Reagan-Loving Republicans Can't Quite Put Finger On Why Their Party Went So Trumpy

History Facts
Reagan-Loving Republicans Can't Quite Put Finger On Why Their Party Went So Trumpy

Michael Steele, former (and actually successful) Republican National Committee chair, and Tara Setmayer, former Republican Capitol Hill communications director, are both Black conservatives who fled the Republican Party during the Trump administration. Better letter than never, I guess. Steele was the guest host Friday on MSNBC's "The Reid Out," and he commiserated with Setmayer over how far the party has fallen since the glory days of Ronald Reagan. Look, I appreciate that regular host Joy Reid wants to help a brother out, but I'm right here!

Steele asked Setmayer, "When did we kick Reagan to the curb? Why are we seeing so many Republicans more and more infatuated with the ideology of Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbán and any of the fascists that they find in Europe?”

So, yes, we have to talk about Ronald Reagan again, because he's a critical part of a Republican Party "redemption" narrative: "Normal" Republicans are good guys. We can trust them. Donald Trump and MAGA are some inexplicable madness that has seized the party rather than a natural progression of far-right politics that arguably began with Reagan's 1980 victory over President Jimmy Carter.

If you're fighting today's battle against Marjorie Taylor Greene's goons, it is reasonable that you'd want to avoid alienating potential allies from the center-right. You need all the help you can get. Maybe there's no harm in letting them believe that there's a significant difference between their "grandfather's Republican Party" and the current clown show. On the other hand, whitewashing the past ensures that we learn nothing from it, thus dooming us to repeat it. I love Madonna and women in high-waist denim jeans, but I'm in no rush to relive 1980s politics. It was a bad time.

It's somewhat disingenuous and downright ahistorical to suggest that Reagan would recoil at Republicans crushing on anti-democratic leaders Vladimir Putin and Victor Orbán. Reagan opposed the former Soviet Union, but that was because they were godless commies. Today's Republicans equally resent communist China. We don't know where Reagan would actually stand on Putin and Orbán, who are both kleptocrats. The rulers are also overtly anti-LGBTQ, and Reagan was hardly a champion of queer Americans.

Let's not also forget that Reagan sided with apartheid South Africa and his administration demonized apartheid opponents. Our current Democratic president, Joe Biden, never had kind words for South Africa's oppressive regime. During a 1986 Senate hearing, the senator from Delaware spanked Reagan's Secretary of State George Schutlz, who said "we shouldn't become part of South Africa's problem" or "impose ... our favorites on South Africa." (This is eerily similar to today's Ukraine debate.) A visibly angry Biden said, "Damnit, we have favorites in South Africa. The favorites in South Africa are the people who are being repressed by that ugly white regime."

Republicans were wrong about South Africa and are wrong about Ukraine. Biden and Democrats were right about South Africa and are right about Ukraine. It's like there's a pattern.

Setmayer said, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party. The party left me." That's apparently her clever allusion to Reagan's explanation for why he switched parties. However, Reagan became a Republican in 1962, shortly before endorsing Barry Goldwater in 1964. What major social and political movement was occurring at the time? Reagan joined the Republican Party not long before Jackie Robinson left. That says a lot.

“And once the party started to embrace the Tea Party and then Trumpism and then obviously the malignancy of Trumpism after all of the transgressions of Donald Trump, we’ve seen that the party is unrecognizable now.," Setmayer added.

Steele willingly leveraged the Tea Party movement so Republicans could shellack Democrats in 2010. Early that year, he said on Fox News, "As I like to tell people — long before there was this big push on tea parties — if I wasn’t doing this job, I’d be out there with the tea partiers."

Setmayer also played to rightwing media's contempt for Barack Obama. Maybe she believed she was just dragging a Democratic president on policy and not helping further racial resentment, but she should've looked around and noticed all the white hoods.

She repeated the popular anti-MAGA argument that Saint Ronald of Trickle Down couldn't win a Republican primary today.

"Ronald Reagan is spinning in his grave and he would never win a primary election in today’s Republican Party," she said. "Why? Because Ronald Reagan actually stood against fascism and authoritarianism."

You can't very well denounce the current Republican Party as a "cult of personality" when you're shilling "cherry tree" mythology about Ronald Reagan. In reality, the one that's recorded in books and newspapers, Reagan was the far-right challenger to the genuinely moderate Gerald Ford in 1976. (Ford reportedly didn't like to "wear his religion on his sleeve.") Reagan's "revolution" in 1980 vanquished the Rockefeller Republicans and empowered the Religious Right.

The march to MAGA started with Reagan, and when "Never Trump" Republicans pretend otherwise, it reveals that they are only short-term allies.


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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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