Ronald Reagan Wasn't The Martin Luther Rosa Parks Jr. Conservatives Think He Was
The current Republican president is a foaming-at-the-mouth white supremacist who likes to raise lynch mobs against sitting congresswomen of color. As potentially life-threatening as this all is for Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,
Ayanna Pressley (apparently not related to Elvis), and Rashida Tlaib, it's a downright mild inconvenience for other Republicans who don't like people thinking they're racist or even racist-adjacent. Can't we think about their feelings for once?
Jay Nordlinger, senior editor at the National Review, knows who is to blame for today's racial crisis and it's all the "race hustlers" who dared to acknowledge the existence of racism in the past.
Nordinger alludes to the Aesop fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," as if all accusations of racism were a big hoax. "Race hustlers" have fooled white people long enough, so now they're going to let the racist wolves devour us. Conservatives don't even acknowledge a genuine difference of opinion or perspective: "Race hustlers" are just "falsely and maliciously" smearing the good names of Reagan conservatives. And as we all know, Ronald Reagan was a racial saint. Why, when he launched his 1980 presidential campaign, he declared that he would "build his church on the rock of racial harmony." No, wait, what he actually communicated to a crowd in Mississippi was a loud dogwhistle about "states' rights." Jimmy Carter won Mississippi in the 1976 election. He would lose (narrowly) in 1980.
Conservatives desperately want to believe the Reagan Revolution was about a rejection of big government and an embrace of the free market with renewed patriotic optimism. This fairy tale, which unlike Aesop's work has no moral, requires the belief that Reagan was a uniter who never engaged in class or racial warfare for political gain. The most devout #NeverTrumpers love to tweet this video of Reagan apparently serving notice to bigots.
Reagan the politician spoke to white Southerners' racially motivated fears and white evangelicals' overall distaste for witches and built a coalition that endures today. It's the audience for modern talk radio and Fox News. And the unifying philosophy is cultural resentment. White voters heard the message loud and clear when Reagan vowed to end the reign of Cadillac-driving "welfare queens." If tweeting "all about the Benamins" can permanently label Omar an anti-Semite, Reagan's welfare-dragging references to "young bucks" gnawing on T-bone steaks should stain his reputation just a little.
The National Review adores the charming term "race hustler," but Reagan hustled with the best of them. He understood that the "lowest white man" would happily jump on board the Trickle-Down Express if he believed it would end the gravy train for black people. This is how Reagan was able to cut social programs and gut unions that benefitted whites just as much, if not more, than blacks. Maybe Reagan wasn't personally racist like Trump: Maybe he considered Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" or opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday because he really didn't like communism ... or reasons. Maybe he didn't recognize the one black member of his Cabinet because he was already suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's ... or reasons. Maybe he vehemently opposed affirmative action because he genuinely believed racism was over ... or more reasons. Who cares? Deep down, Reagan could've loved black people, but the effect of the Reagan years on our community gives love a bad name.
Reagan also left office in 1989, the year Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born. She was a toddler when conservatives were explaining why it was appropriate for cops to beat Rodney King like a piñata. Most of "the Squad" were children during the Reagan era. It's not the fault of
"race hustlers" that people of color think conservatives are racists.
Conservatives loathe when liberals use "facts" and "history" to draw a direct line from Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," and even dear Saint Ronnie to Donald Trump. But Trump is just ruder and coarser. His policies and views are not dramatically different.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."