America has always been a nation of narratives. From Manifest Destiny to the American Dream, the stories we tell about ourselves have come to define not simply our culture but our politics as well. Since the Jacksonian Revolution, this myth-making, this populist penchant for following a cult of personality, has been a consistent factor in American life, but perhaps never more so than in the past election. Donald Trump has created a personal brand like few presidents in history, using his celebrity status for political ends like no one else except, perhaps, Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, Trump projects a grandfatherly persona — he doesn’t patronize, and he proudly “tells it like it is.” Like Reagan, he has both folksy charisma and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The parallels in personality are so close, in fact, that many editorialists have directly likened them, couching Trump’s policies in the terms of Reagan’s own campaign, and wishing for a new dawn in America. And, while many of us have grown up idolizing famous presidents like Reagan and Lincoln, we often forget that Lincoln supported segregation and ordered the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in a death march through the New Mexican desert and the largest mass execution in U.S. history. We must not, in the words of a popular musical our president dislikes, let our ideals blind us to reality. And we must never wish for Trump to repeat the Reagan administration.
While there were understandable reasons for concern regarding Clinton’s policies, the only responsible course of action is to apply the same skepticism to both sides of the aisle. Was Clinton truly more ‘crooked’ than her critics, or fundamentally more flawed? Perhaps not. As the daughter of a former foreign service officer, I am stunned by Clinton’s arguably callous handling of Benghazi but no less horrified by the deaths of almost seventy diplomats in consulate attacks during the second Bush administration, the attack in Beirut during the Reagan administration, and Reagan’s likely scheme to stall the Iranian hostage release for political gain. Like many of my more conservative friends, I am deeply concerned by Clinton’s private email server, a form of blatant disregard for national security that has no parallel in history besides, of course, its near-exact parallels during the Bush and Trump administrations. I am skeptical of some facets of the Iran nuclear deal but appreciate that Obama at least did not illegally arm Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, turn back around and arm Iraq, and then use American intelligence to support Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on Iranian soldiers and his own people.
While I believe that America is a nation of immigrants, in short, I also acknowledge the anxieties of those concerned by the influx of Central American and Arab refugees, many of whom are from countries the United States deliberately destabilized. The CIA under Reagan’s Iran-Contra scheme literally wrote the book on torture of political dissidents and supported paramilitary forces in Nicaragua through drug trafficking.
We must not wish for Trump to repeat the American foreign policy of the past, in short, unless we fully understand what that means. Do we really want Trump to have the foreign policy acumen of a man who supported apartheid and viewed Nelson Mandela as a terrorist yet called Rios Montt “a man of great integrity”? And, while even supporters of Reagan have been forced to admit that funding Montt was at best a grave misunderstanding, Reagan’s ongoing support of human rights abuses throughout Central and South America suggests not only inattentiveness, but calculated callousness. As in his decision to arm religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan, he sought to oppose the spread of communism without particular attention to the civilians in his way, or to the ideology of those he funded. And, while neither his administration nor the preceding Carter administration were directly responsible for the Taliban’s later takeover of Afghanistan, they nonetheless arguably created a power vacuum that enabled the rise of radical Islam.
Don’t wish for a new Reagan administration, in short, because we will only become more and more polarized as a nation if we allow flawed individuals to stand in for abstract ideals. As long as Reagan remains simply the 40th president, we have a chance of learning from both his mistakes and his successes, but as soon as he slips into something more — a propagandistic symbol of modern conservatism, of family values and the American Way — we lose the ability to really learn from history. We begin to personally identify with politics in a way that clouds the flaws in our own reasoning, that makes criticism of our heroes seem like a criticism of ourselves. In the words of the late Antonin Scalia, we must learn to separate people from ideas.
So don’t romanticize Reagan. Don’t wish for a return to the wholesome honesty and family values of an administration that still holds a record for fraud convictions, that unconstitutionally defied Congress by violating the Boland Amendment, and lied on national television about Iran-Contra.
Don’t wish for a new Reagan administration because Reagan was silent for almost five years at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and while more people than any of us will ever meet in a lifetime, more people than live in my hometown, more people than Fordham’s entire student body wasted away, Reagan’s cabinet chuckled that the president had never heard of “gay plague.” When the sick and dying were fired, threatened, and thrown out of schools, Reagan refused to criminalize discrimination against AIDS patients. And, while Reagan could have potentially stopped the epidemic in its tracks by offering more rehabilitation and treatment programs for intravenous drug users, he chose instead to further Nixon’s deliberate targeting of the black community and political dissidents through discriminatory drug sentencing laws.
Civil rights activists have long slammed Reagan as spurring a decades-long spiral of racially discriminatory prison policies under the guise of “law and order,” which is a large part of why Trump’s vocal “law and order” platform (not to mention his own alleged racist remarks, use of slander, and redlining lawsuits) have sparked so much concern. It should be noted, however, that the Reagan administration did not win every argument against civil rights activists; notably, Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general who believes the NAACP is “un-American,” was once refused a federal court appointment for alleged racist conduct..
This is not to say that Trump will necessarily repeat Reagan’s worst mistakes. But when the vice president has openly supported laws discriminating against gay couples, whom he views as a sign of societal collapse, we as a society can’t afford to wait and see. Pence’s own policies led to an HIV outbreak that required federal intervention in Indiana, and, while some may say that such pessimism at this point is pointless, that we should support Trump, that nothing will really change, to some of us that sounds a lot like the laughter of Reagan’s press secretary, and the silence of Reagan himself.
If Trump is to succeed in being a reasonable president for all Americans, silence won’t be good enough. He won’t succeed because the American people lionize him, because criticizing him is viewed as petty or puerile, because protests are deemed too divisive. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American public.” In the words of Edmund Burke, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”
All of us, on both sides of the aisle, must set aside the mythos of our own ideologies. We must learn to see from one another’s point of view, to see why some rightly find our heroes terrifying. Both major parties have been forces for both good and ill, and we must learn to see politicians as more than simply projections of our own views if we are ever to move forward as a country. We must learn not to excuse the inexcusable in favor of our own narratives. We must learn to see not just red and blue, but many shades of gray. And, this year, just after a federal holiday Reagan privately opposed, let us consider why many don’t want to repeat the past, even — especially — the Reagan administration. I want to believe as much as anyone that this administration marks a new dawn of American prosperity, and yet, in the words of the Gipper himself, “my heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”