On False Reagan Nostalgia and the Future of Conservatism

There’s no easier way to get two battling conservatives to hug and make up than to insert Ronald Reagan into a discussion. There’s perhaps no more unifying of a figure in regards to demeanor, policy, and action when it comes to conservative politics.


With that said, there’s quite a lot of false nostalgia that needs to be confronted in order to plot a path forward in combating liberalism within our political institutions. Before you get the pitch forks out, no I’m not about to do a take down of Ronald Reagan. Quite the opposite actually. What I do want to hit on are many of the false characterizations of Ronald Reagan, especially the predominant perception of him that largely evolved from his second term.

I think this is an important topic given the deep disagreements within the conservative movement about Trump and his contrast with what most see as “normal Republicanism.” Was Reagan a normal Republican? Where in the spectrum did he fall and what can we learn from that going forward?

There’s a civil war that continues to rage within the conservative movement about how to process the current President.

On one extreme, you find people who can’t critically acknowledge that some things about Trump’s style and demeanor are simply unhelpful. Being a “fighter” has no limits and punching back, even when punching back objectively hurts your cause, is always defensible to them.

On the other extreme, you have those who find opposition in everything Trump does. This includes opposing policies they once supported. Being a “fighter” is seen as an unnecessary evil and beneath the dignity of conservatism. Conservatism is always supposed to rise above the fray rhetorically, irregardless of outcomes.

The question is which side of the conservative spectrum is right?

I’d posit neither. Those pining for the days of Mitt Romney and George Bush presentation are ultimately longing for a loser’s path. One where political virtue signaling overrides actually accomplishing conservative goals. At the same time, those thinking we can just bull rush forward, with no alterations on what Trump has brought, are also heading toward a cliff.


What’s the middle ground? A look at Ronald Reagan, a man most conservatives can agree over, may help chart a path. To get there we have to cast off the fluffy, false nostalgia about Reagan that has become conventional wisdom.

Victor Davis Hanson, a California resident, had an interesting piece this morning over at National Review. While mostly centered around bringing California back from the brink, his points on Reagan’s legacy in the state and beyond stand in stark contrast to much of the perceptions we have of the man.

Of course, it is common to have a nostalgic view of Ronald Reagan, as model of genial, principled conservatism that might return to accelerate California’s salvation. But a review of the 1966 gubernatorial campaign reveals one of the nastiest races in California memory. Reagan gave back everything that Edmund Brown Sr. dished out to him, and won by rivaling a later Trump in his often cruel invective. Reagan castigated “welfare bums,” and promised to clean up the “mess” at Berkeley. And when governor, after failed popular demands that he be recalled, Reagan kept at it with rhetoric that again rivals Trump’s worst. Of the People’s Park demonstrations, he declared, “If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with. No more appeasement.” And he joked that he hoped the free food for poor communities leveraged by the terrorist SLA might be infected by botulism. Quite simply, Reagan did not call for a thousand points of light or a kinder, gentler state.

To put it simply, Reagan was a fighter and not a very subtle one at that. His style had little in common with the likes of Jeff Flake, David French, or many of the others who claim Reagan’s mantle today and lecture others from it’s perch about decorum.


Here’s some other funny quotes that would probably draw Evan McMullin’s ire today.

“Unemployment insurance is a pre-paid vacation for freeloaders.” –California Governor Ronald Reagan, in the Sacramento Bee, April 28, 1966

“A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?” — Ronald Reagan (Governor of California), quoted in the Sacramento Bee, opposing expansion of Redwood National Park, March 3, 1966

“Facts are stupid things.” -at the 1988 Republican National Convention, attempting to quote John Adams, who said, “Facts are stubborn things”

“My fellow Americans. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes.” -joking during a mike check before his Saturday radio broadcast

“It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” –Ronald Reagan (candidate for Governor of California), interviewed in the Fresno Bee, October 10, 1965

I especially like that last one. Remember the flap about Donald Trump mentioning carpet bombing?

Was the 40th President more elegant and quick-witted than Donald Trump? Of course but he wasn’t above falling into rhetorical devices either. Did he pick his battles more carefully? Sometimes, yet he also had a very populist bend in his pursuits that many who laud him would find objectionable today.

Despite these realities, Reagan has all too often been boiled down to a measured uniter when he in fact wasn’t really that at all for most of his political career.


Reagan was an effective governor, but the idea that he was a uniter is also simply not true, at least not until his second presidential term. He turned a blue state red by damning the Democrats’ expansion of welfare dependency and promised to crack down hard on criminals and cheats (e.g., putting “the welfare bums back to work”).

Reagan damned the state’s judiciary (my mother, a later superior and state appellate court justice, was furious over his attacks on the state’s justices) as soft on crime and pushed hard, unsuccessfully, for death penalties to be carried out rapidly.

There are a lot of quotes from Ronald Reagan that if attributed to Trump today would be denounced by those who claim the very same Reagan as their pinnacle of conservatism. Would Jeff Flake find it acceptable to talk about throwing welfare bums off the rolls today or deriding freeloaders? I highly doubt it. In fact, he’d probably give a speech on the floor of the Senate denouncing such rhetoric.

It’s actually comical to see some of the critical tweets against Trump’s rhetoric that come from the Reagan Battalion given the history of their namesake.

Yet, as I posited above, I believe the other side of this is heading for failure as well.

While Reagan was not actually the current vision of a gentle statesman that many more establishment figures insist they want (i.e. Mitt Romney), he was far more precise in landing blows than Trump has been. The quickest way to lose a fight is to waste all your energy throwing punches that aren’t effective.

When Trump gets in the dirt criticizing Mika Brzezinski’s appearance, he’s not winning anyone to his side. When he runs to twitter to share the latest from Fox and Friends or rail against Morning Joe, no one is being convinced to support him based on that. Wasting time criticizing Amazon or putting out awkward Memorial Day tweets is not helping him. There’s a point where he needs to realize that it’s actually more beneficial to dodge a punch than rush towards it in an effort to “hit back.”


There’s a balance that must be struck between whipping up your base and alienating those who didn’t originally support you. When Trump forgoes crazy 3am tweet rants for a while, his approval ratings generally go up. There’s a reason for that and he should use that to his advantage.

With all this said, I think there’s a solid middle ground between “Trumpism” and the soft spoken conservatism that’s so often bandied about as an alternative by the more intellectual aspects of the conservative movement.

As we move past Trump, whether that’s 2020 or 2024, conservatives need to understand that not everything he’s brought is a negative and much of it is useful if used properly. While Trump’s populist appeal is often derided as identity politics, for example, Reagan never would of become President without a large populist appeal in policy and language.

Trump often goes overboard with some of his strong rhetorical push back, but we shouldn’t outright dismiss getting in the weeds from time to time either. For many of us, that’s uncomfortable but it’s proven necessary. Things in the past that conservatives would just ignore (again, trying to stay above the fray) have been shown to demand attention. Criticizing the media, for instance, is not always a bad thing. Should you call them “fake news” all the time irregardless of the truth of a story? Probably not, but we also shouldn’t sit back and take our lumps like we have in the past.

Liberalism is not going away and their tactics are not going to get easier to combat. Mitt Romney and that lax, polite style of politician is not going win the day no matter how good it makes you feel. Finding the right balance means ignoring a lot of the conventional wisdom from conservative intellectual wing. To be frank, they aren’t as smart as they think they are.


Likewise, Trump’s style has to be moderated to some degree after he’s gone. He is unique in his ability to do the things he does with success and if the next batch of Republican candidates try to mimic him, they will fail. On a separate note, I also understand the moral qualms with the the President’s past behavior before taking office and there’s nothing wrong with being more selective on that front in the future.

I read a lot of conservative print from different sources. Much of what is written these days boils down to both sides proclaiming the need to destroy the other in order to “save conservatism.” That’s nonsense and a fool’s errand. Neither side has it exactly right and if we are willing to stop lobbing grenades in our own house, I think a middle ground can be reached in the future. This is further illustrated by the fact that both sides agree on policy the majority of the time because Trump has largely governed as a conservative. The gulf is not that wide.

Trump critics need to accept that they are not going to get rid of all aspects of Trumpism because much of it already existed. By the same token, Trump supporters need to think more critically about the aspects of Trump which aren’t helpful and that can be tweaked. Ronald Reagan was not politically correct, he punched back, and he was not a malleable uniter in his rhetoric and policies. Likewise, he was well spoken, witty, and able to articulate a vision that connected with people.

Instead of trying to reanimate Reagan into what we want him to be in order to confirm our own biases, we should acknowledge and learn from who he actually was. To do that, both sides of the conservative movement have to stop thinking they can simply eradicate the other’s thinking within the party and be willing to admit they don’t have it all figured out.












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