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Spin One for the Gipper

Ronald Reagan was no limp-wristed libertine, as Asa Hutchinson and others would have us believe.

Credit: Fox News/YouTube Screenshot

The world, generally speaking, continued its descent into madness and mayhem while I was on paternity leave earlier this month. And among the surprising architects of its destruction was the Republican governor of Arkansas. Asa Hutchinson, an alleged conservative, vetoed a bill passed overwhelmingly by his state’s legislature that would have banned sex-change surgeries and puberty-blocker treatments for children.

The legislature quickly overrode his veto, while Hutchinson slinked over to Fox News to explain himself. His defense: the state has no business getting between a child and his knife-sharpening woke doctor. “I’m a person of faith,” he told Tucker Carlson. “But at the same time, I’m a person of limited role of government.” He added, “I go back to William Buckley, I go back to Ronald Reagan, to principles of our party, which believes in a limited role of government.”

That Hutchinson was making an argument most commonly used in the medical sphere to justify legal abortion was the first clue that this was headed in the wrong direction. Still, I think I may be able to help here. Because ultimately we don’t need our Republican principles. We don’t need fresh thinking or a realignment or another symposium of conservative grandees. Surgically castrating minors is child abuse. So is prescribing chemicals that distort puberty. And child abuse is illegal. So there you have it. You asked for a disquisition on “trans medicine” and I gave you one. I’ll look for my consulting fee in the mail.

More interesting than Hutchinson’s supposed moral dilemma is his invoking of Ronald Reagan to justify it. In doing so, he’s playing into the hands of some nationalists and traditionalists who have come to see the Gipper as an avatar for a passé individualism. Reagan was a libertarian, they say, or at least a fusionist, and given that modern society is beset by loneliness and institutional decay, more “zombie Reaganism” is not what we need. What’s required now is a rediscovery of traditional values, a focus on the nation and the common good, not the freedom of the individual to go and transition as he pleases.

I’m all for moving past Reagan at least in this sense: The man has been exhumed far too many times and puppeteered around far too many dinner parties. Every summer, right-of-center Washington brims with bashes and galas with names like the “Ronald Reagan Dinner” and “Reaganpalooza.” That picture of him smiling and raising a champagne glass long ago started to feel like a Telescreen. Reagan left office when I was one year old and passed away during my junior year of high school. Now a generation of conservatives is ascendant that’s younger even than me; to them, the obsession with a presidency many decades gone by must seem atrophied and strange.

But I also think it’s unfair to trace some hyper-individualist line from Reagan to Hutchinson. Hutchinson thinks the government ought to stay out of personal decisions; Reagan fought a war on drugs and a war on porn at the same time. The former has turned out to be a terrible failure yet in the 1980s it was very much embraced by the Reaganites. The latter is less known but it was also taken seriously. Reagan had long been concerned about the effects of Playboy and phone-sex lines on the nation’s moral health. After winning reelection, he charged his attorney general, Ed Meese, with assembling an 11-member commission to study and attack pornography.

According to Ozy, Meese and company proceeded to watch “dozens of pornographic videos, perused hundreds of magazines, listened to recorded dial-a-porn conversations and took field trips to sex shops.” (Talk about a government portfolio!) The results of this Gay Talese-esque foray into America’s sexual dark heart were apparently sobering. The commission announced that pornography was deleterious to society and a legal crackdown began. Reagan himself declared that the porn industry’s “days are numbered” and threw his support behind the Child Protection and Obscenity Enforcement Act, which tightened record keeping requirements for the porn industry.

Reagan’s opposition to drugs and porn was informed by his Christianity, which he took seriously in ways that might make even some of today’s social conservatives wary. He mused about biblical Armageddon. He campaigned with firebrand preachers like Jerry Falwell. His approach to God and politics foreshadowed the coming evangelical character of the second Bush administration. He inveighed against abortion and publicly repudiated a pro-choice bill he had signed as governor of California.

If this is godless libertarianism, then godless libertarianism has no meaning. What would Reagan have thought of Hutchinson invoking him to veto protections for children? I don’t want to speak for the old man, but my guess is he’d be more than a little annoyed.

Reagan was bound not just by his own conservative politics, but by the political realities of his day. Throw a water balloon at Paul Krugman in the middle of the night and he’ll wake up shouting about how Reagan raised taxes multiple times. And while Reagan talked up free trade, a rising economic powerhouse in Japan and pressure from Congress saw him aggressively impose tariffs and other restrictions. In 1988, the libertarian writer Sheldon Richman groused that Reagan had been “the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover.”

I’m not arguing that Reagan was something he wasn’t; he clearly cherished individual liberty and free-market capitalism (and rightly so). What I am saying is that his record was far more idiosyncratic than has lately been portrayed, and however elastic his legacy has since become, it can’t be stretched to where Asa Hutchinson wants it to go. Still, Reagan did have his limits. He didn’t go so far as to declare, for example, that “the conviction of some conservatives that the state can’t have a genuine, non-predatory interest in the cultivation of virtue strikes me as an anarchical accretion in modern conservative thought.”

That would be the Vatican II-upbraiding, mandatory national service-supporting, Ayn Rand-excommunicating William F. Buckley, whom Hutchinson is also pretending would have been on his side. But that’s another story for another time.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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