Last week’s Republican presidential primary debate was a confusing spectacle of lies and distortions. On topics ranging from immigration to the economy, as well as foreign policy, the 11 candidates on stage spun fictions from whole cloth while they repeatedly raped the truth.
The Republican primaries are part of an alternate reality, one that is almost totally incomprehensible and disorienting for those people who are not part of the GOP and right-wing media’s cult-like belief system.
But while last Wednesday’s debate may have been confusing for outsiders, there was one aspect that was quite clear—the Republican Party worships Ronald Reagan.
During a three-hour debate, held in a museum-library bearing his name, Reagan was mentioned at least 45 times. Reagan is a saint for today’s Republican Party—even though many of his actual policies would be rejected as too “liberal” and “compromising” by movement conservatives.
By comparison, Reagan is in many ways a political demon and nightmare for Black America.
The Republican Party in the Age of Obama has fully mated white supremacy and conservatism. As such, for today’s Republican Party, more generally, and movement conservatives and the Tea Party especially, conservatism and racism is now the same thing.
Reagan is a central figure in how the Republican Party decided to abandon any pretense to sincere, substantive, racial and social equality, and to openly embrace open white supremacy. To that end, Reagan’s election in 1980 was aided and abetted by the much-discussed “Southern Strategy.” Developed by influential right-wing political strategist, Lee Atwater, the Southern Strategy was as follows:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say “nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
This was a “new” type of racism that combined racial code words with white racial resentment, as well as occasional moments of old fashioned racial bigotry towards Black Americans.
Reagan and his advisers understood the power of white racism to mobilize angry white working class voters in both the Northeast and Midwest. Reagan also understood that he could fully win over former Southern Democrats to the Republican Party by legitimating their hostility to the civil rights movement and yearning for a return to Jim and Jane Crow.
It is no coincidence then, that Reagan began his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the city in which legendary civil rights workers and freedom fighters Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were killed in 1964. While there, Reagan told thousands of white people that he “believes in states’ rights.”
The Republican Party would come to dominate the South—Reagan helped the GOP to claim its racist demons for themselves. Reagan consistently opposed civil rights laws that prevented racial discrimination in housing, voting, and employment. The Reagan administration supported the white supremacist nation of South Africa. Republicans in the Age of Obama have continued with Reagan’s embrace of the Jim and Jane Crow South, by actively—and successfully—working to eliminate the paid for in blood and death protections won by Black Americans and their allies under the Voting and Civil Rights Acts.
Republican President George W. Bush presided over one of the greatest economic calamities in American history. But, it was Reagan’s economic policies that rotted out the foundations of the American economy.
“Casino capitalism,” financial deregulation, gross levels of wealth inequality that are among the worst in the developed world, outsourcing of skilled and semi-skilled American labor, and the destruction of the social safety net were accelerated under Reagan as he sought to dismantle the gains made by the New Deal and Great Society programs. George W. Bush (and his predecessor Bill Clinton) worked to complete Reagan’s political-economic project.
While George W. Bush’s “Great Recession” devastated the working class, middle class, and poor Americans, it was especially harmful to Black America and other communities of color. While White America has had some recovery from the Great Recession (the real unemployment rate remains high; the jobs that replaced those lost pay less), Black America’s middle class was eviscerated and almost destroyed.
Republican presidential candidates such as Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and other GOP leaders, have proudly embraced Reagan’s discredited belief that cutting taxes on America’s richest people creates economic growth for the majority. Such policies actually stunt economic growth and only serve to transfer money from the working and middle classes up to the very rich.