who suspected that under JFK’s “tousled boyish haircut” lurked “old Karl Marx”, presented Americans with a clear choice: they could believe in their “capacity for self-government” or “confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us”.

Goldwater’s run culminated in one of the worst defeats in the Grand Old Party’s history, yet Reagan’s speech, “A Time for Choosing”, launched his political career, establishing him as a grass-roots favourite of disillusioned conservatives. In 1967 he became governor of California as campus militancy – in support of civil rights and women’s liberation, against the Vietnam war and intemperate public attitudes towards drugs and sexual expression – flickered across the nation’s screens. Reagan’s uncompromising stance against the counterculture (“I’d like to harness their youthful energy with a strap”) set the tone for his presidency: he pictured the world in binary terms. He believed that his was a “struggle between right and wrong and good and evil”. The public could either jump on his bandwagon or snipe from the sidelines.

The counterculture and the Reaganite response left America a divided nation – split between blue states and red; between urban coastlines and rural heartlands; between progressives, questioning social norms and political authority, and conservatives, relying on these to deliver stability. Today, despite the best efforts of the Reagan presidency, many rank-and-file right-wingers believe the other side has won. In their eyes, the countercultural radicals became the intellectual elite Reagan warned about, their rise symbolised by those ambitious liberal 68ers, the Clintons: Bill, the libidinal, pot-smoking, draft-dodging Rhodes scholar and Yale Law School alumnus who won his own two-term presidency for the Democrats in the 1990s, and Hillary, the bright student feminist activist (also a Yale lawyer) who became first lady and will likely land the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016. Having lost the popular vote five times in the past six attempts (Al Gore got over half a million more votes than George W Bush in 2000) – and with another liberal lawyer making his way from the White House – conservatives are holding out for a hero on horseback to take back their country.

For the GOP, the election began in earnest on the evening of 6 August when ten men took to a stage in Cleveland, Ohio to fire their opening salvos at an expectant nation through the Fox News Channel. A further six men and one woman were relegated to an earlier slot, managing to sidestep Donald Trump and the bookmakers’ favourite, John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, the self-proclaimed “guy who met his first president on the day he was born, and his second on the day he was brought home from the hospital”.

Neither front-runner need worry about name recognition – a Bush has appeared on over half the Republican presidential/vice-presidential tickets since Reagan took office, while Trump (who told Playboy in 1990 that he would only ever run “if I saw this country continue to go down the tubes”) benefits from decades-long associations with TV shows, glamorous wives and skyscrapers. Although Trump, as poll leader, is lavished with the press attention he craves, bids by the more eccentric candidates have been derailed in the past. Four other men led the Republican race in 2012 before Mitt Romney won the nomination; they included Newt Gingrich, who promised to fire lasers at North Korea and colonise the moon by 2020, and the pizza magnate Herman Cain (“The more toppings a man has on his pizza, I believe the more manly he is”).

Many runners this time around have been courting supporters for months, marketing books to promote their fitness to govern, or simply to inform the public of their existence. Barack Obama’s success with The Audacity of Hope (published two years before his ascent to the presidency) reversed the tradition of political writing away from retrospective memoirs by great statesmen and towards manifestos or mission statements, proposed by politicians who have yet to achieve anything but aim to do so in future.

The class of 2016 is haunted by the ghost of Reagan, held in Christlike reverence as initiates prostrate themselves before him. Scott Walker tells us that he celebrates the Gipper’s birthday every year with “patriotic songs” and “his favourite foods – macaroni and cheese casserole and red, white and blue Jelly Belly jelly beans”. In A Time for Truth, Ted Cruz describes a picnic at the Reagan ranch after the president’s death where he was too scared to sit in his chair, instead standing behind it and “soaking up the ambience of a man I’ve admired my whole life”.

A free-market social conservative well liked by the Republican Party faithful, Cruz works in his Senate office beneath a giant oil painting of Reagan at the Bradenburg Gate in Berlin which Cruz commissioned after his election to the upper house. A Time for Truth deftly claims his hero’s inheritance, offering parallels with the great leader’s modest backstory. Each man had a strained relationship with his father (Cruz’s dad walked out on him at three years old and did not return until months later; Reagan’s was an alcoholic), close bonds with a put-upon mother (Cruz: “my mother has been a best friend for as long as I can remember”), religious revelations, and strange hobbies involving animals (Reagan kept birds’ eggs, Cruz caught bullfrogs).

Florid descriptions of teenage outsiderdom – Ted, then known as “Felito”, was “kind of a weird kid” who had acne and wore braces – position the Texan as a small-town striver willing and able to triumph over adversity, a stance replicated by his rivals Walker (“maybe I was a bit of a geek”) and Ben Carson, “a quintessential nerd” who was “the butt of all the jokes”. In contrast to, say, the Clintons, or the privileged Kennedys, Republicans are happy to be viewed as underdogs: the American public loves an underdog. For Cruz, this outsider status continues well into adolescence (in a scene reminiscent of National Lampoon’s Animal House, he is peer-pressured into picking up “36 rolls of toilet paper, several cans of shaving cream, toothpaste and baby shampoo” for a prank at a rival high school in revenge for stealing their flag, before speeding away to a soundtrack of Ride of the Valkyries while being chased by janitors) and then into university, where he is fleeced for $2,000 by “cool varsity jocks” in a game of poker.

Against a Hillary candidacy, the perpetuation of Reagan’s rift between ordinary citizens and a distant elite may help shore up the Republican voting base. However, to get past the finishing post and into the White House in 2016, the party has chosen to confront an additional force: itself. Entrants capitalising on defying the political establishment must now be willing to take on their own party elders. Predecessors are treated with disdain. The George W Bush administration is castigated for spending too much (Cruz: “A Republican president should not add $5trn to the national debt”), while “moderates” such as John McCain and Romney are pilloried as out of touch and elitist – the worst possible nominees for the past two presidential races. (It seems you are hung out to dry if you lead a right-wing party to popular humiliation in America. In the UK you are made foreign secretary or placed in charge of the welfare system.)

Rand Paul’s Taking a Stand further asserts that, rather than rally against the power of the executive – a goal that the GOP has pursued loudly throughout the Obama years – voters should be far more suspicious of congressional democracy. His pitch for the role of “anti-politics” candidate argues that “No one will tell the truth” in a “screwed-up Washington” where “logic is the exception”. Members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, are overcome by “tribal righteousness, petulance, apathy and plain old laziness”, and spend their time “blowing hot air at one another across the aisle”.

From the age of 11, Paul campaigned for his father, Ron, the perennial party outsider, a libertarian isolationist, anti-government, anti-war figure whose primary runs in 2008 and 2012 were frustrated by the Republican establishment. Now a new force, the Tea Party (a staunchly conservative, billionaire-funded grass-roots network that surfaced early in the Obama years), is in place to thwart the top brass. Contestants jostle to court its favour or risk losing an energised support base. Its populism mimics the language of the left, activist citizens railing against their exploitative overlords housed in Washington. With long-standing representatives barracked as treasonous “Rinos” (Republicans In Name Only) and angered that Tea Partiers claim credit for the GOP’s midterm gains, the party establishment has reacted by seeking to sabotage the selection races of Tea Party-favoured nominees. Senator Paul, “spurred by a movement”, even conflates the subversion of the African-American civil rights struggle with “transgressions against the Tea Party”, and advocates “civil disobedience in pursuit of higher purpose”. If the established democratic channels of the republic of the United States are no longer fit for purpose, that prompts the question: why are these people running for nomination in the first place?

The answer seems to be a profound love for their country, elevated above petty squabbling. All of these authors promote the notion of American exceptionalism, the fundamental assumption that the US is uniquely and divinely ordained to provide global leadership. For Republicans, America’s privileged place in the world order justifies its unilateralism – Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” or Lincoln’s “last best hope of earth”, whose interests coincide with those of mankind. God, conspicuous by His absence from the constitution, was installed by Dwight D Eisenhower through the national motto (“In God We Trust”) in 1956. Misconceptions about the founding of the US continue to underpin the values of the present-day GOP. It “starts with a God who gave birth to this nation”, the former pastor and Fox News talk-show host Mike Huckabee believes. And Paul insists that the rights of citizens “stem from our Creator”.

All of these hopefuls fall over themselves to demonstrate their Christian credentials (Cruz: “I’ve seen the fruits of a walk with Christ in my own life”) but only one, Rick Santorum, emerges as a politician who undertakes God’s work as a career. Bumped from the first prime-time debate because of his poor polling, this second-time entrant and devout traditionalist borrows heavily from the word of the Almighty. Each chapter of Bella’s Gift, the saccharine family memoir he has co-written with his wife, begins with a quotation from the Bible. He announces: “I came to the Senate and found the Lord!” We gain an insight into his priorities as we see Karen Santorum “put her professional dreams on hold to put family first and help me pursue my calling” and his children home-schooled, “to be in rhythm with my Senate schedule”. He proudly walks us through the introduction of his bill curtailing abortion rights (“I felt certain I was following God’s will . . . and my prayer life was better than ever”) and then uses his experience as the father of a disabled child to advance his “pro-life” position, slam the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and offer relationship advice: “We see Jesus as the model for us in marriage as in everything.”

Reagan, too, was guided by scripture and saw the “signs foretelling Armageddon”, wondering “if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about”. But with the Evil Empire dismantled and the war on terror placed on hold, America faces no obvious existential threat. So, what happens to a Republican Party historically gratified by apocalyptic alarmism? It shifts its gaze back on to home-grown, “hidden” subversives. Carson’s One Nation, comfortably outselling its rivals, is awash with shrill language warning of imperial decline, and proffers vivid imagery of the sort underpinning his party’s recent catastrophism. This fledgling politico is a retired paediatric neurosurgeon, brought to prominence by Fox News (again) through his opposition to Obamacare, “the worst thing in our country since slavery”.

Carson, the only African American in the GOP race, believes that his upbringing and “horrible life” in “dire poverty” in Detroit, Michigan, profoundly affected his political journey. He was “plagued by a violent temper”, at one point almost killing a classmate with a knife. His juvenile inkling that “someone was always infringing on my rights” continued into adult life, the author taking a scattergun approach as to what comprises his nation’s bloated fifth column – “pop culture, Hollywood, politicians and the media”, government in its “quest for total control of our lives”, secular progressives who have “beaten [the public] into submission”, and the “PC police” who “muzzle the populace”, so that people are afraid to say “Merry Christmas” at Christmas-time.

Using an approach that’s less presidential bid, more Breivik-style manifesto, Carson compares America today to the Weimar Republic, arguing that its citizens “have been lulled to sleep” and need a strong leader to “awaken us from a slumber”. Having mislaid their moral compass, they are marching down a road to “serfdom”, manipulated by enemies hell-bent on “Enslaving Our Children” (the title for chapter seven). Terrified readers may hope for redemption only if we follow his action steps at the end of each chapter – bland truisms, appropriated as if they were his original ideas, among them: “Try listening twice as much as talking since you have two ears and only one mouth.”

Long outliving its masterful chronicler Richard Hofstadter, the paranoid style of politics is alive and well in the modern Republican Party. Hofstadter, a two-time Pulitzer-winning historian, concluded that a “paranoid” spokesman of the radical right believes himself to be “a militant leader”, “capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public”. Prospective commanders-in-chief such as Cruz, eager to emulate Republican presidents who oversaw real warfare from Indochina through Central America and into the Arab world, deploy the language of battle (“in the trenches fighting”, “abject surrender”, “die on the barricades”) against domestic extremists: big government, the mainstream media, liberal culture, political correctness, university campuses, trade unions and their Democratic puppet masters.

Huckabee, a 60-year-old former governor of Arkansas, hints heavily that, in order to prevent a new Holocaust, Americans should keep weapons without telling the authorities (“the Nazi’s [sic] had guns and the Jews didn’t”). Conspiracy theory continues to entrance the GOP, playing up to a Tea Party insurgency comfortable with “birtherism” (the belief that Obama was not born in America and is thus ineligible to be president) as well as the kooky philosophies of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Donald Trump, who is well ahead in the polls since the first Fox debate. On that occasion, he repeated his belief that the Mexican government was sending drug smugglers and rapists across America’s southern border.

Demographic shifts and identity politics have gone some way to changing the discourse in Washington in the post-Reagan era. In June, Hillary Clinton declared: “Millions of people of colour still experience racism in their everyday lives,” and President Obama welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage as “a victory for America”. Yet a sense of unease bubbles below, and Huckabee, to garner support for his second run at the presidency, exploits small-town America’s feelings of discomfort with the 21st century. The author of books such as Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork, he has been a popular figure in the Republican Party since he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and has used his broadcast platforms to take pot shots at Democratic opponents. His latest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, is a shameless appeal to those living in “flyover country”: “I didn’t write it for academics and scholars because I think it would be over their heads.”

Huckabee clings to the Culture Wars for dear life, believing that young people have been corrupted by sex tapes, twerking and reality TV; feminism has gone too far because sitcoms and commercials portray men as “buffoons”; and the “angry, profanity-laced rants” of gay activists are tolerated only because the president is “cheerleader-in-chief for all things gay”. Sounding at times like a column by a concussed Richard Littlejohn, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy is replete with punchy exclamations (“Well, la-de-freakin-da!”) and infantile similes (talking to New Yorkers about guns is like “announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory”). Huckabee’s heartbreakingly bad prose sees a need to explain “jokes”, stretch out sentences to excruciating length (“Admittedly, the term ‘alien’ sounds a bit like the title role in the Sigourney Weaver movie blockbuster”) and write “pun intended” after he has not made a pun.

Modernisers such as Rand Paul seek a break from “your grandfather’s GOP” and revel in efforts to pull new constituencies into “the New GOP” (Reagan announced a “New Republican Party” in the mid-1970s and Bill Clinton’s Democrats adopted the “new” prefix a quarter-century ago). Assured of support from the libertarian internet warriors who powered his father’s campaigns, Paul reaches out to those concerned about the environment, claiming he is a “tree hugger and proud of it”, although, rather than tackle climate change, he details the history of planting things in his garden. Of the newest-generation candidates, the prospective leaders – Walker, Cruz, Marco Rubio – are fortysomethings who first won office in the Obama years. Although they may be best placed to attract millennials, their attempts to sound youth-friendly are less than convincing, falling back on clumsy references to Uber, Mad Men and cat videos.

Senior GOP figures believe that the Florida senator Rubio, now 44, briefly mooted in 2012 as a nominee for vice-president and heralded on a 2013 front cover of Time as “The Republican Saviour”, is capable and charismatic enough to draw in new audiences, especially younger voters and Latinos. His American Dreams, however, reads like a wonkish think-tank report, stiffly addressing young graduates with such insights as “The web has transformed the way we do business” and “Just like globalisation, technology is here to stay”. Occasionally dismissive of the millennial generation, he says that rather than practising financial pragmatism, it is often “clueless and focused on [its] dreams”.

Rubio and his peers understand that the main battleground in the 2016 election will be the economy, considerably restructured since Reaganomics took hold. Though willing to indulge in banker-bashing, accusing the 1 per cent of “crony capitalism” and receiving “corporate welfare”, candidates are forever walking a tightrope between buttering up “blue-collar conservatives” and bootlicking big business. So wedded are they to the market – Rand Paul, within a matter of pages, commends Adam Smith, Hayek, Schumpeter and von Mises – that they cannot help but sneer about income inequality (Rubio says that the subject is “sucking up lots of political oxygen these days”).

In general, rookie representatives will find it difficult to position themselves as the “new Reagan”. The 40th president was less than three weeks short of his 70th birthday when he was first inaugurated, having lost the nomination in 1968 and 1976 to more moderate Republicans. The contenders’ career highlights show only fleeting national exposure: Carson insulting Obama at a prayer breakfast; Paul spending 13 hours filibustering a CIA appointment, inspiring the hashtag #StandwithRand; Cruz, slightly disingenuously, defending a Ten Commandments monument and protecting “US sovereignty from the UN”; Rubio, modestly, introducing legislation to “reallocate spectrum used by the federal government for commercial wireless services”.

Scott Walker has limited national experience, yet the Harley-riding Wisconsin governor, who came to attention after winning a fiercely contested state recall election in 2012, believes he has what it takes to reach “into Obama’s base”. For his pitch, Unintimidated, he thrashes through the minutiae of union reform in his home state. To make things more appealing, derivations of popular movies morph into chapter headings: “Bring It On”, “Super-Size It”, “Enter the Thunderdome”. Peppering his book with Americanisms such as “boondoggle”, “double down” and “bait and switch”, Walker may consider it to be a page-turner akin to an SAS-type thriller. He waxes lyrical about his “Command Centre” and the time he sneaked out through an underground tunnel, in “a scene out of Call of Duty”. Think Andy McNab does legislative logjam.

Walker spends much of this turgid tome, however, quoting puff pieces from his local papers, including the Janesville Gazette and Wausau Daily Herald, or providing tedious fiscal detail such as the salaries for workers mowing the verges along the highways in Racine County. Desperate to be considered the consensus candidate, he perpetuates the Reaganite myth that Republican representatives can unify a Manichaean electorate (“Obama-Walker voters”). But he undermines this position with distinctly uncivil language when describing pro-union activists, some “smoking pot” and wearing “Che Guevara T-shirts”: they had the “odour of unwashed humanity” and made the capitol building smell “like a Port-a-John”. The reliance on these bogeymen, lifted from Reagan’s contretemps with the counterculture, will leave readers wondering whether the Republican Party has changed in character or composition in the past 50 years. 

Books featured in this essay:

A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America by Ted Cruz
     Broadside Books, 400pp, $27.99
Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America by Rand Paul
     Center Street, 320pp, $27
Bella’s Gift: How One Little Girl Transformed Our Family and Inspired a Nation by Rick and Karen Santorum
     Thomas Nelson, 288pp, $24.99
One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future by Ben Carson
     Sentinel, 256pp, $25.95
American Dreams: Restoring the Land of Opportunity by Marco Rubio
     Sentinel, 240pp, $27.95
God, Guns, Grits and Gravy by Mike Huckabee
     St Martin’s Press, 272pp, $26.99
Unintimidated: a Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge by Scott Walker
     Sentinel, 288pp, $16

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses