A recent article by Paul Krugman and a Follow up bring back to my mind one of the most bizarre examples of self-deceit common among Americans, and that is Reaganofilia.

Despite doubling the national dept (or tripling it, as some claim), Reagan was a fiscal conservative.
Despite the disaster in Beirut, Reagan was a great military leader.
Despite trying to bribe our enemies by sending them arms, Reagan was a stalwart, uncompromising, negotiator.
Despite being the only divorced president, he was a champion of family values (had McCain won, we would have had two divorced family values champions) .

Before the terrorist bombing in Beirut, Ronald Reagan ignored the advise of his experts by putting our troops in a vulnerable position, then took sides in a foreign civil war when we were supposed to be keeping the peace. We eventually withdrew from that position but only after being attacked by suicide bombers, thus sending the message that suicide attacks are an effective tool for fighting American interests. Even Dick Cheney acknowledged that Reagan’s withdrawal from Beirut bolstered the confidence of terrorists.

Whatever Reagen did to the economy, we ended up with a huge national debt when he was finished. Some say he grew the economy, others say he only grew the gap between rich and poor. Either way, there was a huge debt to pay, and Reagan handed the bill to future presidents.

Not everything Ronald Reagan did was disastrous, and he did some good things. But he doesn’t deserve the idol status that he has among conservatives.

And yet his idolized. I know someone who has a twelve inch Reagan doll on his desk. I know someone who has his autographed picture on his wall. We’re constantly hearing about a return to “Reagan style” economics or “Reagan style” leadership. Politicians are praised with phrases like “true Reagan conservative”.

Bill Clinton is admired similarly by his worshipers. I disagree with even my wife concerning the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. I believe that Clinton’s actions were reprehensible, and that he betrayed his country, not just his wife. I don’t believe that uncovering those actions was worth the expense and the derailing of our national agenda, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t reprehensible. But Clinton’s admirers understand his achievements, failures, and misdeeds and take the bad with the good. Reagan’s admirers seem to have invented a mythical legend, based on a real person, to be the object of their affection.

I can think of three reasons.

First, like John Wayne, he looked and acted tough.

The effects of appearance over substance should not be underestimated. In a country where we spend our family’s future wealth to drive around in a vehicles that make us look more powerful, spend that same wealth on clothing to make us look more sophisticated, and dump toxic chemicals on our own front lawns to make us look neater, we really like to look good. And in our playground mentality, “good” means “tough”. Reagan sure did look tough standing at the Berlin wall.

Second, he made the rich richer.

Reagan cut taxes for the rich and raised the payroll tax, actually raising the tax burden for many middle and low income workers ( Yes! Jeez! He Raised Taxes! ). The fact that Reagan’s policies were good for those who are already rich was even more important than the fact that Reagan looked tough. A tremendous amount of financing went into lobbying and advertising to convince citizens that a do-nothing government which allows the corporate leaders and money brokers to do whatever they like is in the best interest of its people. They carefully crafted a false association between restrictions on corporate activity with restrictions on personal freedom, even while promoting policies that actually do restrict personal freedom. They made members of the middle class feel that taxes on the rich will take money out of their pockets, and they convinced people that poverty is caused only by laziness, and has nothing to do with the fact that corporations keep finding ways of doing business with fewer and fewer American workers while muscling small, American businesses out of the market.

The third reason Ronald Reagan is so idolized is that his calls for a tax-free do-nothing government were appealing.

I call it the Mad-Max fantasy. It’s the idea that in a world without the protection of a so-called nanny-state, only the strong and quick-witted will survive and be free, and that each of us who have that fantasy is among the strong, quick-witted, free survivors. But the fantasy ignores two important facts: First, such a world would be a miserable place. There are, indeed, those who aren’t as smart or as strong but don’t deserve to perish from the scorn and neglect of those around them. Second, the fantasy of a do-nothing government is unsustainable. Power always fills a gap. The weaker the government, the stronger the corporations, and we see that in play as Walmart and other big-box stores gobble up trees, parks, and competition in towns and cities all across America, under the blind eye of a do-nothing government unwilling to protect the natural landscape or support its small business owners.

All this rambling makes it sound like I want the opposite: An overarching nanny state enforcing an abundance of restrictive laws under the guise of protecting its citizens. But this is like the “slippery slope” argument that gun-nuts use to equate taking assault weapons out of the hands of teenagers with government militias breaking into your home and stealing your granddaddy’s old hunting rifle. There’s a lot of shit between “everything” and “nothing” and while I don’t want a tax-free do-nothing government, I also don’t want a dystopic society with an ultra powerful government controlling our every move. What I want is a government that balances my freedom against the freedom of others who, if left unchecked, would take my freedom away. For example, I want a government that protects my right to hunt not just by enacting a meaningless constitutional amendment, but by protecting the land on which I would be able exercise that right. And that means a government that tells big-box corporations that they can’t turn my city into big fucking parking lot through which you can drive from one Walmart to another without seeing a single tree.

As I said, not everything Reagan did was wrong. It’s not wrong to make Americans feel proud of their country. It’s not wrong to call for an end to government waste. It’s not wrong to use military force when needed. But Reaganofiles worship a man that never existed, who caused a lot of damage that he isn’t blamed for, and did some good things that today would be considered “liberal”. It’s disturbing to think that so many people can get something so wrong.

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