Last week’s Republican presidential primary debate was a confusing spectacle of lies and distortions. On topics ranging from immigration to the economy, as well as foreign policy, the 11 candidates on stage spun fictions from whole cloth while they repeatedly raped the truth. The Republican primaries are part of an alternate reality, one that is almost totally incomprehensible and disorienting for those people who are not part of the GOP and Right-wing media’s cult-like belief system.
But while last Wednesday’s debate may have been confusing for outsiders, there was one aspect that was quite clear. The Republican Party worships Ronald Reagan.
During a 3 hour debate, held in a museum-library with his name, Ronald Reagan was mentioned at least 45 times.
Ronald Reagan is a saint for today’s Republican Party—even though many of his actual policies would be rejected as too “liberal” and “compromising” by movement conservatives.
By comparison, Ronald Reagan is in many ways a political demon and nightmare for Black America.
The Republican Party in the Age of Obama has fully mated white supremacy and conservatism. As such, for today’s Republican Party, more generally, and movement conservatives and the Tea Party especially, conservatism and racism is now the same thing.
Ronald Reagan is a central figure in how the Republican Party decided to abandon any pretense to sincere, substantive, racial and social equality, and to openly embrace open white supremacy.
To that end, Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 was aided and abetted by the much-discussed “Southern Strategy”. As developed by influential Right-wing political strategist Lee Atwater, the Southern Strategy consisted of:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
This was a “new” type of racism that combined racial “code words” with white racial resentment, as well as occasional moments of “old fashioned” racial bigotry towards black Americans.
Ronald Reagan and his advisers knew the power of white racism to mobilize angry white working class voters in both the Northeast and Midwest. Reagan also understood that he could fully win over former Southern Democrats to the Republican Party by legitimating their hostility to the civil rights movement and yearning for a return to Jim and Jane Crow.
It is no coincidence then that Ronald Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the city in which legendary civil rights workers and freedom fighters Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner were killed in 1964.
While there, Reagan told thousands of white people that he “believes in states’ rights”.
The Republican Party would come to dominate the South—Reagan helped the GOP to claim its racist demons for themselves.
Reagan consistently opposed civil rights laws that prevented racial discrimination in housing, voting, and employment. The Reagan administration supported the white supremacist nation of South Africa. Republicans in the Age of Obama have continued with Reagan’s embrace of the Jim and Jane Crow South, by actively—and successfully—working to eliminate the paid for in blood and death protections won by black Americans and their allies under the Voting and Civil Rights Acts.
Republican President George W. Bush presided over one of the greatest economic calamities in American history. While the “Great Recession” devastated the working class, middle class, and poor Americans, it was especially harmful to Black America and other communities of color. While White America has had some recovery from the Great Recession (the real unemployment rate remains high; the jobs that replaced those lost pay less), black America’s middle class was eviscerated and almost destroyed.
“Casino capitalism”, financial deregulation, gross levels of wealth inequality that are among the worst in the developed world, outsourcing of skilled and semi-skilled American labor, and the destruction of the social safety net helped to create the Great Recession. Ronald Reagan’s economic policies rotted out the foundations of the American economy.
Republican presidential candidates such as Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and other GOP leaders, have proudly embraced Reagan’s discredited belief that cutting taxes on America’s richest people creates economic growth for the majority. Such policies actually stunt economic growth and only serve to transfer money from the working and middle classes up to the very rich.
Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has great pride in his efforts to destroy public unions, and like other Republicans, to limit the rights of American workers to collectively bargain and organize.
Ronald Reagan pursued similar policies as his administration(s) rolled back the rights of unionized labor and expanded the power of corporations. And in an act that must have inspired Scott Walker, Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers union in 1981.
Ronald Reagan’s and the Republican Party’s continued attacks on federal and private unions have a disproportionately negative impact on black Americans. Because racism in the private labor market forced black people to seek employment in large numbers with the federal government, efforts by conservative and others to shrink “big government” are de facto assaults on the economic livelihood of Black America.
Ronald Reagan was unapologetic in his disdain and hostility towards poor and working class black and brown Americans.
In keeping with the Southern Strategy, Ronald Reagan would talk about black “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” that were supposedly using food stamps and public assistance to live a life of luxury at the expense of hardworking white people. These obnoxious white racist fantasies of lazy, hyper-sexual, and greedy black people can trace their origins to back to the antebellum South.
Centuries and decades later, white racist fantasies of lazy black people still hold great power. The Republican Party’s candidates in 2016 use the racially coded language of “makers and takers”, their political party is engaging in a search for imagined and exaggerated welfare “fraud” by poor black and brown people, and the social safety net is under assault by white conservatives who use white racial anxieties as a rationale to create a less humane and fair society.
Black and brown Americans have been subjected to vicious and thuggish police violence from before the founding of the country through to the Age of Obama. The American criminal justice system is one of the primary tools for social control and institutionalized violence against non-whites and the poor. The Black Lives Matter Movement and other civil rights and activist groups are only making visible to White America what the masses of black and brown people have always known: the police are engaged in legal murder and abuse of Black America as a matter of policy; the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, and so many others entombed in the black necropolis in the Age of Obama are the result of a racist and classist system working precisely as designed…they are not aberrations.
Ronald Reagan, like Nixon before him, and conservatives today, used the language of “law and order”, images of black people “rioting”, and the specious idea of “black crime” to scare white people into supporting an unjust legal system, one that as Michelle Alexander and others have extensively documented, disproportionately and unfairly punishes black people as compared to whites.
When at the conclusion of last week’s Republican primary debate, Michael Huckabee said that people should respect law enforcement. This was a not too subtle threat against Black America, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and an effort to win over white voters.
When Republican candidates say Ronald Reagan’s name 45 times they are summoning this history and legacy. The sins of Ronald Reagan along the color line are the sins of the Republican Party. The sins of fathers do often become the sins of the son and daughter.
The ghost of Ronald Reagan continues to enchant the Republican Party. His power is very great in an era when the President of the United States happens to be a black man and white conservatives have been driven to political insanity by that fact.