Reagan and Trump

 

A few years ago, I was talking to one of those young people raised to believe that Reagan was pretty nearly God, and he said to me, “At first I was mad when people said Reagan has Alzheimer’s but then I decided that it didn’t matter.”

I thought that was interesting. He wasn’t mad because it was false; he was mad because it seemed mean. He didn’t change his mind about it because he went from thinking it was false to thinking it was true; he changed his mind because he found a way to explain it as non-trivial.

This was in 2005 or so, but it perfectly reproduced my experience of arguing with Reagan supporters in 1980. Reagan said a lot of things about himself and his record that were untrue. He might have sincerely believed them or not–I think he did–but if you pointed out he was saying things that were untrue, his fans said you were mean. He declared his candidacy literally on the site of one of the most appalling pro-segregation murders of the 1960s, and said he was in favor of states’ rights, and his supporters were apoplectic if you said he was appealing to racism. “He isn’t racist,” they’d say. “He’s a good man.”

If you tried to point out that the economic model on which he was going to base US policy was thoroughly irrational in that it was completely unfalsifiable, you were rejected as some kind of egghead.

When I asked a few more questions (such as, if your policies are best advocated by a person with Alzheimer’s, maybe there are problems with the policies), it became clear that he saw Reagan’s failure to be able to grasp complicated things as a virtue. That’s what made Reagan go for simple solutions, he thought, and he thought that meant that Reagan cut through the bullshit.

That, too, was my experience of Reagan supporters in the 80s (except the Marxists I knew who voted for them because they said he would bring about the people’s revolution faster, and the Dems who voted for him as a protest vote against Carter and then Mondale). They liked that he didn’t seem to understand the complexities of political situations. They sincerely believed that political issues aren’t really complicated, but are made so by professional politicians and eggheads just trying to keep their jobs, and so a person who looked at things in black and white terms would get ‘er done.

I think we have the same situation now. Clearly, the WH is made up of people who don’t understand the law about any of the things they’re trying to enact or the things they’re doing (whose defense is that they don’t and never did), who never had clear plans for any of the things they said they would achieve, who don’t understand how government actually works, who don’t understand what it means to be President, who are mad that they’re being treated the way they treated the previous President, and who are just engaged in rabid infighting.

People with even a moderate understanding of history are worried because this never works out well (for anyone, including his own party). People with a cherrypicked version of history don’t think it matters because they think he’ll enact the GOP agenda (and they think that’s great). And his base thinks it’s great because they think that a person who doesn’t think anything is complicated and isn’t deeply informed is exactly what we need.

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