Loveable dingbats or hateful warmongers?

March 10, 2016

The Republican presidential primaries are a carnival of reaction--but that's not unique to the 2016 election. Elizabeth Schulte looks back at the godfather of GOP fanaticism.

"SHE WAS always more than the sum of her adoring gaze, that dazzling look she fixed on her husband like a pair of high beam headlights," reported Politico. "She was the first and last voice in the ear of the leader of the free world, the trusted adviser who did the worrying and scheming for both of them. It's just possible that without her, Ronald Reagan would never have become the 40th president of the United States."

The tributes to former first lady Nancy Reagan flooded in from every media outlet and every corner of the political spectrum, even the darkest. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Benjamin Netanyahu--all had something nice to say about the Reagan legacy.

But if any of them were honest, they would be recalling the years that Nancy Reagan stood by the man responsible for untold death and misery--from his administration's all-out assault on programs for the poor, to support for right-wing death squads in Latin America, to bringing the world to the precipice of nuclear Armageddon, to allowing the AIDS epidemic to kill a generation of gay men without a word.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan

You wouldn't know any of that from opening up a newspaper following Nancy Reagan's death. A war criminal has been transformed into a respectable elder statesman--a couple who were filled with narrow-minded bigotry are now portrayed as a sweet elderly couple who never meant any harm.

For her part, Nancy Reagan is probably best remembered for wild spending on designer dresses and bric-a-brac that she decided was necessary to lift the White House into a symbol of opulence and power befitting the most powerful household in the world. She raised $822,000 from private contributors to give the White House the Hollywood star treatment. One contributor gave Nancy $200,000 just for a set of presidential china.

It was then, and is now, a symbol of what the Reagan administration actually represented, beyond the myth--the historic centralization of wealth and power, and a long, sickening party for the rich.

Besides the White House makeover, Nancy's other pet project during the 1980s was the Reagan administration's failed campaign against drug and alcohol abuse. Using the catchphrase "Just Say No," it combined simplistic moralizing with draconian criminal justice policies that blamed the victims of drug abuse and persecuted them to the fullest extend of the law.

But the issue that revealed the true character of Nancy Reagan was the AIDS crisis. While thousands of people, the vast majority of them gay men, contracted the then-mysterious disease, the Reagan administration refused to even acknowledge its existence, much less take any steps toward solving the crisis.

Nancy maintained that gross negligence into her personal life. When actor Rock Hudson, who was in the desperate last stages of dying of AIDS, reached out to his friends, the Reagans, to help get him a spot in a French hospital that might have saved his life, they ignored him. "She did not feel this was something the White House should get into," Reagan staffer Mark Weinberg said of Nancy.

That about sums up the Reagans' storybook romance. They were a hateful couple, full of prejudice, who let nothing come in the way of their warped vision of America, where the rich and powerful were celebrated and promoted at the expense of everyone else.

TODAY, WITH the Republican Party tottering under the weight of a presidential primary race where billionaire wing-nut bigot Donald Trump is still leading the way, there's a lot of talk about the "real" Republican Party. Is it the party of off-the-leash bigots like Trump or of good ol' Ronald Reagan?

The answer, of course, is both. Reagan's victimization of the poor and casual racism was just as vicious as anything Trump has dished out. While his policies can seem, at first glance, to be moderate by comparison with today's GOP, that's the result of the political mainstream being relentlessly dragged to the right over the past 30 years--and Reagan deserves a lot of the credit for getting ball rolling. Here a few of the Reagan administration's "accomplishments" during its time in office in the 1980s:

Reversing the gains of the 1960s and 1970s: The Reagan Revolution represented, above all else, a rejection of the legacy of the 1960s and '70s social movements and an effort to turn back the clock: for women, Blacks, Latinos, workers--basically everyone except Corporate America.

After serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and even being a Democrat in the 1940s, Reagan decided to throw his support behind the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s and of the era of New Deal liberalism that came before.

During May 1969 protests by students in Berkeley, California, the heart of the movement against the Vietnam War, then-California Gov. Reagan ordered the police to "use whatever method they choose against the protesters." Dozens of students were injured when police fired into the crowd, in what came to be called "Bloody Thursday." At a press conference afterward, Reagan chastised the very students who had been attacked.

The election of Reagan as president in 1980 represented a turning point for the U.S. ruling class. It was a rejection of social reform and a vilification of the people who benefited from them--and the beginning of unfettered prosperity for Corporate America and for its real priorities for the U.S. government, namely an expanded military.

The myth of the "welfare queen": All bigots need a scapegoat, and during Reagan's failed campaign in 1976 to win the Republican presidential nomination, his was the image of a woman bilking the government via welfare.

"In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record," Reagan declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year."

Reagan's message was also that she was Black, though he didn't state it outright--this, after all, was the era after the civil rights movement.

Like other politicians of the time, Reagan used coded racist language to create a scapegoat who could be blamed for the economic crisis that developed through the late 1970s, including high unemployment and an energy crisis that forced drivers to wait in long lines for gas. Reagan had an answer, too: begin cutting away at social spending.

And it succeeded. During his administration, Reagan shrank social spending, not just for welfare, but other anti-poverty programs like food stamps and Social Security disability benefits. The money that had been "wasted" on underserving poor people could now be funneled to the "deserving"--through tax breaks for the rich and more spending on the Pentagon.

Racism, racism, racism: Racism and scapegoating were necessary ingredients of the Reagan Revolution. With the goal of peeling away racist white voters from the Democratic Party in the South, the Reagan pandered to bigotry from the very start.

Advised by a local official who told the Republican National Committee that this was the place to appeal to "George Wallace-inclined voters," Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered 16 years earlier.

During the campaign, Reagan criticized the food stamp program for helping "some strapping young buck ahead of you to buy a T-bone steak" while "you were waiting in line to buy hamburger." Later, according to Ian Haney Lopez's Dog Whistle Politics, Reagan's handlers changed "strapping young buck" to "young fellow" because the phrase was too racially changed even for them.

As president, Reagan launched his version of the "war on drugs" in 1982--a policy that has been an unmitigated disaster for Black America. As Michelle Alexander points out, at that time,

drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working-class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by desegregation, busing and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon's White House Chief of Staff: "[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."

Here was another "achievement" of the Reagan years: Anti-drug, tough-on-crime policies disproportionately targeted Black people for arrest, and gave them the harshest sentences, out of all relationship to the crime.

A four-star general in a one-sided class war: In Reagan's America, the priority was corporate profits, no matter what the cost to workers' living standards. According to Reagan's trickle-down economics, the rich would be freed from taxes and regulations to do what they do best--make money--and the wealth would trickle down to the rest of us.

The theory half-worked. The wealthy enjoyed tax cuts, and corporations were freed from regulations. The top tax rate for the highest-income households dropped from about 70 percent to just 28 percent.

As for the U.S. working class, Reaganomics led to factory closures and unemployment rates that reached Depression-era levels for blue-collar workers. Meanwhile, the social safety net was being destroyed--at exactly the time when workers and their families needed it the most.

On the chopping block, too, were workers' organizations. One of Reagan's first acts as president was to implement a plan put in place by the Carter administration--and fire 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981. The assault on workers and their unions continued from there.

His finger on the nuclear switch: While government spending for social programs went into free fall, spending on the military headed in the opposite direction. Pentagon spending would reach an estimated $34 million an hour during the Reagan administration.

Central to Reagan's foreign policy rhetoric, which talked about returning the U.S. military to its heyday before the defeat in Vietnam, was the "evil empire"--the Soviet Union. Whipping up hysteria about the dangers of Communism, Ronnie Raygun, as he was called, poured money into the Pentagon, including outlandish programs like "Star Wars," where the U.S. was supposed to have missiles that would shoot down other missiles.

On at least one occasion in 1983, the administration came close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union, according to declassified documents published by the National Security Archive and reported in the Atlantic.

After the USSR invaded Afghanistan, the CIA provided money and weapons to an opposition that included Osama bin Laden. The networks that would later become al-Qaeda came into being there--but Reagan called them "freedom fighters."

Crushing revolutions and funding death squads: The Reagan rap sheet of international war crimes extends around the world, including support for the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. But the administration focused much of its attention on the U.S. "backyard": Central America.

The Reagan administration backed military dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala, but its most high-profile intervention was in Nicaragua, where the left-wing Sandinistas had come to power after a mass struggle and armed conflict that overthrew the dictator Somoza.

The response of the U.S.--after some years of disorientation and indecision--was to organize an army of counterrevolution. The contras would wage a guerrilla war against the Sandinistas.

Reports of contra human rights abuses forced the U.S. to cut off official aid, but that didn't stop U.S. operatives from making a secret arrangement, where the U.S. supplied weapons and supplies to Iran, in exchange for funds that would eventually fund the contras. Iran, supposedly the U.S. government's arch-enemy, agreed to help get U.S. hostages released in Lebanon.

When the whole arms-for-hostages scandal, or Contragate, was uncovered, a few players were exposed like Lt. Col. Oliver North. But Reagan denied any knowledge of the deal, and he got away with it, along with the inner circle of his administration.

In 1996, in a series called Dark Alliance, journalist Gary Webb revealed the U.S. government's connection with the contras and the illegal cocaine trade. In other words, Reagan's crimes had come full circle--from a secret war on the Sandinistas, to hypocrisy with Iran, to the lie of a "drug war" on the streets of America.

The people behind Reagan's foreign policy would haunt us for decades. Paul Wolfowitz, John Negroponte, Elliot Abrams, John Poindexter and Richard Perle--the hawks responsible for the war in Iraq in the new century--all served Reagan first.

Sentencing people to death during the HIV/AIDS crisis: Thousands of people died as a result of the AIDS epidemic in the first six years of the Reagan administration, but the president refused to say even a word about it. The slogan of AIDS activists at the time summed it up: "Silence = Death."

From the start, it was obvious that a national health emergency was in the making, but because the victims were gay men, little was done by the Reagan administration. Instead, the sufferers were vilified and scapegoated. For example, Reagan's communications director, right-wing fanatic and Holocaust denier Pat Buchanan, argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men."

"The sexual revolution has begun to devour its children. And among the revolutionary vanguard, as gay rights activists, the morality rate is highest and climbing...The poor homosexuals--they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution," Buchanan wrote in a 1983 op-ed for the New York Post.

By the time Reagan said anything about the epidemic in 1987, 36,058 people in the U.S. had been diagnosed with AIDS, and 20,849 were dead in the U.S. There were more than 50,000 cases around the world.

This is real Reagan legacy. So if Donald Trump wants to pick up the mantle, he's already part way there. And if Democrats like Obama want to find common cause with it, then they're revealing what side they're really on.

Further Reading

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