Skip to content

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

Liberal nostalgia cozies up to power in the form of a zombified Ronald Reagan

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but how could the American people have given their highest public office to a man who is so clearly an idiot? Not just any ordinary lunkhead, but someone who brutishly, bullishly, maddeningly inhabits his own stupidity, who practically grabs the world by its lapels and shouts: I’m a big dumb moron, and I don’t care; you have to listen to me anyway! He talks in the broad and flattened tones of the easy answer—just listen to him and everything will be alright, it’ll be a new day, the rot will be stopped and the country will be great again – and he smiles. He’s always smiling, but that boneheaded optimism is surrounded by so much hate. The Ku Klux Klan love him, there might be a war with Iran, there could be mass arrests—who can say what will happen when someone so dumb and so dangerous gets political power? The guy has no understanding and no expertise; he’s never previously held any national office; he’s not even a politician, he’s a demagogue, a conman, an entertainer, a fucking clown: some grinning TV character bursting out into reality to cheapen every institution he touches, who makes everything as flat and as pointless as the world of images he crawled out from.

It’s as if he can’t tell the difference between real life and the image on the screen; it’s as if that difference has already disappeared. Politics is entertainment now, forgetting everything that precedes it, annihilating everything it faces, torn out from context and ideology to float freely in the single eternal instant of mindless amusement. He represents an unprecedented crisis, a threat to the system like nothing before. How can the liberal constitutions of the Enlightenment survive once they’re subsumed by the forces of mass media? How can democracy survive a man like Ronald Wilson Reagan?

Okay, that was a cheap, gimmicky trick, but democratic politics has been full of cheap, gimmicky tricks for a long time. A voguish one this election cycle has been to bemoan a Republican party that once produced great figures like Ronald Reagan, and now sells creepy knockoffs like Donald Trump. Trump’s “policy and demeanor are starkly different from the great communicator’s,” The Huffington Post gurgled this summer, while New York Times op-ed contributor Gil Troy waxed positively elegiac about Reagan’s genius: “Ronald Reagan left America richer and safer after two terms as president. Reagan defied expectations by turning to the center” and “used the transition period to heal wounds while claiming a broad policy mandate.”

Trump is a zombified Reagan, a parodic echo of the man who was too dumb to know fully what he was doing but who still managed to fuck the Democrats until they loved him.

Against this grotesquely oversimplified revisionist history, the dilemma now yawning before the American public is also being grotesquely oversimplified. How could the party of Reagan become the party of Trump? How could it go from giving the nuclear codes to a man too senile and stupid to understand how politics worked, to giving them to a man who simply doesn’t care? The idea is to embarrass the president-elect by this comparison, but the only people it really embarrasses are the ones making it. The more they laud Reagan, the more they surrender to Trump, and the more certain we can be that these distraught liberals will sell out everyone else at their first opportunity.

Trump is a zombified Reagan, a parodic echo of the man who was too dumb to know fully what he was doing but who still managed to fuck the Democrats until they loved him, who marshalled all the powers of simulation and spite to beat them into such pathetic submission that they’re still lionizing him to this day. Just wait another thirty years and they’ll be saying the same thing about whatever monstrosity the Republicans put up then: how could the GOP sink from the glory days of President Trump to this?

Reagan was the first postmodern president; it was under his administration that all depth metaphors finally collapsed, and image and reality first became politically indistinguishable. In other words, he was a moron, brainless and bellicose, something barely sentient. He was fond of telling people—Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, for instance, or Simon Weisenthal—that he had personally been among the first group of U.S. soldiers to enter Buchenwald. He had not: he spent the war in Culver City, processing footage from the camps as part of the USAAF’s First motion Picture Unit. It didn’t matter; even the Holocaust couldn’t resist being blanketed in mediation. Giving testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan read out the stage directions instructing him to lie, picking up his flash cards and announcing that “if the question comes up at the Tower Board meeting, you might want to say that you were surprised.”

When he first entered the White House, Reagan’s advisers presented him with lengthy policy documents. He simply couldn’t understand them, so they started getting him to make decisions (including the decision to procure new intercontinental ballistic missiles) by showing him four-panel cartoons. And it all made perfect sense. In a society where the President is experienced most often as a character on TV, why shouldn’t he be played by a TV personality? There are differences: Reagan was an actor, whose job was to read his lines, while Trump comes out of reality programs—he expects to improvise, and trusts that the editors will snip and splice everything together so that he comes out in the best possible light. The format changes, but the show’s the same.

This is not to say that everything will be fine. That’s another line that liberals are now taking to console themselves: yes, we raised a lot of panic during the election, but there was a similar panic back in 1980, and it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe Trump will surprise us, maybe he’ll be like Reagan, maybe it’ll be okay. Except that for many people it wasn’t okay, and the world really did end.

Liberals deified Reagan, because in the end they find power irresistible.

Reagan was a bumbling idiot, but he was also a monster, a slimeball fascist whose mercenaries and paid fanatics gunned down thousands across the globe, who fought wars of aggression for PR purposes, whose crackdown on drugs amounted to the all-but-genocidal repression of his own population, who empowered Salafists and death squads, whose economic policies replaced the supposed drudgery of unionization and job security with constant anxious panic for the many and a vampire’s glut for the few, who left communities to be hollowed by disease, whose administration was packed with sleazes and scumbags and scandal. Reagan tore deep gashes in the surface of the world, he killed without conscience, and he did it all with the effortless lubricated grin of a shitty Hollywood actor who knows that it’s all a charade.

History doesn’t remember Ronald Reagan that way, but history is always a useful place to hide the bodies. Reagan, who should have died in a cold cell, never faced justice; instead he was granted an apotheosis. He was the Great Communicator, the compassionate conservative, the cheery national uncle who brought the country out of its doldrums with nothing more than a camera-perfect wink and his faith in the goodness of the American people. Liberals deified him, because in the end they find power irresistible. Just watch the steady rehabilitation of George W. Bush, now a hero of tolerance with Michelle Obama’s arms draped around his shoulders. And the same is already happening for Trump.

As thousands still march in the streets, establishment liberals are pleading for us to give him a chance. Robert De Niro no longer wants to punch him in the face—the grand fetish of the Presidency has transformed him into something respectable. It’s a good role—he’s been legitimized in the same way that hamming up a Shakespeare adaptation legitimizes any other shoddy TV figure. Hillary Clinton, a grasper to the very end, wants to work with his new administration. This is why so many liberals were so aghast at the idea of President Trump. They weren’t scared of what he might do to the anonymous masses; they were repulsed by the vision of themselves sucking up to the bloated orange cretin, because they knew that this is exactly what they’d end up doing.