I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which covers the few years from Watergate through the 1976 election. Those years came on the heels of a series of national traumas that shattered the nation’s self-image: loss in Vietnam, criminal conspiracy in the White House, economic shocks that rocked the age of affluence. By studying those years, you can almost see the directional lines pushing toward today’s American discontent.
Ronald Reagan makes for a useful touchstone into these years, both as a political actor himself during this time, and as the country’s inevitable next horizon in the years to come. And here’s one thing that becomes clear from reading Perlstein: Reagan as governor was the original Donald Trump.
Reagan rose to power on the back of the culture wars. As a candidate for governor, he attacked California’s incumbent governor Pat Brown and the chancellor of the University of California was failing to forcefully discipline campus protestors—for not taking them “by the scruff of the neck and thrown them off campus.”
This hardline stance against campus disruptors won Reagan tremendous backing among California voters. Digging a trench in this culture war, according to Perlstein, “even more than singling out alleged abuses of California’s welfare system by ‘able-bodied malingerers,’ or his fulminations against the violation of economic liberty represented by the state’s new statute outlawing racial discrimination in housing, or high taxes and runaway government spending generally, was how he won his stunning upset victory.”
Much in the same way Trump has eagerly picked fights with black athlete dissenters, Reagan never missed a chance to deepen the cultural clash. When Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver was enlisted to guest lecture at Berkeley in 1968, Reagan threatened to investigate the school “top to bottom,” warning that “if Eldridge Cleaver is allowed to teach our children, they may come home one night and slit our throats.” Cleaver taught the course anyway, instigating his end of the clash by challenging Reagan to a “duel to the death or until he says Uncle Eldridge.”
At the start of the spring semester of 1969, a group of San Francisco State University students blockaded the campus a demanded a new ethnics studies program. Reagan called the students a “small group of criminal anarchist and latter-day fascists,” vowing that “Those who want to get an education and those who want to teach should be protected at the point of a bayonet if necessary.”
Reagan presented his government as siding with the innocent, sympathetic, silent majority. “When you see a co-ed, a girl trying to make her way to class, and she is pushed around, and physical abused for trying to go through the picket line and go to class,” he said, “this girl is entitled to have the forces of law and order to defend her right to go to class.”
“Law and order” would stifle these uprisings and restore societal peace, Reagan assured. Soon, his tactic in the culture wars would shift gears toward outright violent repression. When UC Santa Barbara students burned down a bank—an act that Marxist student leaders cheered for “heightening the contradictions”—Reagan shot back: “If it’s to be a bloodbath, let it be now. No more appeasement.” Four days later, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University.
Political wise men assumed Reagan was toast in the 1970 election. Instead, he won reelection overwhelmingly. He had achieved virtually none of the promises of his 1966 campaign—his “tax reform” plan had been dead-on-arrival in the state legislature. But his stance in the inflamed culture wars bailed him out. Reagan’s “most effective campaigners,” Life magazine observed, “have been those college-based Reagan haters who rioted over People’s Park in Berkeley and set fire to the Bank of America’s branch in Isla Vista last spring.”
More than anything, what Reagan offered California voters was the promise of a return to innocence. A way around the challenges levied against the status quo. A way to revert back to those golden years for the white middle-class before the tumult of the 1960s.
No doubt, Reagan’s insistence on American-pie innocence often had a head-in-the-sand quality to it. In May 1973, just as the Senate Watergate hearings were beginning, Reagan called the allegations of criminal wrongdoing by President Nixon and his staff “none of my business”—allegations that in his opinion had been “blown out of proportion.”
Still, Reagan tapped into an appetite for absolution among the American public—a desire for a return to quiet normalcy, even if it meant “peddling fairy tales,” as Perlstein puts it. Reagan felt the nostalgic yearning across the affluent society to turn back time, and realized that no line was too hard to take against the gatecrashers who were intent on speeding it up.
Reagan would soon take his crusade of fairy tales and innocence national. And the crusade has proved its staying power among generations of American reactionaries. After all, Reagan was the first to promise to “make American great again,” but hardly the last.