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TAC Bookshelf: Indulging That Old Reagan Nostalgia

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Rod Dreher, TAC senior editor: To say I’m a child of the Reagan era is to speak literally: my first political memory was listening to President Jimmy Carter address the nation live early on the morning of April 25, 1980. He was telling us about the failed Iran hostage rescue mission. I remember exactly where I was standing—in the darkened hallway, watching the president on my parents’ bedroom television screen, visible through their open door—when a tsunami of total humiliation rolled out of that bedroom, down the hall, and over my head. I was 13 years old; this was not what it was supposed to feel like to be an American.

It is difficult to convey to people who didn’t live through it how intense the feeling of national shame and weakness was under Carter. I can’t say this feeling was shared by my middle-school class, but I was a politics nerd, and I thought about it a lot. That’s why I stayed up way past my bedtime on November 4, 1980, to watch the newly elected president Ronald Reagan’s victory address, which came over the small black-and-white set in my bedroom. I turned the TV off that night feeling great: though he hadn’t put it this way, Reagan was going to make America great again.

And he did. Reading Gerald Seib’s new book, We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan To Trump – A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution (Random House), was to be taken back to the primal sensation of Reagan’s rise and election-night triumph. I speak of it as a sensation because recovering the feeling of those days, however evanescently, reminded me of why the energy Reagan gathered and unleashed on American politics has endured for so long, in however degraded a form, long beyond its relevance.

Reagan nostalgia has long been a bane of contemporary conservatism, because it prevented conservatives from recognizing how much the world has changed since the 1980s and how conservatism needed to change with it to remain relevant. This was not Reagan’s fault. He was such an iconic figure that it makes emotional sense for older conservatives today—that is, the people populating GOP establishment institutions—to be unable to let go of him. In the 40 years since that dramatic autumn, the Republican Party and the conservative movement have exhausted themselves trying one way or another to recapture the electrifying magic of those transformative times.

Seib’s briskly written history of Republican politics since 1980 doesn’t dwell overmuch on the Reagan years, but it does catalogue, in lively prose that never bogs down in wonkishness, what a revolutionary figure Reagan was. Seib, the executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal, plays it straight in what amounts to a lively and timely exercise in explanatory journalism. But everything goes back to Reagan, who was, in Seib’s account, a man for whom history was ready, and a man whose shadow loomed large over the Republican Party, until Donald Trump descended upon his golden escalator. The two hinge figures of the GOP’s post-Reagan history are TAC founder Pat Buchanan and the singularly audacious politician Newt Gingrich. It was former Reagan White House staffer Buchanan, writes Seib, who understood better than any senior figure in conservative politics how angry and alienated core Republican voters were in a nation that was changing, culturally and economically, at a disconcerting clip, dispossessing them in the process. Seib identifies Buchanan’s 1996 populist run for president against the stoic mandarin Bob Dole as a harbinger of the Republican Party’s future.

Even more important was Newt Gingrich—far more combative than the genial Reagan and vastly less stable (which is why he burned out so quickly). Gingrich held Reagan’s ideological views, but was much more willing to be a disrupter than any kind of institutionalist. It was Gingrich who trained conservatives to reject traditional politics and to lean hard into the all-or-nothing style that would re-appear so potently with the Tea Party. The Gingrich-engineered takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 was a stunning coup. Seib writes:

The face and tone of conservative leadership had shifted from the sunny, optimistic, and gentle approach of Ronald Reagan to the much harsher, angrier, and more pugilistic approach of Newt Gingrich. Rahm Emanuel, an adviser in the Clinton White House who worked both with and against Gingrich, thinks the change in style and approach was so significant that the ascension of Newt Gingrich, rather than the arrival of Donald Trump two decades later, marked the end of the Reagan Revolution. “Newt Gingrich is the beginning of the modern new Republican Party, which was manifested in Donald Trump,” Emanuel says.

That’s spot on—and a judgment I might not have made without reading We Should Have Seen It Coming. Whether one is a policy wonk or (like me) more excited by theories, it is all too easy for intellectuals to think that ideas play a bigger role in politics than they actually do. Again, Seib’s book is a general history of the GOP from Reagan to the present day, and it certainly includes the ideas that have animated conservative politics. What stands out, though, is the triumph on the Right of both personal style and innovative technique—from the direct-mail fundraising genius of Richard Viguerie in the 1980s, to the Contract With America messaging of Frank Luntz in the following decade, to Donald Trump’s mastery of social media.

Ideas do matter, of course, and Seib’s final chapter, which surveys the ideological landscape of contemporary conservatism, reveals the degree to which the Trump has routed the conservative establishment that Ronald Reagan built. He writes:

The split over nationalism neatly framed the identity crisis into which conservatives had fallen. What [Israeli scholar Yoram] Hazony was calling a return to the true roots of conservatism others saw as an invitation to xenophobia, racism, and divisive tribalism. In their eyes, that amounted to a rejection of the kind of conservatism Reagan preached, which embodied a belief in free trade, the virtues of immigration, and a strong American leadership role beyond America’s borders.

Well, they’re right about that—but then, by the time Trump came down that escalator, Reagan conservatism was about as relevant to the real world as FDR’s New Deal liberalism was in 1980. It is no insult to Reagan to say so. Until Trump arrived on the scene, it was difficult for right-wing dissenters from orthodox Reaganism—critics of free trade, immigration skeptics, antiwar conservatives, and others—to break free of the margins to which establishment conservatives had exiled them. Conservatism was Reaganism, and anybody saying otherwise was smeared as “unpatriotic,” a closet liberal, a nativist, or some other epithet meant to police the right’s boundaries.

The problem is that Trump, unlike Reagan or Gingrich, has no real ideas—and he is so unstable that he makes the hyper-restless Gingrich seem like the immovable Sphinx. Style and technique are the substance of Donald Trump—which makes him incapable of meeting the crises of 2020, when America’s fortunes and reputation seem to be crashing in the desert.

We Should Have Seen It Coming is a quick read, but by no means a shallow one. Seib is just really good at his craft, summarizing four decades of political history in deft fashion, and, as the title promises, showing how the GOP traveled from one gifted showman who made the party his own to another who did the same. Reagan’s influence on his party was tectonic; Trump, being Trump, hasn’t built anything likely to outlast his presidency, though the Buchananite forces within conservatism and broader American society that made Trump possible will undoubtedly remain at the vital core of Republican politics.

It is impossible to see the clear outlines of a post-Trump future for the Republicans, but I finished Seib’s book more convinced than ever that for better or worse, Reaganism—the ideology of globalized free markets, social and religious conservatism, and American military and diplomatic domination—is never coming back.

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