Cracking open the cult of Reagan
A few years ago (in words not unlike those used to describe North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-il) the Hoover Institution at Stanford described Ronald Reagan as a titan “whose spirit seems to stride the country, watching us like a warm and friendly ghost.”
Reagan’s rise to semi divinity hardly derives from a popular groundswell. After he left office, opinion polls rated him 35th in relation to other presidents, just above Rutherford B. Hayes. Chagrined by this rating, Grover Nordquist and other conservative figures in 1997 started the Reagan Legacy Project, a well-funded effort to lionize Reagan as an apostle of small government and a less regulated “free market.”
A central theme of the project is that Reagan throttled an oppressive federal government—got “government off our backs”—and ushered in a new era of prosperity. This is a valid conclusion for those who have a fondness for fairy tales. In fact, the Reagan administration actively expanded the powers of the executive branch to aid corporations at home and achieve imperial objectives abroad.
At the onset of his term in 1981, U.S. business was reeling under the competition of a resurgent Europe and Japan, the latter especially. In response, Reagan restricted rather than extended market access for foreign companies. Secretary of the Treasury James Baker boasted that Reagan provided more protectionism to U.S. business than any other postwar administration; quotas on Japanese imports severely curtailed competition. So much for the “free market.”
In the same year, Reagan had to contend with the worst recession since the Great Depression. His recovery program did not rely on market forces; it relied on a spending spree for military-related equipment, i.e., a form of planned production ordered by the government—exactly contrary to autonomous market forces.
To finance this, Reagan tossed aside the conservative holy grail of balanced budgets. Since he had simultaneously given tax breaks to his rich patrons, military spending from 1983 to 86 added $1 trillion to the national debt, rendering hollow and hypocritical the GOP’s current sanctimony on this issue. Moreover, it’s too restrictive to call Reagan’s bonanza to business “military spending.” As Anatol Lieven aptly put it, “military spending is a vast, undeclared program of state industrial development.” As absurd as his “Star Wars” anti-missile system was as an effective missile shield, it shoveled public money to various high tech industries; the public paid for R & D, while private corporations garnered the profits. For example, the internet was incubated for 21 years within the Pentagon before being turned over to private industry. In short, Reagan promoted a form of state capitalism that favored Corporate America. Curiously, these public subsidies to corporations don’t happen to be “socialism.”
Moving from economics to politics, Reagan can be considered conservative only if we empty the term of its long-standing meaning. Certainly, Edmund Burke, the 18th century English philosopher and politician who shaped
classical conservative theory, would find little kinship with Reagan’s interpretation. Although Burke fiercely defended the interests of the ruling class of his day, the landed aristocracy, he just as fiercely decried the autocratic ways of royal power—the executive power of the day—and he
sought to define and limit it. To distill Burke, his conservatism called for a strong parliament to check and balance royal executive power and bind all the institutions of government to the rule of law, thus protecting individuals and civil society from the arbitrary, untrammeled assault of governmental power.
Reagan’s actions in the Iran Contra affair reveal nothing but contempt for this classical view of conservatism. When Congress banned further aid to the Contra effort to subvert the legal government of Nicaragua, Reagan flouted the law by just as illegally selling weapons to Iran and using the proceeds to fund the “sons of Reagan” (mostly former members of Somoza’s National Guard) who were marauding in Nicaragua, primarily attacking civilian targets like agricultural cooperative and health clinics, i.e., smashing the achievements of the Sandinista government.
In this matter, Reagan’s actions can justly be called tyrannical because he illegally usurped the power vested in the Congress by the U.S. Constitution. A primary tenet of the Constitution is that the power of the purse resides
in the Congress, which in this instance had clearly and deliberately cut off funding for the Contras. Reagan not only violated a specific law, he executed a de facto nullification of the Constitution itself by brazenly trashing the constitutionally defined checks and balances codified to thwart an authoritarian power grab by the executive branch. By this grave breach of the Constitution, Reagan, Vice President Bush (as chief organizer of the treason) and his minions became the government of the U.S. and so became not the bearers of Burke’s conservatism but its destroyers. That Reagan’s usurpation of power did not lead to impeachment remains a glaring and ominous omission in the political life of the nation.
Since Reagan’s breaches of the law also extended to international law, these proved to be far more serious because they led to the deaths of thousands of people in Nicaragua and vast property damage. Given that these attacks were unprovoked, Nicaragua viewed them as crimes against the peace (waging aggressive war), the first and foremost principle of the Nuremberg Principles by which the Allied powers had tried and convicted the Nazi leadership in 1946.
Rather than respond to violence with violence, Nicaragua took its case to the International Court of Justice. In 1986, the court ruled unanimously that the Reagan administration was guilty of “illegal use of force” against the beleaguered people of Nicaragua. The court’s language was simply a more decorous way of stating that Reagan carried out state terrorism. The judges went on to order the U.S. to pay nearly $18 billion in reparations to help Nicaragua recover. These funds were never paid, and even the august New York Times dismissed the whole case on the contrived grounds that the ICJ lacked jurisdiction—although the paper made no such claim when the U.S. appealed to the Court when Iran took U.S. embassy officials hostage in 1979. We should also note that in seeking to preserve the white racist government in South Africa, Reagan sponsored a savage terrorist war against the front-line states opposed to the preservation of apartheid. As late as 1988, Reagan and company described the African National Congress as the world’s “most notorious terrorist organization.” I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Nelson Mandela or Reagan earned the title of the world’s most notorious terrorist.
Next, Reagan’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan conjures up Chalmers Johnson’s term “blowback.” U.S. weapons and Saudi money were used to fund a jihad by Islamic extremists against the Afghan regime. One of these jihadis, Osama bin-Laden, was spectacularly successful in turning his training and skills against his former American benefactors. Another client in this jihad was Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, another Islamic extremist. In return for his support in the Afghan war, the U.S. put no barriers in the way of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, thus spurring proliferation in the world’s most unstable region.
Returning to domestic policy, it is true that Reagan did get government off the back of business by restoring the legitimacy of scabs and not enforcing labor laws. His successful attack on PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union, was the opening battle in Corporate America’s reactionary war on trade unionism. Perhaps the most timely measure of Reagan’s legacy can be seen in Madison, as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in donning Reagan’s mantle, carries out the latest phase in the Republican crusade against working people.
By setting the record straight on Reagan, we seek not only to hold his administration accountable for its crimes and injustices, but by also stripping away the cynical veneer of heroism and acclaim, we can try to impede future crimes and injustices.