The Republican Party was born on March 20, 1854, in a one-room Wisconsin schoolhouse. No one present could have imagined what lay ahead. That humble gathering presaged the emergence of the most successful political force in American history.
Just seven years later Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the first Republican president of the United States. Over the next 72 years, the party produced 12 of 15 presidents, governing for 52 years between them. Yet in today’s Republican Party they are all but forgotten.
It is understandable that Republicans might prefer to forget Herbert Hoover, whose disastrous response to the 1929 sharemarket crash led directly to the Great Depression. Or Richard Nixon, whose name will forever be linked in infamy with the Watergate scandal.
But what of the others?
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
The roll call of the unheralded is astonishing. Dwight Eisenhower — one of only nine American five-star generals and who led the largest amphibious invasion in history and expelled the Nazis from Western Europe — is never mentioned. This is odd for a party that boasts of its martial credentials. Calvin Coolidge, who declared “the chief business of the American people is business”, and presided during the Roaring ’20s, remains anonymous.
Theodore Roosevelt, who charged with the “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill, built the Panama Canal, and dispatched the Great White Fleet on a world tour, was the very embodiment of masculinity that Republicans prize. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American president to be so honoured. His visage even adorns the fabled Mount Rushmore, a reminder that he was once lionised in the company of titans. These days he would be branded a “Republican in name only”.
Then there’s Ulysses S Grant. The essence of a soldier statesman and self-made man, Grant won the Civil War, routed the Ku Klux Klan, and gave life to the aspirations of the newly liberated through the Reconstruction. When he died, more than a million mourners lined the route of his funeral procession. At the turn of the 20th century, his tomb was the most visited landmark in the nation. Today few could name where it stands.
All these past leaders have been jettisoned by the Grand Old Party, consigned to the political graveyard with the principles they embodied.
Instead one man towers above them all: Ronald Reagan, the sole commander-in-chief who still unites all Republicans. Avid Trumpers and Never Trumpers all trace their custody of party ideals directly to him. Even Donald Trump, who has not shied from attacking his rivals and predecessors, has never uttered a harsh word against the Gipper.
What does this worship of Reagan tell us?
For one thing, this is not your grandparents’ Republican Party. The GOP might still proclaim itself the party of Lincoln, but the Great Emancipator would be unwelcome in today’s incarnation. The party that once freed Black Americans from bondage today uses all available means to suppress their participation in democracy. It has mutated from the party that vanquished the Confederacy to a neo-Confederate revivalist movement.
Reagan was instrumental to this shift. Originally an FDR supporter and Hollywood Democrat, he defected to the Republicans in 1962. He quickly emerged as an advocate for Barry Goldwater’s libertarian 1964 presidential campaign and this prominence helped him become governor of California two years later, putting him on the path to the presidency.
When Reagan became president in 1980, he didn’t just defeat Jimmy Carter. He swept aside the old political order that had prevailed since FDR took office half a century before. His invocation that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” permanently recast Republican ideology.
From Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, the new ethic was the derision and denigration of government in favour of private enterprise at every turn. That this could be balanced alongside professed veneration for the constitution that established that same government was a masterstroke in Orwellian doublethink.
With Margaret Thatcher, Reagan reengineered the global economic and political order. Tax cuts, deregulation and privatisation became the new orthodoxy. Government was portrayed as a roadblock to liberty and prosperity. Free market efficiency was the doctrine du jour. “Greed is good” the mantra. Social investment was curtailed while military spending flourished.
This new gospel spawned its own moniker: neoliberalism. Soon enough anyone who challenged this dogma was branded a heretic. The interchangeable epithets typically hurled were “communist” or “socialist”.
But the new order was not confined to the economic arena. Conservative evangelicals began to flex their muscles and embarked upon a concerted backlash against the civil rights movement. They lambasted feminism as a gateway to promiscuity and the destruction of the nuclear family, pointing to rising divorce rates as evidence. They denounced homosexuality as moral failure and mortal sin, and cited the AIDS epidemic as God’s judgment of the damned.
They embarked on a crusade against the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade abortion ruling, making its repeal the litmus test for all elected officials and judicial appointees. Televangelists exploited their clout to launch thinly veiled political wings such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, and the Moral Majority led by Jerry Falwell. Falwell also founded a Christian college called Liberty University, which has become one of the largest private universities in the country.
The Reagan era was also when the National Rifle Association morphed into a political juggernaut. Until the ’70s the NRA was a nonpartisan advocacy group representing hunters and recreational shooters. It was formed after the Civil War and promoted education, training and safety, and frequently supported firearms legislation. One of its early presidents was none other than Grant after he left the Oval Office.
But in 1977 a conservative coup at the group’s national convention in Cincinnati led to a sharp right turn. What emerged was a steely political lobby financed by gun manufacturers, resolved to promote the spread of privately owned firearms and oppose any politician, judge or law that stood in its way. Undeterred by the assassination attempt on Reagan, it persuaded Congress to pass the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, and also pushed the administration to limit the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Together these political, economic and cultural transformations comprised what came to be known as the Reagan Revolution, which remade the American political landscape and cemented the new identity of a born again Republican Party.
A direct line runs from then to now. From the Reagan Revolution to Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America in 1994, to the Bush Restoration in 2001, to the Tea Party in 2010, through to Trumpism today, these underlying themes have remained inviolable. Tax cuts for the wealthy and anti-abortion judges were the headline achievements of the Trump administration. Republican-controlled state legislatures are itching to pass new anti-abortion laws they are confident the now decisive conservative Supreme Court majority, installed by Trump, will uphold.
Fervour for second amendment rights and religious priorities remain ubiquitous in conservative ranks, from Congress to conspiracists. Same-sex marriage and equal protections for LGBTIQ citizens are now the law of the land, but tens of millions of their fellow citizens openly oppose their inclusion in the American Dream.
Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, has spent his career assailing taxes with missionary zeal. His lifetime ambition for government has been to “shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub”. Key to this goal has been the taxpayer protection pledge. Launched by ATR in 1986, this militant covenant binds legislators to oppose all tax rises. Republican candidates and incumbents universally embrace it.
In 1997 ATR created the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project, signalling its commitment to preserving the program of its eponymous standard-bearer. Norquist still serves as an active board member of the NRA.
Jerry Falwell Jr, who succeeded his father as head of Liberty University, was an early and vocal evangelical Trump supporter. He was recently forced to resign after a sex and money scandal — reminiscent of similar high-profile downfalls in the Reagan ’80s.
The race card is a factor too. Nixon exploited the Dixiecrat split from the Democrats and LBJ’s landmark civil rights program with his “southern strategy”, intended to lure the Jim Crow South to the Republicans. Reagan built on this by talking about “states’ rights”, “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks”, dog whistle tactics to signal shared values to his target white voters.
His appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in August 1980 — not far from the site of the infamous Mississippi burning murders — underscored his message. Reagan’s southern campaign manager was Paul Manafort. Manafort went on to lead Trump’s campaign in 2016, and following multiple subsequent felony convictions was pardoned by Trump in December 2020.
Roger Stone, a veteran Republican operative and Trump’s enduring confidant and political consigliere, is another survivor from the Reagan days. He and Manafort founded a lobbying firm together in 1980. Among other clients, Stone acted on behalf of Trump’s casinos. Stone repeatedly urged Trump to run for president, and when Trump finally did in 2016, Stone was the man who invented the “stop the steal” lie to contest his expected defeat — a lie that was latter wheeled out for Trump’s actual defeat four years later. Stone too was convicted of multiple felonies during Trump’s term and was also pardoned by the boss.
And then there’s Rupert Murdoch. Having bent governments to his will in Australia and the United Kingdom, Murdoch set his sights on the US. During the 1970s he established a foothold with a stable of newspapers, the New York Post foremost among them. In 1984 he acquired 20th Century Fox, followed the next year by Metromedia’s television stations. He leveraged these to launch the Fox Broadcasting Company, and established himself as a bona fide American media mogul.
Murdoch’s ties to the Reagan administration were extensive, and mutually beneficial. Murdoch’s empire acted as a right-wing mouthpiece, particularly following the 1987 abolition of the Fairness Doctrine that had required balanced political reporting, and his wealth exploded as Fox became a mainstay in US households.
In 1996 Murdoch recruited Roger Ailes to run Fox News. Ailes, who had guided Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign and George HW Bush’s 1988 victory, built Fox News into a propaganda powerhouse. In 2016 he resigned from Fox in disgrace after allegations of sexual harassment and went on to advise Trump’s campaign. The platform he and Murdoch created continues as the nerve centre of the Republican media ecosystem.
The parallels run on and on. Reagan was the ultimate pitchman, straight out of Hollywood central casting. Trump was the quintessential ’80s tycoon, a brash self-promoting braggart who flaunted his wealth and chased the spotlight with trophy wives. He parlayed this fantasy image into a reality TV show showcasing his purported business prowess, then rode his luck to the White House.
Reagan ignored a deadly pandemic and pretended that sunny optimism would solve the crisis. His trickle-down voodoo economics saw a boom end in ruin. He preached about limited government, then busted the federal budget with record deficits. His administration dealt secretly with foreign regimes in violation of American laws to further his political objectives. Then he escaped accountability for these crimes while his subordinates took the fall. Trump’s playbook mirrored every step.
Reagan’s 1980 campaign slogan was “Let’s make America great again”. Even that was recycled by Trump.
America and the world have changed radically in 40 years. China has returned as a global power. Climate change has flared as an existential threat. The US population has grown by 45%, adding 100 million people while shaping a significant demographic shift. A technological revolution has remade society. Meanwhile the neoliberal consensus turned out to be trickle up economics, as billionaires blossomed while inequality skyrocketed.
Faced with these colossal developments, the Republican Party stands like King Canute, resisting the tides of progress at every turn.
We are not witnessing an incipient civil war in the GOP. Instead we are watching its endgame. The Trump cult is the logical conclusion for a party that has clung to its dated credo, in the face of all evidence and reason, come what may. The moderates are not being expelled. They were wiped out long ago.
Trumpism is Reaganism without the country club veneer. The ideas haven’t evolved one bit. Only the cast has changed. Some of them still linger. Those who retired or went to meet their maker merely bequeathed the Reagan legacy to their protégés and successors. Mob flags and MAGA hats are nothing more than a fresh lick of paint on a stale, decrepit agenda.