From Watergate to watering down wages: How Reagan sold America on conservatism
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In 1973, Ronald Reagan’s glib optimism and refusal to acknowledge the rank criminality of the Watergate scandal made it easy for liberals to dismiss his appeal. Less than eight years later, he was elected president in a landslide. In his first term, he ushered in massive tax cuts for the rich that set in motion the undoing of the New Deal consensus and an anti-worker trend toward inequality and deregulation that had not been seen since before the Great Depression.
“Ronald Reagan was an athlete of the imagination,” Rick Perlstein writes in his new book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, “a master at turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-hearted certainty.”
Conservatives have spent the last two decades trying to find a new Reagan. They even cast one out of wax called it Mitt Romney.
Liberals have spent the last two decades watching the demographic trends that Reagan capitalized upon — as he built on Nixon’s Southern Strategy, hyper-charged by a religious right united to oppose Jimmy Carter’s desegregation of church schools — bend in their direction. Still the stout-hearted certainty of conservatism, fueled in most part by nostalgia for Reagan, remains a formidable obstacle to reversing the damage trickle-down economics has wrought.
Reagan’s inestimable appeal (and excellent timing) is largely misunderstood by even the far right. Perlstein’s book is biography of the “Gipper” told through Joan Didion’s classic frame, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Perlstein’s narrative gift allows him to take Reagan’s seeming simplicity and dissecting the layers of complexity that went into crafting it.
The Invisible Bridge is also a look back at what a real White House scandal looks like, in contrast to the specious charades conservatives have constructed to pay revenge on Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as punishment for being elected. Where Republicans can’t find any tissue connecting the White House to any criminal wrongdoing, there was almost no whiff of impropriety from the Nixon Administration that didn’t have a direct vein to the president or a man who worked closely to Nixon.
“If people think there is an invisible river don’t tell them there’s no invisible river, build an invisible bridge over that invisible river,” Nikita Khrushchev told Richard Nixon.
“Tricky Dick” lived that advice, but Reagan perfected the art of constructing invisible bridges.
To me, this book is ultimately the preface to a crucial question: Could another Reagan happen again? For that reason, it’s essential for anyone interested in the future of our republic.
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