Now that we’re witnessing the final collapse and half-terrifying/half-hilarious self-immolation of the modern Republican Party, it’s worth harkening back to days of yore, when American Republicans were led by a smiling man on a horse, a former B-movie actor and union leader turned union buster, a conservative activist and Governor of California, a poor farm boy from Eureka, Illinois who made his fortune in Hollywood by starring in movies such as Tugboat Annie Sails Again, Girls On Probation, Angels Wash Their Faces, and Bedtime for Bonzo. That’s right…Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan is generally viewed by historians and average Americans as having been a pretty successful and influential president. In many ways, we are all still living in the political reality that Ronald Reagan created. He was known as “The Great Communicator” who used his acting skills and Hollywood charm to bring a sense of pep and glamour to the White House that Jimmy Carter’s beige cardigans and “malaise speech” had lacked. His spirit of “Morning in America” made Americans feel good about themselves again, even if they didn’t really deserve it. His unprecedented eight-year military buildup and invasion of the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada made America shake off the doldrums of the Vietnam Syndrome and get excited to go kill people in foreign wars again. Reagan was the oldest president to ever take office, but people thought he was charismatic and cool because America in 1980 was incredibly lame.
However, I am not here to praise Ronald Reagan, but to bury him. His amiable façade masked many grievous crimes. Ronald Reagan did a lot of horrible shit that should not be forgotten or forgiven. Everything bad about today’s Republican Party got its start with Ronald Reagan.
He Chose All the Wrong Friends
Ronald Reagan had very bad taste in friends, and his shortsighted worldview caused a lot of needless suffering.
To be fair: Reagan was a product of the Cold War era, and the Cold War was a very different time. Reagan hated communism, and he was so obsessed with fighting communism that sometimes he supported horrible people and horrible causes and horrible regimes, just because they were “anti-communist.” For example, Reagan was surprisingly sympathetic to the apartheid-era government of South Africa that imprisoned Nelson Mandela—a regime that, in 1981, he called “essential to the free world.” That’s because Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress had received support from the Soviet Union—which, in Reagan’s simplistic worldview, meant that Mandela must be a “communist.” But the reality was much more complicated.
During the Cold War, from 1945-1989, America and the Soviet Union engaged in proxy battles and covert struggles to create and sustain spheres of military power and political/economic influence in countries all over the world, from Europe to Africa to Asia to Central America to the Caribbean. There was a lot of stupidity and waste that happened during the Cold War, but perhaps the stupidest idea of all was the “domino theory”—the idea that if one nation became Communist, soon ALL the nations in the world would become Communist, and soon, God-fearing red-blooded Americans would be forced to eat borscht and wear babushka scarves and play soccer. America sacrificed 58,000 men and 15 years to a lost cause in Vietnam because we were afraid that if we didn’t fight the communists in Southeast Asia, we’d be fighting them on Main Street, U.S.A. (American foreign policy during the Cold War, and still mostly today, is basically just “fear, paranoia, and shortsighted self-interest.”)
But this “domino theory” was way too simplistic. Not every “communist-backed” government or communist-supported organization around the world had the same goals, and most of them posed no threat to the United States. But under Reagan (and other Cold War-era presidents and CIA directors), America acted like every single communist regime or communist-leaning group on Earth was exactly the same; they were all morally equivalent to Stalin, and they were all a menacing threat, hell-bent on the destruction of the Free World and the downfall of the American Way of Life. And that just wasn’t true. But that one big wrongheaded idea caused us to fight a lot of stupid battles and make a lot of stupid mistakes that are still haunting us decades later.
Ronald Reagan didn’t invent the worst policies of the Cold War, but he carried them to their brutally wrongheaded logical conclusion. Reagan was a believer in the same stupid ideas that helped get America into the disastrous Vietnam War, and that led us to engineer violent, disastrous CIA-backed coups to topple democratically elected left-wing (“Communist! Socialist!”) governments in countries like Iran (1953) and Brazil (1964) and Chile (1973)—because of this narrow, obsessive idea that every Commie is the same as every other Commie.
Reagan’s anti-communist crusading caused him to have lousy taste in friends. He was suspicious of Nelson Mandela, but he was a big fan of General Augusto Pinochet, the brutal, murderous military dictator of Chile (who the CIA helped install into power in 1973), and even considered offering Pinochet asylum in the U.S. in 1986.
Reagan also supported Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War, even though the U.S. knew that Saddam was using chemical weapons—in fact, American companies even sold strains of anthrax and pesticides to Iraq. No wonder George W. Bush was so convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction in 2002—his daddy and Ronald Reagan practically helped SELL weapons of mass destruction to Saddam during the 1980s!
Oh, and remember the Contras?? No, not “Contra,” the cool Nintendo game from the 1980s where you could use a spread-blasting gun or laser beam to blow up the alien jungle base. I’m talking about the Contras of Nicaragua. Reagan gave LOTS of money and military support to the Contras, a right-wing paramilitary group (a.k.a. “death squad”) in Nicaragua that was fighting a horrific “dirty war” against (again!) a democratically elected left-wing government that Reagan assumed was full of evil Communists. The Contras murdered innocent men, women and children and committed lots of kidnapping, torture and rape. This is why so many people in Latin America hate and distrust the United States to this day—because Ronald Reagan and people like him helped fill their countries with right-wing death squads.
So that was Reagan’s judgment in a nutshell: he was against Nelson Mandela; but he was in favor of murderous dictators and Central American death squads.
Reagan was also good friends with Margaret Thatcher, who was a horrible person. I don’t have time to cite sources on Thatcher right now, you’re going to have to take my word for it; my computer is running slow. I need to buy a new laptop so I can work more efficiently to create better-researched political vitriol.
He Ignored the Deaths of 20,000 AIDS Patients
The AIDS epidemic started during Reagan’s presidency, in 1981, but even though this was a pretty serious public health emergency that went on to claim many thousands of American lives (and millions of non-American lives all over the world), Ronald Reagan did nothing. That’s because the early stages of the AIDS outbreak were mainly happening in the gay community, and the Reagan administration didn’t really recognize the existence of gay people, or any minorities. Reagan was backed by Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” right-wing Christian organization (the creepy uncle of the Christian Coalition), which believed that AIDS was God’s punishment for gay sex; Reagan’s communications director Pat Buchanan even said that AIDS is “nature’s revenge on gay men.”
Ronald Reagan managed to find time and money to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs and arm death squads in Central America, but he couldn’t spare five minutes to make an announcement from the White House about AIDS. The first time Reagan talked about AIDS was in 1987, six years into the epidemic, and after more than 20,000 Americans had died of the disease.
Reagan’s pathetic inaction on AIDS has not aged well, now that most Americans recognize that gay people are actual human beings who are worthy of love and health care. But hey, the 1980s were a different time; a “simpler” time, when the President of the United States could happily pretend that everyone in the country was heterosexual and white and Christian, and that he didn’t have to concern himself with anyone else’s problems.
He Pretty Much Caused 9/11
Ronald Reagan’s CIA helped arm the Afghanistan mujahideen during their war against the Soviet Union. But then some of those mujahideen later turned out to be linked to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and the Taliban. So basically, the same people we armed to fight the Soviets…ended up attacking America on 9/11 and then fighting US for the next 15 years in Afghanistan. Oops! Uh oh, Spaghetti-Os! Hey, life moves pretty fast—sometimes today’s “freedom fighters” turn out to be tomorrow’s “terrorists.”
By the way: it must be awesome to be a U.S. defense industry contractor, because you can make money selling weapons to America’s allies, and then later, when those allies turn out to be America’s enemies, you can make even more money by selling weapons to America to go bomb the weapons that you sold to America’s enemies! No matter who wins the war, either way, you make money, because you got to sell weapons to both sides! Capitalism is amazing. I chose the wrong line of work.
Holy hell, I don’t even have time to get into this one in great detail, but it’s really bad. Go read about it. Basically, Reagan and his top military advisers were illegally selling arms to Iran in order to illegally free hostages being held by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon, while also using the money from the weapons-to-Iran sales to illegally give EVEN MORE money to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua (against the will of Congress, which had voted to cut off funding to the Contra death squads). This was all very bad, evil, unconstitutional stuff. 11 members of the Reagan administration were indicted for their actions in the Iran-Contra affair, including Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, but they all ended up being pardoned in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush.
America is an amazing country—in Reagan’s America, some Black kid on the street could get caught in possession of a small amount of drugs and get sent to prison for years, but the highest-ranking officials in government could commit serious crimes against the Constitution and get off with a slap on the wrist. The system always protects itself.
P.S. Can you imagine if Obama tried to get away with something like Iran-Contra??? The Republicans would CRUCIFY him. Hell, they wouldn’t even let Obama nominate a Supreme Court justice. They wouldn’t even let Obama provide health insurance to sick people. Republicans act like universal health care is the ultimate affront to American freedom and dignity, and then meanwhile their patron saint, Ronald Reagan, was selling guns to America’s sworn enemies in Iran and then secretly funneling the money to Central American rapists and murderers. The Republican Party deserves its status as a dumpster fire.
He Got Way Too Much Credit for Ending the Cold War
Republicans act as if Ronald Reagan was a mythically heroic figure that single-handedly “won” the Cold War. But the real story was much more complicated. First of all, America didn’t “win” the Cold War so much as Gorbachev and the Soviet Union “gave up.” The USSR was dying, and Gorbachev knew it; the whole Soviet system was built upon an unsustainable foundation of brutality and corruption. The USSR had been experiencing years of economic stagnation and fighting a ruinous decade-long war in Afghanistan, and they couldn’t afford to keep up the military spending necessary to hold their satellite states in submission. Reagan deserves credit for being an effective negotiator who built a strong personal relationship with Gorbachev—but the Soviet Union was already crumbling from within, without any help needed from Reagan to finish it off.
Also, Ronald Reagan wasn’t some universally beloved international rock star. The Berlin Wall did not come down because of Ronald Reagan; it came down because people in Berlin (and all over Eastern Europe) were sick of having their lives run by oppressive, incompetent jerks in Moscow. “All politics is local,” after all, and the people of the Iron Curtain had their own unique local cultures, histories, grievances and hopes for the future that had nothing to do with what Ronald Reagan and America wanted for them. And Eastern Europeans didn’t want Reagan and Thatcher’s vision of supply-side economics and psychotically unfettered capitalism—they wanted kinder, gentler Western European-style social democracy, with a strong social safety net, lots of vacation, fun discotheques, and permissive sexual mores. Eastern Europeans were attracted to American pop culture and soft power—Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola—not a fuddy-duddy 77-year-old man shilling for right-wing economic policies.
He Destroyed the American Middle Class
Yikes, this one could be a whole separate article. Short version: preaching the gospel of trickle-down economics, Ronald Reagan drastically cut taxes on the rich and shifted America’s tax burden from “wealth” to “work.” And while the economy grew in the short-term, the American middle class and working class haven’t gotten a real inflation-adjusted pay raise ever since. Today, white working class “Reagan Democrats” are dying of prescription drug overdoses.
He Continued Nixon’s Horrible “Southern Strategy”
Reagan was an amiable dunce, but he was the frontman for vicious race-based politics in the worst traditions of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Reagan helped legitimize the Republican Party’s politics of white racial resentment that led to Donald Trump. He even launched his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, giving a speech that endorsed “states’ rights,” in the same place where three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. Reagan helped solidify the despicable tradition of Republican racist dog-whistle politics, where they send not so subtly coded messages to America’s worst people, saying “Psssst! Vote for us, and we’ll keep the darkies in line!”
He Lied About “Welfare Queens” Driving Cadillacs
Ronald Reagan blew a lot of other racist dog-whistles, too, like when he talked about “Welfare Queens driving Cadillacs.” Our present-day self-defeating policies of drug-testing welfare recipients and policing the grocery store choices of people on food stamps have their roots in the Reagan era—Ronald Reagan made it cool to hate the poor.
He Lied About His Hair Color
Reagan’s supporters always claimed that he didn’t dye his hair, but come on. We’ve all seen how dramatically the stress of being president ages people—Barack Obama is only 54, and his hair is already greyer than Rupert Murdoch’s pubes. But we’re really supposed to believe that a 78-year-old man could spend 8 years in the White House and still have jet-black hair? Give me a fucking break.
Ronald Reagan was such a goddamn fraud. This hair dye thing makes me even angrier than Iran-Contra and trickle down economics and all the other Reagan-era bullshit.
Or maybe Ronald Reagan really DIDN’T dye his hair. Maybe, unlike every other president, he wasn’t that stressed out by the pressures of the office. Maybe he just drifted along in a bubble of self-satisfied, contented obliviousness. It would explain a lot.
He Signaled the Cultural Ascendance of the Absolute Worst Americans
Yuppies with Rolex watches. Smug social climbers bragging about their stock portfolios. Wall Street psychopaths in two-tone dress shirts who made Gordon Gekko their real-life hero. Soulless, overpaid, Baby Boomer suburbanite squares trying to conspicuously-consume their way into being cool. Creepy grown-up College Republican neckbeards like Grover Norquist. These were the people who thrived and prospered in Ronald Reagan’s America. Remember Christian Bale’s character in “American Psycho?” That movie was not a comedy – it was a documentary. Life in the 1980s was exactly like “American Psycho.”
Ronald Reagan was a really great president for affluent, lame white people. If you were a right-wing white Christian or a proud redneck or even just a simple-minded complacent white person who loved to go to the mall and didn’t like to think too much and was intimidated by Black people, Ronald Reagan was your guy. Lots of American white lame-os loved Reagan because he had been in the movies and he reminded them of their grandpa, and they let him get away with impeachable offenses and atrocities because the economy was growing, and they were tired of the anomie and stagflation of the 1970s, and if a bunch of innocent men, women and children in Nicaragua had to be machine-gunned into mass graves to make this all possible, well, that was a price that 1980s white people were happy to pay. Ronald Reagan drifted through life with an air of harmless, breezy likability, putting a happy face on all of the horrors to come.
As I look back on this list of damning crimes, I’m reminded of how horrible Ronald Reagan really was. And yet, by the standards of today’s Republican Party, he wasn’t really that bad! The Republican Party that was created by this warmongering dunce, this friend of dictators, this lover of death squads, this lavisher of riches upon the already-rich, has somehow gotten WORSE than it was even in the heyday of their hallowed conservative saint!
Almost every bad thing and downward trend that has transpired in American political culture during the past 36 years happened because of Ronald Reagan’s inspiration and example. He taught us that government is always the problem (unless it’s the military or CIA; that part of the government can do no wrong, even when they’re training Central American death squads!); that government spending is always wasteful (unless it’s military spending or subsidies or incentives for big business interests; then we should give them everything they want!); that poor people are moochers and frauds (but we should pardon the powerful men who sell weapons to Iranian terrorists!); that we should worship wealth and punish the poor, and that minorities should be ignored or imprisoned (but we should do special favors for murderous dictators, as long as they support our foreign policy goals!); that America is always the happy, crusading International Good Guy (even when we meddle in the problems of countries and cultures that we don’t understand, even when we’re stupid and clumsy and do more harm than good!).
Ronald Reagan helped shift the tax burden from wealth to work, he helped hollow out the middle class, his War on Drugs helped launch the current era of mass incarceration that ruined millions of lives and destroyed countless communities and neighborhoods, his insane tax policies helped create today’s new Gilded Age of out-of-control wealth inequality, and his enthusiastic support for some of the worst people on Earth helped lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t brilliant; he was just really, really lucky— he was wrong about lots of things, but he still managed to bumble his way through without starting World War III. He wasn’t a visionary; he was a one-trick pony who kept peddling the same tired Cold War ideas that had bogged America down for decades. He wasn’t brave; he was willfully oblivious. He wasn’t judicious; by indiscriminately backing whatever “anti-communist” military factions he could find, he helped unwittingly lay the groundwork for 9/11 and today’s Age of Terror.
Reagan did some things well; the economy did grow during his presidency and he helped reduce inflation and he signed a major nuclear arms control deal with Gorbachev. He deserves credit for recognizing that Gorbachev was a good-faith negotiation partner who was offering a new opportunity to use diplomacy to manage the decline of the Soviet Union and end the Cold War. But on the whole, Reagan did a lot of terrible things, was blithely indifferent to the concerns of anyone who wasn’t a white hetero conservative Christian, and pursued policies that, in the long view of history, have made most Americans worse off.
He gets credit from his lackeys in conservative think tanks for being a hero of the Cold War, even though Gorbachev and the Soviets were coasting to the finish line and eager to surrender. He gets adulation from the Republican Party as a Rushmore-worthy All Time Great President who was a transformative figure—but the stakes of the Reagan Era were never really as high as he made them out to be. He turned the presidency into a real-life B-movie, with cheesy special effects and cheap thrills and a massively overblown budget. And we’re all still paying for it.
Ronald Reagan was WAY overrated. If he was the best that the Republicans can do, no wonder they’re screwed.