My provocative (and partially self-censored) title is indebted to J.G. Ballard's story, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, which was published in 1968, the year Reagan was touted as an alternative to frontrunner Richard Nixon in the contest for the Republican nomination. This alarmed Ballard, who had perceived the disconnect between the actor-turned-governor's amiable persona and his reactionary rhetoric.
As befits one of the most unpredictable writers of his day, Ballard's story departs from conventional narrative norms. It's presented as a report on a series of scientific studies investigating the nature of Reagan's erotic appeal. Test subjects who fantasize about the Gipper can only achieve orgasm when engaging in sodomy. The report's prescient conclusion is that "[t]he profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years."
As one can imagine, Ballard took flak for the story. Later he wrote, "In vain did I protest that anyone in public life attempting to involve us in his fantasies can hardly complain if we involve him in ours." This is what conservatives have done with Reagan since he left the White House. Involved him in their revisionist fantasies. They're like the Borg; to assimilate Reagan into their hive mind, they've had to erase his individuality. In 2008, the Republican presidential candidates tripped over themselves to declare their fealty to his legacy. Look at his administration's record, however, and you'll find he didn't always tow the conservative line. Of course this is ignored or forgotten by Reagan idolaters.
Last year, the Republican National Comittee fashioned a purity test which repeatedly invoked him. To receive RFC funding, the test said, candidates would have to pledge to support at least eight of ten policy positions. As others have noted, Reagan himself could not have earned a perfect score; he raised taxes, ballooned the deficit, and granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. When reminded of this, the test's author replied, "I don't know any conservative who doesn't think that Reagan's presidency was a conservative presidency."
Such was not the case in 1988. In his brilliant study of the modern conservative movement,
U.S. vs. Them, J. Peter Scoblic takes us back to the end of Reagan's second term, when he was attacked for signing an arms reduction treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty marked a significant turnaround from his first term, when US-USSR relations reached their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. No sane individual would ever call Reagan a peacenik, but we're talking about the American right here. They accused the president of selling out; some even likened him to Neville Chamberlain! They didn't want detente or containment. They demanded unrelenting confrontation against a supposedly implacable enemy. In his diaries, Reagan wrote that they "have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be war between the two superpowers." No wonder the fall of the Soviet Union took them by surprise. For years, they had scoffed at objective analysts who suggested that the Communist system was on its last legs.
But as we're learned form Iraq, these people never admit they're wrong. They simply change the narrative. Reagan went from being a pariah, Scoblic writes, to a hero:
In the minds of the Reagan Victory School, as it would become known, it was Reagan's conservatism -- that is, his conviction that the Cold War was a battle between good and evil, and the policies that flowed naturally from that conviction -- that had forced the Soviet Union to implode... [T]hey had to construct a simplified image of [Reagan], in which his Manichaean world view had led him to eschew containment for a policy of rollback that, combined with economic, military, and psychological pressure, forced the communists to call an end to their revolution and admit defeat. Instead of acknowledging Reagan's penchant for negotiation and hatred of nuclear weapons, they focused on Reagan's simplicity and deduced that, to defeat an enemy, one needs nothing more than moral clarity and military might. They decided not only that Reagan was ideologically pure, but that his purity was effective.
As far as they're concerned, they own Reagan. Even his son has no claim on him. Recently two right-wing spokesmen insulted Ron Reagan Jr. Frank Gaffney and Ron Christie told him his father would have been ashamed of him for opposing torture. Gaffney and Christie never mentioned that President Reagan ratified a UN convention against torture! It really is like the Onion parody where Reagan's corpse is reanimated to do the Republican Party's unholy bidding.
This is only one of numerous examples of how the right discards or remolds reality to achieve a political end. Obama and the Democrats need to remember who they're dealing with. What they did to Reagan, they tried to do with Iraq, and they're now doing with health care reform. These are radicals, not conservatives, many of whom are seditious, anarchic, and obliviously hypocritical. "The best lack all conviction," Yeats observed. "The worst are full of passionate intensity."
The Republicans' relentless drive -- their passionate intensity -- has served them well. They wouldn't have panicked the way the Democrats did after Scott Brown's victory. They have convictions -- warped ones, but convictions nevertheless.
Alas, the Democrats are hollow. After his first year in office, I don't know what Obama stands for. Where will he draw the line? As for progressives, they're passionately intense, to be sure, but self-destructive too. This week, they've come out in favor of the Senate health bill. Last month, they called for it to be killed. If they'd shown such flexibility last fall, we could have settled the issue before the election in Massachusetts. Same goes with the Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate campaign donations. In 2000, these progressives threw their votes away on Ralph Nader. If they'd supported Al Gore, John Roberts and Sam Alito would never have been appointed to the court, and the corporate nightmare they have always feared would not now be coming true. But they haven't learned their lesson. They're threatening to boycott the 2010 elections and work against Obama's re-election. They hope a proto-fascist horror such as Sarah Palin will become president because only when the country is on the verse of collapse will its stupid citizenry embrace the progressive agenda. Disgusting!
Still, we have one advantage: ideology makes people stupid. It makes them lose sight of options and opportunities. But if we're going to stop the Republicans from reaming the country again, we have to stop saying we're smarter than the fundamentalists and tea baggers and follow David Mamet's advice: "If you're smarter than the other guy, BE smarter than the other guy."