Links, Comments, and Memoirs: Republicans from Reagan Forward

Paul Krugman’s NYT column today is When Did Republicans Start Hating Facts?, subtitled “A straight line runs from Reagan to the Trump dead-enders.”

I’ll quote from this and comment, and then discuss my own attendance at a Reagan rally way back in 1980.

Republicans spent most of 2020 rejecting science in the face of a runaway pandemic; now they’re rejecting democracy in the face of a clear election loss.

What do these rejections have in common? In each case, one of America’s two major parties simply refused to accept facts it didn’t like.

I’m not sure it’s right to say Republicans “believe” that, say, wearing face masks is useless or that there was widespread voter fraud. Framing the issue as one of belief suggests that some kind of evidence might change party loyalists’ minds.

In reality, what Republicans say they believe flows from what they want to do, whether it’s ignore a deadly disease or stay in power despite the voters’ verdict.

See comments in earlier post about whether Republicans “believe” things or merely wish them to be true, and go along with the crowd.

Notice, by the way, that I’m not including qualifiers, like saying “some” Republicans. We’re talking about most of the party here. The Texas lawsuit calling on the Supreme Court to overturn the election was both absurd and deeply un-American, but more than 60 percent of Republicans in the House signed a brief supporting it, and only a handful of elected Republicans denounced the suit.

At this point, you aren’t considered a proper Republican unless you hate facts.

It began with Reagan, Krugman says, who has been turned “into an icon, … as the savior of a desperate, declining nation,” despite his actual rather dismal record as president. (Krugman outlines the several points of his presidency.)

The main point, however, is that under Reagan, irrationality and hatred for facts began to take over the G.O.P.

There has always been a conspiracy-theorizing, science-hating, anti-democratic faction in America. Before Reagan, however, mainstream conservatives and the Republican establishment refused to make alliance with that faction, keeping it on the political fringe.

Reagan, by contrast, brought the crazies inside the tent.

Many people are, I think, aware that Reagan embraced a crank economic doctrine — belief in the magical power of tax cuts. I’m not sure how many remember that the Reagan administration was also remarkably hostile to science.

Dismissing acid rain, promoting creationism, increasing influence of the religious right.

For rejecting facts comes naturally to people who insist that they’re acting on behalf of God. So does refusing to accept election results that don’t go their way. After all, if liberals are servants of Satan trying to destroy America’s soul, they shouldn’t be allowed to exercise power even if they should happen to win more votes.

(Another column in today’s NYT argues that George W. Bush did more actual damage than Trump has, citing for example Karl Rove’s derision of the “reality-based community.”)


I’m old enough to remember Reagan, if not so much Carter, let alone Ford and Nixon and JFK who preceded him. What initially astonished me about his candidacy (even though he’d already been California governor) was why anyone found him the least bit qualified. He was an actor! He had a warm, comforting demeanor, and a pleasant, reassuring way of speaking, but he spoke in generalities and platitudes and naive, simplistic misconceptions. Taxes bad, regulations bad, religion in schools good (but only the Christian religion), and so on.

So here, lightly edited, is a passage from my 1980 journal about attending a Reagan rally, which I did only because it was within walking distance of my apartment. With some comments added, [[ in brackets ]].

(Written Saturday evening, 11 October 1980)

I attended a political rally last night. For Ronald Reagan. An announcement was in the CSUN newspaper [[ I was attending California State University at Northridge, at the time ]] Sundial yesterday; he would be at Devonshire Downs [[ a sports stadium, torn down years later and replaced by high-rise student dorms ]] between 5:30 to 7:00 that evening, prefaced by Roy Rogers and others.

Reagan is running very popular; current polls place him somewhat above the incumbant. What people see in him, I’m not sure: easy answers, I suppose, naively thinking, as Reagan apparently does, that they exist. Lately Reagan has spiced the campaign with a series of ignorant, even idiotic remarks: such as the assertion several weeks ago that Darwin’s theory of evolution was still only a theory, disputed by many scientists [[ it wasn’t disputed then, and it isn’t now, and why bring this up at all except to pander to a religious base that rejects science for religious myth? ]]; and most recently, that the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, has become too restrictive because, after all, smog is pretty well under control.

[[ This is worth a longer aside comment. In the late 1970s and early ’80s I was doing lots of bicycling, and frequently after a ride of more than a couple hours, my chest would be physically tight from the heavy breathing of smoggy air. Further, it was not uncommon for the hills surrounding the San Fernando Valley to be invisible in the smoggy haze on many afternoons, though those hills were only 3 or 4 miles from my place in Northridge. Smog was *not* under control. Republicans hate regulations, because they always favor profits; but it’s only because of such environmental regulations that, compared to 40 years ago, our skies and rivers are now relatively clean. ]]

Resuming my narrative from 1980…

Then he comes to Los Angeles, where we’ve had ten days of excessively harsh smog conditions, so that reportedly his plane was diverted to another airport yesterday because of the smog. The claims about smog apparently stem from a profound misunderstanding and confusion about the various kinds of chemicals that compose smog, as opposed to those that occur naturally: Reagan claimed that two-third of all air pollution is from natural sources.

This kind of disregard of well-substantiated facts is nothing new; he has been doing it all along, particularly in the way he spouts authoritative sound statistics regarding his accomplishments as California governor. Alas, he can say all these things and get away with them because most of his audience doesn’t know any better. Response from the opposition is dismissed as just politics. And how many people read the op-ed pages? [[ This problem has gotten only worse, of course, in our age of bubbles and siloed news. ]]

Anyway, I walked to the stadium at Devonshire Downs, arriving about quarter to six, standing in the crowd as Roy Rogers emceed and a group of Country-western singers performed. Roy Rogers made some remarks of his own, including that the two people to have done the most harm to this country were Madalyn Murray O’Hair [[ the first promiment public atheist, who punctured religious presumptions ]] and Dr. Benjamin Spock [[ the famed pediatrician whose book about child care emphasized affection and downplayed authoritarian adherence to rigid rules ]].

A bunch of local notables were introduced as they came up to sit on the stage — Bobbi Fiedler, Mike Curb [[ both local politicians at the time ]], Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. [[ an actor in the popular ’60s series The F.B.I. ]], even Bob Nagler [[ no clue now who he was ]], and Christopher and Lynda Day George [[ actors ]].

The event was well-staged: colored spotlights surrounded the stadium, angled upward to converge at a point directly above the platform. A hot-air balloon billowed beyond the end of the stadium. When Reagan finally came up on stage, helium balloons were released from behind the stage to make a jolly picture for the bevy of TV cameras off to one side.

Reagan said nothing much new. He opened with a familiar Roy Rogers joke [[ which I don’t remember ]]. He attacked Carter’s record. He promised to lower taxes, balance the federal budget, and increase defense spending, all at once. He promised that his reign would bring security back to wage-earners, the family, and traditional American values, particularly with the guidance of God. (Does it matter that some politicians defy the Constitutional separation of church and state in their rhetoric — by implying a preference for the Christian religions? Not to Republicans.) He spoke for all of ten to fifteen minutes, then was quickly escorted behind the stage to his waiting limousine. He didn’t take questions (as Jimmy Carter had, when I saw him several years ago at UCLA.)

(end extract from my 1980 journal)

My later understanding of where Reagan came from did not improve my regard for him. His most famous comment came to be “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” (From his inaugural address.) This was an astounding thing to say from someone who presumed to run the government! (Rather similar to Trump’s comments about “draining the swamp” and the “deep state.”)

Where this came from, I came to understand, was Reagan’s resentment of the IRS decades before when the IRS challenged him about his earnings as a film star. Thus his advocation of reducing taxes, indiscriminately, regardless of circumstances. Thus Reaganomics, dismissed even by George H. W. Bush as “voodoo economics,” and repeatedly debunked by NYT columnist Paul Krugman.

(What no politician on either side has ever done, to my knowledge, is to figure out how much money the country wants to spend, on the military, welfare, infrastructure, and so on, with targets like science or NASA being trivial expenses compared to those, and *then* figure out what taxes would be required to finance them. This would be a complex take.)

And of course another key point of Reagan’s legacy is how he ignored the AIDS crisis in the early ’80s, because it didn’t affect people he liked.

Also, Nancy Reagan made decisions by consulting with her astrologer. The Reagans were not savvy, reality-based people.

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