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From Reagan to Trump

Donald Trump's brand of reaction is particularly noxious, but it sits comfortably in the Reagan tradition.

So Donald Trump Jr went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi this week, where he said, vis-a-vis the Mississippi state flag, which is the only state flag that still invokes the Confederacy, “I believe in tradition.” Those Neshoba County fairgrounds are just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi. The place indelibly associated with the murder of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964. So that tells you a lot about Donald Trump. Junior and Senior.

But it also tells you a lot about the Republican Party. Thirty-six years ago, almost to the day, Ronald Reagan, then a candidate for the presidency, also went to the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. There, he said, “I believe in states’ rights.” That, of course, had been the slogan for decades of racial segregation and Jim Crow. Like father, like son; like Reagan, like Trump.

But it also tells you something about the Democratic Party.

For Ronald Reagan is the man whose name improbably electrified the Democratic National Convention meeting this week. In another Philadelphia.

On Wednesday night, Barack Obama said:

Ronald Reagan called America “a shining city on a hill.” Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix.

On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton said:

He’s [Trump] taken the Republican Party a long way . . . from “Morning in America” to  “Midnight in America.” He wants us to fear the future and fear each other.

And just in case the point wasn’t clear, a former official from the Reagan administration enchanted a crowd of screaming Democrats with this one-liner (itself a nod to another DNC one-liner; there’s more intertextuality at a political convention than there is in a grad school seminar):

Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan.

So does any of this matter? Why do I keep harping on the non-newness of Donald Trump, why do I keep resurrecting the multiple precedents for his candidacy against those who would argue for its novelty and innovations?

Part of the reason is that it is an offense against history and memory to pretend that the GOP of the past was somehow a party of reasonable men, clearheaded and basically decent moderates who were taking the car out for a Sunday spin when it all of a sudden it got hijacked by neighborhood toughs and crazed yahoos.

This is not a new argument with me. I’ve been trying for years to explain to dubious liberals and skeptical leftists that Trumpism is what this party is all about, that the “rational, prudential conservatives they think they know are in fact ultra-revanchist songstresses of domination and violence.”

But as I’ve thought about it some more these past few days — why do I keep insisting on these precedents? — it’s occurred to me that there is a less historical, less intellectual and scholarly, reason for my claim.

In this election, we have the opportunity to repudiate not only Donald Trump but Trumpism, and not only Trumpism but the entire apparatus that gave us this man and this moment. That apparatus is the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement.

The movement and the party that gave us the Southern Strategy, that made white supremacy the major dividing line between the two parties, that race-baited its way to the free market as the dominant ideology of our time, that made hysterical, revanchist militarism the common sense of bipartisanship, that helped turn the Democratic Party into the shell that it is today (with plenty of assistance of course from people like Bill Clinton), that gave us Donald Trump.

When we pretend that Donald Trump is an utter novelty on the American political scene, when Democratic presidents and Democratic presidential candidates invoke the reverie of Ronald Reagan against the reality of Donald Trump, when liberal journalists say the contest this year is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between a normal party and an abnormal growth from an otherwise normal host (with the implication being that if only we could go back to the contests of 2008, 2000, 1992, 1980, 1972, all would be well), we not only commit an offense against history and memory; we not only betray a woeful ignorance of how we came to this pass (and thereby, as the cliche would have it, ensure that we will come to it again); we help shore up, we extend the half-life, of a party and a movement that should be thoroughly smashed and repudiated.

(That, incidentally, is what all the great realignments do: they shatter the old regime, they destroy the ideological assumptions and repudiate the interests that have governed for decades, they send the dominant party and its leading emblems into exile, where they wander in the wilderness for decades.) We make plain our intention to give that party and that movement, even if they should lose in November, a second chance to make their malice and mischief all over again.

Seems like a bad move to me.